Four Lame Responses to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge

Four of the editors at David Sloan Wilson’s This View of Life website have submitted essays in response to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge.  That challenge was to refute the central premise of Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, which is as follows:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that  fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

All of the four editors (Jiro Tanaka, Michael Price, Mark Sloan, and Jonathan Haidt) are apparently aware that moral emotions exist because they evolved.  At least one of them, Haidt, has read, understood, and quotes at length in his own work David Hume’s masterful demonstration that it is impossible to use reason to establish moral truths in his A Treatise of Human Nature.  It is a testimony to the powerful force of the illusions that the process of evolution has planted in our minds, causing us to interpret our emotional responses as actual objects or things that exist independently of our minds, that none of the four could supply a simple, straightforward response to the challenge.  In fact, to a greater or lesser extent, all four of them, with the possible exception of Haidt, actually agreed with Harris, at least by implication, that the illusions are real.

It boggles the mind, really.  Presumably all four of these gentlemen are aware that moral emotions are just that – moral emotions.  The ultimate cause of those emotions, and the only reason that they exist at all, is evolution by natural selection.  One can pontificate about the wild and spectacular differences in the actual manner in which those emotions are expressed in different human cultures all day long, but the ultimate cause remains the same.  Evolved traits do not have a purpose.  Purpose implies a creator, and presumably all four reject that hypothesis.  Moral emotions, like every other evolved trait, exist because their presence increased the probability that the genes responsible for the existence of those traits would survive and reproduce.  Moral emotions, and the associated illusions of the existence of Good and Evil as things in themselves, exist as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.  There is no way in which they can acquire the power to transcend those individual minds, and acquire some kind of a mysterious “scientific” normative power over other individuals.  There is no way that they can magically acquire a purpose.

So much is really obvious without the benefit of Darwin’s theories.  Suppose there were no human beings in the universe.  Would morality exist?  Would one stone on some rocky planet be “Good,” and another “Evil?”  Obviously, the answer is no.  Now supply that universe with one human individual with the usual suite of moral emotions.  Would the presence of those emotions in the mind of one individual suddenly change everything?  Would objective Good and Evil suddenly ripple out from the mind of that one individual at the speed of light, acquiring some kind of normative power independent of the mind of the individual throughout the entire universe?  No.  Suppose we supplied the universe with more such individuals.  Is there any conceivable way in which the moral emotions of the first individual could jump out of his skull, acquire an independent existence of their own, and acquire the power to prescribe to the newcomers what they, too, are bound to agree are Good and Evil?  No.

Still, the illusions commonly trump reality, even in the most carefully reasoned attempts to approach the subject of morality.  Like Kafka’s Castle, it beckons like a real thing, yet remains out of reach.  Mother Nature didn’t mess around.  As if taunting their authors, she left her stamp on all four essays.  In the first, entitled Necessary but not Sufficient, Jiro Tanaka, immediately concedes that the term well-being, as used by Harris, “carries moral weight.”  Really?  What on earth does he mean by that?  How can something have “moral weight” unless there is some objective standard by which to measure that weight?  Reading further in the essay, we find that Tanaka doesn’t really disagree with Harris at all about the possibility of a “scientific morality.”  He’s simply quibbling about how to get there.  For example, he writes,

Harris’s “multiple peaks” argument sidesteps the fact that a concern for well-being, while a necessary condition for a scientific morality, is still far from sufficient.

Despite the presence of irrationality in academe, there are also rational scholars who are conversant with modern science. How is “science” in the broad sense any different from the best moral philosophy and political science as we have it already?

In other words, there actually is a “scientific morality,” which enables us, among other things, to establish a Good by which we can answer such questions as what is the “best” moral philosophy.  There’s no fundamental disagreement here at all; just a minor squabble over details.  Chalk up one for Harris.

In his How Science Can Help Us Be More Reasonable About Morality, Price has apparently concluded, against all reason, that Harris is unaware of the evolutionary wellsprings of morality.  The man has a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and yet Price presumes to lecture him like a child about the characteristics of our moral emotions.  For example, he writes,

Humans are adapted to strive for goals that would have promoted their individual fitness (genetic survival and reproduction) in the evolutionary past.

and, therefore,

If people use moral rules to better pursue their shared interests, then it becomes clear why Harris’ proposal – that reason-based morality ought to promote the well-being of conscious creatures – will not generally apply. People judge the reasonableness of a moral rule not by how much it benefits conscious beings in general, or even other people in general, but primarily by how much they perceive the rule to promote the interests they share with their group.

A promising start, and yet, somehow, Price cannot cut to the chase and pin down the reasons why Harris’ attempts to redirect morality “will not generally apply.”  Instead, his cart runs into the same rut as Tanaka’s.  He, too, ends up actually agreeing with Harris that a particular version of the Good is real; apparently the one currently favored in the ivory towers of academia.  His only problem with Sam is that he hasn’t chosen the optimum path to approach it.  After carefully explaining to the infant Sam the basic characteristics of evolved human moral emotions, he cobbles together his own approach to the summum bonum of “well-being.”  Choosing as his example the problem of income inequality, he writes,

The wealthier classes tend to argue that inequality is morally justified (e.g., “It’s the result of rewarding people who work harder than others”), whereas the more deprived classes tend to say it’s immoral (e.g., “It results from unequal opportunities”).

Then, in what must come as an epiphany to Sam, he reveals that a couple of academics named Wilkinson and Pickett have triumphantly solved the problem!  All that’s necessary to get the lion to lie down with the lamb is to explain to them that they will be much better off forming a bigger “group” whose “well-being” will best be served by (you guessed it), adopting the Good favored in academia.  He writes,

Wilkinson and Pickett attempt to transcend this conflict by focusing on inequality’s impact on the larger group to which both coalitions belong: They present evidence that countries with higher inequality score worse on many different indicators of national performance. Their analysis has not been without its critics, but regardless, they have the right idea about how to be reasonable about morality: They attempt to assess the moral value of a group’s practice by investigating how successfully that practice has been in promoting the group members’ shared interests. Their analysis indicates how an appeal to a higher-level coalitional interest (the national interest) could help transcend lower-level coalitional conflicts between socioeconomic classes.

One can just imagine Harris (and Karl Marx) slapping their foreheads at this point and exclaiming, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that!”   All we need to do to get those greedy rich people to joyfully redistribute all their wealth is to dump a batch of “studies” in their lap about the correlation between high income inequality and national performance!  Then the scales will fall from their eyes and they will become truly Good, or, as Price puts it, they will finally grasp the “moral value” of coughing up their wealth.  In other words, Price doesn’t dispute the existence of “moral value.”  He just has his own ideas about how to approach it.  Chalk up number two for Harris.

On to the third essay.  The first few paragraphs of Mark Sloan’s essay, Mainstream science of morality contradicts Sam Harris’ central claim, are even more promising than Price’s.  He writes,

…the largest component of what people consider morality is a natural phenomenon with the universal function of increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups; however, morality lacks any fixed, ultimate goal. Indeed, morality as a natural phenomenon has been used by groups to obtain a range of goals such as reproductive fitness and increased material goods – as well as increased well-being.

This contradicts Sam Harris’ claim that, as a matter of science, the goal of moral behavior is fixed as well-being.

There is plentiful evidence in science for the claim that morality, as a natural phenomenon, has no fixed ultimate goal. No equivalent evidence exists in science for Harris’ claim: Harris cannot coherently claim that the goal of a natural phenomenon “ought” to be something different than it “is” without agreeing that the hybrid product is no longer a purely natural phenomenon. This moves his contention beyond the domain of science.

And then, Sloan wanders off into the same swamp as Price and Tanaka.  He is no more able than them to resist the power of the illusion.  For him, as for the other two, the Good exists.  Without even bothering to provide a basis for the claim that his version of the Good actually exists (and his version just happens to agree with the version currently favored in academia, wink, wink, nod, nod), he simply throws it out there, and sagely explains to Sam that either science is the wrong tool, or his version of science is too crude a tool, to approach it.  It’s really hard to tell which one, because at this point Sloan’s essay becomes completely incoherent.  Sloan associates his version of the Good, which is presumably floating out there in the luminiferous ether with an independent life of its own, like those of Tanaka and Price, with “altruistic cooperation strategy”:

What can the science of morality tell us about right and wrong moral norms? Using morality as a natural phenomenon as its criterion, science can tell us if the moral norm actually is an altruistic cooperation strategy and therefore moral in this sense.

and if something is “moral in this sense,” it turns out to be really Good!  Sloan doesn’t leave us hanging on this point.  He spells it out for us:

Consider the norms: “Homosexuality is evil,” and “women must be subservient to men.” These both have the necessary “violators deserve punishment” part and altruistic parts of all altruistic cooperation strategies as described above. However, are they really altruistic cooperation strategies? They appear to be if you look no further than the in-groups that may altruistically cooperate to impose them and benefit. But how do they measure up regarding altruistic cooperation between the in-group and the out-group? They reduce altruistic cooperation because the out-group generally cannot equally punish the in-group; consequently, the out-group is exploited. So these two norms (like all norms allowing exploitation) are immoral by this universal moral standard.

Indeed, it turns out that Sloan is in possession of some kind of an absolute standard for deciding what is “shameful,” as he continues,

Could acknowledgement of the two norms’ shameful origins in exploitation and that they are immoral by this universal moral standard change the mind of a religious person? I expect a religious person would be more likely to reinterpret Holy Scriptures – motivated by these science of morality insights, rather than being motivated by simply being told “Science shows the ultimate goal of morality is well-being.” Let’s do all we can to make the science of morality useful to religious people; some need a lot of help.

And so, this “universal moral standard” certainly exists.  Like the other two, Sloan is just quibbling about the best way to realize it.  Chalk up number three for Harris.

It is with a heavy heart that I turn to Haidt.  I have admired his books and papers.  He really seems to “get it.”  At least he doesn’t fall into the same slough as the others by actually agreeing with Harris about the existence of the Good, and merely quibbling about how to get there.  Haidt is someone who, by all appearances, should be able to debunk Harris’ “scientific morality” in a few sentences, and yet, somehow, he can’t seem to cut to the chase.  Instead, he comes down with a severe case of philosophical flatulence before our eyes.

In his essay, Why I think Sam Harris is wrong about morality, Haidt comes up with two objections to Harris’ claim.  The first is that “well-being” can’t be measured in “an objective way that is similar to measurements in the natural sciences.”  This is really just arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  All Harris has to do is marshal his gazillions of counter-arguments that well-being can, in fact, be measured scientifically, and we are right back where we started from.  Haidt introduces his next objection by trotting out two completely unnecessary bits of philosophical jargon, succeeding thereby in throwing a smoke screen over the rest of the objection.  He uses one of the terms in the title of the objection itself: The claim that moral facts are non-anthropocentric facts.  To avoid confusing the reader any more than necessary, I will let Haidt speak for himself:

The philosopher David Wiggins (1987) distinguishes between “Non-anthropocentric” and “anthropocentric” facts. (This is similar to Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities).  Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.

Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that  sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar  and isolation.

Harris is asserting that correct moral claims are non-anthropocentric facts. He is asserting that if intelligent aliens came to Earth today, they could in principle judge the moral worth of human societies, as long as they learned about human brains and could take accurate measures of well-being.

But moral facts are anthropocentric facts. If intelligent aliens came to visit, we can have no confidence that they would reach the same moral conclusions that Harris reaches, based on his utilitarian ethos.

All I can say to Haidt is, “Lose the ‘anthropocentric’ and ‘non-anthropocentric,’ already!”  It’s just not that complicated!  The illusion of the Good increased the probability that our genes would survive and reproduce.  It exists only for that reason.  There is no way that it can somehow shed its evolutionary strings and become a real thing.  The answer Harris is looking for, but will certainly fail to see, is really just as simple as that.

Apparently Harris received hundreds of essays in response to his challenge.  Forgive me if I don’t read any more of them.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

One thought on “Four Lame Responses to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge”

  1. Really good and I couldnt have imagined someone helping Sam get out of the mire of this stupid argument better than this. It really makes me hopeful that people do understand the Moral Landscape’s argument and deal with this volley of non-sequeteirs from the intellectual circles.

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