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.