Sam Harris is about to release a new book, called The Moral Landscape.
Dr. Harris has been working for a while now to try to put morality on an objective footing (something I think can’t be done). His premise, if I may sum it up with extreme brevity, is that there are some moral systems that are more conducive to human well-being, and others that are less so — and so the search for an optimal moral system becomes a pragmatic, empirical question, and falls squarely within the purview of science.
I haven’t read his book, but he has spoken about this elsewhere, and it is the same argument that Steven Pinker gave when I met him briefly in Wellfleet a couple of years ago and asked him his opinion on the topic. It is entirely understandable that prominent atheist intellectuals like Harris and Pinker would like to find a way to offer an objective grounding for morality, as the obliteration of such a foundation has made marketing their product rather more difficult, at least here in America.
The idea seems to center on the enormously useful idea, long familiar to evolutionary theorists, of a “fitness landscape” with peaks and valleys representing, in abstract form, the niches available to natural selection. Species will tend to occupy the peaks, and as the peaks shift, the species tends to adapt accordingly. (When a peak (i.e., a niche) disappears altogether — as for example, happens to the “arboreal insectivore” niche when a forest is cut down — the species can’t adapt fast enough to cross the valley to the next available fitness peak, and goes extinct.) Another way to put it might be to say that the peaks represents islands of viable designs in the sea of possible genotypes.
Sam Harris’s suggestion is that there is also a moral “fitness space” that defines peaks and valleys of human well-being. If this is so, then it begins to offer an objective basis for comparison of various moral systems. Harris’s point seems to be that some moral systems will be seen to tower over others.
It’s a nice idea, and I will read his book, but I wonder about a few things.
First, it seems that Dr. Harris is arguing that some moral systems occupy quantitatively higher “peaks” in the well-being landscape than others. But what metric does one use to measure “well-being”? Biological fitness offers the obvious yardstick of reproductive success. What altimeter will Harris use to measure the peaks in his moral landscape? Material wealth? Liberty? Spiritual satisfaction?
Second, peaks in these kinds of abstract spaces are local maxima. Species tend to remain on local peaks even if there is a much higher one across the valley, for the simple reason that every direction from where they currently stand is down — and the valley floor, which must be crossed to get to the next peak over, is lethal. Even if Dr. Harris can confidently devise some acceptable metric for comparing the fitness score of known moral systems, how can he know that whatever one he ends up recommending is not merely the highest peak in the visible neighborhood? (I imagine he would concede that this is indeed a possibility, but that his system at least allows us to make an objective comparison.)
Finally, I am sure that Dr. Harris would agree that what contributes to human “well-being”, however he chooses to measure it, is a contingent fact of nature. If it turns out, as an empirical fact, that the moral system that leads to the greatest well-being according to his yardstick includes slaughtering your enemies and enslaving their women, or killing and eating sickly babies, etc., then presumably he will be impartial enough to declare that system the summum bonum. “Good”, then, becomes “whatever maximizes some well-being factor X”. This result — that if a moral system based on pediatric cannibalism had turned out to be a strategy that maximizes X, then baby-eating would be morally “good”, and objectively so — is going to be a very hard sell to a great many people, I think.
But I haven’t read the book — it comes out on the 5th — so perhaps Dr. Harris has anticipated these questions, and has satisfying answers to them. I wonder what they could be.