Post Author: Bill Pratt
In part 1 we looked at some serious difficulties that Sam Harris’s metaphysical views cause his “moral landscape” to have. We continue with that analysis in part 2.
Recall that we ended part 1 by noting that Harris’s identification of the moral good with that which brings individual human flourishing and well-being is inadequate. Harris admits that the well-being and flourishing of a psychopath such as Ted Bundy is not morally good, but he can’t know this based on his identification of the good, so he is appealing to moral knowledge outside his own metaphysics.
Harris’s emphasis on the well-being of the community over Bundy still does not save his definition of the good. What if someone like Ted Bundy lived in a community that generally valued rape and the occasional killing of women as fulfilling? Harris, himself, sees this problem. He asks:
But what if advances in neuroscience eventually allow us to change the way every brain responds to morally relevant experiences? What if we could program the entire species to hate fairness, to admire cheating, to love cruelty, to despise compassion, etc. Would this be morally good? . . . Is this really a world of equivalent and genuine well-being, where the concept of ‘well-being’ is susceptible to ongoing examination and refinement as it is in our world? If so, so be it.
Harris concedes that what constitutes well-being could very well change in the future, and that the good could, conceivably, be identified with cheating and cruelty. If you’re scratching your head, join the club.
Surely Harris has misidentified the source of moral values if his source allows for cheating and cruelty to become moral values. Moral values are, after all, timeless. We routinely morally judge people who lived centuries ago because we know that moral values do not change over time; they transcend time.
Harris, himself, seems to take for granted that moral values are timeless as he refers to moral progress: “Despite our perennial bad behavior, our moral progress seems to me unmistakable. Our powers of empathy are clearly growing. Today, we are surely more likely to act for the benefit of humanity as a whole than at any point in the past.” Moral progress without timeless moral values would be simply incoherent, yet Harris’ metaphysics leave no room for timeless values.
As a metaphysical naturalist, Harris cannot identify the good with a timeless source that transcends the subjective feelings of individual human beings currently living. Thus metaphysical naturalism acts as universal acid which eats away the foundation of Harris’s moral landscape. In part 3, we will continue to watch the acid do its work.