Moral frameworks and the Harris/Klein debate

by lincolnquirk 1 min read3rd May 201814 comments


Here's a good background post and analysis on the debate (this has been linked from elsewhere on LW before):

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.