A Response to Sam Harris’ health-morality analogy

Sam Harris speaking in 2010
Sam Harris speaking in 2010


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 PigliucciThomas 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.

Objective Moral Values and The Moral Argument for God’s Existence

If you have watched debates between famous atheists and Christian apologists, you might have noticed that the former fail to comprehend the moral argument for God’s existence. Philosophically naïve, they perceive it as an attack on their moral integrity and take umbrage.† In reality, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the moral behavior of non-believers. To explain why and clear other common misconceptions, I’ll spell out the argument from morality in detail and try to address various objections to it.

Let’s try to understand what exactly are “objective moral values and duties” and whether they can exist on a naturalist account. Almost all of us share deeply ingrained intuitions that certain acts are morally wrong, for example, torturing children (without any great overriding reason). But, what makes such acts really wrong and our judgement more than mere subjective preference? What reasons do we have to think that a psychopath who thinks of torturing little children as morally good is wrong and we are right? After all, if the naturalist account is true, humans developed as a result of a long unguided process of evolution and it doesn’t seem necessary that all our intuitions will conform to reality. Moreover, why think that there is any moral reality at all? Maybe, our hunches (no matter how strong) pertaining to “moral” issues are just matters of taste, no different than liking or not liking a particular flavor of ice cream and there are no “right” or “objective” set of morals, each person justified in embracing his or her own notion of “morality.” Moral relativism, if true, renders all our moral judgements meaningless, as they are mere opinion in the absence of an absolute benchmark. The question of how to justify moral realism on naturalism has long perplexed philosophers. David Hume, a distinguished philosopher, articulated his views on the issue quite remarkably in terms of the is-ought distinction. According to him, no amount of knowing the state of the world as it is can tell us how it ought to be. In other words, deriving absolute moral standards by observing nature is futile. In A Treatise of Human Nature, he remarked:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

Let’s deal with common (albeit off the mark) objections to this kind of moral skepticism. Some people assert that the fact that a moral belief is universally shared across cultures might act as evidence for its truth. This is a rather naïve attempt to derive an “ought” from an “is.” Consider the following counter-example. Suppose after the Holocaust, the Nazis took over the world and were able to indoctrinate everyone with the belief that the mass genocide of Jews was moral. Would that, according to you, make it moral? If not, then clearly, moral beliefs cannot be justified by appealing to how many people hold them. Don’t forget that slavery was once seen as justified by majority of people.

Others assert that there is objective morality and it consists of those set of norms that are conducive to the stability of society. The very fact that we live in a society that’s much more stable than those in the pre-Christian era is supposed to vouch for our moral standards being closer to truth. (Note that humans with the instinct to kill others indiscriminately rather than cooperate would not have been able to pass this trait to successive generations as they would have died fighting rather than reproducing and caring for off-spring.) The implicit argument here is that we ought to follow such standards because they lead to stable societies. The flaw is that it imputes intrinsic worth to the stability of society. It is no more justified to value stability than it is to value any other natural property. Indeed, there have been attempts to derive morality by defining “good” in terms of several natural properties like “pleasant” or “desirable.” G. E. Moore, an English philosopher, quite famously called this committing the naturalistic fallacy. Deriving morality by defining a natural property X as good just begs the question “Why is X good?” rather than solving the problem!

The moral argument for God’s existence capitalizes on this seeming impossibility of grounding morality in the physical world. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig puts it in this manner:

Premise 1: Objective moral values and duties exist.

Premise 2: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

Conclusion: Thus, God exists.

Note that the above argument is logically validthat is it cannot be the case that the premises are true and the conclusion false. Thus, if both the premises are more plausibly true than not, a rational person is obligated to accept the conclusion.

Premise 1 appeals to our strongly held intuition that there do exist objective moral values and duties. No matter how much we deal with skeptical arguments, this intuition doesn’t go away. Craig calls moral realism a properly basic belief. Basic or foundational beliefs do not depend upon justification from other beliefs. They are self-evident or incorrigible.†† No amount of evidence can rule out that you aren’t a brain in a vat being fed perfect simulations of the world and yet you wouldn’t be considered irrational for rejecting such a hypothesis. Our beliefs in the objective reality of the physical world, other minds and our memory are foundational or basic. Prima facie, there seems to be no better reason to deny existence of objective moral values than to deny the aforementioned beliefs. (Still, hard atheists do deny it.)

But, wait! Didn’t I say that it’s hard to justify existence of objective morality on naturalism? That is what the Premise 2 is about. It asserts that without the existence of a transcendental reality or God, there is no way to ground objective moral values.††† It is crucial to realize that the claim here is not that a person cannot be moral or know moral values without believing in God. In fact, under the Christian doctrine, it is believed that moral values are “written on the hearts” of every human, atheists included. Many non-believers misconstrue this premise as an attack on their moral integrity, when in fact it is absolutely not the case. Still others appeal to horrific acts in the Bible or other texts. But that has little to do with the substance of this premise or the overall argument, and thus serves as a red herring.

So, does the argument carry through? Important as the question is, the purpose of this post isn’t to take a firm position on the soundness of the moral argument, but to critique common retorts offered by atheists. I am, in fact, aware that there are ways to disagree with the line of reasoning I articulated above.  My point is simply that the way popular atheists like Michael Shermer and Peter Atkins disagree isn’t the correct way. If you want to know more, I would advise consulting the entries on moral philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for further information!

† I do not mean that all atheists are philosophically naive. I am talking about those who have debated Christian apologists, are famous in atheist circles and take pride in not knowing philosophy. A good example would be Peter Atkins.

†† The philosophically inclined reader should note that I have assumed classical foundationalism.

††† The second premise is disputed by platonists who assert that moral values might exist in non-spatiotemporal and abstract form in a “third realm distinct both from the sensible external world and from the internal world of consciousness.” This realm supposedly has nothing to do with a divine being.

Addendum: Read a criticism of this post and my response to it, here. Read why Sam Harris’ arguments don’t work.