Sam Harris Presents His Case

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.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    “If it turns out, as an empirical fact, that the moral system that leads to the greatest well-being according to his measurement 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.”

    I feel almost as if I’ve walked in on a discussion of divine command theory, but without the divine.

    I also think your doubts have merit. An objective metric for something as subjective as well-being will be nearly impossible to develop. How do we compare the well-being of a perpetually stressed-out billionaire CEO who enjoys all the material fruits he can, against that of a Calcutta-based guru who beams at the world from his little patch of dirt and squalor, with not even a loincloth to his name and no more education than a few book-length sutras he spent years memorizing?

    Maybe such judgments will eventually come down to brain and blood scans — endorphin levels and such. But not for a long time yet.

    Posted October 3, 2010 at 11:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, divine command theory, and Euthyphro, are never far away when this topic comes up.

    Brain scans are Sam Harris’s stock in trade — he is a neurophysiologist — so I do expect that he will present an argument based on such criteria.

    Posted October 3, 2010 at 11:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Oddly enough I just caught this review which might be of interest:

    It tells the story of George Price, a genius but, alas, a mad genius who followed his ideas on selflessness to the point of extreme poverty and eventual suicide. It also examines Price’s scientific, in fact, mathematical, approach to the problem of altruism.

    Posted October 4, 2010 at 2:48 am | Permalink
  4. Thursday says

    Harris is ultimately a utilitarian and utility (happiness) is at least theoretically measureable.

    There are a few problems with utilitarianism though. First, utilitarianism doesn’t tell you how you should balance the highest average utility (happiness) vs. the minimum that any particular individual is entitled to. Rawls is kind of helpful on this, but even he can’t tell you how much risk of absolute misery or death should be allowed in the system.

    The second problem is that is seems like the moral systems most likely to produce the highest amount of utility (happiness) would seem to be those that don’t make happiness the ultimate value.

    The third problem with utilitarianism is that it has the sad Aristotle vs. the happy pig problem. We don’t value happiness over everything else. Even J.S. Mill thought that some pleasures were “higher” than others, corrupting the strict happiness measure of Bentham and his father.

    And any deviation of a utilitarian system from a strict pain vs. pleasure metric, such as making “flourishing” the metric, immediately destroys the systems’ measure-ability.

    Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Good points all, Thursday (the man who is Thursday?).

    I am curious to see whether Harris addresses the many questions raised here.

    Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

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