What Sam Harris Gets Wrong.

Now that the winning essay in Sam Harris’ “Moral Landscape Challenge” has been posted, and wasn’t mine, it’s time for me to post the essay I submitted. I hope to talk about the winning essay and Harris’ response more over the next few days. Anyway, here’s mine:

Sam Harris’ view of the proper morality is essentially that what is moral is what best promotes the well-being of conscious creatures. This is, in and of itself, fairly controversial, but Harris makes a few moves to sidestep some of the more obvious challenges. The first comes from a mostly off-hand comment that most if not all of the rival conceptions of morality also boil down to some form of well-being. The second is that there is room for multiple plateaus of well-being, so that we don’t all have to have the same exact idea of well-being to act morally, which is what allows for those widely differing views of well-being to all grasp at the same idea. However, if Harris is going to have a morality that can properly be called objective, there are going to have to be at least SOME outcomes that are going to be considered moral or immoral regardless of the personal preferences of the individual or culture, or else he’ll have a relativistic moral view. For example, it’s clear that he’ll consider murder and theft as being universally opposed to well-being, even if killing and seizure of property won’t always be. I propose here that we consider this question that we seem to intuitively think has a universal answer and see if a) all ideas of well-being will answer it the same way and b) if they don’t, if we can answer it by appealing to some kind of physical fact. The question is: is it morally permissible for a parent to steal bread to feed their starving children?

Under a loose Utilitarianism, barring a massive cost to the person who owns the bread, the answer is a resounding “Yes”. After all, it seems clear that more suffering will arise from those children starving and possibly starving to death than from the shopkeeper losing one loaf of bread. On the other hand, the Stoics will answer with a resounding “No”. This is because for them Virtue is what provides the most well-being for people, and pleasure, pain and even lives are indifferents, only to be preserved if it doesn’t interfere with acting virtuously. Without settling the dispute of ideas of well-being here — which would require far more than appealing to conscious creatures — it looks like we have a nasty clash between two at least potentially proper ideas of well-being. And note that neither of them disagree with all of the obvious physical facts here; it’s just the idea of what counts as well-being that’s at stake here.

Perhaps we can appeal to psychology, to what most people think is the case. Intuitively, most people side with the Utilitarians, but there is a group of people who don’t: autistics [see http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/fearlessly-amoral-psychopaths-autistics-and-learning-with-emotion/ for details]. They tend to side with saying that it isn’t right for the parent to steal the bread, at least in part because they think the rules should not be broken. But, we can reply, they clearly have abnormal brain function, and so we can limit ourselves to those who have a properly functioning brain. Well, the problem is that while their brain does not function like everyone else’s, that doesn’t mean that their brain is functioning immorally, or is incapable of morality. Unlike psychopaths, autistics, in general, act properly morally and could certainly be seen as grasping for one of the plateaus that Harris allows for. That they have a different opinion on this topic doesn’t mean that they’re wrong; their “abnormal” brain function might even make them BETTER at answering these sorts of moral decisions than those with more “normal” brains. In order to settle that question, we’d have to know, independently of simply looking at the brain, which view of well-being is in the right or which is in the wrong. Otherwise, we’d have to allow that there is no objective answer to this question, but if we cannot answer this question it seems difficult to see what use such an “objective” morality would be as an objective morality.

The physical facts are not in dispute. The differences in brains are not in dispute. Everyone pretty much agrees with all of the facts in this case, but there is still radical disagreement. What, then, is in dispute? What well-being really means, of course, and what it implies about what you should value. Harris introduces the Moral Landscape to allow for variance in how well-being is defined, so that he doesn’t have to insist on one very specific idea of well-being that almost everyone will disagree with at some point or another. People have to be free to tailor their lives to what they themselves want and value to some extent. However, this notion cannot be stretched to cover the gaps we see here between the Utilitarians, Stoics, autistics, and so on. And yet, surely it should. Harris presents no reason to think that the Stoics or the autistics are simply wrong, but the difference is so vast and the question so important that we cannot simply allow everyone to come to their own conclusions and still have anything that looks like an objective morality.

Once one knows all of the relevant facts about a situation, and the relevant physical facts, and the facts about the brain, it is clear that there can still be major disagreements about moral decisions. These disagreements might also be about questions that cannot be left open to interpretation; they cannot be left as a plateau in the moral landscape. From this, if Harris wishes to have an objective morality, he needs a way to settle the differing ideas of well-being to come up with one overarching one … and that is what philosophy has been trying to do, empirically and conceptually, for thousands of years. Harris’ position, then, ends up not solving the problem, but instead walking itself right back into the problem of value and what it means to be truly moral.

One Response to “What Sam Harris Gets Wrong.”

  1. Comment on Ryan Born’s Response to the Moral Landscape Challenge … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] as already seen, I went with moral disagreement. Born took on a fourth principle, that of whether you can subsume […]

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