Moral frameworks and the Harris/​Klein debate

Here’s a good back­ground post and anal­y­sis on the de­bate (this has been linked from el­se­where on LW be­fore): https://​​ev­ery­thingstud­​​2018/​​04/​​26/​​a-deep-dive-into-the-har­ris-klein-con­tro­versy/​​

Like many, I couldn’t help but be fas­ci­nated by the Sam Har­ris/​Ezra Klein de­bate. Th­ese are two peo­ple I re­ally look up to, and so see­ing them go­ing at it (and show­ing a lot of per­sonal weak­ness along the way) has been illu­mi­nat­ing. I’m still un­set­tled about it, want­ing there to be re­s­olu­tion/​a right an­swer. So far that satis­fac­tion has eluded me, so I wrote this to try to clar­ify things for my­self. Maybe it helps oth­ers too.

The anal­y­sis be­low is meant as a steel­man of each side’s po­si­tions. If you think I’m not steel­man­ning them well enough, please leave a com­ment and I’ll im­prove.

Con­se­quen­tial­ist frame­work:

  • Sam: As a les­son in how to think for your­self, hold Mur­ray up as some­one who has dis­cov­ered truths that so­ciety doesn’t like to talk about. As a gen­eral policy, this prac­tice will lead to truths be­ing un­cov­ered faster, lead­ing to a faster pace of dis­cov­ery, which com­pounds over time to a much bet­ter world through sci­ence.

  • Ezra: Make a pub­lic ex­am­ple of Sam here, lead­ing to more peo­ple rec­og­niz­ing their own priv­ilege and putting their ac­tions in the ap­pro­pri­ate his­tor­i­cal con­text. As a gen­eral policy, this prac­tice will lead to a more equitable so­ciety, which com­pounds over time to a much bet­ter world by re­duc­ing suffer­ing di­rectly.

Virtue ethics frame­work:

  • Sam: It is vir­tu­ous to sig­nal-boost things which are true, es­pe­cially when they are be­ing sup­pressed by so­ciety. “Speak the truth though your voice may trem­ble”

  • Ezra: It is vir­tu­ous to defend the un­der­priv­ileged by call­ing out harms, even un­in­ten­tional harms. “Evil is the silence of the voice of jus­tice when it mat­ters most”

Deon­tol­ogy frame­work:

  • Sam: Thou shalt up­date on all available data.

  • Ezra: Thou shalt not in­voke long-buried demons of op­pres­sion.

Both these moral frame­works look pretty good to me. I see no par­tic­u­lar rea­son to fa­vor one over the other; even if I re­strict my­self to only look­ing at the con­se­quences I see plau­si­ble ar­gu­ments that one path or the other is higher-im­pact.

I have only one unify­ing thought:

Sam was up­set by be­ing at­tacked by Klein, and con­sid­ered the at­tack un­fair, which ac­tu­ally trig­gered the whole de­bate. I think Sam’s com­plaint about “un­fair­ness” is in­valid here, be­cause it is ex­actly what he should ex­pect when sig­nal-boost­ing things that so­ciety doesn’t like to talk about. So per­haps the only er­ror here was Sam get­ting too emo­tional about be­ing pilloried.

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