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Sam Harris on Science & Morality

October 20, 2010.I swore I wouldn't read Sam Harris's book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values. For anyone interested in knowing why I would vow such a thing, see here and here. However, after reading Harriet Hall's homage to Harris in her review of this book, I reconsidered and downloaded chapter one to my Kindle. I wasn't but a few pages into the book when Harris, in a rather confused and confusing way, divided the ethical world into two camps, the religious and the relativists. No need to remind those who have studied any philosophy that this is a false dichotomy.

But this is the Harris statement that made me think that my decision not to read this book was a wise one: "...it is now an article of almost unquestioned certainty, both inside and outside scientific circles, that science has nothing to say about what constitutes a good life." Only someone who has little knowledge of philosophy could make such a claim. Many philosophers have traditionally maintained that science, reason, and logic should be brought to bear on any issue of belief. Harris seems to think he's the first one who has thought of applying science to ethics. Every philosopher worth his salt has maintained this, but they've never thought that doing so makes ethical issues scientific matters.

Some might find his metaphors of landscapes with their peaks of well-being and valleys of suffering, or healthy foods and poisons, to be elucidating. I find them vague and uninspiring. Worse, Harris doesn't even seem to understand that the idea of morality being determined by well-being is just one of several possibilities. He calls "moral truth...the connection between how we think and behave and our well being." He and I might agree that divine commands are delusional and irrelevant to morality. We might also agree that it is absurd to believe that some things might be morally obligatory even though they enhance nobody's well being. What he doesn't seem to grasp is that rejecting divine command theories or deontological theories is arbitrary. Morality isn't simply a matter of discovery; it is also a matter of definition.

Harris hopes to show that the entire intellectual history that has built what he calls a "firewall" between facts and values is wrong. Good luck to him, especially when he starts with the assumption that "the only thing we can reasonably value" is the well-being of conscious creatures." I don't know about him but I value a good glass of wine. I value even more a glass of good wine. I value a good book, many pieces of music, time alone to reflect, works of art, a well-played ball game. I even value untouched planets, not that they mean anything special to me. He thinks he's got a scoop in noticing that knowledge values consistency and the lack of contradiction. Substitute the word "happiness" for "well-being" and much of what Harris says in his first chapter is an echo of what John Stuart Mill wrote 150 years ago.

Harris is right in noting that it is not a major problem that terms such as "well-being," "happiness," "pleasure," "absence of pain," "good," "bad," and "evil" are vague or ambiguous in most contexts. Much more serious is the problem of coming up with a criteria for judging conflicts of interest. What principle should we use for determining which of two or more conflicting interests (in their "well-being," if you wish) trumps the others? What is that principle based on? The conflict can be between two individuals, where the well-being of one will diminish the well-being of another, or between groups, or between an individual and the group. If one ends up with something analogous to Mill's Greatest Happiness Principle, what is the basis for claiming that one ought to do what is likely to bring about the greatest well-being to the greatest number? Is the well-being of a fish, assuming we agree that fish are conscious, equally important to the well-being of mass murderers? Do some people, by virtue of their behavior, forfeit any right to well-being? What is the right to well-being, if there is such a right, based on? The literature of eudaimonistic ethics and meta-ethics, which is what Harris is doing, is replete with attempts to answer such questions as these. What Harris brings to the table is a knowledge of neuroscience and a rather contemptuous attitude toward the history of philosophy, which he has intentionally avoided studying.

Some may be impressed by Harris's contrasting of the Bad Life with the Good life, but I don't see how the fact that many people lead horrible lives and a few lead wonderful lives has anything to do with his main point. No science is needed to recognize the difference between the two lives or the preference for the Good Life. No conflation of facts and values is needed to see either the difference or the superiority of the one over the other. Is science supposed to provide the justification for making it an obligation of those who have the good life to cut back so others they don't know in countries they have little knowledge or interest in can improve their lives? Is it an obligation to help the less fortunate in increasing their well-being? What is this obligation based on?

Harris seems to think he's the first one to think of the problems of moral relativism and that if moral relativism is wrong, then he's right: values are facts and science can discover them. His argument seems to be a non sequitur built on obvious truths. The last page of my free reading from Amazon includes Harris's statement that "science should increasingly inform our values." But we already knew that.

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