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My Moral Landscape Challenge entry

February 10, 2014

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.

  1. I have two immediate rebuttals to your essay.
    First, as you point out, Harris does recognize that the term well-being will be elastic. However, Harris does not have to prove that, in any comparison of ANY two situations, that one will be objectively better than the other. In other words, the elasticity makes room for the kinds of assumptions about subjective preferences that you claim he is ideologically blind to. For instance, you would probably point to Brooks as a sign that because some people may prefer prison because of their institutionalization that one cannot objectively say that being free is better than being in prison. However, Harris would allow for subjective preferences to help calibrate well being. Harris is not forced to make overly general statements like “living free is objectively better than living in prison.” In other words, Brooks’ subjective preferences are included rather than excluded from consideration. I also think about Harris’ recognition that some people consider solitary confinement to be torture, whereas some contemplatives retreat into a cave for years or more. Thus, Harris would never (I presume) say that living a suburban life is better than living in a cave. It varies from person to person, and this personal preferences are part of our objective deliberations.
    However, this elasticity is not a point against his theory. All Harris really has to prove is that there is a basis for objective morality: having the knowledge or ability to implement or objectively assess two situations is a wholly separate matter. For instance, you may remember from his TED talk that Harris posits the Worst Possible Misery For Everyone. If this situation is indeed worse than a day in which you get promoted, a raise, married, and go on a honeymoon, then there is some basis for an objective morality.
    Of course, the challenge is to parse out valid from invalid assumptions. Do we really respect the claims of a stay at home wife in Saudi Arabia who wears a bag whenever she leaves home and is, as mandated by her religion and culture, expected to tolerate her husband hitting her and having multiple wives? Do we equate this life with that of a Western mother who has a family and a career of her choosing? There is something to be said for ideological coercion, and, as Harris addresses elsewhere, having our beliefs track with reality. We do not treat the ecstasy of a drug who is miserable without his fix with the contentment of a successful entrepreneur. And the difficulty in choosing which assumptions or preferences are legitimate and which are not is surely tough work, but it does not invalidate (you may disagree) Harris’ claim that there nevertheless exists a basis for objective morality.
    Secondly, Harris also takes into account that superficially negative experiences like stress, frustration, pain, etc. can be couched in a larger context of self-improvement, rewarding struggle, etc. Do we really equate the frustration of learning a new language with the frustration of being late for work and looking for lost keys? No. Context matters.
    What do you think?

    • A couple of quick responses. I think Harris does need to prove that one will be objectively better than the other. This is how I’ve understood the very nature of the moral landscape (i.e. there will be peaks and valleys). I think Harris does want to make statements that ‘living free is objectively better than living in prison’ – he makes a lot of the objectivity of propositions. Your issues relate precisely to the issues I find in trying to define ‘well-being’ and to reduce it to a series of propositions, which I think Harris wants to do.

      Your comment about separating objective morality from the ‘knowledge or ability to implement or objectively assess two situations’ is interesting because I see Harris eliminating this distinction. He claims there is no difference between facts and values – i.e. facts make claims about our values. You have (in my mind rightly) proposed a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, yet Harris denies such distinction.

      Also – there are some situations where getting a raise, getting married and going on a honeymoon might be the ‘worst possible misery’ for some people! 😉

      In terms of your other observations, I still think we can condemn these without reference to the moral landscape!

      Thanks for your thoughts. Enjoyed the interaction!

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