The Moral Landscape

It used to be agiven that religion was the source of all important knowledge. Both the “how”of the universe—what it is like, and how it works—and the “why”—whyit exists at all, and why human life has a place in it—were to be answered byreferring to religious stories and authorities. With the rise of modernityquestions of the first sort were removed from religion’s purview: we think ofthem now as scientific questions, to be answered by empirical investigation.But many defenders of religion cling to the idea that, while science is theproper venue for “how” questions, we must still turn to religion tofind answers to questions of meaning and purpose, of the value of human life,and of moral behavior.

But why should this be? In part, as Sam Harris notes in hisnew book, The Moral Landscape: HowScience Can Determine Human Values, it isbecause secular liberals have tended to accept a form of moral skepticism orrelativism, according to which there are no moral truths at all other thanthose that can be asserted within a particular cultural context. The idea of anobjective moral truth, then, issomething that secularists have largely abandoned to believers. And the ideathat science, in particular, might have something to say about questions ofmorality is one that few contemporaries are willing to take seriously. Peoplewho go searching for answers to questions of value often simply assume boththat science will not help them and that religion is the only alternative.

Harris, whose two bestselling defenses of atheism andsecularism (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) haveestablished his membership in the Dawkins-Dennett-Hitchens pantheon of”new atheists,” thinks this is a deep and profoundly consequentialmistake. A proper understanding of morality, he argues, will reveal that itfalls well within the area of inquiry that is governed by science. For moralquestions are questions about well-being, and questions about well-being are,in essence, empirical questions about what makes humans and other consciousorganisms flourish and thrive. “Questions about values—about meaning,morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-beingof conscious creatures,” he announces on page one. “Values,therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.”

Why think that moral questions must reduce to questionsregarding the well-being of conscious creatures? Well, Harris responds, whatelse could they possibly be about? How could anything that does not in any wayaffect the conscious experiences of some living entity matter, morallyspeaking, at all? To hold that such athing could matter would, in his view, amount to an illogical superstition. Butit is equally mistaken, he suggests, to insist that questions of well-beingcannot be addressed by empirical research methods. There are, he says,discernible and indeed undeniable differences between an extremely good humanlife and an extremely miserable one; and there is no good reason for refusingto view those differences as both real and, in the relevant sense, objective. 

Harris is, then,a moral realist: someone who thinks that there are moral facts and, thus,objectively right answers to moral questions. He also takes the link betweenmorality and well-being to imply a kind of consequentialism—though precisely what kind of consequentialism is notentirely clear. At times he seems to use “consequentialism” simply toimply that the consequences of an action, in terms of conscious creatures’well-being, are what determine that action’s moral rightness or wrongness. Thisis a quite modest view that is compatible with all sorts of accounts of how such well-being matters. (Forinstance, the claim that I should always maximize my own self-interest, and notbe concerned with anyone else’s well-being, is in this sense a consequentialistview.) But at other times he goes much further, seeming to suggest that he hassomehow established that the consequences must matter in a certain way:well-being in the universe at large (and thus not simply my own well-being, orthat of myself and those I care about) must be maximized—even where doing so involves violating the basic rightsof some particular person, or sacrificing the few for the sake of the many.

Consider, for instance, the following passage (consigned, asis most of the meatier argument in TheMoral Landscape, to an endnote) in which Harris considers the problem posedfor consequentialists by Robert Nozick’s so-called “utility monster”:

Nozick . . . asks if it would beethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness ofsome superbeings. Provided that we take the time to really imagine the details(which is not easy), I think the answer is clearly “yes.” There seemsno reason to suppose that we must occupy the highest peak on the morallandscape.

That the answer to Nozick’s question is yes—let alone thatit is “clearly” yes—seems to me doubtful; and the assumption that itreduces to the question of whether humans must be, morally speaking, theworthiest creatures in existence, is both simplistic and implausible. Moreover,Harris entirely ignores another of Nozick’s thought experiments, which castsdoubt on the very idea that the quality of our conscious experiences is allthat matters to our well-being. This is the famous Experience Machine, avirtual reality device that creates a highly realistic simulation oflife—indeed, indistinguishable from reality—and asks us to consider whether onewould give up life in the actual, physical world in exchange for a life ofgreater pleasure, excitement, and fulfillment, which, as it happened, would takeplace entirely in one’s own mind.

The fact that most people would say no, Nozick writes, showsthat we value something aside from the quality of our conscious experiences.And this, if true, poses a significant challenge to Harris’s view. So one mustask: has Harris not heard of the Experience Machine, or did he just notconsider it important? In a remarkable footnote that is worth quoting atlength, he attempts to justify his decision not to engage with the richliterature that analytic philosophers have produced surrounding issues of moralrealism, skepticism, and consequentialism:

Many of my critics fault me for notengaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. Thereare two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amountof this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship betweenhuman values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moralphilosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of ourmaking continued progress in the sciences of the mind. Second, I am convincedthat every appearance of terms like “metaethics,””deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,””emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in theuniverse. My goal . . . in writing this book is to start a conversation that awider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make thisgoal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academicphilosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy will be unavoidable, butmy approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views andconceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values soinaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the professionalphilosophers I’ve consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.

One cannot helpbut wonder just which professional philosophers gave Harris their blessing.(Are we to assume, as Harris seems to imply, that there are few if anyphilosophers among the “many” critics who faulted him for ignoringphilosophy?) Imagine a philosopher who approached a group of scientists andsaid, “I’d like to write a book about evolution, but because I havearrived at my own views on evolution independently of the scientificliterature, and because I want to reach as many people as possible, I wouldprefer to avoid engaging directly with the work of biologists in thisarea.” Would they be likely to endorse such an approach?

It would be one thing to try to write intelligently aboutmoral skepticism while avoiding the language of academicphilosophy—or at least, the unnecessarily finicky aspects of it—with the hopeof reaching a general audience. But to try to avoid not only the terminology,but large portions of the subject matter itself—the “views and conceptualdistinctions that make academic discussions of human values soinaccessible”—is to commit oneself to providing an incomplete and highlydistorted account of the subject. This is unfortunate, given that Harris has anumber of sensible and pertinent points to contribute to the debate. Moralskepticism is all too frequently advanced by people who have no idea what thearguments for it are, as if it were simply an obvious fact, accepted by allreasonable persons, that values cannot possibly aspire to the objectivity offact, and that any evaluation must, at the end of the day, reduce to anexpression of some indefensible preference or prejudice. Statements like”morality is just a matter of subjective opinion” are often utteredas if they required no defense—even when it is easy to demonstrate that theskeptics themselves live and behave in ways that appear deeply incompatiblewith their alleged skepticism.

The Moral Landscapehas some good, reasonable, and at times persuasive things to say to suchpeople. But as it turns out, it has little to say to those people who actuallydo know what the arguments are, and it will not help others become much betterinformed. Harris might be right that the best way to reach a “wideraudience” is to sidestep difficult philosophical issues. But just howhelpful to that wider audience can a book be that hides from the complexitiesof its subject, and misrepresents what it alleges to discuss by makinggenuinely difficult questions look straightforward and simple?