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[personal profile] foliumnondefluet
Generally I appreciate how Sam Harris can express atheist ideas in novel ways that are clear and often also funny. But it also seems to me that he does better in debates than in books.

I found that The Moral Landscape didn't live up to the hype. It succeeds in showing that a morality could be developed by objective, "scientific" means, and that may be important news to some, but I think that for anyone familiar with the philosophy of morals, it just seems like slightly tweaked utilitarianism. Sure you can develop a morality based on maximum human flourishing, but Sam doesn't even attempt to justify why we should accept maximizing human flourishing to be the basis of morality. He says something like "I can't imagine anyone reasonable to disagree" which, if it was supposed to be an argument, is an incredibly weak one.

The core argument is that some lives are objectively "better" than others. He contrasts a woman in the jungle about to be murdered after a lifetime of degradation with a rich and successful philanthropist busy changing the world for the better. From this he deduces that we can objectively determine which actions are conducive to "good" lives, and he calls such actions moral.

It seems to me that just adding "during all this, her faith never wavered" to the "bad" life story would change some people's opinion on which life is preferable. So like all moralities, this one hinges on whether one accepts the initial premises.

But thinking further on this, I'm wondering if trying to "justify" morals is not doomed from the start. If, as Hume says, an "ought" cannot be derived from an "is", it follows that morals cannot be based on any aspect of reality. Moral duties can only be asserted. If not, they fail to be morals and become something else. If we pursue Plato's summum bonum because we believe it desirable , then we are pursuing desires, not acting morally. If we obey the commandments for fear of Hell or for the rewards of Heaven, we are acting on self-interest, not morals.

So in Sam Harris' scheme, I'm not clear on which is supposed to justify which; to paraphrase the Eutyphro: are actions moral because they promote human flourishing, or do actions promote human flourishing because they are moral? I don't see how the second option could possibly make sense. If an action promotes human flourishing today but did the opposite yesterday due to changing circumstances, then we can say that the action was immoral yesterday but has become moral today. We know this ONLY because we can determine that it no longer promotes human flourishing. I simply can't see how the reverse could be possible; that we determine by some non-consequentialist means that an immoral action has become moral and will now promote human flourishing. If we decide today that vaccines are immoral, they won't suddenly become harmful to human flourishing. But if we found through research that the anti-vaccine crowd is right after all, surely vaccines would then be recognized as immoral.

Sam Harris is saying that those actions are moral that promote human flourishing. In other words, "human flourishing" becomes the touch-stone of morality, which seems to become a circular argument: we should promote human flourishing because doing so is moral, and we should be moral because it promotes human flourishing. What is the added value of the concept of "morality" in this chain of reasoning? Morality is supposed to tell us how we should act. If morality is justified by something else (eg human flourishing) then isn't it really that something else that is telling us how to act? Couldn't we just call this "human ecology" or something and not link it to "morality" at all?

On a different track, I think that "morality" may be a category error, in that it covers many different categories of things. Indeed, to believe that "how we should live" can be not only independent of circumstance, but derived from a single source or principle, strikes me as stark madness. The philosophical attempts to reduce "morality" to a single source, be it virtues or categorical imperatives or socially constructed conventions or intentions or consequences, may just be a lingering superstition from an age of belief in divine law-givers, and dropping it could probably resolve many seemingly insoluble moral difficulties.

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June 2015

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