The Moral Landscape

It used to be a given 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”—why it exists at all, and why human life has a place in it—were to be answered by referring to religious stories and authorities. With the rise of modernity questions of the first sort were removed from religion’s purview: we think of them now as scientific questions, to be answered by empirical investigation.But many defenders of religion cling to the idea that, while science is the proper venue for “how” questions, we must still turn to religion to find 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 his new book, The Moral Landscape: HowScience Can Determine Human Values, it is because secular liberals have tended to accept a form of moral skepticism or relativism, according to which there are no moral truths at all other than those that can be asserted within a particular cultural context. The idea of an objective moral truth, then, is something that secularists have largely abandoned to believers. And the idea that science, in particular, might have something to say about questions of morality is one that few contemporaries are willing to take seriously. People who go searching for answers to questions of value often simply assume both that science will not help them and that religion is the only alternative.

Harris, whose two bestselling defenses of atheism and secularism (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) have established his membership in the Dawkins-Dennett-Hitchens pantheon of”new atheists,” thinks this is a deep and profoundly consequential mistake. A proper understanding of morality, he argues, will reveal that it falls well within the area of inquiry that is governed by science. For moral questions are questions about well-being, and questions about well-being are,in essence, empirical questions about what makes humans and other conscious organisms flourish and thrive. “Questions about values—about meaning,morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of 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 questions regarding the well-being of conscious creatures? Well, Harris responds, what else could they possibly be about? How could anything that does not in any way affect the conscious experiences of some living entity matter, morally speaking, at all? To hold that such a thing could matter would, in his view, amount to an illogical superstition. But it is equally mistaken, he suggests, to insist that questions of well-being cannot be addressed by empirical research methods. There are, he says,discernible and indeed undeniable differences between an extremely good human life and an extremely miserable one; and there is no good reason for refusing to 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 between morality and well-being to imply a kind of consequentialism—though precisely what kind of consequentialism is not entirely clear. At times he seems to use “consequentialism” simply to imply that the consequences of an action, in terms of conscious creatures’ well-being, are what determine that action’s moral rightness or wrongness. This is a quite modest view that is compatible with all sorts of accounts of how such well-being matters. (For instance, 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 consequentialist view.) But at other times he goes much further, seeming to suggest that he has somehow 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, or that of myself and those I care about) must be maximized—even where doing so involves violating the basic rights of 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 end note) in which Harris considers the problem posed for consequentialists by Robert Nozick’s so-called “utility monster”:

Nozick . . . asks if it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings. Provided that we take the time to really imagine the details(which is not easy), I think the answer is clearly “yes.” There seems no reason to suppose that we must occupy the highest peak on the moral landscape.

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

The fact that most people would say no, Nozick writes, shows that 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 must ask: has Harris not heard of the Experience Machine, or did he just not consider it important? In a remarkable footnote that is worth quoting at length, he attempts to justify his decision not to engage with the rich literature that analytic philosophers have produced surrounding issues of moral realism, skepticism, and consequentialism:

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

One cannot help but wonder just which professional philosophers gave Harris their blessing.(Are we to assume, as Harris seems to imply, that there are few if any philosophers among the “many” critics who faulted him for ignoring philosophy?) Imagine a philosopher who approached a group of scientists and said, “I’d like to write a book about evolution, but because I have arrived at my own views on evolution independently of the scientific literature, and because I want to reach as many people as possible, I would prefer to avoid engaging directly with the work of biologists in this area.” Would they be likely to endorse such an approach?

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

The Moral Landscape has some good, reasonable, and at times persuasive things to say to such people. But as it turns out, it has little to say to those people who actually do know what the arguments are, and it will not help others become much better informed. Harris might be right that the best way to reach a “wider audience” is to sidestep difficult philosophical issues. But just how helpful to that wider audience can a book be that hides from the complexities of its subject, and misrepresents what it alleges to discuss by making genuinely difficult questions look straightforward and simple?