Why I think Sam Harris is wrong about morality
Several commenters have said I should not just critique the excessive certainty of the New Atheists. I should respond directly to Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge. I should say why I think the argument he makes about a science of morality are wrong. (Harris argues that what is right and wrong can be determined scientifically, just as we can determine truths in the natural sciences). Fair enough. So this morning I submitted the following text as my entry in his challenge.
I see two principles errors in The Moral Landscape.
1) The claim that well-being can be measured in an objective way that is similar to measurements in the natural sciences.
I am active in positive psychology. I believe that well-being can be measured. But there is no one measurement, and no way to aggregate measurements in a way that removes the need for philosophical discussions about what matters to people in a particular culture and era. The form of measurement Harris seems to assume is a utilitarian approach: sum up all the well-being of each person at each moment, perhaps estimating it by taking brain scans. Whatever way of life leads to the maximum objective well-being across all people is morally better than one that leads to less.
This approach to measurement is similar to the approach that Dan Kahneman took in the 1990s, when he thought that happiness was the area under the curve, when you graph out a person’s well-being from moment to moment. The more moments spent in high well-being, the better. But Kahneman eventually renounced this view, recognizing that experienced happiness is not the only criterion, and that the duration of experiences does not matter in a linear way. To give one example, which life would you rather lead:
Life #1: You have an easy life, full of intense pleasures, and you are very happy for your first 60 years. But at age 60 you take stock of your life and spend your last 20 years unhappy, with a sense that your life has been a waste.
Life #2: You work hard, have repeated failures, and are rarely happy for your first 60 years. But at age 60 your hard work finally pays off, you have great accomplishments, and you spend your last 20 years happy, with a sense that your life has been profoundly meaningful.
If we stipulate that the total well-being experienced in life #1 is twice as high as in life #2, would it then be wrong to choose life #2? According to Harris’s logic, a society that pushes people toward life #1 is morally superior to one that pushes people toward life #2. It has a higher peak on the Moral Landscape, even though most people would probably choose life #2.
There is no single metric of well-being; there is no way to eliminate the need for reflection, or for philosophers. There is no way to turn values into the sorts of non-contested facts that we find in the natural sciences, where variables of interest can be measured with no need for cultural or historical knowledge.
2) The claim that moral facts are non-anthropocentric facts.
The philosopher David Wiggins (1987) distinguishes between “Non-anthropocentric” and “anthropocentric” facts. (This is similar to Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities). Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.
Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar and isolation.
Harris is asserting that correct moral claims are non-anthropocentric facts. He is asserting that if intelligent aliens came to Earth today, they could in principle judge the moral worth of human societies, as long as they learned about human brains and could take accurate measures of well-being.
But moral facts are anthropocentric facts. If intelligent aliens came to visit, we can have no confidence that they would reach the same moral conclusions that Harris reaches, based on his utilitarian ethos. Perhaps these aliens evolved by cloning rather than sexual reproduction, and, like the Borg on Star Trek, are concerned only about the strength of the collective, with no concern for individuals.
Even within the category of anthropocentric truths, there are subtypes. Perceptual claims are generally (though not always) true across cultures and eras. Because of our shared evolutionary history, it will be an anthropocentric fact everywhere that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid. Yet many other anthropocentric facts are emergent –– they emerge only when people interact, in a particular cultural or historical era. Prices are a good example: It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver. That is not just my opinion. Other examples include judgments of humor, sexiness, or deliciousness. Some comedians, fashion models, and restaurants really are better than others. Standards emerge at particular times, and the aggregated judgments of experts are actually ratings of quality. There are facts, but they are very different from the facts of chemistry and physics. We might call such facts “emergent culture-specific anthropocentric truths.”
I believe that moral truths are of this sort. This still makes it possible to critique practices in other cultures. All cuisines are not equal – French cuisine was better than 1950s American, and Julia Child offered Americans a way to improve. Similarly, a culture that oppresses categories of people against their will is worse than one that does not. Massive human rights violations, in which large numbers of victims are crying out for foreign assistance, can justify a military response from other nations. But the fact that humanity has reached that point is an emergent fact about modernity and our changing moral standards. I do not think it was morally incumbent upon ancient Rome to stop human rights abuses in neighboring kingdoms. Moral facts are not eternal and universal in the way that non-anthropocentric facts are. But if moral facts are unlike facts in the natural sciences, then Harris’s attempt to collapse the fact/value distinction fails.