My Moral Landscape Challenge entry
Well here it is. After many weeks of thinking and engaging, this is my entry to the Moral Landscape. I realised that there are now over 260 entries to the challenge, so I really doubt my chances now. There are so many ways of approaching this essay. Here is my take…
The Moral Landscape Challenge
In The Moral Landscape Sam Harris attempts to ground morality in an objective basis: the ‘well-being of conscious creatures’. He proposes that because morality and values depend on conscious minds and these minds are subject to stable and predictable laws there will be an objective moral reality where the well-being of conscious creatures is maximised. This moral reality is mapped on the ‘moral landscape’.
Unfortunately Harris’ moral landscape concept fails. It fails because well-being is not and cannot be satisfactorily defined nor measured. Hence the assumption that there must be in principle an objective landscape which ‘clearly’ delineates a peak of maximised well-being is false. Finally, the landscape becomes redundant as ethical decisions are made in other ways.
A crucial stumbling block to the moral landscape becoming a complete and objective ethical system stems from the failure to define ‘well-being’. Harris acknowledges that well-being ‘resists precise definition’. Yet this definitional problem makes well-being difficult to measure and to therefore adjudicate whether two ethical systems ‘allow for precisely the same level of human flourishing’.
Similarly, it’s unclear whether the moral landscape provides a clear imperative to maximise individual or corporate well-being. Harris’s system fails to properly resolve the complex problem of conflicting interests.
This definitional failure becomes problematic when assessing the difference between the ‘Bad Life’ and the ‘Good Life’. Harris proposes that the Bad Life is objectively worse than other ‘better’ lives. Yet this is not always clear because sometimes suffering can be beneficial. For example someone who has experienced ‘the worst possible misery’ may learn resilience, perseverance, and empathy and hence will be stronger and more able to care for others as a result. This makes it difficult to assess whether this misery was ‘objectively’ worse.
Harris responds to the definitional and measurement problems by drawing an analogy with health. He proposes that ‘health’ defies clear definition and ‘metric’ yet should be still adopted.
However this is misleading because at times the way Harris uses the analogy isn’t really an analogy. Modern conceptions of health do make it difficult to precisely define, yet considering health in a holistic way mindful of potentiality actually approaches a definition of ‘well-being’. Thus for Harris to suggest that we should value ‘well-being’ because we value health is tantamount to claiming we should value ‘well-being’ because we value ‘well-being’. His analogy becomes circular.
Further, Harris uses the terms ‘health’, ‘medicine’ and ‘disease’ interchangeably. Yet again this is misleading because each have different emphases. Health is broader than the science of medicine or simply dealing with disease. Furthermore health is a valid science because we can measure outcomes, but not so for well-being as no ‘metric’ is proposed.
There is nothing wrong with the proposal to maximising well-being. However it is problematic when ‘well-being’ is ill-defined to make it the totality of an ‘objective’ ethical system.
Central to Harris’ thesis is the assertion that there exists in principle an objective ‘fact’ of maximised well-being, ‘people’s actual values and desires are fully determined by an objective reality’. Harris has assumed the existence of a kind of ‘Platonic’ ideal for ‘maximised well-being’.
Yet this claim is invalid. Without clear definition and measurement calculus no such objective ‘ideal’ can exist.
Any utilitarian understanding of ‘well-being’ requires certain assumptions of what is to be valued and prioritised. Often the assumptions of what should be valued are ideological and intangible e.g. freedom, equality.
Blackford pinpoints this problem, ‘There could be situations where the question of which course of action might maximize well-being has no determinate answer, and not merely because well-being is difficult to measure in practice but because there is some room for rational disagreement about exactly what it is.’
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that different people value different things. One person’s concept of flourishing is another’s suffering. A classic example is Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption who flourished when ‘institutionalised’ yet committed suicide when released from prison. In-built into this diversity are cultural and ideological biases. Harris is seemingly unaware of his own ideological assumptions in condemning the Chinese eunuch in a society where ‘well-being’ was valued in terms of honour and service to the state.
Furthermore, the world is dynamic and constantly changing. What constitutes well-being for someone today will change with experience. Similarly with fulfilment, a dream job one day is boring drudgery in ten years. Given the this dynamism even if a well-being ‘ideal’ were discovered, it would change in the next instant.
Harris’ attempt to overcome this problem by making it analogous to, ‘how many birds are in flight at this moment?’ is invalid because we can define a ‘bird’ and we can measure this i.e. install tracking devices on all birds in the world. However without a clear scale to measure well-being, as long as there is diversity in the world, there can exist no maximised well-being ‘ideal’.
Until Harris can demonstrate that there are objective answers in principle, this assumption cannot be accepted. An objective moral reality can’t be assumed in order to be proved.
Finally, the moral landscape is redundant. Ironically Harris doesn’t use the landscape to make ethical pronouncements often resorting to ‘common sense’. For example in criticizing the Dobu, ‘we need not await any breakthroughs in neuroscience to bring the general principle in view’. Similarly he dismisses the burqa without citing any empirical studies. He also imports other ethical systems which ironically subvert his consequentialist paradigm e.g. the deontological claim that people need to be respected as ends in themselves.
Furthermore it’s difficult to see how Harris’ conception can provide a truly ‘objective’ moral landscape. Given that the landscape contains multiple peaks it’s difficult avoid the conclusion that Harris advocates a form of moral relativism. The moral landscape may provide options, but it becomes redundant at assessing truly objective morality.
The moral landscape might have some value in assessing public policy questions (assuming assumptions are agreed), yet it fails as a comprehensive and objective system for adjudicating moral truth.