Hello everyone. I apologize for my prolonged absence. I’ve recently been accepted into my masters program, and so I have been applying to scholarships and stuff for the past two weeks. Most recently I have been working on my submission for Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge, which is what I will be sharing with you today. Any feedback is appreciated.
Though I am generally sympathetic to the principle of wellbeing that Harris promotes in his book The Moral Landscape, I believe that there are a number of problems with Harris’s account. My goal in this critique is not to demonstrate that Harris is wrong, so much as to argue that The Moral Landscape cannot be considered a complete philosophical project – primarily because Harris fails to engage with almost all of his sophisticated philosophical opponents.
Before I get into my arguments I will outline my understanding of The Moral Landscape. At the beginning of the book Harris states that we need only grant him two points: that some have better lives then others and that these lives non-arbitrarily relate to states in the world. I interpret these as the following axioms:
1. Facts exist, and we can access these facts (at least in principle)
2. There are better and worse states (which, in aggregate, means there are better and worse lives) and there are facts about these states
I understand Harris to argue as follows: well being is casually determined, therefore by investigating reality we can know how to increase and decrease wellbeing. Wellbeing is the only thing we can conceivably value; therefore it is moral to maximize wellbeing. Harris’s ‘moral landscape’ is a metaphor to describe the scope of potential moral action – some actions move us towards mountains of well-being, and some actions take us into valleys of suffering. I think that both Harris’s ethical and epistemological accounts are flawed, primarily because he fails to meaningfully engage with the philosophers who are the prime thinkers in both fields.
Harris fails to justify the notion that the existence of better and worse lives entails the moral imperative of maximizing wellbeing. Harris’s main argument for the connection between the two is his ‘worst possible misery’ argument – he proposes that, by any rational standard, anything that makes everyone’s lives worse is bad. I am willing to concede the point, but I do not think this moves us forward in any way. To make the point that he is trying to make, Harris would need to argue that, by any rational standard, anything that makes everyone else’s lives worse is bad. Unfortunately, this argument does not follow from his axiom, nor would everyone concede the point. This lack of concession is important because Harris’s argument has no force except for its self-evidence. Harris acknowledges this problem, and so sets about dismissing the credentials of his opponents (e.g. psychopaths, the Klu Klux Klan, the Catholic Church). The problem is that Harris’s dismissal of these opponents is ultimately ad-hominem – for example, he dismisses the knights of the Klu Klux Klan on the grounds that they obviously have nothing of value to contribute on any subject. Though I certainly agree that members of the Klu-Klux-Klan believe in wrong things, the source of their error cannot be that they are Klu-Klux-Klan members – that is circular. Their moral behaviours must be dismissed on other grounds; otherwise we are merely two groups of dogmatists locking horns with the majority setting the rules. I think that Harris finds himself at a loss in this respect; he does not see any way to rationally support his ethical principle. There is one other tactic that Harris uses to justify his ethical account that I want to explore, his notion that we should listen to moral experts.
I believe that one of Harris’s most significant oversights in The Moral Landscape is his failure to enter into discussion with moral philosophy. Harris makes a somewhat opaque appeal to the notion that we should listen to moral experts (e.g. pp. 19 & 36). His appeal is opaque because Haris’s criterion for a moral expert is unclear. He does say at that moral views are more or less true based on how the actions those views entail result in human flourishing (p.64), so by expert he probably means those engaged in investigations pertinent to wellbeing. If this is what Harris means by expert, then I am inclined to reject his definition – people engaged in such investigation would be experts on wellbeing, but they would not be experts on the study of morality. Justifying wellbeing as the ultimate moral imperative seems to me an exercise in moral investigation, while studying wellbeing means you are an expert on that which increases wellbeing. Strangely enough, Harris does not engage with those who would traditionally be considered moral experts, namely moral philosophers. He dismisses Hume in a short paragraph, but other then that the great philosophers are glaringly absent. He does not at any meaningful length discuss a number of pertinent philosophers and philosophies. He does not engage with Kant, or Nietzsche, or existentialism, or pragmatism, to name a few. Existentialism seems an excellent example of a respectable intellectual tradition that stands in opposition to Harris’s general arguments – could existence precede essence, and our purpose is whatever we make of it? Harris may have an answer, but engagement with such philosophy is glaringly absent in his book. It seems especially negligent to fail to discuss Nietzsche in any moral realist project that wants to truly take on the opposition.
My critique of Harris’s first axiom is very similar to the one I just gave of his second. Harris seems to assume some kind of correspondence theory of truth. However, he cannot really be said to have developed this notion in any sense, nor does he engage with any of the philosophers who have worked in epistemology. I do not have space to develop this criticism further, but it is virtually identical in form if not in content to the previous paragraph.
I believe that the arguments put forward in The Moral Landscape are incomplete. My main critique is that the book fails to address its most important opponents. Harris may have responses to many or all of the challenges that I have put forward, but I do not think that The Moral Landscape can stand alone as a complete and well-justified account of morality.
“The Knights of the Klu Klux Klan have nothing meaningful to say about particle physics, cell physiology, epidemiology, linguistics, economic policy, etc. How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being?” (41)
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