I submitted a video to the Project Reason video contest.
Following is the transcript:
What is morality?
Where does it come from?
What is its justification?
In his recent work on ethical theory, “new atheist” Sam Harris argues that morality consists of achieving well-being. Harris argues that our well-being is a matter of fact, and therefore morality can be developed as a science.
Harris adeptly argues that the secular left has fallen into moral skepticism and relativism, holding that nobody can rationally evaluate morality, and one culture’s practices must be as good as any other’s.
Harris retorts that it is obviously better to be secure, healthy, and happy than it is to be brutally raped and murdered in tribal warfare. Thus, actions consonant with achieving the first state are morally superior to actions leading to the second.
Unfortunately, Harris’s own moral theory suffers a fatal flaw. Harris depends on alleged intuitions pointing us to the greatest well-being of conscious beings, a sort of utilitarianism.
Harris’s view leads to irresolvable difficulties.
Why should cultures that value domination and the warrior ideal listen to what Harris has to say?
Does morality demand that we achieve the well-being of non-human animals, and to what degree?
[I realize that Harris does answer the above two questions, though I do not think he can adequately do so.]
Does the well-being of some require the sacrifice of others?
Harris in effect reduces his own position to absurdity. In a note, Harris grants that, under his theory, in some circumstances, “it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings.” [See page 211 of The Moral Landscape.]
But an ethical theory that grants the potential moral propriety of the complete obliteration of the human race is on the wrong track.
While some might see Harris’s case against moral relativism as cutting-edge, in fact novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand beat Harris to the punch half a century ago.
Moreover, Rand outlined a moral theory based on the individual’s rational self-interests. For people that entails living virtuously and respecting others’ rights.
Whereas Harris leaves “well-being” nebulous and ill-defined, Rand clarifies that one’s well-being ultimately must be judged by the standard of life and death. The good is what advances one’s life, the bad is what harms it, as a matter of objective fact.
Under no circumstance would Rand sanction as moral the sacrifice of one’s self, or the sacrifice of one’s species, for the benefit of others.
Instead, Rand recognized that only when each individual lives for his or her own life-serving values, can people live together by reason and for mutual advantage.
oshualipana commented February 4, 2011 at 5:20 PM
Nice too see another well reasoned attack on that charlatan.
Lumnicence commented April 7, 2011 at 3:33 PM
“In a note, Harris grants that, under his theory, in some circumstances, “it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings.” [See page 211 of The Moral Landscape.]”
That is a hideous misreading of the text. The comparison being made is fish to humans as it relates to Robert Nozick’s position on whether eating meat is moral or not (in Harris’s view it is, since eating meat garners a net well being for a person). He extends this analogy to beings that are to humans what humans are to bacteria. Would it be morally justifiable for them to use us to serve their utility? Is a fish morally justified in its struggle against a fisherman?
“Whereas Harris leaves “well-being” nebulous and ill-defined, Rand clarifies that one’s well-being ultimately must be judged by the standard of life and death. The good is what advances one’s life, the bad is what harms it, as a matter of objective fact.”
What do you mean by advances? Advances to what end? Or shall I give you more credit in understanding than you are willing to extend to Harris?
AriA commented pril 7, 2011 at 4:17 PM
Dear Lumnicence, I am NOT misreading Harris’s text, “hideously” or otherwise. I simply quoted it verbatim from his book. If you don’t like that text, I suggest you take it up with Harris, not me. In Rand’s theory, one’s life IS the moral end, and it can be advanced only through legitimate moral virtues. -Ari
Lumnicence commented April 7, 2011 at 7:41 PM
I know that you did quote directly (and correctly for that matter), but the meaning was either missed or disdended. By saying:
“But an ethical theory that grants the potential moral propriety of the complete obliteration of the human race is on the wrong track.”
…I’m just saying that wasn’t what was meant by the text. In context, what he meant was merely that if there were superbeings (like aliens, or whatever), we would be out of touch with their moral reality as ants are out of touch with our morality.
And I thought the objective goal of objectivism was the happiness of the individual concerned? Just as happiness avoids being pinned down in defintion, changing from person to person or even within the same person over time, well-being is also difficult to define, but no less comprehensible.
Ari commented April 7, 2011 at 7:44 PM
My problem with “well-being” is not that it is “difficult to define,” but that, in Harris’s usage, it depends on false notions of utilitarianism. The relationship between a person’s life and a person’s happiness is complex and not something I’m prepared to discuss in a blog comment. But I do think those things are intimately connected.
Ari commented April 7, 2011 at 8:02 PM
Let me clarify. My primary problem with Harris’s use of “well-being” is not that it is complex or difficult to define. Rather, my point is that Harris’s conception of “well-being” is “nebulous and ill-defined,” and cannot ultimately form the basis of a coherent moral philosophy, because it rests on utilitarian premises which are at root arbitrary and incoherent.
Anonymous commented April 27, 2011 at 9:42 PM
Great video, great logic! Would that Sam Harris read Rand before he started opening his mouth to larger and larger audiences!
Barry commented August 30, 2011 at 9:48 PM
I think Mr. Harris answered quite well the objections that he foresaw with respect to the “nebulous” nature of “well-being” when he compared it very effectively with health. Health is an equally nebulous concept, yet, would you also argue that since the field of medicine rests on the premise of health that it cannot be a coherent or moral undertaking?
Ari commented August 30, 2011 at 10:07 PM
I actually like Harris’s comparisons to health. Only I’m not merely arguing that his notion of “well-being” is nebulous; I’m arguing that it is irredeemably undefinable and indefensible, because there is no basis for his utilitarianism. (I recognize there’s much more to say to make a complete case about this.)
GeoPorcupine commented April 1, 2012 at 10:47 AM
Both are wrong, but I’ll focus on Rand since Harris was already discussed. Utilitiarianism has a lot of problems (though so does deontology), and well-being is either overly vague or tautologically good (leading to it’s moral to be good – whoopdie doo). Back to Rand…
Life and death, basically natural selection, determine what is possible, not what is good or bad. To claim otherwise is to fall into the naturalistic fallacy. All moralities will necessarily eliminate impossibilities, but may contain possibilities, even in some cases necessities, which Rand would likely object to, such as slavery and forced sterilization.
Secondly, there’s no non-value reason to grant rights to others. Individuals thrive quite well in societies where rights aren’t completely respected, so life and death have nothing to say here. While I need to respect my own values, why do I need to respect others? Perhaps people would do better in societies where everyone was completely individualistic, perhaps not. That’s a question subject to empirical study. Rand has not convinced me here, and neither has Harris.
My favorite ethical philosopher currently is Alonzo Fyfe, though he misses some important things too.