The Moral Landscape Challenge – My Essay

This essay is in response to Sam Harris’ challenge to give reason for why I think his case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken. My response is broken into four arguments. Thanks to Chris Dragos and Josh Walters for helping me think clearer.

1. The Possibility Argument.
Harris argues that morality is dependent on the existence of conscious minds. What makes a moral claim true or false is independent of our conscious minds just as what makes gravity exist is independent of our conscious minds. Harris does not give sufficient reason or argument to prove that morality cannot exist outside of conscious minds. Since some things can exist independent of our consciousness it follows that morality could. Just because morality and values can be known by conscious minds does not therefore mean that morality and values were created by or are dependent on them.

2. The Presupposition Argument
Harris forces morality into the category of science not by proving that morality is a natural phenomena but rather by presupposing it. If he presupposes the definition of morality as being “that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it” then he has already given it a definition which can be determined by science. By defining morality and then presupposing that definition as being true for everyone, Harris’ argument only works for those that agree to his presupposition. His central argument as a standalone argument does work but the presuppositions that this argument is based on brings the whole argument into question.

Defining the way the world ought to be, or how humans ought to live, or how humans ought to feel is not something that can be defined without making Harris’ presuppositions. But rather than claiming that you can in fact derive ought from is (which Harris does not do), he chooses to deflect and focus on what most thoughtful humans all have in common with their values. Harris says that science is based on values that must be presupposed (ie. respect for evidence) therefore morality must also be based on presuppositions. Harris claims that his basic moral claims about misery and well-being are self-evident therefore he doesn’t need to infer them from through his argument. While presuppositions are important to any argument, anyone making them needs to be aware that the presuppositions themselves cannot be scientific. This sidestep and distraction leads me to my third argument.

3. The Philosophical Foundations Argument
Harris actually makes a moral argument of sorts saying it is better to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and accept this ‘ought being built right into the foundation’ rather than pulling ourselves down. Why is it better? Harris’ thesis is dependent on a philosophical belief not a scientific one. It is one thing to identify that humans flee from misery and embrace well-being which we all can see and verify. It is entirely another to claim that humans should flee from misery and embrace well-being and that we can know that this is a morally upright way to live and that those that do not follow this basic utilitarian approach are morally inferior.

Harris’ presupposition cannot ever be known to be right (by scientific inquiry). Since his presupposition (which Harris admits to) is concluded upon by a non-scientific process it follows that it was concluded upon by some other process. I would suggest that the process he used was a philosophical maneuver inspired by his morality. So while his morality can most certainly be studied and understood this view of morality does not get us any closer to knowing if his moral decision was universally moral or not since morality cannot be defined by the same process in which it is studied.

Harris compares morality to health to try and get out of this predicament, but he forces health into the same red herring as morality. There is no ‘science of health’ in terms of being able to decide what health is through logic and reason. This is a philosophical question in where the definition of health is explored by philosophy and the health care practices and medicine seek to support this definition. The same is true for morality. All the foundations of the sciences are philosophical. Harris is attempting a philosophical justification of a science of morality while ignoring the very fact that discussing the foundations of science is a philosophical endeavour. Morality is a question of philosophy, and science seeks to study and know truths about the practice of it. Just as science of medicine cannot define health, science of morality cannot define morality.

4. Assumed Rationalism and Reductionism
My last argument shows that Harris is arguing for a logical positivism and is claiming that all meaningful claims must be scientific. Empirical claims cannot be verified as universally true which for Harris will leave his leap to “phenomena that are fully constrained by the laws of nature can be explained by science” inconsistent with his conclusion. With this argument Harris is making a non-scientific claim of rationalism to argue for a scientific understanding of morality. Unfortunately this understanding of the scope of science is something that also belongs within the conversation of epistemology and not that of scientific observation.

In conclusion, Harris’ arguments have much more potential to be consistent within their own relative bubble of understanding but will never be able to make the leap as becoming a universally verifiable claim. To accept Harris’ central thesis one would need to trust his presuppositions as a leap of faith, or already have a philosophical belief of reductionism/rationalism. Without having a verifiable foundation to build his argument Harris is left to the same fate as the rest of us; subjective musings of our mysterious metaphysical and conscious state.

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