Moral landscape – definition of wellbeing
Now we come to a really important part of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape – defining ‘well-being’. Well-being is crucial to Harris’ argument because he suggests that this is the ‘only thing we can reasonably value’ (p11). In Harris’ conception “good” is ‘that which supports well-being’ (p.12) and ‘values’ are the ‘set of attitudes, choices and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being’. So what is it?
Well unfortunately Harris evades a precise definition of well-being. He says that ‘the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition and yet it is indispensable’ (pp11-12). He also says that ‘the question of what constitutes well-being genuinely open’ (p.12).
At one level Harris’ conception is very appealing. Our individual and corporate well-being is something that we seem to innately value. A society where well-being is maximised is a very appealing prospect. Yet Harris’ inability to even remotely define well-being is deeply problematic. Also problematic is his suggestion that there is every reason to think that there is a finite range of answers to what constitutes well-being (p.12). It’s unclear how he can make this statement particularly as he hasn’t defined well-being.
The failure to define well-being makes it extremely difficult to accept Harris’ thesis. How can we maximise well-being if we don’t really know what it is? What is ‘the good’ when well-being is not defined? Does Harris suggest we maximise individual or collective well-being? He makes no clear comment on this.
Another problem is the issue of incommensurable values (Kyle Fedler, Exploring Christian Ethics, p.29). Incommensurable values are of different types, they cannot be compared, yet these values must all be considered as constituent parts of ‘well-being’. For example how do we measure, compare and assess economic well-being with environmental well-being? How do we measure and compare ‘freedom’ with ‘responsibility and sacrifice’ – it could be argued that freedom provides well-being but what of the consequences of unfettered freedom?
I’ll illustrate the difficulty of assessing the ‘good’ by considering the example of smoking. Is smoking ‘good’ i.e. does it support well-being. At one level it does not, there are serious health problems associated with smoking, it is expensive and dirty – on these factors it would seem that moral landscape represents a deep valley. Yet smoking provides pleasure, it may lead to social acceptance and even enhance your self-identity (consider James Dean or the Smoking man from the X-files), it may be a symbol of rebellion and the ability to smoke is a consequence of ‘freedom’, moreover smoking cigars according to some like George Burns, actually leads to a longer life – all these factors contribute to an increase in ‘well-being’. So how are we to judge the well-being of smoking? Should one smoke? Is it ‘good’ ? Would ‘well-being’ be increased if the ‘freedom’ to smoke were removed? How would you compare the well-being contained in personal freedom, enjoyment and identity with alternative health benefits? Harris offers no real solution.
Overall the failure to satisfactorily define well-being is disappointing though not unexpected for this is a general weakness of any utilitarian ethical system.