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How Does Sam Harris’s Metaphysical View Undermine His Moral Landscape? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Given Sam Harris’s metaphysical naturalism, how is it that Harris will identify the good? How is the good defined given his metaphysics?

Harris, in line with other moral consequentialists, defines “good” as “that which supports well-being.” Harris further claims that “it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good.’” The good, according to Harris, simply is that which is conducive to well-being, and nothing else.

Thus moral values are “the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being, as well as that of other conscious minds. . . . Given that change in the well-being of conscious creatures is bound to be a product of natural laws, we must expect that this space of possibilities— the moral landscape— will increasingly be illuminated by science.”

Harris’ metaphysical naturalism, then, draws strict boundaries around where he can locate moral values.  Brain states, the physical world around us, and the laws of nature as described by physics, chemistry, and biology exhaust Harris’ ontological resources.

Is Harris’ account of equating moral values, and thus the good, with that which supports well-being, adequate?  The answer is negative as Harris’s metaphysics undermines his moral theory in several different ways.

First, although Harris, in his book, claims to have dealt with G. E. Moore’s “open question argument,” he has not.  Moore argues that, on metaphysical naturalism, properties of the natural world cannot be equated with the good, because it is always an open question whether that property is always good.

Moore argues, “We must not, therefore, be frightened by the assertion that a thing is natural into the admission that it is good; good does not, by definition, mean anything that is natural; and it is therefore always an open question whether anything that is natural is good.” To assert that because something is natural, or part of the natural world, that it is therefore good, is the naturalistic fallacy.

Although human well-being (described in terms of physical brain states) is a property of the natural world, Harris claims that he nonetheless avoids Moore’s open question argument.  But does he?  It is not at all clear that the well-being of a particular conscious creature is always good.

What about a psychopath?  Some psychopaths gain tremendous pleasure, and thus well-being, from torturing other human beings.  Can we say that the psychopath’s behavior is then morally good?  Harris considers this exact scenario, using serial killer Ted Bundy as an example.

Harris complains that Bundy’s “raping and killing young women was a poor guide to the proper goals of morality (i.e., living a fulfilling life with others).” But notice that now Harris has shifted his definition of the good from Bundy’s personal well-being to Bundy “living a fulfilling life with others,” a tacit admission that moral values cannot be identified with the mere well-being of a conscious creature (e.g., Bundy). It seems that the well-being of some creatures are more important than others. This is a classic thorn in the side of all consequentialist moral theories that Harris has not escaped.

Think about this. Bundy would have said that he was flourishing and living a fulfilling life while raping and killing young women, which would seem to make his behavior good and moral under Harris’s system. In order to save his identification of the moral good, Harris calls an audible and de-emphasizes Bundy’s well-being and instead says that Bundy must live a fulfilling life with others in order to be moral.

Here is the problem. Harris wants to sell us a vision of science studying human well-being as a way of determining what is moral. But when we ask science to study Ted Bundy, Harris concedes that Bundy is a poor guide to morality. So obviously studying the well-being of a conscious creature does not always yield moral guidelines. But how does Harris know this? It seems he is invoking a higher source of the moral good by which to make that call, but he denies that there is a higher source! Something is amiss.

Bottom line: Harris has not escaped the naturalistic fallacy. What is natural (e.g., the well-being of a conscious creature) is not always good. What produced well-being for Ted Bundy was not good at all.

In part 2, we will continue to see how Harris’s metaphysical naturalism fails to ground his moral theory.


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