Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape

Sam Harris asks an interesting question in the introduction, after laying out his central (and not really controversial) claim that questions about values are questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. “Is it possible,” he asks, “that certain people are incapable of wanting what they should want?” Of course, he answers; there are always people who get things wrong. But that question doesn’t exhaust the difficulties that arise in moral discussion, yet Harris separates it out as if it did. The really hard question, which he generally gives short shrift, asks “is it possible that there are many people who are incapable of wanting what other people want?” In other words is it possible that many people do just fine at wanting what they should want for themselves and fail only at wanting what they should want for other people? Yes it is, and this is why the world is not a happy Utopia of people adding their bliss together to make a sum of Megabliss. The owl’s well-being is to eat the mouse, and the mouse’s well-being is to dodge the owl. We have an impasse.

It is surprising that Harris doesn’t put more emphasis on competition, on rivalry and scarcity and zero-sum games and prisoners’ dilemmas, on exploitation and labour and hierarchy, on the fact that more well-being for me is not the same as more well-being for you, let alone for everyone, and that this fact by itself is enough to make morality contentious and difficult. He does address these issues eventually, but not until well into the book, and then only briefly and somewhat perfunctorily. The emphasis is all on insistence that “the well-being of conscious creatures” is pretty much all we need to consider.

He does tell us some interesting things in the process, though, such as that “neuroimaging has also shown that fairness drives reward-related activity in the brain, while accepting unfair proposals requires the regulation of negative emotion.” That is a hopeful observation – but it is vulnerable to the familiar fact that humans are brilliant at rationalization, which means among other things that we know how to understand “fairness” in such a way that it maximizes our own well-being at the expense of other people. Tax-cuts for the super-rich make a tidy example of that, since one can view both sides of the debate as defining “fairness” in their own favor. (Michael Moore performed this dialectic in one of his films: on being told that his new book had just hit the New York Times best-seller list he said, “Oh! Well now I believe in tax-cuts for the rich.”)

The depressing truth that Harris never really confronts is that no one really wants to maximize the well-being of everyone. Economies depend on not doing so: cheap labour is the engine that drives various economic miracles and tigers. Lip service is paid to the idea of eradicating poverty, but meanwhile all sorts of visible and occult mechanisms make sure that there will always be plenty of poor people around. Rich countries subsidize their own cotton farmers at the expense of desperately poor African counterparts. Where is the brain reward for the feeling of fairness then? Africans are far away, and easy to ignore, so their immiseration doesn’t interfere with the well-being of prosperous Europeans.

This isn’t an issue of not understanding that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures. It’s an issue of not caring, of selective attention, of studied ignorance, of institutions, regulations, habits, expertise – it’s a myriad of things. It’s easy to get people to agree that well-being is good; the hard part is getting them to agree on what that implies they should do, and getting them to do it.

Harris spends most of the book hammering home the point that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures, which means he spends far too little time considering the difficult questions that arise even if everyone agrees on that. He also frequently treats those questions as easily settled, for instance when he says, “I think there is little doubt that most of what matters to the average person – like fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality – will be integral to our creating a thriving global civilization and, therefore, to the greater well-being of humanity”.

Almost halfway into the book he does suddenly admit the difficulty – “population ethics is a notorious engine of paradox, and no one, to my knowledge, has come up with a way of assessing collective well-being that conserves all of our intuitions”. He then quotes Patricia Churchland saying, “no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs of two…” Quite so, and this acknowledgement should have come much earlier and been woven into the discussion throughout. Because it isn’t, the first part of the argument seems much too quick and effortless. If it were that simple, the reader keeps thinking, why wouldn’t everyone just do it?

About the Author

This review was written for issue 53 of The Philosophers’ Magazine.

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