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Moral Landscape – the bad life and the good life

January 16, 2014

So far in my review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape I have published 7 posts and reviewed just 13 pages of the book! I will start speeding up a little in order to finish the book before the challenge begins in a few weeks. On pages 15-21 Harris outlines his conception of ‘the good life and the bad life. On page 15 he claims that for his thesis to hold only two premises need be granted:

  1. some people have better lives than others
  2. these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and the states of the world

Harris has described something of an ‘objective’ paradigm. He is saying that some people have better lives and these relate to states in the brain and the world. Anticipating his conclusion it seems he will say that once we work out what these ‘states’ are, then we ‘ought’ to to them in order to increase well-being. The logic seems quite reasonable.

Yet there are some problems with each premise:

Problem with premise 1 – how do we judge better? Would we have a better life if we won the lottery? One could argue that having more money is ‘better’, but the story of Callie Rogers illustrates that this is not so simple. Callie Rogers won the lottery at 16 but later claimed that the win had left her with ‘nothing but trouble and without a sense of purpose’. She said that “even if you say your life won’t change, it does and often not for the better”. She only has $3,300 now but feels content and happy for the first time since her win. This story illustrates that defining ‘better’ is problematic which reveals that the problem with this premise goes back to the same old problems with utilitarianism namely definition and measurement. How do we define ‘better’ and how do we measure it?

This premise also overlooks the fact that people are different and value different things. A business executive might feel they have a ‘better’ life than someone who works in the mail-room, similarly someone who works in the mail-room might have a ‘better’ life than a business executive. How do we resolve this? This is deeply complex.

Unfortunately Harris caricatures these difference somewhat on pages 18 and 19 when a challenge is raised to his conception of the good life. Harris discusses the example of Jeffery Dahmer and for Dahmer ‘better’ was to kill young men, have sex with their corpses and dismember them (again highlighting the problem of ‘definition’ and ‘measurement’ mentioned above). Harris responds by saying that ‘we are free to say that certain opinions do not count’. This is an interesting step to take because it is difficult to see how he can justify this particularly as he hasn’t established a clear definition of ‘better’. Rejecting certain opinions also has the potential to lead to a form of cultural imperialism where all alternative views are squashed. A potentially dangerous move.

Problem with premise 2 – is this mechanistic determinism? This may not necessarily be a problem, but it does tend to reduce ‘freedom’ in the paradigm. I think Harris will go on to speak about free will later in the book, but Harris’ conception of the moral landscape requires the loss of freedom. Furthermore this conception of neatly assigning ‘better’ overlooks the complexity of different standards of ‘better’ outlined in my critique of premise 1. This complexity makes it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to isolate a neat mechanistic relationship between premise 1 and 2.

Harris goes on to illustrate his conception of the good life and the bad life with two scenarios on page 15. One which outlines the appalling plight of a young widow who is about to die, and the other concerning a wealthy, successful, fulfilled philanthropist.

As I read Harris’ conception of the ‘good life’, I noticed that some aspects of this life seem a little arbitrary and conditioned by some of his cultural presuppositions. For example, why include compassion? What is altruism part of the good life? I’ll illustrate this difficulty by writing an alternative scenario to ‘The Good Life’

You have sex whenever you want. You have multiple gorgeous people satisfying your every desire. You are surrounded by wonderful friends who support and encourage you. You are rich and famous. You travel, eat at the finest restaurants, wear the finest clothes. You own houses across the world and have a vast share portfolio. You enjoy superior health and because of your wealth you have access to the finest nutritionists. You have an amazing singing voice and have had a string of number 1 chart hits. You have just signed a billion dollar deal for a series of concerts the proceeds of which you intend to invest in a project which will enable you to fly to the moon. You are fulfilled in your career and in being you. You don’t really like helping the poor because you are concerned about people being dependent on charity – for you were once poor, but through a combination of hard work and persistence you rose to the top.

This conception is objectively better than the ‘bad life’ isn’t it? But this conception is entirely selfish and self focused. There is no altruism or compassion in this paradigm. Selfishness and competitiveness are part of the brain and hence there are reasons to include them as part of the ‘good’ life. This demonstrates some problems with the way Harris has defined the ‘Good Life’ and hence it makes it difficult to deliver people towards the good life because we all ask, ‘well, which one?’

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