Sam Harris, one of the four “horsemen” of New Atheism, published a book delineating his position on moral realism (whether objective moral values exist and how can we know them). Its central claim is that being moral entails trying to maximize the aggregate “well-being” of sentient beings. So, claims about the morality of actions reduce to statements about how those actions affect the mental states of creatures, and thus can be verified scientifically.
His work has been reviewed and critiqued quite well by academics across fields including philosophers Russell Blackford, Massimo Pigliucci, Thomas Nagel and physicist Sean Carroll. The general opinion seems to be that he unsuccessfully tries to derive an ought from an is, and defines “science” too broadly in order to justify an attractive subtitle for his book (“How Science can Determine Human Values.”) I have already written about naturalists’ attempts to ground morality, and thus will not attempt to point out all the flaws in Harris’ line-of-reasoning. Instead, I would like to focus on a novel analogy he provides between the science of medicine and an objective system of morality.
Harris was rightly criticized by several reviewers for basing his allegedly scientific system of morality on a premise (“we should value well-being of conscious creatures”) that isn’t scientifically justifiable. Even though a system of “prescriptive” morality can be formed with the help of science once we accept this premise, he seemed to provide no basis for justifying the premise itself apart from labeling those who don’t affirm it as absurd and irrational. He chose to respond to such criticism in the following manner:
It seems to me that there are three, distinct challenges put forward thus far:
1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)
2. Hence, if someone does not care about well-being, or cares only about his own and not about the well-being of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)
3. Even if we did agree to grant “well-being” primacy in any discussion of morality, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure well-being scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of morality. (The Measurement Problem)
I believe all of these challenges are the product of philosophical confusion. The simplest way to see this is by analogy to medicine and the mysterious quantity we call “health.” Let’s swap “morality” for “medicine” and “well-being” for “health” and see how things look:
1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value health, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)
2. Hence, if someone does not care about health, or cares only about his own and not about the health of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)
3. Even if we did agree to grant “health” primacy in any discussion of medicine, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure health scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of medicine. (The Measurement Problem)
I think his response to the third point is good enough. His main point, however, is that since we have no qualms with there being a science of medicine focused on helping people with certain widely shared values (preference for longevity, being free from diseases etc.), we shouldn’t have any with a “science of morality” based on universal values either. There is a gaping flaw in this bit of reasoning. Yes, one can perfectly well develop a budding “science of morality” in this fashion. But, that system won’t be binding, and that would make it totally unworthy of being called a system of morality.† The fact that most people share some basic values, and thus can form a system of medicine based on them is just a matter of convenience, nothing else, much like soccer fans agreeing to form FIFA and supporting the game. No one is obligated (and shouldn’t be) to accept the recommendations of that system, if he/she doesn’t accept the values that undergird it. If you don’t prefer longevity, you can ignore suggestions about how to live longer. In fact, you can and do make your own value judgements about your health. Weighing the side-effects of a pain reliever against the short-term relief is your decision. Of course, we know that people tend to agree, by and large, on what they value about health and that allows doctors to make general recommendations based on universal albeit subjective values. That’s perfectly fine for a system of medicine. But not for one of morality because it’s not enough for its foundational premises to be universal. They need to be objectively true.†† Carroll expresses this quite well in his review of Harris’ book:
…Can we not even imagine people with fundamentally incompatible views of the good? (I think I can.) And if we can, what is the reason for the cosmic accident that we all happen to agree? And if that happy cosmic accident exists, it’s still merely an empirical fact; by itself, the existence of universal agreement on what is good doesn’t necessarily imply that it is good. We could all be mistaken, after all.
Our system of medicine makes claims of the sorts, “If you value living longer, don’t smoke.” It does not say that you ought to value living longer, but it tells those who do what to do to achieve that end. On the contrary, morality is not about making “ought” statements contingent on a person’s wishes or values. Rather, it’s about claiming what people ought to value regardless of what they already happen to value. For every statement like “if you value seeing other people happy, donate to a charity” there can be an analogous statement “if you value killing people, purchase a grenade and drop it in a mall.” Any meaningful system of morality needs to tell us why valuing other people’s happiness is objectively better (or worse) than valuing killing people, instead of just making recommendations about how to fulfill our already held values to a maximum. “Oughts” of the sort, “if you value X, you ought to do Y” simply aren’t valuable in answering questions about morality.
One of the main challenges of metaethics and moral philosophy is about trying to find out what is the proper conception of “good.” Once that’s established, finding out ways to maximize that “good” is, I dare say, comparatively trivial. If Harris really wants to make a case for moral realism, for why some people’s conception of morality is wrong, he needs to tell us why his conception is correct. It is not enough for his “science” of morality to prescribe how to maximize aggregate well-being. It needs to tell us why that is the proper goal of morality.
† Consider this: two persons build two different sciences of morality: science of morality A whose aim is to maximize aggregate well-being of sentient creatures, and science of morality B whose aim is to maximize some other variable X, let’s say a particular person’s well-being (it’s not hard to think of many such variables). The big question still remains: prescriptions of which science A or B should you follow?
†† Many people who defend Sam’s analogy assert “just like there can be objective claims about health, there can be objective claims about morality.” There is a genuine confusion underlying it. The term health is analogous to well-being, rather than “morality.” The analogous (and correct) assertion is “there can be objective claims about well-being of sentient creatures,” which is irrelevant to a discussion about morality because a claim about well-being isn’t a moral claim per se.
The photo of Sam Harris belongs to Steve Jurvetson and is used under CC BY 2.0.