Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape and Universal Utilitarianism

I’ve heard that Sam Harris has a new book, The Moral Landscape, coming out soon. In it, he argues that there is an objectively best way for us to live together in a way that produces the greatest well-being for all – i.e., an objective morality – and that we can discover what it is through science:

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them “Adam” and “Eve.” Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer #1: They could smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, it seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on this planet would be better off if they recognized their common interests — like getting food, building shelter and defending themselves against larger predators. If Adam and Eve were industrious enough, they might realize the benefits of creating technology, art, medicine, exploring the world and begetting future generations of humanity. Are there good and bad paths to take across this landscape of possibilities? Of course. In fact, there are, by definition, paths that lead to the worst misery and to the greatest fulfillment possible for these two people — given the structure of their brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature. The underlying facts here are the facts of physics, chemistry, and biology as they bear on the experience of the only two people in existence.

As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?

(See also.)

I’m tremendously excited by this, because not only do I agree wholeheartedly with this argument, it sounds (at least to me) almost exactly like the moral system of universal utilitarianism which I proposed in “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick“, my own essay on nonreligious ethics! (And that essay, I’d like to point out, was first posted in 2001.)

Harris has it exactly right. Because we are all the same species, because we all live in a world with the same unchanging natural laws, there are universal facts about human biology and psychology which hold true regardless of time, place or culture. It follows directly from this that there are objective truths about which ways of organizing society do, or do not, produce the greatest well-being for humans. And those truths are discoverable by the same method we use to discover objective truth about all other aspects of the world, namely the scientific method.

Harris’ metaphor is the “moral landscape”, similar to the metaphor of the “fitness landscape” used by evolutionary biologists. It’s as if we imagine an infinite (or at least very large) flat geometric plane, and assume that every possible means of organizing human society is assigned to a point on that plane, with societies that are similar in important ways occupying adjacent points. Then we add a third dimension to that plane, namely height/depth, and assume that the height of a given point represents the degree of well-being which that society produces for its inhabitants. Some societies will be high peaks of happiness and prosperity, while others will be deep valleys of misery. It’s our task to figure out the lay of the land near our present location so that we can move uphill toward a higher peak.

Of course, I don’t think there’s any direct influence of my essay on Harris’ book. I just think that these are ideas that are bound to occur to anyone who thinks rationally about morality (and in fact, we’d expect an objective morality to be independently discoverable). There are objective truths about human nature, and we can discover these and make our society more in accord with them. Granted, this assumes that our goal should be to maximize human welfare. But this is no more problematic, philosophically speaking, than the fact that science must begin by assuming the principle of induction, even though we can’t absolutely prove that it works.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.