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Moral landscape – definition of wellbeing

January 14, 2014

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.

  1. I think it is first important to note that from Harris’ background as a neuroscientist and from his persistent reference to wellbeing being a knowable phenomenon from fMRI scanners we can say with considerable confidence that Harris is talking about psychological wellbeing. Therefore, environmental, economic or societal wellbeing are only relevant insofar as they effect psychological wellbeing.
    When it come to your smoking example, the point is not that the answer to that question is known. His point is that the answer is conceptually ‘knowable’. What that means is that fMRI scanners could accurately give a read out of all people effected by smoking. I am from the UK, where healthcare is covered in tax. Here, we could examine what it means for people like me to know that I am paying fo the healthcare of smokers (and the obese) and for the smokers themselves. And then we could accurately say whether it is higher or lower. I can fathom a guess, though: banning smoking will lower wellbeing; I don’t want to live in a society that thinks it can limit freedoms like that. But that’s a guess. The point is that, with enough investment, we could know the answer.
    Harris’ defence of not defining wellbeing, I assume, is known to you: we don’t understand what physical health is either, but we know drinking milk is better than drinking battery acid.

    There are levels I agree with you on. If I read letters from or look at pictures of my grandad I feel sad. But there is also something cathartic and pleasing about remembering him. Is that increase wellbeing or lowered wellbeing? That level of precision will be important at times. But, a lot of the time the woolly agreement we have that ‘contentment and happiness’ more or less constitute wellbeing is sufficient.

    • Thanks for the comments and thoughts. Although, it is still ambiguous from the chapter that I was reviewing what Harris means by well-being. It may be psychological well-being but that is quite an arbitrary claim to make and begs the question as to why environmental, economic or societal wellbeing are ignored. This illustrates the very problem that I was trying to show – that trying to define well-being is very hard and hence trying to base an entire ethical system on something we can’t define is deeply problematic.

      Thanks for interacting with my illustration about smoking, and your illustration highlights the problem I identified – how do you weigh up incommensurable values – why do you think that banning smoking will lower wellbeing when ‘freedom’ is measured on a different axis to ‘health’?

      The illustration of drinking milk and battery acid doesn’t really help at all and really avoids the issue doesn’t it? Sure, there is a big difference between drinking milk and acid, but that doesn’t really help us define wellbeing does it?

      Thanks for agreeing with some points – appreciate the healthy interaction – I think our overall ‘wellbeing’ is increased for a constructive interaction (even if we can’t define it! 😉

      • Thanks for replying.

        There is a big problem with building a big house on sand. But we have done that with medicine, have we not?

        From what I can remember (I haven’t read the book in a while) Harris’ argument is that experience is the thing that morality should aim to protect. So, wellbeing is the very metric that one would use to compare change from limited liberties (i.e. banning smoking) and lowered health.
        The milk and battery acid thing was about the utility of ‘physical health’ informing medicine, not about wellbeing itself.
        *sips milk*
        There are other issues. The Moral Landscape depends on you knowing the outcome of a decision and of the out come of other decisions. But we can’t live in a world where both have happened. And even if we could, the idea of ‘morality’ could only be objectively labelled after the fact. This is not something that bothers Harris, because he simply needs it to be, in principle, true. From that we can confirm the idea of objective morality. Although, I digress.

      • Thanks for the comment – I’m glad you enjoyed your milk!

        I agree to a point – but my point is deeper, why just protect ‘experience’ – why not other things as well? The problem of incommensurable values arises.

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