Tuesday, June 03, 2014

My Entry in Sam Harris' Moral Landscape Challenge

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Several months ago, I submitted a piece to an essay competition put forth by neuroscientist, author, and atheist moral philosopher Sam Harris. Motivated by the anniversary of his publication of The Moral Landscape, Harris called out a challenge to readers to refute his argument. The winner would receive $200 and, if successful in convincing Harris he was wrong, would receive $2,000!

I did not win. Today, Harris has published the winning essay, by Ryan Born, and it's quite good. Far better than mine! And written by a professional philosopher, which does make me feel better about losing. I quite like Born's blog, Point of Controversy, so am happy to have discovered his work.

Here is the challenge itself, and also some responses to Harris' critics, which are informative.

My own essay is embedded later in this blog post. But first, some thoughts on the enterprise ...

Background on The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape is quite possibly one of the most significant books that I've ever read, at least as far as my personal belief system. Prior to reading it, I would have classified myself as a moral relativist. Having abandoned the idea of an absolute law-giver, passing down moral certitudes from on-high, this seemed to leave me with little other philosophical option than a post-modern dismissal of all moral systems as inherently relative.

This is not, of course, to say that I was immoral while I held this view. As with most people, I didn't need a firm philosophical grounding to run my day-to-day life. In fact, with the exception of a few faltering instances, I have always held a viewpoint that being good to others, treating them with respect and dignity, and similar actions were generally the best way to be. In short, I didn't actively reject many of the more widely-held moral truths coming from "absolute" moral systems, but I did reject the basis for those moral truths. I felt better in a world where these moral truths were the ones accepted, so I supported them as the relative moral truths to be adopted - both personally and by society at large. After all, with no definitive moral truths in place, moral relativism allows you to be selective in this way. Both its benefit and its curse.

Then I read The Moral Landscape and realized that I was not, in fact, a moral relativist! Harris describes his basic claim 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.
This was very much in line with some of my own thinking, dating back to 2004, when I began considering whether it was reasonable to discuss "evil" with reference to objective facts about the world, rather than in reference to some set of rules passed down from a deity. (I discuss this in a previous post ... though I don't think I ever got around to the promised follow-up which fleshed out my thinking on the idea.)

Refuting The Moral Landscape

As anyone who knows me can tell you, though, I am good at picking out flaws in things, and I think that particularly applies to lines of reasoning. Since I see flaws in pretty much any line of reasoning, this isn't usually a dealbreaker, so long as the flaws are dealt with honestly. Anytime I find something I like, it's with a few side helpings of salt to deal with the parts I find problematic.

The first and most glaring flaw in The Moral Landscape is that it was immediately apparent to me that the sub-title, "How Science Can Determine Human Values," promised too much. Nothing in Harris' book actually tells you that science can, in and of itself, give you the basis of moral truths. That is to say: The decision "I want to be moral, and that means enhancing well-being" is itself outside of science.

Now, once you've made that decision, I agree with Harris that pretty much everything else that follows can be evaluated and improved, if not outright dictated, through a scientific form of investigation. His sub-title would have been more honest if it had been "How Science Can Determine Actions Properly in Accord with Human Values" ... but this is a far weaker claim and it's even weaker than Harris himself claims to make. Within the book, he says (with emphasis from the original text):
First, I want to be very clear about my general thesis: I am not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of "morality." Nor am I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. These would be quite banal claims to make--unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution, the mind's dependency on the brain, or the general utility of science. Rather I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want--and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.
The emphasis on "should" here can be taken one of two ways. If by "should" it means "if you want to be moral, then you should do this" then I think Harris well supports his claim. If by "should" it means "science can tell you that being moral is what you should do" then I do think Harris has set his goal a bit too high. These two meanings of "should" are at the heart of the "ought from is" arguments, I think, which often come into these conversations. (In his response to critics, Harris identifies this as "The Value Problem," and it is this aspect which the winning essay focuses upon.)

His comparisons to health and nutrition seem to offer help here. Strictly speaking, science doesn't tell us that we want to be healthy and well-fed. We want to be healthy and well-fed for non-scientific reasons, and then science tells us how we should behave to reach that goal. The negative aspect of these comparisons is equally compelling, though, as I see no reason to believe that a science of morality wouldn't be just as prone to senseless fads as health and nutrition have been!

Though that was the most glaring issue, it was also one that I largely considered irrelevant. For my essay, I used a different line of attack. I attempted to construct a scenario in which every seemingly objective of increasing well-being was met ... but the situation clearly violated a deeply-held moral sentiment, which is present across a wide range of moral belief systems (including, one presumes, Harris' own).

In other words, I tried to create a counter-example. Using Harris' own reasoning, I described a situation where a clear violation of morality would drive society toward an objective peak on the moral landscape. This isn't foolproof ... it can easily be refuted by just saying, "Well, then, that's not actually a violation of morality, is it?" But committing to that means abandoning the notion of personal autonomy as an inherent moral virtue, and I was gambling that would be too high a price for Harris to pay when confronted with it. So I thought it was a pretty good argument.

Here is the essay itself. Please feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments.

The core argument of The Moral Landscape is that morality and values rest upon well-being and suffering within this world, as a consequence of natural phenomena. While I largely agree with this definition, I feel that it is not fully sufficient to define moral values in this way. In other words, I argue that there are valid moral values which do extend beyond the strict facts of the situation in regard to suffering and well-being, and though they can (and should) be informed by the facts, they cannot be fully resolved by reference to those facts.

Consider this situation involving two men, Daniel and Richard1, with the following features:

  • Daniel’s kidneys are failing and he is about to die.
  • Richard has two functioning kidneys.
  • Richard is the only compatible donor for Daniel who can donate in time to save his life.
  • They are the same age and roughly similar in a variety of ways (i.e. there’s no way to deem that one is more “useful” than another)
  • Richard is healthy and the doctor indicates that donating his kidney will not diminish his well-being in any way.
  • Richard is undergoing surgery anyway, in such a way that donation of the kidney will not add any suffering or duration to his recovery, nor make his prognosis worse.
On the basis of your definition of morality (and indeed by most definitions of morality), the most moral outcome is for Richard to donate a kidney to Daniel, thus saving his life. The situation is entirely positive-sum in regard to well-being. 

Richard, however, decides not to donate the kidney, and has no moral reasoning to support this decision. He just doesn’t want to donate the kidney. By doing this, he is increasing suffering of a conscious creature in a very real, observable way. Daniel will die because of his choice. 

However, I believe that many moral systems would claim that we are morally obligated to respect Richard’s decision, despite the increase in suffering that results and our ability to potentially classify Richard’s decision as immoral. If a doctor decides to go ahead and remove the kidney during Richard’s surgery, despite his lack of consent, it would be viewed as a morally incorrect act, despite the fact that it saved Daniel’s life. 

But why? It seems to me that the moral hazard here comes from dismissing moral values of bodily ownership and consent, challenging the use of well-being/suffering as the one and only standard of morality. These would seem to be moral values that supersede the objective well-being of conscious creatures (or, at the very least, also comes into play in a scenario such as this). 

There are some similarities between this and the trolley problem. In The Moral Landscape, you mention how fMRI scans indicate emotional centers triggered in the second scenario, when the fat man is thrown in front of the trolley. The most common interpretation of these results has to do with the confrontational nature of the act, but that confrontation doesn’t take place here. The doctor is not attacking Richard, but is already performing surgery on him. The strictly positive-sum nature of the scenario I’ve outlined seems to make the morality of stealing the kidney unambiguous, from the standpoint of our thesis. 

Lest we be concerned about the possibility of an out-of-control Orwellian state (a valid consequentialist objection), let’s be clear that the doctor and everyone involved are extremely moral people, and they respect individual rights. They all swear (and brain scans indicate they’re telling the truth) that they would only ever use this method in an situation where the most advanced moral scientific investigations tell them that well-being will be objectively advanced (and/or suffering diminished). There will be careful oversight to insure that this process is never applied in any other context. 

Even with the above consideration, I would hold that there is something morally objectionable about the violation of Richard’s bodily rights, which suggests a value beyond well-being at play here. Not just a value that is difficult in practice to tie back into well-being, but rather a value that is fundamentally different in principle from that which is derived strictly from a well-being assessment. 

Now, one could argue that we hold the values of consent and bodily ownership themselves on the basis of broadly-defined principles of well-being (and I would tend to agree with this), but if well-being is in fact the basis upon which the values gain their moral credibility, we acknowledge that instances where a life is in danger, it’s okay to violate personal autonomy. For example, we are usually morally justified to restrain a person who is a danger to others. We would seem to be similarly morally justified to side with the doctor and steal Richard’s kidney, using it to save Daniel’s life.

And if the violation of consent and bodily ownership is justified in this situation, then it would seem to be justified in all other situations where well-being could be enhanced by violating another’s rights - especially in a positive-sum way, where no suffering is created at all. We of course would want to be very careful about applying this to guarantee that there is not inadvertent suffering, but in principle (if not in practice) this sort of scenario would seem a perfectly valid peak within the moral landscape … and, in fact, to the degree that moral science is successful, it would even seem to drive society up the moral landscape.

1 These names were chosen in reference to two other prominent atheist authors, Richard Dawkins & Daniel Dennett, who along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, comprise the "4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse," or the center of the "New Atheist" movement.