Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Moral Landscape Challenge

[This post was significantly modified many times on February 19, 2014.]

My responsibilities as a school teacher have led me to ignore most corners of the blogosphere since late last August, so I missed the fact that Sam Harris issued a Moral Landscape Challenge.  I just learned of it this morning, a little over a week after the deadline for submissions.  I'm very disappointed, since I very much want to participate.  I've therefore written a 760-word essay, and I hope Sam Harris will consider it.  I don't expect any rules to be broken on my account, but I think the consideration of my arguments is more important than whether or not I qualify for a monetary reward.  (Not that I couldn't use the money!  School teachers tend to be overworked and underpaid, and Poland is anything but an exception.)  Obviously the best of the essays submitted during the official entry period deserves to win the $2,000 prize.  But if that essay doesn't change Harris' mind, and my essay does . . . well, it's up to him whether or not he thinks I deserve a prize.  So, without further adieu, here is the essay:

Like Sam Harris, I believe that many moral questions can be addressed with science, and those that cannot should be treated with caution.  This leads to a grey area where tolerance is concerned, but that does not mean we should ignore the important role science plays in resolving our moral dilemmas.  Yet, Harris claims to have provided an antidote to moral relativism and a compelling challenge to the fact/value distinction.  He has not.  His error is in supposing that moral "ought"-statements reduce to claims about the well-being of conscious creatures.  Correction of this error will require a rethinking of his entire approach to morality.

To motivate his position, Harris claims that the "worst possible misery for everyone" is categorically bad, or else the word "bad" has no meaning.  This is not an argument so much as an intuition pump, and it does not work for everyone.  Some people would prefer a world in which everybody suffered equally rather than, for example, a world in which a small percentage of the population experienced great joy by causing the extreme suffering of all others.  Sure, the worst possible suffering for everyone is categorically bad (it is unpleasant by definition), but not necessarily bad in a moral sense--not necessarily something we ought to avoid.  Some view duty, dignity or perhaps fairness, and not well-being, as the foundation of moral judgment.

Harris also tries to motivate his view by arguing that consciousness is the source of all moral value.  We cannot imagine moral values being grounded in something unconscious, he says.  However, as his friend Richard Dawkins will remind him, human behavior (including moral judgment) may well be serving the interests of our genes (or even uninvited parasites), not our conscious experiences.  Our moral judgments need not be based on personal interests at all.

Let's leave this gap in Harris' argument aside.  Even if morality were somehow related to an interest in conscious experiences of one sort or another, we still do not get to Harris' central thesis.  We still do not have to accept that "ought"-statements just are statements about maximizing the well-being of all conscious creatures.  Harris is still missing a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The best Harris can offer to fill the gap seems to be an evolutionary argument about the biological function of morality, like this:  Even though people don't realize it, their judgments about morality are designed (by natural selection) to approximate the maximization of well-being for all conscious creatures.  If we do not approach this goal, he says, it is due to factual error or biological malformation.  However, it is highly unlikely that we are biologically determined to maximize the well-being of all conscious creatures, considering what we know about human nature and natural selection.

In short, Harris does not have a plausible argument for interpreting "ought"-statements the way he suggests.  That does not mean his position is wrong, of course.  To show that he is wrong, I offer the following argument.

Let's say Community A does x as a means of pursuing well-being.  Community B does y, which precludes x.  Furthermore, the outcomes with respect to well-being are equivalent:  Both communities are maximizing well-being, just in different ways--a possibility Harris acknowledges.  It is therefore conceivable, on Harris' view, that the following sentence is true:

(1) If people do x, they will maximize well-being, and if they do y instead of x, they will maximize well-being.

If "ought"-statements are conditionals about maximizing well-being, as Harris claims, then (1) means:

(2)  People ought to do x and they ought to do y instead of x.

Yet, (2) looks like nonsense.  This is clearly not how people use the word "ought."  If a person accepts (1), they might (though they might not) accept something more like this:

(3)  People ought to do either x or y.

To deduce (3) from (1), we need another premise which states that one ought to do something that maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures.  That is the point of the fact/value distinction, as Hume presented it:  If you're getting "ought" from "is," there must be an implicit "ought" in your premises.  Moral "ought"s are not reducible to statements about what is the case.

While Harris defines "ought"-statements as conditionals about the well-being of conscious creatures, this is highly idiosyncratic.  Whatever Harris is talking about, it is not morality.  He has simply changed the subject.  As a result, Harris has not presented a coherent challenge to moral relativism.  If he does want to address questions about morality, he must reconsider his approach.