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Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape, challenged

A refutation of Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, in 956 words.

This is my response to the Moral Landscape Challenge, an essay competition with a 1,000-word limit →

Hey Sam; thanks for the opportunity to interact with your views. If I understand The Moral Landscape correctly, your central thesis is that moral truth exists and can be scientifically understood. This seems to cash out in two critical claims:

  1. Moral goodness, broadly speaking, just is whatever supports or increases the well-being of conscious minds;
  2. Science, in principle if not always in practice, can discover facts around, make predictions about, and ultimately guide the process of promoting this collective well-being.

I know you’ve already faced a lot of criticism about (I) in particular, so I hope I won’t be beating a dead horse. I’m going to assume (I) for the sake of argument and agree with you: a person who denies that morality is about promoting well-being simply isn’t making sense. I hope to persuade you that your own moral beliefs actually reveal the opposite: it is the person who thinks that morality is about promoting well-being who isn’t making sense.

I expect you know that some Christians have a bad habit of interacting with what they think someone might say, rather than what they actually do say. I don’t want to make that mistake—so forgive me for using your own words against you! It’s just that, given what you’ve said you consider ethical, it seems to me you should actually take it as necessarily false that goodness is identical with promoting collective well-being.

On pp 8–9 of Landscape (Kindle edition), you note that “while it is too early to say we have a full understanding of how human beings flourish, a piecemeal account is emerging”. You give an example of how science suggests early childhood is critical to our ability to form healthy adult relationships; and you point to experiments with rats which illuminate the role of vasopressin and oxytocin in this process. During this discussion you note in passing, “it would be unethical to deprive young children of normal care for the purposes of experiment”.

What I took this comment to mean was that, although such experiments would increase our understanding of conscious well-being very greatly—and thus our ability to promote it collectively with more success—child experimentation is not a valid way of promoting collective well-being because it is unethical.

I couldn’t help wondering—and I still do, after thinking about it a lot—isn’t this a contradiction in terms? If what is ethical just is what promotes collective well-being, how can there be unethical ways of going about that?

To put it more carefully:

  1. The morally good is identical with whatever promotes collective well-being (your position)
  2. Possibly, experimenting on young children by depriving them of normal care promotes collective well-being
  3. Possibly, experimenting on young children by depriving them of normal care is morally good (law of identity)
  4. But it is not possible that experimenting on young children by depriving them of normal care is morally good (because it is unethical—your position)
  5. Therefore, the morally good is not identical with whatever promotes collective well-being

You’ll note that if (5) is true, it is necessarily true, because identity is a relation that holds across all possible worlds.

How could we defuse this argument? Maybe you’re willing to give up premise (4). I don’t know you, but I’ve read your work and seen you speak, and I get the strong impression that you have particularly forceful moral intuitions about children. I have a little girl myself, so I certainly sympathize. (I sense it’s also a major reason you don’t like Yahweh—maybe we can talk about that sometime.) Anyway, I don’t think you’re the sort of person to pay the kind of ethical price required to deny (4). I don’t think you’d want to see a world of flourishing humans built by experimenting on even one child. I think you’d know that was wrong.

The only other premise you can give up is (2). But how? It seems obviously true. Perhaps you could respond that it misconstrues “collective well-being”: child experiments do not, in fact, promote collective well-being because they don’t promote the well-being of the subjects, who are part of that collective. But while classic objections to consequentialism—like a civilization built on the backs of slaves—seem susceptible to that response, this scenario doesn’t involve a vitiation of well-being for the subjects; merely a (likely) diminishing of it. While it’s not ideal to deprive children of normal care because it tends to reduce their well-being overall, it does not guarantee that outcome, and it certainly doesn’t prevent them from achieving well-being at all. Moreover, there is a possible world where those children will grow up to enjoy greater well-being than they otherwise would have, precisely because their society is greatly flourishing as a result of the experiments.

So although the slave scenario might not promote collective well-being, the child experiment scenario seems immune to that response. Yet I think you’d agree that even in a possible world where we could somehow guarantee that the children would be better off after the experiment was complete than if they had experienced normal care, it would still be unethical to experiment on them in this way. If you doubt this, imagine one of them is your own daughter.

But if our moral intuitions about child experiments are right, and there are no possible worlds in which it is ethical to experiment on children even if doing so promotes collective well-being (including theirs), then it is necessarily false that the morally good is identical with whatever promotes collective well-being. That being the case, while what you propose in The Moral Landscape would definitely be a science of well-being, I can’t see how it could be a science of morality.

6 comments

  1. Dan

    “If what is ethical just is what promotes collective well-being, how can there be unethical ways of going about that?”

    If what you’re doing doesn’t actually promote well-being.
    5 patients need organ transplants
    1 healthy patient in the waiting room.
    Sacrifice the one and you’ll have +4 well-being, right?

    Well, in the short term yes one could look at it that way. But in actuality what would be the effects of society where people could be randomly dissected for their sick neighbors. What would the effects of experimenting on some children have for our society? Would the potential good effects outweigh the negative? How much of the good effects would we need to prove to act upon this idea? All these questions are considered in a complex web of present and future well-being.

    When you say “moral truth exists” I think you confuse the space in which the Moral landscape is conceived. Harris holds that moral questions have answers in principle (not necessarily in practice). Moral truth doesn’t exist (have extension) anymore than 2+2=4 does.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Dan, I don’t think you’re engaging with the modal force of my argument.

    To defuse my critique, you would need to show that there is no possible world in which experimenting on children results in a net increase of well-being. But as I’ve argued, it is extremely plausible that such a world exists. I’m not even sure how you’d go about trying to prove that it necessarily cannot.

    Yet unless you can do that, my critique is completely immune to your objection.

  3. Dan

    I don’t think Harris is making the strong claim that it is unethical to experiment on children in every possible world. Practically, what does holding any claim to that type of standard accomplish? If you are sick and I “know” the cure (based off empirical evidence and normal assumptions used to conduct the science of medicine) I don’t need to prove that this is the cure in every possible world to talk sensibly about what one should or shouldn’t do in regards to health. The Moral Landscape has a much humbler and simpler thesis than most let on. Which is let’s do the best things insofar as we know what those things are.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I don’t think Harris is making the strong claim that it is unethical to experiment on children in every possible world.

    Maybe he isn’t. In that case, he evades my critique. But it seems like a very high price to pay.

    Practically, what does holding any claim to that type of standard accomplish?

    Because the whole point of Harris’ ethical theory is that he draws an identity relation between actions which promote well-being (W) and actions which are ethical (E). Identity relations are necessary relations; they hold across all possible worlds. This means that modal logic is eminently practical for testing identity claims like the one Harris makes. He says that W = E; but we can show that in some situations, W != E. This automatically falsifies his claim that W and E are identical.

    Since his whole theory rests on the assumption of W = E, showing this scuttles his entire project of establishing a science of morality.

  5. Dan

    “This means that modal logic is eminently practical for testing identity claims like the one Harris makes.”

    Modal logic would be just as useful for a science of morality as it is for any branch of science. Terms like “well-being” and “health” aren’t Platonic forms that actually exist in a literal sense, but that doesn’t stop us from developing morality and medicine. Holding a science of morality (or any science) to ultimate standards of modal logic where everything is easily identifiable as Ps and Qs is unpractical and eventually uninteresting. Good and bad can mean something if we dissect these concepts into the ground we simply murder them.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Dan, your comment is basically unresponsive to my argument. I’m approaching Sam’s position on its own terms. He is the one who says that W = E.

    I’ve shown that W != E, so comments about “practicality” and “dissecting these concepts into the ground” seem to just miss the point.

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