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Necessary, But Not Sufficient
Morality Sam Harris

Jiro Tanaka, TVOL Contributing Arts Editor, argues that understanding “well-being” as a natural phenomenon does not, as Sam Harris contends, provide a traversable bridge from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. Even if we concede Harris’ concept of well-being, it would not effect the fact-value distinction. Harris cites the macabre inventory of human atrocity, often along a secular-religious axis, in an attempt to find the moral bedrock to stump his relativist adversaries. Instead, Tanaka argues that the proper litmus test for Harris’ science of morality is the current, secular battle between left and right in this country. If this science cannot adjudicate the disagreement between care and compassion on the one hand, and liberty and competition on the other, then it cannot sit in judgment over the battle between gods and saints. In arguing that a science of morality could do such a thing, Harris vacillates between two related, but very distinct senses of science.

(Other entries by TVOL Editors in Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge are “Why I think Sam Harris is wrong about morality” by Jonathan Haidt, “How Science Can Help Us Be More Reasonable About Morality” by Michael Price, and “Mainstream Science of Morality Contradicts Sam Harris’ Central Claim” by Mark Sloan.)

It is possible to concede some of Sam Harris’s larger points and yet still be left far, far from either the science that he envisions or the compelling force he imputes to it. I will concede his usage of “well-being” as a term that carries moral weight, though we are only beginning to discover its scientific sense. Furthermore, I won’t take issue with his thought experiment about the “greatest misery for everyone,” though the macabre inventory of human atrocity serves the grasping for moral bedrock more faithfully, at times, than it serves the purpose of clarity in the dispute.

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Instead, I will argue two points. These points together show that it is possible to hold that well-being is a natural phenomenon, a sum of brain states observable by science, without having provided the traversable bridge from “is” to “ought.”

First, the proper litmus test for Harris’s scientific morality is the grayer, more familiar (though no less vitriolic) battle being waged now, in our own society, between two competing value systems—the progressive and the conservative visions of America. If the proposed science cannot adjudicate this battle, where the chances of common ground are greater, then we cannot expect it to sit in judgment over the parade of brutal acts that Harris frequently cites. If this science cannot prescribe the best course of action regarding universal health care and free enterprise, then it certainly cannot preside effectively over a battle among gods and saints. Here is a provisional summary of the two positions:

A. One value system prioritizes universal health care and a well-funded public education system. Free enterprise, though valuable as an engine of growth, cannot be left unchecked, since it leads to income disparities that are ultimately too costly to the society as a whole.

B. The other system prioritizes individual liberty, free enterprise, and competition with minimal constraints from government. Compassion is valuable, but only insofar as it does not impinge on a greater right to individual liberty and free competition.

I’ve purposely framed this debate as a secular one, and not as a battle between the secular and religious elements of our society. Again, framing it this way provides the greatest potential for common ground. What’s decisive is not the battle between chemistry and alchemy, but the choice between the Bohr model of the atom and the quantum-chemical model of the atom. Chemistry is better than alchemy, but it wins by figuring out internally, among other things, how to determine whether one atomic model is better than another.

Even with the common ground as I’ve framed it, there remains the formidable problem of defining criteria external to A and B that would help us choose between A and B. One would have to show that A is better without recourse to its own terms, and vice versa. Advocating for A while invoking its own terms merely leads us back to confirmation bias and the impasse we have today. Prime values in one system often appear as high costs in the other. For the advocate of A, B’s freedom tramples equality too often; for the advocate of B, A’s compassion is too tight of a leash on liberty.

I agree with Harris that neuroscience can tell us a lot about well-being. Behavioral ecology is also compelling on this issue: Ecological “cues” shape brains to develop in certain ways, steering our neuroendocrine systems to prefer things like A or B. Even if we could measure the overall well-being of society, a large segment would still experience the requirements for A as an injury to well-being, and vice versa. Both sides care about maximizing well-being, but disagree vehemently on how we should get there. Harris’s “multiple peaks” argument sidesteps the fact that a concern for well-being, while a necessary condition for a scientific morality, is still far from sufficient.

This brings me to my second point. Harris vacillates between two distinct meanings of science. Such slippage cannot be swept under the rug without consequence to his larger claims.

One sense of science entails a high bar for falsifiability, repeatability, and prediction. Harris complains that his critics hold him unfairly to this narrow definition of science, and that these criteria are merely tools in a larger toolbox. I agree that a formal definition of Science in general is problematic – as it is for all large abstractions, like Art, Philosophy, etc. (See Wittgenstein on family resemblances.) But the “narrow” definition, the limited set of tools in a small toolbox, is precisely what garners science the power Harris wishes to wield against the forces of darkness.

The second, more general sense of science is the one to which Harris retreats when pressed about its tools. It refers to a context of rational discourse within a liberal democracy that values science. It is a larger, social practice of reasoning, with rules of evidence and logic prohibiting self-contradiction. But “science” defined this way is just the secular, intellectual culture of our universities. Despite the presence of irrationality in academe, there are also rational scholars who are conversant with modern science. How is “science” in the broad sense any different from the best moral philosophy and political science as we have it already?

The problem is that the latter is too impotent for Harris’s purposes, and the former is beyond reach. Admitting that scientific work is not value-free doesn’t get us there. A commitment to “health” may be a necessary condition for being a doctor, but it is not sufficient for evaluating the relative costs and benefits of one treatment over another (witness the list of false healers that Harris himself cites). Similarly, an overarching commitment to well-being is woefully insufficient. At best, Mr. Harris may have shown that such a commitment would be desirable; he hasn’t, however, shown that an objective science founded upon it is possible

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  1. Jim Balter says:

    The argument about universal health care isn’t a good example here because the argument against it is invariably grounded in lies and ignorance. Notably, the plan that is currently being rejected was to a large degreee proposed by the Heritage Institute and was implemented in MA by Mitt Romney.