From the archives: What’s Wrong with Sam Harris’ The Moral Lanscape (review)

Reposted from January 2011, because it may be relevant to an upcoming post…

I’m getting caught up on reading over winter break, and among other things just finished Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. Initially, I was going to say that while I think there are problems with Harris’ view, I didn’t think any of the commentary I’d read had quite gotten right what those problems are. However, via the latest Philosophers’ Carnival, I found an analysis of Harris’ book by Greg of the Cognitive Philosophy blog that said roughly what I was going to say, probably more concisely:

Science can determine moral values if we accept three assumptions.1) Ethics is about the conscious states of organisms. (okay)
2) Conscious states of organisms are within the realm of science. (okay)
3) Ethics is about maximizing the well being of conscious organisms. (hmmmm)

I think you’ll see why I dislike even having to question this last assumption, since generally I agree with it. But is this statement itself something that can be determined by science or not? And if it is, can science determine the specific nuances that go into it?

More specifically, Harris says that ethics is about the well-being of conscious creatures, and that science can study well-being. I don’t think either of these claims are crazy or obviously confused or require some special source of philosophical insight not normally needed in the sciences.

One criticism here is that disagreement over these claims, or over what “well-being” is, undermines the possibility of a science of ethics. This was one of Simon Blackburn’s criticisms, which Brian Leiter touted as showing “why Sam Harris is so confused,” but in The Moral Landscape, Harris does a very good job of addressing criticisms like this. Here, Harris is rebutting moral relativism, but his point applies just as much to the claim that ethics lies outside science:

What if certain people insist that their “values” or “morality” have nothing to do with well-being? Or, more realistically, what if their conception of well-being is so idiosyncratic and circumscribed as to be hostile, in principle, to the well-being of all others?…We should observe the double standard in place regarding the significance of consensus: those who do not share our scientific goals have no influence on scientific discourse whatsoever; but, for some reason, people who do not share our moral goals render us incapable of ever speaking about moral truth…

It seems clear that the Catholic Church is as misguided in speaking about the “moral” peril of contraception, for instance, as it would be speaking about the “physics” of Transubstantiation. In both domains, it is true to say that the Church is grotesquely confused about which things in this world are worth paying attention to. (pp. 34-35)

Harris could, if he wanted to, borrow from what Kripke and Putnam have said about “natural kind terms”: it may not be obvious what does and does not count as water, but we settle such questions by pointing to our paradigm cases of water and studying them. When we find out that what water is is H2O, we conclude that a superficially similar substance with a different chemical formula isn’t water.

I’m not saying Harris had to take this approach, and I hope for his sake he doesn’t, since I’m personally skeptical of Kripke and Putnam’s philosophy of language. What I do think is that thinking about the Kripke-Putnam view of terms like “water” shows that it isn’t crazy or obviously confused to think that well-being is as much a subject matter for science as chemistry, or that it doesn’t require any mysterious philosophical insight to see that ethics is about well-being.

I think where Harris gets in trouble, though, is situations where we must choose whose well-being we try to improve (or, have the opportunity to help some people at the expense of others.) Harris makes perfectly clear that he is aware of such moral dilemmas, and understands their importance to an extent, but he doesn’t seem to see how they threaten his claim that science can determine values. He says:

Such puzzles merely suggest that certain moral questions could be difficult or impossible to answer in practice; they do not suggest that morality depends upon something other than the consequences of our actions and intentions. (p. 72)

The trouble is that the category “moral questions” includes not just questions about what consequences our actions will have, but questions about how to weigh the consequences of our actions. Questions like “Are we, as Peter Singer claims, under an obligation to make considerable personal sacrifices to save the lives of people in the Third World?” or “Would it be right to create a world of universal happiness at the cost of torturing to death one baby?”

If Harris claims science can answer all our moral questions, it had better be able to answer questions like those. I cannot see how it could, and while that is not a conclusive argument that it can’t, Harris doesn’t even give a general sense of how it could, and until someone does, I’m skeptical.

Harris seems to have made a subtle mistake here, thinking, in effect, that it was enough to have the first two points listed in Greg’s review to make ethical questions scientific questions. The thought is, “Ethical questions are questions about well-being, and questions about well-being are scientific questions, so ethical questions are just scientific questions.” But even if many questions about well-being (what is it, how do we attain it) are scientific questions, that does not mean questions like “what should we do when the needs of two or more people conflict?” are scientific questions.

If Harris is making this mistake, I don’t claim to know why he makes it. The snark that Harris just doesn’t know any philosophy (“I suggest that Harris would benefit from reading about it” – Massimo Pigliucci) is simply false. Harris did his bachelors in philosophy, and emphasizes in a footnote that he’s read quite a bit of the philosophical literature but just doesn’t think discussing it all would’ve made for a good book. When professional philosophers suggest that Harris is an ignoramus, it’s another embarrassing example of how they’re often too ready to dismiss outsiders.

Still, I do think Harris’ thesis in The Moral Landscape, that science can determines values, rests on a mistake: failing to see the significance of some of the most difficult moral questions we face.

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