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Moral Landscape – how Sam Harris justifies injustice

January 24, 2014

The central argument of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape is the maximisation of ‘well-being’ of conscious creatures. As I’ve identified earlier defining ‘well-being’ is a huge problem for Harris as it is indeed for any consequentialist ethicist. Harris runs into similar problems again on page 33 as he again discusses further the meaning of ‘well-being’.

He makes the confident assertion that ‘I think there is little doubt that most of what matters to the average person – like fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality – will be integral to our creating a thriving global civilization and, therefore, to the greater well-being of humanity’ (p.33). I have some comments:

  • This is an interesting statement because none of these values derives from science nor empirical observation, these are all values which Harris has assumed to be of value.
  • Further, it is unclear why Harris should choose these values and not values like, ‘power’, ‘strength’, ‘ambition’? Why wouldn’t a culture like that of Ancient Sparta, which was fundamentally militaristic and certainly not compassionate and free – yet very successful, be considered one which should maximise the greater well-being?
  • Furthermore, these ideas have been contested throughout history. There have been many civilizations e.g. Ancient Rome, Communist Soviet Union, modern China, which would argue that compassion for certain groups shouldn’t form part of a thriving global civilization i.e. we should lock them up and torture them, for the greater well-being of humanity!

Yet the biggest criticism of Harris’ suggestion that ‘fairness, justice and compassion’ as integral to well-being comes in his own footnote. Harris directly contradicts himself and opens up a clear avenue for justifying injustice. He says, in footnote 12, ‘Are there trade-offs and exceptions? Of course. There may be circumstances in which the very survival of a community requires that certain of these principles be violated. But this doesn’t mean that they aren’t generally conducive to human well-being’. Thus we can justify injustice – for the greater good.

There are many examples for this: humiliating a person on TV for the greater good the ‘entertainment’ of the many millions watching, hence The Hunger Games is a classic example of justified injustice i.e. 24 young children fighting for the entertainment of the really important people (the Capitol) – the ‘well-being’ of those in the Capitol is greatly enhanced for the sacrifice of a few young children (again this raises the problem of measuring ‘well-being’). Other examples would include sacrificing a young girl because they have certain genes and blood type which can save many many other people, and even Harris’ own example of refusing to listen to the ethical claims of certain people (see note 24 on page 221) could be construed as unjust.

Sam Harris’ conception of the Moral Landscape can be fundamentally and justifiably unjust – this is a common problem with all utilitarian ethical philosophies.

Harris tries to deny this accusation. On page 39 Harris is critical of those who imagine that “well being” must be at odds with principles like justice, autonomy, fairness and scientific curiosity. Yet Harris merely asserts that it isn’t, which contradicts his footnote on page 33 where he admits that there will be times when there are exceptions. One justified exception to maintaining and ensuring justice is injustice isn’t it? You can’t simply suggest that we ‘generally’ maintain justice but sometimes we permit injustice for the greater good. Either justice is at the centre of your ethical system, or it isn’t. You can’t justify exceptions and still maintain that the system is fundamentally ‘just’.

Moreover Harris also suggests that his system also affirms autonomy, yet given his commitment to a firm moral realist system rooted in the scientific understanding of the world, it’s difficult to see how he can refute the accusation of determinism – we’ll wait to we get to the discussion on free will later.

Hence, Harris justifies injustice by allowing the exception of injustice as a part of the Moral Landscape.

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4 Comments
  1. Isn’t this post simply another exposition of the tension between utilitarianism and deontology? The conflict here is very well known. And there are, I submit, no easy answers. Balancing well-being with justice and integrity is an impossible task. I think you, I, and Sam Harris would agree. But, as I’ve written in other posts, Harris is not interested in reenacting that skirmish. He simply wants to tell the two most popular schools of thought (worldwide that is) that there is a better way: moral relativism (popular in the West) and divine command theory (popular just about everywhere else) are flawed and are wrong to presume that science is irrelevant to morality.

    • Thanks for the comment – correct. You have highlighted the problem. I agree with you, there are no easy answers. Unfortunately for Harris not to reenact that skirmish means he doesn’t really adequately deal with the complex nature of the problems. Hence by skirting over these I tend to agree with Nagal’s review of Harris where Harris’ failure to really deal with the complex issues makes his work ‘too crude to be of interest as a contribution to moral theory’.

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