In yesterday’s Sunday New York Times Book Review, polymath philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah reviews Sam Harris’s new book. As you probably know, the thesis of The Moral Landscape is that there are objective scientific criteria for morality—to wit, moral acts are those that increase “well-being.”
When I read about this, and heard Harris’s TED talk on the topic, I smelled trouble. Wasn’t this just updated utilitarianism, with all its attendant problems? And whose well-being is to be maximized? What if society’s well-being (the overall total) is maximized by treating some people abysmally? Is it moral to torture somebody if that would save hundreds of lives? Or would that ultimately reduce well-being by degrading social standards? And what is well-being, anyway? How do you trade off things like economic well-being versus physical well-being when these come into conflict?
Because I hadn’t read Sam’s book, I reserved judgment; but I predicted that philosphers would handle the book roughly as the incursion of an upstart into their territory. Appiah gives it a mixed review, singling out some of the issues that concerned me:
In fact, what he [Harris] ends up endorsing is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?
It’s not that Harris is unaware of these questions, exactly. He refers to the work of Derek Parfit, who has done more than any philosopher alive to explore such difficulties. But having acknowledged some of these complications, he is inclined to push them aside and continue down his path . . .
Harris was a philosophy major at Stanford, but he is inclined to scant most of what philosophers have had to say about well-being. There is, for example, a movement in contemporary philosophy and economics known as “the capabilities approach,” which takes seriously the question of identifying the components of well-being and measuring them. But neither of the two leading exponents of this approach — the philosopher and economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher and classicist Martha Nussbaum — gets a mention in the book.
But Appiah lauds Harris’s exposition of the science (and criticizes his bashing of religion):
Still, there’s plenty of interest in “The Moral Landscape.” Harris draws our attention to the fact that “science increasingly allows us to identify aspects of our minds that cause us to deviate from norms of factual and moral reasoning.” And when he stays closest to neuroscience, he says much that is interesting and important: about the limits of functional magnetic resonance imaging as a tool for studying brain function; about the current understanding of psychopaths (whose brains display “significantly less activity in regions of the brain that generally respond to emotional stimuli”); about the similarities in the ways in which moral and nonmoral belief seem to be handled in the brain. I found myself wishing for less of the polemic against religion, which recurs often and takes up one entire chapter — he has had two bites of that apple already, and will soon be reduced to gnawing at the core — and I wanted more of the illumination that comes from our increasing understanding of neuroscience.
Appiah notes that “a real contribution to the old project of a ‘naturalized ethics’ would have required a fuller engagement with its contradictions and complications,” but there’s a problem with this criticism. Had Harris made his book a thorough exposition of his neo-utilitarianism, complete with references to all previous work and discussions of all possible problems, it would have become a scholarly tome rather than, as he intended, a “popular” discussion of science and morality. (As it is, it’s plenty scholarly with many pages of footnotes.) Similarly, had Dawkins dealt with all “sophisiticated” theology in The God Delusion, many fewer people would have read it.
I now have a copy of The Moral Landscape. It’s a short book—191 small pages of text and 43 pages of footnotes—and, judging from the introductory chapter, it’s well worth reading. The mantra of “‘is’ doesn’t imply ‘ought'” has been accepted too uncritically, and it’s time for all of us to revisit the Naturalistic Fallacy. I’ll post my take in a few weeks, and maybe others can then chime in with theirs.
UPDATE: Sam put an excerpt from his book (and a very short video) up at HuffPo. And it would be good for people to read Sam’s book before they criticize his thesis!