The Moral Landscape (1)

I picked up Sam Harris’s newest book The Moral Landscape from the library yesterday, and though I would post some thoughts as I read through it. I may not get through it, because of my studies, but I wanted to at least check it out. Here are a few things I’ve noticed just from the introduction.

Harris’s goal is to give a secular account of objective morality that can be informed by empirical science. His view falls broadly under the view of “ethical naturalism,” the view that locates moral properties in the natural world. For Harris, this means “human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain.” States of affairs that occur outside the brain have a direct effect on states of affairs that occur inside the brain for better or worse. Therefore, there should be no problem in quantifying the “good” states of affairs from “bad” ones as we can directly measure the effects they have on our brains.

A good example of this comes from attachment theory. Attachment theory studies the inborn system of the brain formed in infancy that organizes our motives, emotions, and memories with regard to our primary caregivers. How we receive care from our parents as infants directly affects our well-being as adults. Secure caregivers foster secure attachment. Those that grow up securely attached know and understand their life histories, have a healthy self-esteem, and are empathetic and emotionally intelligent. Those that are insecurely attached suffer from extreme jealousy, worry over rejection, and have intense feelings of inadequacy. Unattached adults tend to be dismissive and emotionally cold. Those that have suffered abuse often are anxious, depressed, hostile, and even violent. All of this is to say that Harris’s views have a degree of plausibility that should be taken seriously.

However, ethical naturalism faces an important objection that has put it out of favor with many scientists. David Hume famously argued that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is” and G.E. Moore went so far to call such derivations victims of the “naturalistic fallacy.” Any view that espouses ethical naturalism has to overcome this objection by furnishing a counterexample, or some such case where we make a perfectly coherent judgment (that no one could reasonably dismiss) about what ought to be the case from the nature of things we see.

Harris makes this move by describing the Good Life and the Bad Life. he begins by describing the Bad Life where we are to imagine ourselves as a young widow living (presumably) through an African civil war. She is forced to watch her seven-year-old daughter be raped and dismembered before her eyes by drug-addled soldiers who force your fourteen-year-old son to participate in the act. She runs for her life through the jungle with no place to hide. She has never learned to read or taken a hot shower. Chronic hunger, pain, and desolation have been her experiences from her birth to her death which fortunately is coming swiftly.

The Good Life is one where you are married to the most beautiful, intelligent, and charismatic person you have ever met. Both of you have careers than no greater of which can be conceived. High pay. Intellectual fulfillment. Lots of social connections. You have been able to achieve much and have found a deep and abiding personal satisfaction. You even have access to a grant of one billion dollars to benefit children in the developing world. You suffer no catastrophic losses. You live long, age well, and die peacefully.

Harris believes the fact value-distinction evaporates when we consider which life is more valuable by mere description. He is incredulous towards anyone who would hold to it in the face of this juxtaposition of harsh and sublime realities. So intuitive is this judgment, Harris believes one makes only if “one has admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.”

Well we are partially there. True, we can discriminate between circumstances that affect for better or worse how we flourish. He still has a way to go in saying something substantive about morality, though. For example, the fact that the civil war victim has experienced a very bad life does not mean that she is a bad person or that her life has been devoid of virtue. Conversely, the well-off married person is not necessarily free from vice simply because she is experiencing “the good life.” Harris seems to be hinting at the ancient concept of “eudaimonia” which means “happiness, flourishing, well-being” but he does not think the ancients have anything helpful to say here. In a footnote, while he praises Aristotle as a philosopher, he distances himself from him and the “quirks” of his philosophy. What “quirks” could these be? Virtues? Those dispositions and excellence that direct us to living well? Those seem to be the relevant factors in distinguishing a morally good life from merely a pleasant one. All this is to say that the civil war victim can be morally virtuous and still live a bad life, and the well-off married person can be in good circumstances and yet live with little moral virtue.

If moral living requires judgment that goes beyond the quality of one’s circumstances, then Harris hasn’t shown us anything here to question the “is/ought” problem. At some point he would have to say that we are in some way ‘designed’ for moral living, but that is a hard to say coming from a naturalistic evolutionary worldview.

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5 thoughts on “The Moral Landscape (1)

  1. Mordinvan says:

    I think you miss the point.
    Harris DOES say how such lives are examples of his objective morality. He just happens to include the theistic “physical” and “moral” evils into the same category of “things which hamper the flourishing of sentient beings”.
    The 2 examples you give are those of lives which have been allowed to flourish, and lives which have not. He is not saying expressly that the person is good or evil, but that good and evil has been done to these people, and if you can’t tell the difference, you’re likely sick in the head.

  2. I see what you are saying. I have amended the post to say he is partially there. It will be interesting to see how he develops his ideas (I haven’t read much further due to time constraints).

    • I am not sold on the necessity of the naturalistic fallacy. I think you can get an ought from an is, if you allow for the twin ideas of proper function and an end-directed metaphysic to inform our observations. A proper function is one that fulfills the end for which something is made. Parents are meant to care for their children, therefore they ought to nurture them, and to be good parents they ought to nurture them well.

      However, I think there are cases were the is/ought problem emerges. For example, seeing someone drowning doesn’t inform me that I have an obligation to help rescue the person in whatever way I can. I might be able to infer that people are not meant to drown, but how would I get to the fact that I have duty to help is not clear.

      • Samuel Garcia says:

        Very good way to put it. I simplistically used to say that things have value and oughts flow from it but I like your inclusion of proper function and teleology. Perhaps my “value” way of putting it might illuminate your drowning example since, it seems to me, that intrinsic value alone obligates certain actions in a given circumstance.

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