Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Blackford reviews The Moral Landscape « Why Evolution Is True

Brother Russell Blackford has written a longish review of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape for The Journal of Evolution and Technology.  (He also discusses it more briefly at his Metamagician website.)  As you know, Harris’s thesis is that science gives us a way to determine if actions are moral: they’re moral if they increase the well-being of society as a whole.  In other words, contrary to conventional wisdom, you can derive “ought” from is—if you can measure well-being.

Blackford’s piece is a bit long, and suffers from a lack of concrete examples, but it’s very good.   While giving Harris’s book an enthusiastic thumbs-up, he points out several problems. Below I’ve put a combined list of both Blackford’s and my own problems with Harris’s thesis (yes, I have read the book):

  • How do we actually measure well being?; for that is what we must do to make moral judgments.  The metric for well being of a person, or an animal, must differ from that of groups or societies, yet they’re to be put on a single scale. In some cases, of course, it’s easy; in others, seemingly impossible.
  • Given that, how do we trade off different types of well-being? How do you determine, for example, whether torture is moral? In some case, as Harris pointed out in The End of Faith, torture may save innumerable lives, but there’s a societal effect in sanctioning it.  How do you weigh these?  How do you determine whether the well-being of animals outweighs the well-being we experience when eating meat?
  • There are behaviors that we see as moral, or at least not immoral, that Harris’s metric nevertheless deems immoral.  We favor our children and family, for example, over other people.  According to Harris, we shouldn’t do this unless it increases universal well-being.  Don’t give money to your kids—give nearly all of it to poor Africans who need clean water and medicine.  Yet people do not condemn others for giving their kids a marginal benefit in lieu of tremendous benefits to strangers.
  • Humans draw strong moral distinctions between different situations that have seemingly identical consequences (e.g., the trolley problem and the organ-donation problem).  But perhaps Harris would respond that our morality is simply misguided here.
  • According to Blackford, Harris fails to give a convincing reason why people should be moral.  Blackford notes:

If we are going to provide [a person] with reasons to act in a particular way, or to support a particular policy, or condemn a traditional custom – or whatever it might be – sooner or later we will need to appeal to the values, desires, and so on, that she actually has. There are no values that are, mysteriously, objectively binding on us all in the sense I have been discussing. Thus it is futile to argue from a presupposition that we are all rationally bound to act so as to maximize global well-being. It is simply not the case.

I generally agree with Russell’s take: Sam’s book is very good, and you should definitely read it, but it doesn’t solve all our moral problems.  In fairness, I think Harris realizes this, and even alludes to it several times in his text.  The virtue of The Moral Landscape is that it draws an implicit link between why we have a moral sense (it has evolved both genetically and culturally) and how that understanding should lead us to behave.  The book will make you think, and think hard.  And the writing is, as usual with Harris, terrific.  But Blackford succinctly summarizes the book’s weakness:

Harris is highly critical of the claim, associated with Hume, that we cannot derive an “ought” solely from an “is” – without starting with people’s actual values and desires. He is, however,  no more successful in deriving “ought” from “is” than anyone else has ever been. The whole intellectual system of The Moral Landscape depends on an “ought” being built into its foundations.


Curiously, I found Steve Pinker anticipating Harris’s main point nine years before The Moral Landscape.  On pp. 274-275 of The Blank Slate (2002), Pinker criticizes Leon Kass’s contention that the cloning of human beings is morally wrong simply because it induces immediate and visceral repugnance:

The difference between a defensible moral position and an atavistic gut feeling is that with the former we can give reasons why our conviction is valid.  We can explain why torture and murder and rape are wrong, or why we should oppose discrimination and injustice.  On the other hand, no good reasons can be produced to show why homosexuality should be suppressed or why the races should be segregated.  And the good reasons for a moral position are not pulled out of thin air: they always have to do with what makes people better off or worse off, and are grounded in the logic that we have to treat other people in the way that we demand they treat us.

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Pinker has it right, and in line with covenant morality for humanity- the presumption of morality, which one could Google.

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