This is my submission to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape challenge: “Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in under 1,000 words. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.)”
Though I’ve mentioned before that I’m sympathetic to Harris’ argument, I’m not fully persuaded. And there’s a particular side-issue I think he gets wrong straightforwardly enough that it can be demonstrated in the space of 1,000 words: really unrequitable love, or the restriction of human value to conscious states.
My criticism of Harris’ thesis will be indirect, because it appears to me that his proposal is much weaker than his past critics have recognized. What are we to make of a meta-ethics text that sets aside meta-ethicists’ core concerns with a shrug? Harris happily concedes that promoting well-being is only contingently moral,¹ only sometimes tracks our native preferences² or moral intuitions,³ and makes no binding, categorical demand on rational humans.⁴ So it looks like the only claim Harris is making is that redefining words like ‘good’ and ‘ought’ to track psychological well-being would be useful for neuroscience and human cooperation.⁵ Which looks like a question of social engineering, not of moral philosophy.
If Harris’ moral realism sounds more metaphysically audacious than that, I suspect it’s because he worries that putting it in my terms would be uninspiring or, worse, would appear relativistic. (Consistent with my interpretation, he primarily objects to moral anti-realism and relativism for eroding human compassion, not for being false.)⁶
I don’t think I can fairly assess Harris’ pragmatic linguistic proposal in 1,000 words.⁷ But I can point to an empirical failing in a subsidiary view he considers central: that humans only ultimately value changes in conscious experience.⁸
It may be that only conscious beings can value things; but that doesn’t imply that only conscious states can be valued. Consider these three counterexamples:
(1) Natural Diversity. People prize the beauty and complexity of unconscious living things, and of the natural world in general.⁹
Objection: ‘People value those things because they could in principle experience them. “Beauty” is in the beholder’s eye, not in the beheld object. That’s our clue that we only prize natural beauty for making possible our experience of beauty.’
Response: Perhaps our preference here causally depends on our experiences; but that doesn’t mean that we’re deluded in thinking we have such preferences!
I value my friends’ happiness. Causally, that value may be entirely explainable in terms of patterns in my own happiness, but that doesn’t make me an egoist. Harris would agree that others’ happiness can be what I value, even if my own happiness is why I value it. But the same argument holds for natural wonders: I can value them in themselves, even if what’s causing that value is my experiences of them.
(2) Accurate Beliefs. Consider two experientially identical worlds: One where you’re in the Matrix and have systematically false beliefs, one where your beliefs are correct. Most people would choose to live in the latter world over the former, even knowing that it makes no difference to any conscious state.
Objection: ‘People value the truth because it’s usually useful. Your example is too contrived to pump out credible intuitions.’
Response: Humans can mentally represent environmental objects, and thereby ponder, fear, desire, etc. the objects themselves. Fearing failure or death isn’t the same as fearing experiencing failure or death. (I can’t escape failure/death merely by escaping awareness/consciousness of failure/death.) In the same way, valuing being outside the Matrix is distinct from valuing having experiences consistent with being outside the Matrix.
All of this adds up to a pattern that makes it unlikely people are deluded about this preference. Perhaps it’s somehow wrong to care about the Matrix as anything but a possible modifier of experience. But, nonetheless, people do care. Such preferences aren’t impossible or ‘unintelligible.’⁸
(3) Zombie Welfare. Some people don’t think we have conscious states. Harris’ view predicts that such people will have no preferences, since they can’t have preferences concerning experiences. But eliminativists have desires aplenty.
Objection: ‘Eliminativists are deeply confused; it’s not surprising that they have incoherent normative views.’
Response: Eliminativists may be mistaken, but they exist.¹⁰ That suffices to show that humans can care about things they think aren’t conscious. (Including unconscious friends and family!)
Moreover, consciousness is a marvelously confusing topic. We can’t be infinitely confident that we’ll never learn eliminativism is true. And if, pace Descartes, there’s even a sliver of doubt, then we certainly shouldn’t stake the totality of human value on this question.
Harris writes that “questions about values — about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose — are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood[.]”¹¹ But the premise is much stronger than the conclusion requires.
If people’s acts of valuing are mental, and suffice for deducing every moral fact, then scientifically understanding the mind will allow us to scientifically understand morality even if the objects valued are not all experiential. We can consciously care about unconscious world-states, just as we can consciously believe in, consciously fear, or consciously wonder about unconscious world-states. That means that Harris’ well-being landscape needs to be embedded in a larger ‘preference landscape.’
Perhaps a certain philosophical elegance is lost if we look beyond consciousness. Still, converting our understanding of the mind into a useful and reflectively consistent decision procedure cannot come at the expense of fidelity to the psychological data. Making ethics an empirical science shouldn’t require us to make any tenuous claims about human motivation.
We could redefine the moral landscape to exclude desires about natural wonders and zombies. It’s just hard to see why. Harris has otherwise always been happy to widen the definition of ‘moral’ to compass a larger and larger universe of human value. Since we’ve already strayed quite a bit from our folk intuitions about ‘morality,’ it’s honestly not of great importance how we tweak the edges of our new concept of morality. Our first concern should be with arriving at a correct view of human psychology. If that falters, then, to the extent science can “determine human values,” the moral decisions we build atop our psychological understanding will fail us as well.
¹ “Perhaps there is no connection between being good and feeling good — and, therefore, no connection between moral behavior (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being. In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints. This scenario stands the greatest chance of being true, while still seeming quite far-fetched. Neuroimaging work already suggests what has long been obvious through introspection: human cooperation is rewarding. However, if evil turned out to be as reliable a path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it. It would no longer be an especially ‘moral’ landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.” -Harris (2010), p. 190
“Dr. Harris explained that about three million Americans are psychopathic. That is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others. They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape. The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people. But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either. For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A. So if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.” -Craig (2011)
Harris’ (2013a) response to Craig’s argument: “Not a realistic concern. You’d have to change too many things — the world would [be] unrecognizable.”
² “I am not claiming that most of us personally care about the experience of all conscious beings; I am saying that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being. This is all we need to speak about ‘moral truth’ in the context of science.” -Harris (2010), p. 39
³ “And the fact that millions of people use the term ‘morality’ as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time.” -Harris (2010), p. 53
“Everyone has an intuitive ‘physics,’ but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter). Only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive ‘morality,’ but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being).” -Harris (2010), p. 36
⁴ Moral imperatives as hypothetical imperatives (cf. Foot (1972)): “As Blackford says, when told about the prospect of global well-being, a selfish person can always say, ‘What is that to me?’ [… T]his notion of ‘should,’ with its focus on the burden of persuasion, introduces a false standard for moral truth. Again, consider the concept of health: should we maximize global health? To my ear, this is a strange question. It invites a timorous reply like, ‘Provided we want everyone to be healthy, yes.’ And introducing this note of contingency seems to nudge us from the charmed circle of scientific truth. But why must we frame the matter this way? A world in which global health is maximized would be an objective reality, quite distinct from a world in which we all die early and in agony.” -Harris (2011)
“I don’t think the distinction between morality and something like taste is as clear or as categorical as we might suppose. […] It seems to me that the boundary between mere aesthetics and moral imperative — the difference between not liking Matisse and not liking the Golden Rule — is more a matter of there being higher stakes, and consequences that reach into the lives of others, than of there being distinct classes of facts regarding the nature of human experience.” -Harris (2011)
⁵ “Whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from recent events, it wouldn’t appear so. Perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where we stand on the most important questions in human life. Currently, most scientists believe that answers to questions of human value will fall perpetually beyond our reach — not because human subjectivity is too difficult to study, or the brain too complex, but because there is no intellectual justification for speaking about right and wrong, or good and evil, across cultures. Many people also believe that nothing much depends on whether we find a universal foundation for morality. It seems to me, however, that in order to fulfill our deepest interests in this life, both personally and collectively, we must first admit that some interests are more defensible than others.” -Harris (2010), p. 190
⁶ “I have heard from literally thousands of highly educated men and women that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions (and are, therefore, nonsensical), and that concepts like well-being and misery are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them. Many of these people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose in any case. They think we can combat human evil all the while knowing that our notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are completely unwarranted. It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the ‘contextual’ legitimacy of the burqa, or of female genital mutilation, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that moral relativism does nothing to diminish a person’s commitment to making the world a better place.” -Harris (2010), p. 27
“I consistently find that people who hold this view [moral anti-realism] are far less clear-eyed and committed than (I believe) they should be when confronted with moral pathologies — especially those of other cultures — precisely because they believe there is no deep sense in which any behavior or system of thought can be considered pathological in the first place. Unless you understand that human health is a domain of genuine truth claims — however difficult ‘health’ may be to define — it is impossible to think clearly about disease. I believe the same can be said about morality. And that is why I wrote a book about it…” -Harris (2011)
⁷ For more on this proposal, see Bensinger (2013).
⁸ “[T]he rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures[….] Here is my (consequentialist) starting point: all questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.) depend upon the possibility of experiencing such value. Without potential consequences at the level of experience — happiness, suffering, joy, despair, etc. — all talk of value is empty. Therefore, to say that an act is morally necessary, or evil, or blameless, is to make (tacit) claims about its consequences in the lives of conscious creatures (whether actual or potential).” -Harris (2010), p. 62
“[C]onsciousness is the only intelligible domain of value.” -Harris (2010), p. 32
Harris (2013b) confirms that this is part of his “central argument”.
⁹ “Certain human uses of the natural world — of the non-animal natural world! — are morally troubling. Take an example of an ancient sequoia tree. A thoughtless hiker carves his initials, wantonly, for the fun of it, into an ancient sequoia tree. Isn’t there something wrong with that? It seems to me there is.” -Sandel (2008)
¹⁰ E.g., Rey (1982), Beisecker (2010), and myself. (I don’t assume eliminativism in this essay.)
¹¹ Harris (2010), p. 1.
Beisecker (2010). Zombies, Phenomenal Concepts, and the Paradox of Phenomenal Judgment. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 17: ??-??.
Bensinger (2013). Moral Theory is for Moral Practice. Nothing is Mere.
Craig (2011). “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?” debate.
Foot (1972). Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives. The Philosophical Review, 81: 305-316.
Harris (2010). The Moral Landscape.
Harris (2011). A Response to Critics. The Huffington Post.
Harris (2013a). Public comment. Twitter.
Harris (2013b). Public comment. Twitter.
Rey (1983). A Reason for Doubting the Existence of Consciousness. Consciousness and Self-Regulation, 3: 1-39.
Sandel (2008). “The Ethical Use of Biotechnology” debate.
3 thoughts on “Loving the merely physical”
Did you ever post Sam’s response to this?
Not yet. Abandoning an elegant philosophical framework isn’t easy; I’m considering letting him stew over this for a long time and then revisiting the issue later. 🙂