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Sam Harris and the Hunger Games: the moral lottery

January 31, 2014

It’s been a little quiet here the last week or so, mainly because time is running out before the Moral Landscape challenge opens. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and blogging in detail as I’ve been reading through Harris’ book. Yet time is running out before the challenge and I needed to finish reading the book. I have now finished the book and there is much to commend and criticize in Harris’ work and I’ll try to blog out as many of my thoughts before the challenge opens. I’m still trying to figure out my best 1,000 words. Hopefully I can explore further some of the issues Harris has stimulated me to think about.

Anyway, I recently had another article published at On-line Opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate. I’ve reproduced the article (slightly modified) here. I’ve brought some of my reflections and criticisms of Harris’ work in dialogue with The Hunger Games.

Sam Harris and the Hunger Games: the moral lottery

The Moral Landscape by world leading atheist Sam Harris is an attempt to demonstrate how ‘science can determine human values’. The central argument of Harris’ book is that questions of morality are essentially about the maximisation of ‘well-being’ of conscious creatures. 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’.

At one level Harris’ conception is very appealing. Our individual and corporate well-being is something that we seem to innately value and it seems to make sense to want to maximise our ‘well-being’. Who doesn’t want a society where well-being is maximised?

Yet as I’ve thought and pondered Harris’ moral landscape paradigm, I’ve been deeply unsatisfied. Despite the immediate appeal of his offer, there are serious problems. One crucial stumbling block in accepting Harris’ proposal is that he fails to even remotely define well-being. Harris himself even admits that well-being ‘resists precise definition’ (p.11/12)

This raises many problems. 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? Further, it’s not clear who we’re aiming to maximise well-being for? Is it for everyone, for just the important ones, or only for myself?

Even if we can come up with some notion of well-being, given that it will be generally a qualitative value, how can it be measured? The problem of measurement raises the difficulty of weighing incommensurable values. Incommensurable values are values of different types, e.g. freedom, prosperity, equality, happiness. These values cannot easily be compared, yet these values must all be considered as constituent parts of ‘well-being’. How do we measure, compare and assess economic well-being against and with environmental well-being and assess if overall well being is greater or less? 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?

Moreover Harris’ paradigm, like any utilitarian ethical system, justifies injustice. On page 33, Harris makes the confident assertion that justice forms part of the average person’s well-being, ‘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).

Notwithstanding the slightly selective list of virtues Harris has chosen, Harris goes on to contradict himself in his own footnote where he says, ‘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’. Harris opens up a clear avenue for justifying injustice – if it’s for the greater good.

Harris tries to deny this accusation and is critical of those who imagine that “well-being” must be at odds with principles like justice (p.39). Yet he merely asserts that it isn’t, seemingly unaware of the implications of his earlier concession. One justified exception to maintaining and ensuring justice tolerates injustice as part of the paradigm. You can’t suggest that we ‘generally’ maintain justice but sometimes injustice is permitted for the greater good. Justice is either 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’.

The weaknesses of Harris’ book whilst disappointing, are not entirely unexpected. These key problems of definition, measurement and injustice are key weaknesses with any utilitarian ethical system.

Yet these weaknesses become more profound when brought into dialogue with the other provocative series of books I’ve been reading this summer – The Hunger Games.

As I’ve been making my way through the Moral Landscape, I’ve also found myself being engrossed by Suzanne Collins’ fantastic Hunger Games trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay) .

The Hunger Games is set at an unspecified time in the future in the land of Panem. Panem is ruled from the ‘Capitol’ by a brutal and totalitarian government led by President Snow. The Capitol oversees twelve impoverished outlying ‘Districts’ which are subjected to the annual ‘Hunger Games’. The Hunger Games were developed to punish the citizens of Panem for a rebellion 75 years earlier and to remind those in the Districts of the consequences of rebelling against the rule of the Capitol.

The Hunger Games follows the story of Katniss Everdeen as she enters and wins the Hunger Games in unprecedented fashion. Through the threat of a joint suicide with Peeta Meelik (and hence proposing no winner to the Games) Everdeen implicitly challenged the authority of the Capitol. She provided hope to the Districts and becomes the catalyst and symbol of a rebellion.

It’s been hard not to read The Hunger Games without Sam Harris’ thesis bouncing around in my head. In a dystopian vision like the Hunger Games, ultimate questions of right, wrong, good, evil and well being become dominant themes. Will the Moral Landscape work in the Hunger Games?

When testing some of Harris’ claims in Panem the failure to define well-being becomes problematic. How is well-being maximised here? The answer is very different depending on which perspective you take.

From the perspective of the Capitol and its residents, the primary constituents of well-being are ‘the good life’: peace, quality food, healthcare, clothing, entertainment, and prosperity. Indeed the entertainment and drama of the Hunger Games themselves greatly enhanced the well-being Capitol residents. The Games provides a classic example of justified injustice. Twenty four children battling for survival for the entertainment of the really important people (the Capitol) whilst simultaneously maintaining peace by reminding the Districts of the penalty of rebellion. The sacrifice of a few young children can be justified for the peace and survival of Panem and maximising the well-being of those in the Capitol.

Yet from the perspective of those in District 12 (Everdeen’s home), the definition of well-being is somewhat different. Whilst they seek similar joys of life to those in the Capitol, food, health and entertainment the crucial difference is ‘freedom’. They are slaves of the Capitol.

Those in the Capitol would suggest that for the peace and prosperity and indeed the very survival of Panem would require the slavery of those in the Districts. They were mindful of the past where the human race almost blasted itself into extinction. ‘The Treaty of Treason’ gave laws which guaranteed peace, but at a staggering cost including the freedom of the Districts and the annual Hunger Games as a perennial reminder.

Indeed Harris’ conception also creates problems for those in the districts calculating whether they should fight their oppressors or not. How can you measure the cost of freedom? Measuring the freedom of a decimated few against the painful impoverished oppression of a larger number betrays no simple calculation. The well-being of freedom is incommensurable to having loved ones still being alive. And what if the rebellion failed?

Moreover another difficult question emerges in the Hunger Games: why should we seek to maximise the well-being of everyone? Why should those in power in the Capitol jeopardize their standard of living and their whole way of life for those in the Districts who have a history of rebellion? Conversely, why should those in the Districts seek the well-being of their oppressors? Punishment and revenge plays a huge part in the motivation and actions of both the Capitol and the rebels.

Harris’ moral landscape fails to offer objective reasons to determine ‘what is right’. Slavery, impoverishment and the awful Hunger Games can be justified for peace, security and the maximisation of the entertainment and flourishing of those in the Capitol.

Moreover Harris’ moral landscape conception can be used to justify injustice on either side. This theme is crystalised in Mockingjay (pp 221 and 222) in a conversation between Gale (Everdeen’s hunting partner and confidant) and Everdeen. The conversation was essentially about the ethical limits of Harris’ moral landscape:

Gale comments, “What difference is there, really, between crushing our enemy in a mine or blowing them out of the sky with one of Beetee’s arrows? The result is the same.”

Everdeen responds, “I don’t know. We were under attack in Eight, for one thing. The hospital was under attack”

“Yes, and those hoverplanes came from District Two” he says, ‘So by taking them out, we prevented further attacks”

“But that kind of thinking … you could turn it into an argument for killing anyone at any time. You could justify sending kids into the Hunger Games to prevent the districts from getting out of line.”

Exactly! If the maximisation of ‘well-being’ is the measure of all ethical decisions then the some of the most heinous of crimes can be justified because it is believed that they will lead to the greatest well-being. This is why the failure to define well-being and allowing the exception of injustice is so crucial.

Harris admits that there are multiple ‘peaks’ of well-being on his moral landscape, but this exacerbates the problem. Rather than developing an objective measure of morality, almost any form of morality can be justified.

The Hunger Games demonstrate just how complex moral problems can be. It demonstrates how there may be many peaks on the moral landscape, which actually fails to really help us make ‘objective’ moral decisions. Instead in the Hunger Games demonstrates that however we define and measure ‘well-being’ the moral landscape can be used to justify any type of behaviour. In Panem the moral landscape is reduced to a moral lottery – and may the odds be ever in your favour.


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