Sam Harris’s Failure to Formulate a Scientific Morality

This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 7, No. 4.

Sam Harris—neuroscientist and famed atheist—holds that matters of right and wrong, good and bad are discoverable, objective facts, properly the subject of a science of ethics. In his 2010 book The Moral Landscape, he writes in his introduction, “questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.”1

So far, so good. Unfortunately, Harris quickly veers off the scientific track by defining “well-being” in terms of the moral theory of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism holds that the standard of moral value is “the greatest good for the greatest number”; in practice, this means the individual must self-sacrificially serve the interests of society. Harris not only fails to support his utilitarian standard, he also follows his utilitarian theory to a number of absurd and atrocious conclusions. Before we explore the deficiencies of Harris’s moral theory, however, let us examine its major elements.

Harris argues that the scientific study of morality must be possible because the subject matter of morality is reality: “[H]uman well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it.”2 (Harris is not here arguing that the body doesn’t matter, but that conditions of the body impact the brain, as through the nervous system.)

Harris is not claiming that science always provides one right answer for how one should behave in a given circumstance. There may be “important cultural differences in how people flourish,” Harris notes; for example, there may be “incompatible but equivalent ways to raise happy, intelligent, and creative children.”3 By comparison, people of different cultures may eat different food; and, although two different diets might be equally healthy, that hardly means all possible diets are equally healthy. Harris deals with such complexity with his conception of a “moral landscape,” which he describes as “a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.”4 Thus, Harris’s “moral landscape” holds that a person may reach a “peak” of flourishing or a “valley” of despair in different ways.

Whereas many of Harris’s colleagues in the secular and scientific communities treat ethics as descriptive of the biological tendencies of humans, Harris holds that ethics is normative. The point of ethics is not merely to describe how people happen to act, but to offer guidance about how people should act. Harris explicitly distances his theory from the approach of explaining “moral” behavior strictly in evolutionary terms: “Most of what constitutes human well-being at this moment escapes any narrow Darwinian calculus. While the possibilities of human experience must be realized in the brains that evolution has built for us, our brains were not designed with a view to our ultimate fulfillment.”5

Thus far, Harris appears to be heading in a genuinely scientific direction. But what exactly does he mean by “well-being”?

Harris’s Hedonism

If the goal of a science of ethics is to improve human well-being, that science must rest on a clear conception of human well-being. Upon examination, however, Harris fails to forthrightly provide such clarity, so the reader is left to infer the meaning from a plethora of synonyms, examples, and analogies.

Harris describes his moral theory as a “science of human flourishing”; and values are “the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being.”6 He contrasts the “bad life”—typified by an impoverished woman in Africa whose son murders her daughter after he is kidnapped by a murderous gang—with the archetypical “good life”—which involves a wonderful romantic relationship, an “intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding” career, and a peaceful social environment.7 And he writes that “the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition, and yet it is indispensable.”8 But none of these efforts clarifies the meaning of well-being sufficiently to ground a moral theory in the concept.

Lacking a clear conception of “well-being” as the standard of value, Harris embraces as the standard whatever happens to produce the greatest happiness or pleasure for people. The moral theory that holds “happiness” or “pleasure” as the standard of the good is hedonism (“hedone” is Latin for “pleasure”). Granted, Harris claims to reject “a strictly hedonic measure of the ‘good,’”9 and his notion of pleasure is more complex than simply pursuing sex, good food, and other sensual delights. He also distinguishes between “maximizing pleasure in any given instance” and a fuller, longer-range form of well-being, which includes such considerations as health and safety.10 Nevertheless, Harris does embrace pleasure (or happiness) as the standard of moral value, which renders his theory a form of hedonism.

One of Harris’s own examples makes this particularly clear. Harris writes that it is reasonable “to expect people who are seeking to maximize their well-being to also value fairness.” But, he wonders, “What if they don’t?”

What if there is a possible world in which the Golden Rule has become an unshakable instinct, while there is another world of equivalent happiness where the inhabitants reflexively violate it? Perhaps this is a world of perfectly matched sadists and masochists. Let’s assume that in this world every person can be paired, one-for-one, with the saints in the first world, and while they are different in every other way, these pairs are identical in every way relevant to their well-being. Stipulating all these things, the consequentialist would be forced to say that these worlds are morally equivalent.11

Harris acknowledges that the scenario of this example is “completely antithetical” to the facts of the real world, but he uses it to emphasize a key aspect of his theory, and in doing so he does make something clear: He regards followers of the Golden Rule, sadists, and masochists as equally capable of achieving the height of moral virtue. Why? Because each is capable of achieving happiness or pleasure—which is Harris’s default standard of value. By “well-being” Harris means pleasure.

In discussing the “far-fetched” scenario in which there is “no connection between being good and feeling good,” Harris writes, “In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints.” He continues: “If evil turned out to be as reliable a path to happiness as goodness is,” then “saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks” on the “moral landscape.”12 Harris here is treating “feelings” (i.e., “feeling good”) or “happiness” as the standard of moral goodness (i.e., “being good”). He is saying that if evil begets happiness just as good does, then being evil is morally equivalent to being good.

Harris senses that some people do not wish to pursue the “good life” as he envisions it and that they might gain pleasure from being evil. Violent African gangsters hacking apart innocent women in the jungle might prefer their lifestyle to what Harris regards as the good life. Homicidal religious fanatics, such as the Islamists who murdered thousands of people in the World Trade Center, might regard their actions as noble. Environmentalists might long “for the right virus to come along” and decimate the human population.13 And psychopaths might enjoy torturing, raping, and murdering their victims. What is Harris’s answer to such creatures? In short, they “are seeking some form of well-being,” but “they are doing a very bad job of it.” Harris elaborates:

We already know that psychopaths have brain damage that prevents them from having certain deeply satisfying experiences (like empathy) that seem good for people both personally and collectively (in that they tend to increase well-being on both counts). Psychopaths, therefore, don’t know what they are missing (but we do). . . . [Psychopaths] are generally ruled by compulsions that they don’t understand and cannot resist. It is absolutely clear that, whatever they might believe about what they are doing, psychopaths are seeking some form of well-being (excitement, ecstasy, feelings of power, etc.), but because of their neurological and social deficits, they are doing a very bad job of it. We can say that a psychopath like Ted Bundy takes satisfaction in the wrong things, because living a life purposed toward raping and killing women does not allow for deeper and more generalizable forms of human flourishing. . . . Is there any doubt that Ted Bundy’s “Yes! I love this!” detectors were poorly coupled to the possibilities of finding deep fulfillment in this life, or that his obsession with raping and killing young women was a poor guide to the proper goals of morality (i.e., living a fulfilling life with others)?14

When, on the premises of one’s moral theory, the most condemnatory thing one can say about mass murderers is that although they might achieve some kind of pleasure, they don’t achieve the greatest pleasure, one should check one’s premises.

Harris’s acceptance of pleasure or happiness as the standard of moral value sets his entire moral theory on a faulty foundation. Aside from purely physical sensations, pleasure and happiness are, as Ayn Rand points out, emotional states, which are consequences of our values, not justifications for them. “Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious.”15 Thus, neither pleasure nor happiness can serve as the standard of moral value.

If you achieve that which is the good by a rational standard of value, it will necessarily make you happy; but that which makes you happy, by some undefinable standard, is not necessarily the good. To take “whatever makes one happy” as a guide to action means: to be guided by nothing but one’s emotional whims. Emotions are not tools of cognition. . . . This is the fallacy of hedonism—in any variant of ethical hedonism, personal or social, individual or collective. “Happiness” can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard. The task of ethics is to define man’s proper code of values and thus to give him the means of achieving happiness. To declare, as the hedonists do, that “the proper value is whatever gives you pleasure” is to declare that “the proper value is whatever you happen to value”—which is an act of intellectual and philosophical abdication. . . .16

And the hedonistic root of Harris’s ethics is not its only problem. Harris merges his fuzzy conception of well-being with a form of utilitarianism, a collectivist form of hedonism holding that the good consists of self-sacrificially serving the greatest happiness for the greatest number. . . .

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