Defending Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape

This piece takes as its inspiration “Separating Ethics and Emotion” by my fellow Reasoned Vegan Evan Anderson.

Most human problems are problems of knowledge. With the right knowledge we could cure disease, solve poverty, alleviate the problems of global warming, convince the world to go vegan, colonize Mars and create a political system that actually represents its citizens (somehow the last one seems the least plausible at the moment). Every human achievement, from cell phones to the Mona Lisa to the pyramids was created in part through knowledge. We may never achieve our loftiest goals in practice, but in principle what’s holding us back other than lack of knowledge of how to overcome the obstacles?

Is ethics a knowledge problem? Sam Harris thinks so and he’s written a book arguing this. My fellow Reasoned Vegan Evan Anderson disagrees and suggests that ethics can never be separated from emotion.

What kind of problems are emotional? There’s no question that matters of personal preference, like what I should have for breakfast, are emotional. On the other hand, it isn’t an emotional decision when we choose the shape of an airplane’s wing or treat a heart attack because we understand air foils and emergency medicine. As-yet-unsolved knowledge problems are always potentially emotional, but emotions never settle questions. The people probing the borders of what we know are human beings who can become attached to their ideas. This is just as true of physics as it is of ethics. Two physicists could have a tense debate about string theory, but only facts and evidence that can settle the argument. Once the science is settled, it will cease to be a sensible source of heated contention. If Harris is correct, then emotion may still enter into it, but it won’t be relevant to solving ethical problems.

Harris’s claim is that ethics is ultimately boils down to claims about the well-being of conscious creatures. Note that this definition doesn’t exclude consideration of animals, or even aliens, which is a welcome consideration for vegans. Because there are facts to be known about well-being, and these facts affect the state of the brain in measurable ways, there are objectively more or less ethical ways of behaving. Science can help us answer questions about well-being and create a more ethical world.

Consider the circumstance in which every conscious being on earth suffers as maximally as possible for as long as possible. Ethically speaking, this is the bottom floor of hell—the lowest valley in the “moral landscape” to use the metaphor that gives the book its title. Any action or law or norm that brings us closer to this outcome (i.e. lower in the moral landscape) is objectively wrong. It is admittedly more difficult to define what a peak on the moral landscape looks like. Obviously well-being entails feeling fulfilled, having deep relationships, a sense that the world is fair, enjoyable experiences, freedom from pain, agency, making a positive difference in the world, etc. Any action or law or norm that pushes us towards a peak on the moral landscape is good.

The reason that rocks and plants aren’t included in discussions of ethics is because they aren’t conscious, so there’s no well-being to care about. It’s the same reason “victimless crime” is an oxymoron from a utilitarian worldview. Everything that is wrong is wrong because it harms people in some way.

Harris offers a simple summation of how one would have to compare different moral views: “Moral view A is truer than moral view B, if A entails a more accurate understanding of the connections between human thoughts/intentions/behavior and human well-being.”

Why should we accept that ethics is ultimately about well-being at all? Here’s Evan’s critique:

I would love for it to be some objective “fact” that whatever maximizes human happiness is the “correct” thing to do, regardless of other factors. I still think that maximizing human happiness is the morally right thing to do in any given situation, I just don’t know if we can make the bold claim that there is some objective, science-based reason for doing so.

Well-being is the master variable that must be optimized because it captures everything that we care about. If we uncouple our ethics from well-being, we must concede that unnecessary suffering is okay in the service of some higher goal. Consider the example of John Rawls, who enshrines fairness as the highest virtue. He suggests that an ethical system must be designed from behind a “veil of ignorance” that prevents us from knowing what our status is in society. Given this uncertainty we should create a society that cancels out as many effects of bad luck as possible. Harris presses on a logical consequence of using Rawls’s framework as an ethical system: “How would we feel if, after structuring our ideal society from behind a veil of ignorance, we were told by an omniscient being that we had made a few choices that, while eminently fair, would lead to the unnecessary misery of millions, while parameters that were ever-so-slightly less fair would entail no such suffering? Could we be indifferent to this information? The moment we conceive of justice as being fully separable from human well-being, we are faced with the prospect of there being morally “right” actions and social systems that are, on balance, detrimental to the welfare of everyone affected by them.” The ultimate purpose of ethical systems is to maximize well-being. Any ethical system that reliably made everyone miserable wouldn’t be worthy of the name. What “other factors” could outweigh misery?

Evan is correct that there is no scientific reason to value well-being. Science is inevitably a tool that human beings wield with certain intentions and values. Consider this analogy: well-being is to ethics what health is to medicine. Harris: “Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science.” Anyone is free to think that the true path to health is through adjustments to the spinal column, or that health is a misplaced goal in the first place. But science mostly ignores these people. Just as health is the only sensible goal of medicine, so too is well-being the only sensible goal of ethics. Properly applied science is the tool that can help both these endeavors advance most reliably.

The fact that we cannot persuade people of this claim is no evidence that it isn’t true. Evan says that he is “doubtful that there is anyone who will suddenly care about livestock suffering after reading a research paper…” This is no more of an argument for subjectivity of morality than the existence of chiropractor’s disproves the foundations of modern medicine. In this case, not everyone’s vote counts.

Theory and Practice

We might attack this view on pragmatic grounds. Brain scans don’t tell us anything fine-grained about well-being. Again, the analogy with health is illuminating. Like well-being, it has no precise definition and cannot be simplified into a quantitative metric like an “overall health score.” Consider how much easier it would be to find optimal treatment courses if you could compare “overall health scores” of study subjects. But how would one weigh factors like pulse oxygen, blood pressure, age, activity levels, energy levels, organ function, immune function, hormonal regulation, disease and injuries? Not so easy. The actual job of a doctors and researchers–to heal injuries, mitigate problems and optimize health–is a matter of great debate and disagreement. Yet doctors carry on improving the health of human beings because they have a coherent, but not necessarily precisely defined, concept of health. So too must a science of well-being weigh in on questions of morality by assessing well-being, even in the absence of precise metrics or easy answers.

Well-being is by definition even more complex to measure and ascertain than health, since the latter is a constituent component of the former. However, answers in principle are different than answers in practice. It’s important to first consider whether you accept the theoretical framework, then get into the messy business of applying it to the real world. Harris continually calls attention to the obvious cases (putting your hand on a hot stove) to make clear that there are obviously right and wrong answers on a general level. The fact that complex moral questions are difficult to answer by this metric is no reason to reject the framework.

The most obvious practical outcome to the world accepting the thesis of “The Moral Landscape” would be that humanity could let go of both moral relativism and religious dogmatism. The former view suggests that right and wrong are a matter of what is right and wrong. This may well be the new majority view within American society. The “live-and-let-live” approach to ethics is quickly becoming conventional wisdom. This is a view few vegans could sensibly adopt. Consumption of meat and dairy is normal in most cultures, yet ethical vegans contend that those cultures are simply wrong.

Christianity, for its part, may have done more than any other single entity to further the view that animals (and nature broadly) are the playthings of a humanity. I’ve written about how Christianity can be compatible with veganism, but it doesn’t have a way of fine-tuning its prescriptions based on new information. Our growing understanding of the world must be squared with an interpretation of scripture in a Christian worldview. It’s not that Christian doctrine has nothing to teach us about leading a good and moral life, but those things can be absorbed into a scientific understanding of well-being. Christianity offers many moral ideas—some good, some bad and some neutral. It is a science of well-being that could determine which is which. If we’re serious about human well-being, we must treat both as obstacles to moral progress.

Situational Ethics Or Universal Laws?

If well-being is the only relevant variable, wouldn’t the optimal ethical system be situational? No general principle could optimize well-being in all situations. This is what Evan implies when he says “I still think that maximizing human happiness is the morally right thing to do in any given situation.” Would the most ethically advanced civilization rely on super-computer that simulates their world to determine right from wrong? It’s easy to imagine that a scientific emphasis on maximizing well-being will lead us to a dystopian science fiction world—one where morality is completely flexible and beyond the grasp of human comprehension. While this seems theoretically plausible as a peak on the moral landscape, it also goes against the grain of human psychology.

Peaks on the moral landscape are more likely to align with humanity’s inborn moral impulses. There’s a reason that people have a strong intuition that morality is consistent regardless of who it is applied to and in what situation. Steven Pinker says that this is a distinct part of our psychology and this normative sense is “the first hallmark of moralization.” Just as Noam Chomsky claims human beings are born with a “universal grammar” that aids language development by unconsciously inclining us to understand speech through certain grammatical structures, “we are born with a universal moral grammar that forces us to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness,” according to Steven Pinker. The normative claims themselves overlap from culture to culture as well. Pinker reports that anthropologist Donald E. Brown has found moral universals, which include “a distinction between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; admiration of generosity; rights and obligations; proscription of murder, rape and other forms of violence; redress of wrongs; sanctions for wrongs against the community; shame; and taboos.”

These are not just abstract principles that will likely be discarded in the pursuit of well-being. A consistent moral system that accounts for these aspects of human morality would translate into a felt experience.

Harris supports this in noting that “fairness is not merely an abstract principle—it is a felt experience. We all know this from the inside, of course, but neuroimaging has also shown that fairness drives reward-related activity in the brain, while unfair proposals requires the regulation of negative emotion.” Humanity’s neurological craving for fairness would be undermined by a situational ethics that seeks to maximize well-being in each individual moment. Humanity’s shared evolutionary psychology suggest that a consistent moral code is both tenable and desirable.

Religious people often claim that God has imbued human beings with an objective sense of morality which leads most people instinctively recoil from murder and rape. Secularists and moral nihilists often say that this is the result of evolution and there is no basis for objective morality—our moral intuitions are only the vagaries of how our psychologies evolved to live in small tribal units. Harris cuts a middle path. A science of well-being would tell us objective truths about the subjective facts of our experience. The fact that our evolutionary history informs our subjective experience would not make a science of well-being less objective.

The Moral Landscape makes a very simple argument there is no reason in principle why ethics should be inaccessible to scientific investigation. There are objectively true things to be known about the subjective experiences of conscious creatures. What else could we ground our ethical theory in if not the well-being of conscious creatures? Why should well-being remain forever mysterious to us? The tools of science can solve ethical disputes, undermine relativism and religious dogmatism and create a better future.

Works Cited

Anderson, Evan. “Can We Separate Ethics from Emotion?” The Reasoned Vegan 10 June 2020.

Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Free Press, 2010. E-book.

Pinker, Steven. “The Moral Instinct.” New York Times. 13 Jan 2008. Online.

Pölzler, Thomas & Wright, Jennifer Cole. “Anti-Realist Pluralism: a New Approach to Folk Metaethics.” Review of Philosophy and Psychology, vol 11, pp 53-82. 2020https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-019-00447-8

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