Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Moral Landscape Challenge

This is my entry to Sam Harris's Moral Landscape Challenge. Needless to say, it didn't win, but I'm reasonably happy with it nonetheless.

The Moral Landscape (TML) is engagingly written and cleverly argued. Harris starts with the assumption that morality concerns maximising the well-being of conscious creatures (let’s call this Harris’s axiom). Much of what follows is laudable, but there are unavoidable philosophical problems with the notion that science can determine human values. Yes, science can in principle give us answers we can use to improve the human condition. Fully embracing Harris’s axiom, this is the application of science to standard consequentialism and subject to all the same philosophical criticisms.

It is also a relatively trivial idea, and hardly new. If we are to take TML seriously, we must assume it makes a more profound claim: that there are usually objectively correct answers to moral dilemmas and that science can find them.

The most serious objections to this claim, (The Value, Persuasion and Measurement Problems) have already been raised and I will not reiterate them here. To these I would add The Aggregation Problem: that it is not clear how ‘well-being’ ought to be aggregated across a population of individuals. Ought we maximise average or total well-being, and how concerned ought we be with inequality of distribution?

Rather than rehash points covered elsewhere, this short essay will focus on some of Harris’s counter-arguments.

The analogy to medicine is most effective. By substituting ‘health’ for ‘well-being’ and ‘specific individuals’ for ‘conscious creatures’ in his axiom, Harris argues that any objections to his proposed science of morality must also apply to medicine, and so that there is a double-standard at play.

However, the science of medicine does not seek to maximise health, nor does it claim to identify objectively correct health choices. Instead, it studies how human biology can be manipulated to attain desired goals. If we do X, we will get result Y. If we do A, we get result B. When faced with the choice of undertaking a futile course of chemotherapy or accepting a quick death without, we do not meaninglessly ask which option maximises health. Medicine as a science gives us useful information, but it is up to us to decide which outcomes we prefer.
For medical dilemmas, the patient usually has the final say, but moral values usually pertain to how people deal with each other. More than one viewpoint is relevant, and these often clash. The claim that science can determine human values is therefore the claim that science can resolve these disputes, but it cannot, no more than medicine can tell us whether we ought to value longevity or quality of life.

To counter the Value Problem, Harris argues that we can simply define morality to fit his axiom, just as we define certain terms in physics. We should not be overly concerned if this definition is not adopted by laymen for the same reasons that we do not much care if mystics have an idiosyncratic interpretation of ‘energy’. This move parallels that of compatibilists in redefining ‘free will’ to conform to determinism or naturalism. In the context of the free will debate, Harris rejects this tactic as “changing the subject” while apparently oblivious to the fact that he is doing much the same here. ‘Morality’ already has clear meaning as the idea that there is a specific set of values we ought to embrace. Without a convincing demonstration that the foundation of his values is correct, Harris has simply changed the subject.

A weaker counter-argument arises from the conflation of two distinct roles for values in science: ideals which benefit the conduct of science and values as the objects of scientific scrutiny. For Harris, the fact that science values “evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues” is intended to persuade us that science might be able to identify objectively correct moral values. This equivocative argument is obviously flawed, but brevity does not permit a deeper discussion here.

The argument from worst possible misery deserves a mention. TML discusses a hypothetical state where everybody is living in abject misery and argues that we can all agree that it is certainly good to avoid this. It is therefore established that there are cases where right and wrong are uncontroversial and self-evident. By extrapolation, there really are right and wrong answers to moral questions. However, we can also find wide agreement that the taste of apple juice is preferable to that of urine. The conclusion that aesthetic preferences are objective truths does not follow. As Harris acknowledges, there is little reason to see moral preferences as anything more than aesthetic, albeit with higher stakes. If so, objective morality is on shaky ground.

‘The Moral Landscape’ refers to a ‘landscape’ in parameter space forming a map of the possible ways our values could be configured so as to maximise well-being. There may be many peaks corresponding to utopian societies, and many valleys corresponding to universal misery. Harris admits that sometimes different peaks may be objectively equally viable, but the problems inherent in defining, quantifying and aggregating well-being indicate that we may not even be working from the same map. If, even given perfect empirical understanding, we still cannot agree on the relative heights of two peaks, then the profound interpretation of TML is defeated and only a trivial and uninteresting argument remains.

Most agree that child abuse is bad and that compassion is good. If the approach of TML is to be relevant it can only be in resolving the more intractable moral dilemmas, and these are where different ways of measuring and aggregating well-being will lead to different conclusions. It is not enough for science to make easy decisions for us, it has to be able to deal with the hard ones.

Morality is an intuition arising from evolved emotions such as guilt or self-righteousness. It is these emotions that drive us and that account for the imperative we feel, the ‘ought’. Perhaps morality itself simply has no objective basis. Science can help to build a consensus, but it cannot find objective moral truth.


  1. Well said. I've noted myself that what Harris is really arguing for is a specific type of morality. This is a philosophical argument. Only if you accept that morality will the science have any binding on you.

    Science can inform morality, but it can't make the decision for us. I actually go a bit further and argue that this is true for philosophy as well, since we ultimately evaluate philosophical arguments by our innate values. We have no choice but to do the hard work of finding codes of conduct that the majority of us can live with.

  2. Has the winning entry been announced? I can't find it mentioned anywhere.

    I wrote an entry of my own, but forgot to submit it during the one-week window for submissions. I've posted it here:

  3. P.S. I just found a wikipedia entry that names the winner and links to some tweets on the subject.

    I'm surprised there hasn't yet been a more formal announcement.