Sam Harris talked here yesterday on the topic of his new book, The Moral Landscape. He spoke for about a half an hour—what he said was similar to his opening statement in his debate with William Lane Craig at Notre Dame the evening before—followed by an hour of questions. Debate was very lively, and we had to bring the session to an end since the lecture hall was needed for another function. (I’m told, by the way, that the Harris/Craig debate will eventually be online; the livestream was dreadful because the audio was weak.)
There were questions that, I suspect, Sam has gotten quite used to. What is the reason for choosing “well being” as the overarching criterion for morality? When we make personal moral decisions (in his book Sam talks about giving his daughter a birthday present versus donating that money to starving African children), how do we weigh off our interests towards kin, friends, and lovers against the well-being of the rest of the world?
I asked Sam whether he shouldn’t simply dispense with the word and concept of “morality”—as it’s this freighted word that seems to motivate much of the opposition to his ideas—and simply talk about “well being”. His response, which I think is right, is that the notion and feeling of morality is too deeply ingrained in human society to jettison, and that his own mission was to co-opt the word to denote well-being. Above all, he argued, we must prevent religion from being the adjudicator of morality, since faith lays moral opprobrium on acts that either are morally irrelevant or that increase people’s well being, like the desire to have sex with those of the same gender, or in any position you want.
I also asked Sam if his theory wasn’t really tautological, since if one found a palpably moral act that unquestionably decreased well being, he could simply assert that it actually did increase well being since such calculations are often hard and sometimes impossible. That would make his claim unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific. In response he could claim that in such cases our moral judgments are simply wrong. That’s clearly true for some judgments, since we’re starting to realize that, for instance, branding homosexual acts as “immoral” is simply a false morality.
I am quite interested in whether any acts indisputably considered moral can be shown to conflict with Sam’s criterion by decreasing well being. That, I think, would be the real way one would have to go about falsifying Sam’s neo-utilitarianism. I haven’t been able to think of any such acts, but perhaps readers can. If you think the criterion of well being is not a good one for morality, give me an example of an act that we’d all consider moral that unquestionably decreases well being. I’m not talking about religiously-based morality here, since that’s rife with such examples. Judgments about sex acts, homosexuality, and persecution of infidels come to mind.
After the talk we took Sam to an archetypal species of Chicago restaurant: the steakhouse. In this case we repaired to David Burke’s Primehouse, known for dry-aging its meat in rooms lined with Himalayan salt. We started with the tableside Caesar salad for four, which was absolutely terrific.
Then onto the meat. I had the 40-day aged ribeye, while Sam opted for the 55-day specimen, which he pronounced excellent. On the right of this photo is Dr. Alex Lickerman, an awesome GP at the University of Chicago Hospitals and now head of student health; he interfaced with the U of C Office of Spiritual Life to provide support, funds, and the lecture hall, which was in the hospital. Alex, like Sam, is a secular practitioner of Buddhism, and has his own website, “Happiness in This World.“
You can see two of our side dishes: truffle fries (yum!) and bacon gnocchi. We washed down the steaks with a good bottle of Cotes du Rhone from my own collection.
Having already polluted our circulatory systems with lipids, we all opted for dessert. Here you can see mine: Burke’s famous “cheesecake lollipop tree with raspberry cream”. Each branch of the tree is a sphere of cheesecake encased in either chocolate or some other coating. You dip the pops into a saucer of whipped cream infused with raspberries. Fantastic!
To the left is Dr. Bob Richards, who also helped with Sam’s visit. Bob is a historian and philosopher of science who has appointments in three departments. He’s written a definitive book on Haeckel and is now working on one about Darwin’s Origin.
Thanks to Bob and Alex for helping with the visit and, of course, to Sam for stopping by to talk to us on his way to the UK. In England, Sam will be having events with both Dawkins and Ian McEwan, as well as giving two other talks.