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.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    3) Ethics is about maximizing the well being of conscious organisms. (hmmmm)

    And why do we care so much about conscious organisms? Because we are conscious organisms! This is one of my problems with so many attempts to argue for “objective” morals: they are all so obviously rife with human exceptionalism. To me, “objective” means the value would stand whether or not there was an observer, not if all members of one particular species happen to agree on it.

  • Kevin

    “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. ”

    Why is this an assumption? It’s simply defining the area of study. If someone says that geology is about studying the Earth, we don’t have people saying “Well, we can agree that we can study the Earth using scientific tools, but I don’t see why you assume that geology has anything to do with studying the Earth.” Where are all of the philosophers objecting to every other field that has this ‘problem’? There is no nuance to be had. It’s simply defining a word as we do with all other terms, scientific or not. Or perhaps the better explanation is that it is simply a reaction to defending one’s turf. After all, we don’t need philosophers to define our terms, we are perfectly able to do that ourselves.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      The problem here is not that philosophy is objecting to a definition, per se, but to the fact that there are a fair number of reasons to think that one problematic for morality, mostly because a lot of people don’t think it’s right. To take on your analogy, if someone was saying that geology was about studying the Earth and others were denying that and said that it was about studying planets in general and others said that it was about studying rocks and others said other things, then philosophers would be quite right to point out that people who said it was about studying the Earth would be simply assuming or defining it, and that they can’t presume that their definition is any more right than anyone else’s.

      In this case, the only ones who accept that assumption are Utilitarians, who may well be the most numerous in terms of those who accept it but in terms of competing definitions are definitely a small minority. If I lean towards a Kantian view or a Virtue Theory, why should I accept that that is what ethics is about just on Harris’ say-so?

      • Kevin

        “The problem here is not that philosophy is objecting to a definition, per se, but to the fact that there are a fair number of reasons to think that one problematic for morality, mostly because a lot of people don’t think it’s right.”

        But this is my point, the only reason they have for objecting or thinking that it isn’t right is simply because they want the word to mean something else, which is absurd. It would absurd in any other context, but for some reason, it’s perfectly acceptable for philosophers. IMO, Harris is right to ignore philosophers because they can’t recognize a valid complaint.

        As far as disagreement on scientific issues, how about the planetary status of Pluto? Is it a planet? No, we changed the definition of the term so that it actually meant something other than simply a class of 9 arbitrary objects. However, many people wanted Pluto to be a planet, after all, that’s what they thought all of their life. Does this mean that the scientists simply assumed their definition? How do you even show that a given definition is correct? Did scientists show their definition to be correct and how did they do it? Should the people who still think Pluto should be a planet object to the scientific terminology?

        “If I lean towards a Kantian view or a Virtue Theory, why should I accept that that is what ethics is about just on Harris’ say-so?”

        Because it’s dumb to object to someone defining a term in a particular way (barring occurrences of equivocation). If someone wants to define morality in a different way, they are free to do so, and I’ll criticize their system according to its merits, and the title it chooses is not going to be one of them. For example, ff a DCT defines morality with respect to God’s commandments, my objection would be that there is not going to be any discovery since God doesn’t exist, not I disagree with how you are using the term ‘morality’.

        • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

          I think you mistake what Harris is actually doing. Harris is not simply coming up with a personal definition and allowing everyone to define their own. He is claiming that that is the RIGHT definition of morality and the one that everyone should follow. And as long as he is doing that, I can rightly call him out for simply picking the definition of morality he likes and stipulating it, as opposed to arguing for why that’s the right one. And the planet example demonstrates this; science didn’t simply say “Let’s define planet so that Pluto isn’t one anymore”, but instead as you said tried to come up with a more useful definition that applied more broadly and covered more cases nicely. This would require arguing for it, and that is why what you quoted is an assumption; Harris does not demonstrate why that should be chosen over other candidates. At least as stated there, as I know he tries to argue for it from consciousness but Kant, Aristotle and the Stoics already beat him to that discussion and raised nasty arguments against his move.

          • Kevin

            “He is claiming that that is the RIGHT definition of morality and the one that everyone should follow.”

            Citation? I recall him answering questions about what if people disagree with his definition of morality and his answer was they wouldn’t be invited to the morality conference, not that they are wrong.

            “And the planet example demonstrates this; science didn’t simply say “Let’s define planet so that Pluto isn’t one anymore”, but instead as you said tried to come up with a more useful definition that applied more broadly and covered more cases nicely.”

            Just because something is more useful doesn’t make it more correct or right or true. There is no truth value attached to choosing one definition over the other.

          • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

            Citation? I recall him answering questions about what if people disagree with his definition of morality and his answer was they wouldn’t be invited to the morality conference, not that they are wrong.

            And why wouldn’t they be invited, or be considered eligible to be moral experts? Because they wouldn’t be talking about morality. Not HARRIS’ PERSONALITY MORALITY, but morality PERIOD. The whole BOOK basically sets that out; I fail to see how you could miss it.

            Heck, the whole health example is about how medicine can come up with the “right” definition of health even though people disagree.

            Just because something is more useful doesn’t make it more correct or right or true. There is no truth value attached to choosing one definition over the other.

            You monumentally missed the point. The point is that they didn’t just define it that way, but argued for it based on the standards that they could at least roughly agree on. Harris, I contend, is simply defining it the way he wants it without starting from an actually mutually agreed upon standard for determining what that definition should be, and then expects all of us to just go along with that and not point out that really there’s no good reason to take his definition over any other. And if we don’t accept his definition, then the arguments won’t be settled, so why propose a definition that won’t settle ANY of the arguments.

          • Kevin

            “And why wouldn’t they be invited, or be considered eligible to be moral experts? Because they wouldn’t be talking about morality. Not HARRIS’ PERSONALITY MORALITY, but morality PERIOD.”

            They wouldn’t be talking about morality because for the purposes of that convention, it has been defined in a certain way. Similarly, if I read a research paper that defines a term in a specific way, that’s how I am going to use that term when discussing the contents of the paper. If my only objection is how they defined said term, I wouldn’t have anything relevant to say about the paper so nobody would take me seriously.

            “Heck, the whole health example is about how medicine can come up with the “right” definition of health even though people disagree.”

            Right, it’s the same issue, but we don’t see people philosophers objecting to the medical field. Why is that?

            “You monumentally missed the point. The point is that they didn’t just define it that way, but argued for it based on the standards that they could at least roughly agree on.”

            What was the argument that showed that “Planet is defined as a spherical rocky body” is true?

          • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

            To me, Kevin, it looks like you’re trying to interpret Harris as if he was a moral relativist as opposed to a moral objectivist. Harris seems to clearly think that some things are just morally wrong and that no person can claim to have a valid morality if they don’t think those things wrong. This works against your claim because he bases this on his purported definition, but he isn’t saying that he can have his definition of morality and I can have mine and we’re both working with equally valid moralities if we disagere, but is instead saying that if I don’t accept his definition then I’m not really doing morality.

            So, to my mind, you have two choices. You can argue that Harris would be perfectly okay with my defining morality in a way differently than he would because there’s no right way to define morality, at which point he becomes a relativist. Alternatively, you can argue that he thinks there is one right definition of morality and that he has it … and then I can quite rightly ask him how he knows that he has the right definition.

            And what is different here is that there is no consensus among the moral experts that he can appeal to, like you could do for medicine and health and astronomy and planets. So he doesn’t even have THAT out.

          • Kevin

            “To me, Kevin, it looks like you’re trying to interpret Harris as if he was a moral relativist as opposed to a moral objectivist.”

            No, I don’t think he’s a moral relativist. In his field of study, there are facts that can be objectively right or wrong. It doesn’t matter what the title of the field is.

            “Harris seems to clearly think that some things are just morally wrong and that no person can claim to have a valid morality if they don’t think those things wrong.”

            He only thinks they are wrong from his perspective. Suppose I define medicine(2) as ‘finding ways to maximize pain.’ There are certainly facts in that area of study, but those facts are going to be contradictory to traditional medicine(1). Someone who practices medicine(1) wouldn’t say that the findings of medicine(2) don’t maximize pain or that they are incorrect at maximizing pain, they would simply say that it is irrelevant to medicine(1). If you are studying medicine(1), then medicine(2) won’t ‘really’ be medicine and vice-versa, but that is really just playing with words. It just reduces to saying that things that maximize pain don’t minimize pain, which is a true statement. Likewise, with morality, saying that the other person’s morality isn’t valid is like saying that their system doesn’t maximize well-being, which is a true statement. When someone says that Harris’s system is not ‘really’ morality, they are either incorrect or trying to define his terms for him, which is a big no-no.

            “You can argue that Harris would be perfectly okay with my defining morality in a way differently than he would because there’s no right way to define morality, at which point he becomes a relativist.”

            You don’t become a relativist simply because someone uses the same title you use and uses it differently; that’s just silly. Like in the medicine example, the findings of medicine(1) are objective with right and wrong answers despite the existence of medicine(2). This could apply to every field of study.

            “And what is different here is that there is no consensus among the moral experts that he can appeal to, like you could do for medicine and health and astronomy and planets.”

            Why should I care what moral ‘experts’ (i.e. philosophers) think? They are the problem. Also, I’m still curious with regards to Pluto, what was the argument that showed that “Planet is defined as a spherical rocky body” is true?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      “No, I don’t think he’s a moral relativist. In his field of study, there are facts that can be objectively right or wrong. It doesn’t matter what the title of the field is.”

      The problem is that for the most part it looks like both Harris and myself would want to claim that the field we’re in is “morality”. Again harkening back to the geology example, we think we’re working in the same field and that the other just doesn’t understand what that field really is. But more on this in a minute.

      “He only thinks they are wrong from his perspective. ”

      If that’s true, he’s a relativist, because that’s what relativism basically means: that he can have morality(1) from his perspective, I can have morality(2) from my perspective, and there’s no right answer to the question of what morality is. Both of us are equally right and equally wrong.

      “You don’t become a relativist simply because someone uses the same title you use and uses it differently; that’s just silly.”

      That’s also not what I claimed. I claimed that Harris can claim that he’s okay with my definition BECAUSE THERE’S NO RIGHT WAY TO DEFINE MORALITY, and that’s relativism by definition.

      “Why should I care what moral ‘experts’ (i.e. philosophers) think?”

      Because Harris is claiming that they are the ones who get to define what morality really is, and if you are defending his views you have to at least address that this is a really important part of his moral stance. Of course, Harris never really says who counts as a moral expert, so we can’t be sure it’s moral philosophers, but since he claims in “The Moral Landscape” to be actually doing philosophy that’s a pretty safe bet.

      “Also, I’m still curious with regards to Pluto, what was the argument that showed that “Planet is defined as a spherical rocky body” is true?”

      I skipped it because it seemed rather odd when applied to what I was arguing, which was about how scientists came to the decision that the definition of “planet” had to change so that Pluto was not a planet, but was now a dwarf planet. Surely you don’t think they just woke up one morning and decided to change it for the heck of it? Surely they instead looked at the properties and what they had discovered and tried to come up with a consistent definition, like how science claims that whales are mammals and not fish?

      Look, the argument that I think you are referring to is one that is basically “Just because some people or some people’s intuitions say that maximizing well-being is not the right morality doesn’t mean they’re right!”. I agree with this argument, which can be best analogized with “Look, just because some people think the world is flat doesn’t mean we can’t say we know it’s round”. A stronger variant of that is used by relativists, and Harris certainly reacts against that sort of argument. But that is not my argument. My argument is that Harris is declaring, essentially, that the world is round but isn’t providing sufficient argumentation to show that to be the case, and lots of people have alternative theories that they have arguments for as well. Thus, he cannot declare by fiat that his definition is the right one and expect us all to go along with it. Yes, he does try to argue for it, but in my opinion it gets muddled along the way, and ignores the real problems with that sort of view.

      • Kevin

        “The problem is that for the most part it looks like both Harris and myself would want to claim that the field we’re in is “morality”. Again harkening back to the geology example, we think we’re working in the same field and that the other just doesn’t understand what that field really is. But more on this in a minute.”

        It doesn’t matter what the field is called. If the only reason you think you’re in the same field is because it shares the same name, then you need to learn what equivocation is about.

        “That’s also not what I claimed. I claimed that Harris can claim that he’s okay with my definition BECAUSE THERE’S NO RIGHT WAY TO DEFINE MORALITY, and that’s relativism by definition.”

        Like I said before, all definitions are arbitrary so there’s no ‘right’ definition for anything. We just pick one and stick with it to suit our purposes. There’s no ‘right’ definition for geology, but we don’t say that the field of geology is relative. There’s no ‘right’ definition for definition, but we don’t say that the field of medicine is relative. As so on and so on. These fields are objective because they contain objectively verifiable facts even if the label we apply to them has no truth value. The title ‘morality’ is arbitrary; the facts that Harris are pointing to are objective, hence his system is objective. People who are objecting to this don’t have a problem with Harris; they have a problem with language.

        “Because Harris is claiming that they are the ones who get to define what morality really is, and if you are defending his views you have to at least address that this is a really important part of his moral stance. Of course, Harris never really says who counts as a moral expert, so we can’t be sure it’s moral philosophers, but since he claims in “The Moral Landscape” to be actually doing philosophy that’s a pretty safe bet.”

        I very much doubt he says that experts **define** what morality is. It’s been awhile since I’ve read his book and listened to his lectures, but I think the more charitable description would be that he thinks that people with a lot of empathy would have more accurate things to say about or have more to contribute to morality than a psychopath. This has more to do with certain people being more knowledgeable about moral facts than the definition of morality.

        “I skipped it because it seemed rather odd when applied to what I was arguing, which was about how scientists came to the decision that the definition of “planet” had to change so that Pluto was not a planet, but was now a dwarf planet. Surely you don’t think they just woke up one morning and decided to change it for the heck of it? Surely they instead looked at the properties and what they had discovered and tried to come up with a consistent definition, like how science claims that whales are mammals and not fish?”

        The former definition of a planet was already consistent. If you disagree, try and find a contradiction. The point is that they didn’t change the definition because the old definition was false; they changed it because a collection of objects with nothing in particular in common is not a useful label. There is nothing wrong or right about either definition.

        “My argument is that Harris is declaring, essentially, that the world is round but isn’t providing sufficient argumentation to show that to be the case, and lots of people have alternative theories that they have arguments for as well. Thus, he cannot declare by fiat that his definition is the right one and expect us all to go along with it. Yes, he does try to argue for it, but in my opinion it gets muddled along the way, and ignores the real problems with that sort of view.”

        No, they don’t have different theories about the same subject matter. They agree on the same empirical facts. They just disagree on what to call it. It’s like Harris saying that the world is round and they are saying “I agree with you on the shape of the Earth, but I don’t think its round, I think that round refers to plane-like objects and the term flat refers to spherical objects, so I think the Earth is flat.” These people would be laughed at if they tried to pull the same stunt anywhere else, but it’s apparently kosher in philosophy. If these people don’t want to go along with it, then they have a big problem understanding the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing about something (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05WS0WN7zMQ). People who are concerned about understanding something don’t get tripped up by labels, so I say, let them stay, they’ve made it clear they don’t want to understand what we’re saying.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    I would have said the same thing about Sam Harris, except I think of it in mathematical terms. Even if there were a unique way to define “well-being”, it’s pretty clear that well-being-space is not a metric space. And therefore, there’s no unique way to add the well-being of multiple people. And furthermore, this is a core ethical question, because the vast majority of ethics is about how to negotiate the desires of multiple people.

  • http://carnedes.blogspot.com Carneades-Skeptic Griggsy

    Why, well being goes back to what Aristotle calls eudemonia that we Epicureans also accept in a different form. Eudemonia rules for rational people. Science can aid us with it, but we have to make the ought into an is: science tells me that medicine exists for my schizotypy, so, to practice eudemonia, I take it. It’s an implicit, not necessarily an explicit ought for me to take that medicine.
    The dog sees a bone. She leaves it alone. She has just eaten. She is full and too tired to dig a hole for it. Here the implicit that should you be hungry, eat a bone does not apply.
    So I think but do not claim. Should I?
    Google covenant morality for humanity- the presumption of humanism for my take on how both objective and subjective morality can be one! John Beversluis’ ” C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion” led me to think this.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Eudaimonia as Aristolte and the Stoics define it isn’t the same sort of well-being that Harris promotes; Aristotle, for example, was a Virtue Theorist and had a definition of well-being that was staunchly individual and could leave many of the things we really like out in the cold, which is why he added that you need basic levels of the other things to really get eudaimonia. The Stoics denied even that. So even here things aren’t all that clear.

  • Daniel Engblom

    What do you respond to the reply Sam Harris has made with his analogy to medical science? It basically goes that the situation is analogous to medicine, because someone could just say that you’re valuing not having to throw up and shivering from fever all the time, and that is just assumed.
    One can still draw the analogy a bit further, as with the point of the matter being complicated and hard, and I think medicine is hard as well, how to define a disease (immune responses, adaptive functions etc) and the long-term effects of different treatments (antibiotics and future immunity).
    Isn’t the problem of vaccination a bit like the (though milder) dilemma of the good of everyone versus the – very – small risk of the individual? (I”m raising this regarding the sentence “what should we do when the needs of two or more people are in conflict?”) So not a qualitative difference in medicine, only quantitative, the way I see it.

  • oli

    HAHA philosophers don’t like Harris because they’ll be out of jobs if we started following his theories, thats really it, he is effectively right, but for the reasons, ironic as a his theory is mainly consequentialist, which normally has it the other way.

    Whether you like it or not, you are the chemical, neural i.e biological make up of your brain, all of which is subject to the laws of physics, metaphysical free will, WILL meet the same fate as our other narcissistic beliefs, like the earth being the center of the universe, at the hands of science. We are all just physics, we’re not separate, now derive any sense of morality from that situation, it looks a lot like harris’ with maybe the addition of long term survival of the species.

    to ‘Reginald Selkirk’ “why do we care so much about conscious organisms?” hahahaha


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