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Moral Landscape – is the moral landscape morally subjective?

February 3, 2014

I’ve been reflecting a lot on Sam Harris’ conception of the moral landscape. He describes the landscape in undulating terms – i.e. peaks and valleys of ‘well-being’. One of Harris’ purposes of writing the book was to counter moral relativism. He wants to say that there are definitively and objectively right and wrong answers to moral questions. Hence I was genuinely puzzled (again) when I read his critique of ‘honor cultures’ on pages 52 and 53.

Harris relates a story of how a man tried to seduce his wife at the gym (pp. 50-51). He uses this as a case study to analyse different moral approaches. He reflects from an ‘honor’ culture perspective which might have meant he ‘beat his wife, drag her to the gym, and force her to identify her suitor so that he could put a bullet in his brain’ (p.51). He also considers it from an ‘natural’ perspective where he got jealous and annoyed and sought revenge. Then he considers a response from his own conception of ‘well-being’ here he outlined a measured, empathetic response.

I found this interesting for a couple of reasons:

  1. The moral landscape doesn’t seem to consider our ‘natural’ inclinations and emotions. Harris is neatly dividing ‘rationality’ from ’emotion’.
  2. He doesn’t actually offer a moral solution through the ‘landscape’ conception. i.e. what should he therefore do?
  3. It seems that he used the moral landscape offered him a lens through which he could be more reflective. However one doesn’t need the ‘moral landscape’ to be more empathetic. Indeed certain other ethical systems can also lead to empathy (most notably virtue ethics).
  4. None of Harris’ moral reflection was based on science. In fact he claims science was unnecessary to critique the honor culture, ‘we do not need a complete neuroscience to know that my happiness, as well as that of many other people, would have been severely diminished‘ (p. 52). This comment seems to undercut his entire thesis – if we don’t need science to tell us this, how can science determine our moral values? Similarly how can we then be certain that this moral ‘peak’ is objective? This is unclear.

Harris concludes by saying that the well-being of people in an honor society would be much lower. ‘It seems to me that members of these societies are obviously worse off’ (p.52).

Then Harris says something very puzzling, ‘If I am wrong about this, however, and there are ways to organize an honor culture that allow for precisely the same level of human flourishing enjoyed elsewhere – then so be it. This would represent another peak on the moral landscape.’ (p.52-3).

After suggesting that the honor culture is ‘definitely’ worse, he concedes that if there are ways of organizing a culture this way – then so be it. This is puzzling because he appears to be opening up an avenue towards moral subjectivity. In fact there are ways in which an ‘honour’ culture could offer the same level of flourishing.

  • Honor cultures are still described accurately by science. Honor cultures bear deep resemblances to our ‘natural’ urges, as he previously outlined and as he admits on page 50, as these men are running ‘ancient software’.
  • More crucially if ‘well-being were defined differently, our results would be different. Valuing ‘honor’ is in many respects culturally determined. Hence if everyone believes that the adversary should be killed, and justice meted out then this will influence any form of judgement over the amount of ‘well-being’ being fostered. Indeed someone from an honor culture might criticise Harris’ approach and suggest that ‘justice’ has not been met i.e. the perpetrator has not been punished for attempting to seduce a married woman and hence feel that Harris’ approach lacks ‘flourishing’.
  • Finally, how can we measure ‘precisely’ the same level of human flourishing? Without clear definition and measurement scale it is impossible to determine ‘precisely’ levels of flourishing.

Hence it is unclear how Harris’ conception isn’t advocating moral subjectivity. Harris attempts to deny this claim by asserting, ‘Again, the existence of multiple peaks would not render the truths of morality merely subjective’ (p.53)

Although, I can’t see how you can avoid the conclusion of a form of moral subjectivity. If there are multiple peaks on the landscape, how can morality not have an element of subjectivity?

Harris might suggest that there are objective ‘valleys’ – the worst possible misery for everyone, but this doesn’t really help in determining what is ‘right’ ie. the peaks of flourishing. It seems that Harris is advocating a form of ‘objective subjectivity’ i.e. objective ways of achieving flourishing but there are multiple ways of getting there.

Perhaps he is advocating an objective ‘ideal’, i.e. an idealised maximised potential peak of well-being on the landscape? This would provide a pathway to a genuinely objective moral basis to flourishing. But he doesn’t appear to be doing this here – he speaks in language of equivalence and equality i.e. multiple equal peaks. Without this objective ‘ideal’ it’s hard to see how multiple peaks doesn’t advocate a form of moral subjectivity.

  1. I think you answer your own question at the end of this article. Of course, it is impossible to have objective objectivity when it comes to human morality. Morality is felt at the individual level, so of course it is impossible to erase subjectivity. He accounts for subjectivity and the way that subjectivity can fluctuate in an objective manner along a sliding scale (dare I call it one-dimensional?) called “well-being.”
    If you recognize that each human being can have objectively worse and better states of being, then I think your disagreements with Harris are marginal. Remember, we live in a world populated by people who cannot contemplate ethics without consulting books they believe to have been written by an omniscient and omnibenevolent being. This isn’t to say of course that you shouldn’t be critical – of course you should. But his goal is not to provide an algorithm with which we can objectively assess all moral dilemmas – but simply to provide a basis for this possibility, however difficult.

    • I’m not sure my disagreements are so marginal and I think ultimately Harris does want to provide an algorithm by which we can properly calibrate morality. I agree that morality is complex and ultimately by suggesting that there is an element of subjectivity it makes the landscape model redundant.

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  1. The many contradictions of Sam Harris | Atheist Forum

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