Discussion by: Red Dog
In The Moral Landscape Sam Harris proposes that the study of ethics is a legitimate field for scientific inquiry. He argues that human well-being is the only metric required for making moral choices. I will describe two simple examples that demonstrate that well-being alone is not sufficient to explain all moral decisions. I will use examples of moral outcomes defined as follows:
- An example population of 100 people
- An example measurement scale of well-being from 100 (perfect happiness) to -100 (absolute misery)
The Privileged 5%
The first example involves a case where a subset of the population enjoys great happiness at the expense of the rest. Imagine the following scenario:
We have to decide between two different moral choices:
Moral Choice 1
95 have well-being of -1
5 have well-being of 100
Mean well-being = 4.05
Moral Choice 2
100 have well-being of 4
Mean well-being = 4
With moral choice one 95% of the population will have a well being of -1, minimally unhappy. However, 5% of the population will have a well being of 100, supreme happiness. With moral choice two everyone will have a well being of 4, mildly happy. If we were to use only mean well-being as our decision metric then we would select choice one. However, if the population were to vote on the outcome they would choose moral outcome 2.
This simple example demonstrates that well-being alone is not enough to cover our understanding of moral choice. There must be some notion of fairness as well. I.e., if a few people are made very happy, resulting in an overall greater level of well being while at the same time resulting in a great disparity in well-being it is not the most intuitive moral decision. Indeed, some modern approaches to morality such as the work of John Rawls make fairness rather than well-being the absolute arbiter of morality. I think Rawls essentially makes the same error as Harris but from a different direction. However, the important point in relation to Harris is that clearly intuitions as well as respected philosophers such as Rawls don't all see well-being as the one and only criterion for morality.
Victims and Criminals
The next example deals with the way our society deals with criminals. Imagine we have ten criminals to deal with and two possible alternative outcomes. This is an advanced society that knows quite a lot about neurology and well-being so they know the minimal amount of punishment guaranteed to prevent future crimes. In moral outcome one they apply only this minimal punishment to the ten criminals resulting in the following levels of well-being in the population.
Moral Outcome 1
80 well being = 50
10 victims well being = -20
10 punished criminals well being = -20
Mean Well Being = 36
However, they also know that while a certain level of punishment will deter future crimes it will not completely satisfy the desire of their victims for retribution. In outcome two they apply a more severe form of punishment. This punishment satisfies the desire for retribution in the victims as much as possible and yields slightly greater well-being for the victims at the cost of much lower well-being for the criminals:
Moral Outcome 2
80 well being = 50
10 victims well being = -10
10 punished criminals well being = -40
Mean Well Being = 35
Although the overall well-being is lower in Outcome 2 many people would choose this outcome as preferable. This illustrates the second flaw with simply using well-being as our criteria for ethics. It does not take into account that we typically believe some people are more deserving of well-being than others.
These simple examples illustrate that while well-being is certainly an important component in any theory of morality it doesn't completely capture the intuitions that many people have about morality.
An objection might be raised that the whole point of a scientific approach is to get beyond common sense intuitions about morality. In fact it was an objection that occurred to me often as I read Harris's book. And that is the ultimate problem with his approach, it is grounded only on common sense intuitions about morality. Harris's solution to morality is not based on any deductive argument or empirical evidence. Instead it is an appeal to common sense, essentially saying all rational people can agree on well being as the ultimate arbiter for moral decisions. These examples illustrate that on the contrary many people have intuitions about morality that are based on other principles such as fairness and justice.