How Does Sam Harris’s Metaphysical View Undermine His Moral Landscape? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 3 we continue our analysis of Sam Harris’s “moral landscape” in view of his metaphysical naturalism, a worldview which denies the existence of anything that is timeless or transcendent in any sense.

We note that even after identifying moral values with well-being, Harris concedes that his moral landscape may not be good after all.  He explains:

It is also conceivable that a science of human flourishing could be possible, and yet people could be made equally happy by very different ‘moral’ impulses. Perhaps there is no connection between being good and feeling good— and, therefore, no connection between moral behavior (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being.  In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints.  This scenario stands the greatest chance of being true, while still seeming quite far-fetched. . . .

However, if evil turned out to be as reliable a path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it.  It would no longer be an especially ‘moral’ landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.

Harris is quick to suggest that because of human evolution and the fact that we all live in the same physical world, this scenario is highly implausible. However, his allowance for the possibility that the good of rapists, liars, and thieves is equivalent to the good of saints, as mapped on his moral landscape, surely indicates that his metaphysics is a disaster for his moral theory.

In this single passage, Harris has completely undermined his identification of the good with human well-being. William Lane Craig revealed this inconsistency during his debate with Harris.  Craig argued that “by granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Dr. Harris’s view becomes logically incoherent.”

Since Harris’ metaphysics fail to provide him a source of moral values which transcends all conscious creatures, another problem surfaces for his moral landscape.  Harris considers the following scenario posed by Robert Nozick: “Nozick . . . asks if it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings.”

Incredibly, Harris answers,

I think the answer is clearly ‘yes.’  There seems no reason to suppose that we must occupy the highest peak on the moral landscape. If there are beings who stand in relation to us as we do to bacteria, it should be easy to admit that their interests must trump our own, and to a degree that we cannot possibly conceive.

Because there is nothing ontologically greater than the physical brain states of conscious creatures, Harris simply must admit that as soon as a greater conscious creature arrives on the scene, then that creature’s well-being becomes identified with the good, and the well-being of human beings falls by the wayside.

Contrary to Harris, it surely is not easy to admit, nor is it intuitive, nor is it even remotely plausible that the wanton destruction of human beings by a superior alien race would ever be good.  Instead of abandoning his naturalistic metaphysics, Harris arrives at the totally counter-intuitive idea that human well-being is good only until a superior conscious creature appears.  I pray that when the aliens ask to be taken to our leader, Harris is nowhere around.

It should be abundantly clear that Harris’ naturalistic metaphysics leads him to a completely inadequate account of the source of moral values.  The well-being of conscious creatures fails to provide an unchanging, transcendent ground for the good.  The good is apt to be different for each person, depending on what gives him feelings of well-being. For Harris, cruelty and generosity could both be good; saints and sinners can both occupy peaks on the “moral landscape.” The fact of the matter is that nothing in Harris’ metaphysics guarantees what seems completely obvious to all of us: moral values are timeless and transcendent.

  • sean

    Going on your posts, I’m not sure I agree with Sam’s views, but I also don’t believe he’s quite as wrong as you seem to think. For example I don’t think, “moral values are timeless and transcendent.” In addition I think you are conflating two separate things when you equate ethics with good. When you state, “Contrary to Harris, it surely is not easy to admit, nor is it intuitive, nor is it even remotely plausible that the wanton destruction of human beings by a superior alien race would ever be good.” I happen to agree with you. For us it would be bad. However, Sam is simply contemplating a movement of the relative scale. We are more conscious than bacteria, so to Sam, we matter more. The only local conclusion to draw from that, is that we should understand how more advanced beings matter more than us. That isn’t to say we’d find those results “good” or to our liking. But I think about the scale the other way. For example, we kill cows because they are delicious. I personally find such acts despicable, as the undervalue the cow’s consciousness. (albeit a limited one)

    My views on what is moral therefore can stand their ground against atrocities aliens would commit upon us, as we’re the cows. Sam may not be able to say the same, but I don’t think you can either. I fail to see how what Sam is proposing differs from you beliefs. Is not the reason you follow God’s morals above human desires because of his status as a greater being? Does not his desire trump our own. If he were to actually desire Issac’s death from Abraham, Abraham should have killed his son. Abraham believed so. He didn’t have faith God wouldn’t kill his son, he had faith that God’s need for his son’s death was greater than Abraham’s own need for a son.

    The fact that at the end of the story God revealed he didn’t need Issac’s death proves God isn’t a total ass, but Abraham was prepared for it either way, no?

  • Sean,
    Here is the problem with your idea of morality. In your scheme, what is good or moral is always relative to the individual person. In other words, there is no transcendence.

    This has very practical consequences. First of all, it makes any sort of moral judgment of another person inane. What I value as moral is simply different from what you value.

    Second, moral judgments about other human cultures are even more inane. After all, other cultures may value different things, so who am I am to say they are right or wrong?

    Third, moral judgments about other human cultures who lived in the past are even more inane. Their values are further separated from mine, so it is really irrational to say anything about their morality.

    Fourth, moral judgments about non-human conscious creatures (angels, demons, aliens, God) are perhaps the most inane of all. The moral values of non-humans would seem to be so distant from ours that rendering any sort of moral judgment would be silly.

    Yet I would wager a lot of money that you routinely make moral judgments about other people living in other cultures, living in the past. I would also wager that you render judgment on non-human conscious beings. But if moral values do not transcend you, then what are you doing judging everyone?

    Your judgments would be truly bizarre and irrational if morality is not timeless and transcendent.

  • sean

    In an absolute sense, you are correct. With respect to the universe at
    large, what I value and how it differs from what you value does not
    matter. I truly think that. I also truly think that doesn’t matter. We
    are all seeking our own happiness. I live in a society where if I pose a
    threat to others’ happiness by, say, being a psychopathic murderer the
    members of that society will lock me up. I can make moral judgements, and in a sense, it’s fairly inane.
    But when people agree with me, that’s when it matters. Because people
    make a difference, we have to act on these perceived morals because
    anything else would lead to a complete inaction. Whatever I do will hurt
    something in some way. But, in general, we as people have agreed to try
    and minimize that to a point. Society consonantly shapes what that
    point is, and it evolves. At one point, people judged it moral to have slaves, now it isn’t. (In most places)
    In a sense, it’s quite irrational to pass judgement on them, I agree.
    They lived in a different time. Your point is valid. But I think an even
    more potent argument you could make is that they are dead. History is
    only interesting because it gives us a more complete picture of the
    facts. We can’t change it. So, yes moral judgements on past events are

    Unless they have predictive power. For example, if in
    the past, a man had proven to be violent and lash out, harming random
    strangers… We’d lock him up for fear he’d do it again. I’d lock him up
    in the name of self preservation.

    So, to answer your question;
    “What am I doing judging everyone?” I’m protecting myself. I’m
    furthering my own goals. But I’m smart enough to realize that if in
    perusing that end I piss a lot of people off that they will look to stop
    me to protect their own interests. I know for a fact your moral values
    are different from mine, as I’ve read your posts on amendment one, a
    bill I consider discriminatory and despicable. You however, favor it. In
    general, between the two of us it doesn’t matter what we think. It
    maters what society a large thinks. Unfortunately for me, the North
    Carolinian people have voted in a way I wouldn’t. Individual morality
    doesn’t matter like my single vote probably doesn’t pick the President.
    But I am giving my opinion as a part of a group. That has power and
    influence. That is what matters. My views on morality don’t really mean
    as much to me as yours do to you, I think. To address your final
    statement; so what? Maybe judging others is bizarre. But I have a reason
    for it. If you think that’s bizarre that’s irrelevant to the fact that
    it serves a functional purpose, it keeps me happy.

  • sean

    second time the comment system has done that to me, it’s rather odd.

  • You admit that moral relativism leads to inane, bizarre, and irrational consequences, but yet you hold on to it?

    Why? One philosopher said aptly, “That torturing children for fun is absolutely wrong is as well-established as 2+2=4.” Why is he wrong?

    Do you really want to say that slavery wasn’t really wrong in any absolute sense, only relative to our modern moral sentiments?

    Do you realize that this viewpoint of yours effectively removes you from the arena of rational discourse about the morality of behaviors that you find abominable? Doesn’t that bother you?

    I am curious. Why are you so bent on denying the transcendence of morality? What is it about transcendent morality that makes you run for the hills?

  • sean

    I would agree that the two ideas you’ve presented are probably equally as established. But the establishment of an idea does not prove its correctness. 2+2=4 is an absolute truth because we have defined two as half of four, and therefore two twos is the same as 4 mathematically. We have defined two groups of two things as four. That’s math. But math is very different from morality.

    I wouldn’t say I’m bent on denying it’s existence so much as the irreverence of that existence. I don’t think it exists, but even if it did, I don’t see why that matters. Please explain what power this transcendent morality holds. If a society decides not to follow it, what repercussions are there from that morality? Obviously, if the societies practices are destructive to all of it’s members and kill them that is a downside the society will face. But so long as the society can endure its laws, I see no example of any transcendent morality stopping them.

    As for your claim about how my views remove me from rational discourse, I suppose it depends on how you define rational. I hold that we’re all just looking out for ourselves. How is this view irrational?

  • LeeBowman

    Most word processors do not transfer hard returns when pasting to a blog entry. Notepad will, however, if you have ‘word wrap’ selected when copies and pasted.

    With Notepad, you need to change the format option to NO word wrap prior to copying to the clipboard. O/W, you will get broken sentences in some blogs.

    Some blog servers remove superfluous returns automatically. When they do, they usually remove paragraph breaks as well, which you can add after copying if you like, if editing is allowed.

  • Andrew Ryan

    And we can demonstrate 2+2=4 as an absolute fact. If we were wrong about it, it would become clear pretty quickly. 2+2 would surely have to equal 4 whether a God existed or not – how would 2+2=5 even work?

    How would the wrongness of child-torture be falsifiable in theory? How is it testable or demonstrable? If we were incorrect about it, how would we know? What does it actually MEAN that it’s wrong, other than that we all really FEEL it’s wrong? What empirical evidence is there for it outside of that?

  • sean

    That said, if someone could demonstrate empirically that 2+2=4 and not 5, needs a god, it would be pretty compelling evidence for a god, though not the Christian one.