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”?
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.
Harris categorizes his ethical theory as a type of consequentialism, which he understands to mean that “the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures.”17 This immediately raises the question of which “conscious creatures” are relevant in moral decision-making. All of them? Only humans? Only people directly tied to one’s life? Only people one cares about? Only oneself? Some mixture of these?
Harris explicitly ties his views to the utilitarian tradition of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, though he says “[c]onsequentialism has undergone many refinements” since the days of Bentham and Mill.18 In this tradition, the standard of moral value is the aggregate happiness of all people. Although Harris recognizes some of the problems with attempting to aggregate the well-being of everyone, he insists that “human welfare must aggregate in some way.”19 Indeed, the “some way” in which utilitarianism aggregates human welfare is by sacrificing the individual to the alleged greater good of the group. If that sounds ominously similar to the moral foundation of the political nightmares of the 20th century, that’s because it is (more on this later).
Remarkably, Harris is, at times, quite open about the implications of utilitarianism and serious about promoting them, noting that the doctrine can justify the murder of individuals—or large numbers of individuals—for the presumed greater good. For example, Harris writes:
Admittedly, it is difficult to know how we should treat all of the variables that influence our judgment about ethical norms. If I were asked, for instance, whether I would sanction murder of an innocent person if it would guarantee a cure for cancer, I would find it very difficult to say “yes,” despite the obvious consequentialist argument in favor of such an action. If I were asked to impose a one in a billion risk of death on everyone for this purpose, however, I would not hesitate.20
Harris goes further, wondering whether “it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings.” He answers: “Provided that we take the time to really imagine the details (which is not easy), I think the answer is clearly ‘yes.’” Although Harris notes that “there is no compelling reason to believe that such superbeings exist,” he acknowledges that, on his theory, if they did, humans would be morally bound to willingly accept their own annihilation.21
At other times, Harris walks back from the logical implications of his theory, opting instead for a watered-down utilitarianism in which individuals succumb to their “selfish” nature and act only to a limited extent for the happiness of all “conscious creatures.” In other words, in light of complications that arise from his theory, he recommends cheating on it. And, as an example of appropriate ways to cheat, Harris takes a page from his own life.
Citing such tragedies as the fact that some “people on earth needlessly starve to death,” Harris writes of his own frequent inattention to such matters: “I am less good than I could be. Which is to say, I am not living in a way that truly maximizes the well-being of others.”22 How does Harris rationalize acting against his own standard of value? How, for instance, does he justify failing to reduce his own (and his family’s) standard of living to near-subsistence so that he can send the residual to the starving people of the world? Essentially, he argues that people (himself included) are too narrowly “selfish” to fully live up to the utilitarian ideal; people are not constituted such that they can act fully morally. As he puts it, “We are not, by nature, impartial—and much of our moral reasoning must be applied to situations in which there is tension between our concern for ourselves, or for those closest to us, and our sense that it would be better to be more committed to helping others.”23 The best we can do, says Harris, is to resolve the conundrum pragmatically: “What we can do is try, within practical limits, to follow a path that seems likely to maximize both our own well-being and the well-being of others. This is what it means to live wisely and ethically.”24
Harris attempts to persuade readers that acting more in accordance with the utilitarian ideal would make them personally happier, but he cannot persuade even himself of this:
I know that helping people who are starving is far more important than most of what I do. I also have no doubt that doing what is most important would give me more pleasure and emotional satisfaction. . . . But this knowledge does not change me. I still want to do what I do for pleasure more than I want to help the starving. . . . I would be happier if I were less selfish. This means I would be more wisely and effectively selfish if I were less selfish.25
Harris recognizes that upholding his utilitarian standard of value—the greatest happiness for the greatest number—is simply impossible. Hence, he condones cheating on it.
In addition to being impracticable, Harris’s theory of a “scientific” utilitarian ethics suffers from a variety of deeper and wider philosophic problems, of which we will consider two. The first of these is that Harris fails to offer any reason to think his theory is true. The second is that utilitarianism sanctions totalitarianism.
Harris’s Dearth of Reasons
Harris attempts to justify utilitarianism by pointing out that some living conditions obviously are better than others and that this difference can be described as a difference in well-being. Contrasting the worst life possible for everyone with the best life possible, Harris describes the moral ideal as “plac[ing] a whole population securely in the Good Life.”26 Elsewhere, Harris claims that “a universal morality can be defined with reference to the negative end of the spectrum of conscious experience: I refer to this extreme as ‘the worst possible misery for everyone.’”27 Harris argues, “Once we admit that the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing . . . are different and dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.”28
Certainly the fact that people can be better or worse off has major relevance to morality, but how does this prove that the standard of moral value is the greatest happiness for the whole population? Harris offers no answer.
Utilitarianism demands individual sacrifice in order to achieve the greatest happiness of all, yet nothing in Harris’s arguments justifies the idea that we should give up our own values or embrace our own misery (or cause the misery of select others) in order to improve aggregate happiness.
At times, Harris is quite open about the fact that, ultimately, he simply assumes the validity of utilitarianism. He insists that “standing” on the utilitarian “premise” without any deeper justification is comparable to accepting any knowledge about the world:29
To say that morality [by which Harris means utilitarianism] is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is like saying that science is arbitrary . . . because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. Yes, both endeavors rest on assumptions . . . but this is not a problem. No framework of knowledge can withstand utter skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. . . . Science and rationality generally are based on intuitions and concepts that cannot be reduced or justified.30
Harris’s analogy fails. Our basic knowledge about reality does not rest on “assumptions” or “intuitions.” Rather, our knowledge rests on the evidence of the senses and on our logical (i.e., noncontradictory) identification and integration of that evidence.
It is true that our knowledge of the world builds on and implies certain axioms, and it is true that these axioms “cannot be reduced.” But it is not true that these axioms cannot be justified in the broad sense of that term. As Rand explains, it is self-evidently true that existence exists, that I am conscious of it, and that things are what they are. Rand points out, “One can study what exists and how consciousness functions; but one cannot analyze (or ‘prove’) existence as such, or consciousness as such. These are irreducible primaries.”31 This, however, does not mean they are arbitrary or cannot be justified. They are justified by the fact that they are perceptually self-evident and that they must be employed in any attempt to deny them. As Rand puts it:
Since axiomatic concepts refer to facts of reality and are not a matter of “faith” or of man’s arbitrary choice, there is a way to ascertain whether a given concept is axiomatic or not: one ascertains it by observing the fact that an axiomatic concept cannot be escaped, that it is implicit in all knowledge, that it has to be accepted and used even in the process of any attempt to deny it.32
That existence exists, and that things are what they are, are axioms. These are perceptual-level, rationally unarguable truths. Harris’s claim that the standard of moral value is the greatest good (or happiness) for the greatest number is hardly in this category or even analogous. Rather, it is an arbitrary, unjustified assertion.
Although Harris correctly argues that the pursuit of science implies normative commitments—as he puts it, “Scientific ‘is’ statements rest on implicit ‘oughts’ all the way down”33—ultimately these “oughts” of science depend upon deeper moral truths, especially a demonstrably true standard of moral value. This Harris fails to deliver. Thus, although Harris claims to advocate “moral realism”—the view that “moral claims can really be true or false”34—his theory falls flat.
Utilitarianism’s Totalitarian Implications
Harris acknowledges that “many people are simply wrong about morality.”35 Within an individualist theory of morality, that poses no special problem: so long as people don’t aggress against others, they are free to be wrong; and if some people do aggress against others, they are properly prosecuted as criminals. Within Harris’s utilitarian framework, however, the fact that many err in their moral thinking and acting creates a moral crisis for everyone. And, as Harris has admitted, no one—including Harris—can uphold the utilitarian ideal of serving the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
If people morally should serve the greater good of the group but do not, can they be left free to be immoral? How will we know whether people’s actions are really in the best interest of the group? Who will decide such matters? According to Harris, “moral experts” will decide.
Rest assured, you are not the first to think this sounds politically dangerous. That others have noticed totalitarian implications in Harris’s theory prompted him to repeatedly deny such implications. For instance, when Harris wrote that “only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being,”36 he added the following in a footnote:
Many people find the idea of “moral experts” abhorrent. Indeed, this ramification of my argument has been called “positively Orwellian” and a “recipe for fascism.” . . . [T]hese concerns seem to arise from an uncanny reluctance to think about what the concept of “well-being” actually entails or how science might shed light on its causes and conditions. The analogy with health seems important to keep in view: Is there anything “Orwellian” about the scientific consensus on the link between smoking and lung cancer?37
But, like so many of Harris’s attempted analogies, this analogy fails. What’s more, the truth of the matter in question further damns Harris’s moral theory.
Observe that on an individualist conception of morality, nothing in a scientific finding on the physiological effects of smoking implies that the government should ban or restrict smoking (at least not for adults on private property). When people are seen as individuals—with each individual being morally responsible for his own life, health, and happiness—people are free to act as they choose so long as they do not violate the rights of others. If someone chooses to ignore scientific findings or medical experts and proceeds to smoke himself ill, that is his choice and his problem.
On the utilitarian moral ideal, however, individuals are not seen as responsible for their own lives, health, and happiness; rather, they are regarded as responsible for everyone’s life, health, and happiness. To be moral, according to utilitarianism, people must act so as to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number—and they must sacrifice their personal goals and values to achieve that end. This collectivist moral framework necessitates a collectivist political program. If the collective or the “moral experts” decide it is best for the individual to be forbidden from smoking—or forbidden from doing anything else, or required to do anything else—then the individual morally must obey.
Concerns about Harris’s call for “moral experts” to determine the best ways for people to live up to the utilitarian ideal are hardly quelled by his additional call for manipulating individuals’ brains. Consider Harris’s following remarks (in which he leaves “we” undefined):
If . . . we can one day manipulate the brain so as to render specific behaviors and states of mind more pleasurable than they are now, it seems relevant to wonder whether such refinements would be “good.” It might be good to make compassion more rewarding than sexual lust, but would it be good to make hatred the most pleasurable emotion of all?38
After denying “that the mere existence of the Nazi doctors counts against my thesis,” Harris writes:
If we were ever to arrive at a complete understanding of the human mind, we would understand human preferences of all kinds. Indeed, we might even be able to change them. . . . Consider how we would view a situation in which all of us miraculously began to behave so as to maximize our collective well-being. Imagine that on the basis of remarkable breakthroughs in technology, economics, and politic skill, we create a genuine utopia on earth.39
Harris writes this as though nothing were troublesome about the notion of “moral experts” and some undefined “we” “manipulating” people’s brains to “create a genuine utopia on earth” through “breakthroughs in technology, economics, and politic skill.” A skeptic, however, perhaps someone with an “uncanny reluctance” to think about things from Harris’s perverse perspective, might respond that the 20th century produced quite enough such “breakthroughs” on the road to utopia. And the utilitarian regimes of that century did not yet have the power of today’s or tomorrow’s neuroscientists to manipulate people’s brains.
But just imagine, Harris continues, if we could alter the brains of everyone by “painlessly deliver[ing] a firmware update to everyone”:
Now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be. . . . [I]f you care about something that is not compatible with a peak of human flourishing—given the requisite changes in your brain, you would recognize that you were wrong to care about this thing in the first place. Wrong in what sense? Wrong in the sense that you didn’t know what you were missing.40
How is Harris’s proposal here different from the Borg Collective in Star Trek? What if an individual does not care to undergo brain surgery to discover what he has been missing? Would the “moral experts” say, as do the Borg, “Resistance is futile?”
Because Harris’s moral framework evaluates individuals and their actions by the standard of collective well-being, it is incompatible with the principle of individual rights. Harris appears to acknowledge and accept this: “Some people worry that a commitment to maximizing a society’s welfare could lead us to sacrifice the rights and liberties of the few wherever these losses would be offset by the greater gains of the many.” Not to worry, he says: “To the degree that treating people as ends in themselves is a good way to safeguard human well-being, it is precisely what we should do.”41
Of course, “treating people as ends in themselves” only insofar as that serves the collective “good” is not treating people as ends in themselves; it is treating them as means to the ends of the collective. And “to the degree that treating people as ends in themselves” does not serve the collective good—a determination to be made by the “moral experts”—individuals and their rights must be sacrificed.
The Individualist Alternative
Harris is right that morality should be based in reality and viewed as a science discoverable through reason. He is right that morality pertains to well-being, and that ethics prescribes the means to achieving it. But he is wrong in taking “well-being” to mean “pleasure”; wrong in treating pleasure or happiness as the standard of moral value; wrong in embracing a utilitarian, collectivist standard; wrong in sanctioning the sacrifice of individuals to the collective; wrong in obliterating the principle of individual rights and paving the way for more totalitarianism.
What is the alternative to everything Harris gets wrong?
Decades before the publication of Harris’s book, Ayn Rand formulated an individualist morality that anticipates everything salvageable in Harris’s work; avoids all of its problems; and is grounded in an observation-based, demonstrably true standard of moral value—namely, the requirements of man’s life on earth. Although a discussion of Rand’s theory of ethics is beyond the scope of this article, her positive theory, most prominently presented in her novel Atlas Shrugged and her collection of essays The Virtue of Selfishness, is readily accessible to everyone, including Harris.42
Unfortunately, at least as of May 2012, Harris refuses to read Rand’s works, saying “my copies of [Rand’s novels] The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged simply would not open.”43 Not surprisingly, in attempting to describe Rand’s ethical views he fundamentally misrepresents them.44
If Harris would consider the possibility that his groundless utilitarianism is false and investigate Rand’s work—which, in addition to grounding morality in reality also (and consequently) upholds the moral right of each individual to live for his own sake—he could finally begin to articulate a viable alternative to the moral relativism and religious dogma he so rightly despises. Until such time, Harris will remain part of the problem.