In this review of Sam Harris’ recently published book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (quotations are from the Kindle edition), I want to focus on the meta-ethical theory he argues for. I will not address his claims regarding science, philosophy, or religion unless I think it seriously impacts his meta-ethical theory. Therefore my relative silence on such issues should not be taken as agreement with Harris.
Harris defines the good as that which brings about the most well-being in conscious creatures. He asserts that the brains of conscious creatures are the only sources of value in the world. More importantly, we value, first and foremost, our own well-being. One way that Harris’ theory could be falsified is to point to another source of value that has nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures. The theist may be tempted to point to God, but obeying God’s commands can also be viewed as a way of preserving our own well-being. I’m sure that some nitpicking could take place regarding this first part of Harris’ argument, but it seems to me that he is at least on the right path for now. Note that this also bridges the is/ought distinction to some extant: if I value my own well-being then I ought to do those actions that bring about or preserve my well-being.
But this is only one type of ought statement. When it comes to morality we also want to know why I ought to treat other conscious creatures kindly. Harris does not provide a particularly convincing argument on this point. The best answer he seems capable of giving is that doing good things (or what are generally considered good things) will contribute to our own well-being. In other words, we ought to be good people because being a good person will contribute to our well-being. But he admits that this could be very difficult in practice: “Our assessment of consequences in the moral domain must proceed as it does in all others: under the shadow of uncertainty, guided by theory, data, and honest conversation. The fact that it may often be difficult, or even impossible, to know what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be does not mean that there is some other basis for human values that is worth worrying about” (1244). The problem is that if I don’t know what will contribute to my well-being then I am unable to know what I ought to do.
The other problem, as Harris admits, is that some individuals (e.g., psychopaths) may feel better off when doing evil: “While it may be difficult to accept, the research strongly suggests that some people cannot learn to care about others. Perhaps we will one day develop interventions to change this. For the purposes of this discussion, however, it seems sufficient to point out that we are beginning to understand the kinds of brain pathologies that lead to the most extreme forms of human evil. And just as some people have obvious moral deficits, others must possess moral talent, moral expertise, and even moral genius. As with any human ability, these gradations must be expressed at the level of the brain” (1713). We now run across a situation where, using Harris’ reasoning, some people ought to do one thing and other people ought to do another. At the end of the book the author writes “If some people are made happiest by brain state X, while others are made miserable by it, there would be no neural correlate of human well-being” and his thesis would be falsified (3243). Unless I am missing something, it seems that Harris has falsified his own theory. Also, note that he assumes that the psychopaths have a brain pathology and not the rest of us. Why ought we try to cure the psychopath and not the non-psychopath? He appears to be assuming that there is a way humans ought to be but he never argues this point.
In summary, I think Harris’ meta-ethical theory could lead to a world that is morally decent (not great) but it is not satisfying to me for a few reasons. First, we are too scientifically ignorant to apply his theory in practice. Second, I am doubtful that it will be scientifically demonstrated that doing what is now considered the good will always lead to a better brain state for the individual, especially all individuals. Third, without some form of teleology it seems that might will make right if no compromise can be reached between two opposing parties. Fourth, Harris is open to the possibility that terrible means may be permissible to bring about a great end and therefore it wouldn’t surprise me if a society governed by Harris’ moral theory descended into an authoritarian hell-hole.