October 30, 2012

The Moral Landscape

A few nights ago as I was driving home I listened to a discussion on Sam Harris' newest book, ' The Moral Landscape' on CBC radio one. This book came out in October 2010 so we have just hit the second anniversary of its publication which is probably why the CBC was running the interview again. The book is getting old and it got a lot of criticism by Christian and Non-Christian alike but since I am sure I wasn't the only person who caught the interview and the recent reply of the TED talk I thought I would write down the thoughts I had as I was listening.
In this book Harris tries to do something that I think is quite impressive (though I think he failed);

He tries to solve the centuries old is/ought problem described by David Hume. For those unfamiliar the is/ought problem is basically the difficulty moving from describing the way things are, the facts, to the way things ought to be, correct morality.

Harris doesn't really do much in the way of interacting with this problem so much as he tries to build a case to dismiss this tension between is and ought as a trick of language. Then after he declares that the is/ought problem a trick of language he tries to prove that the 'oughts' can be as factual as the 'is'.

To do this he tries to discover one 'ought' that we would call both good and a fact. The thought process here I assume is if we can find one empirically factual 'ought' we are on safer grounds in assuming there are other empirically verifiable 'oughts' all we need is better tools to discover them.

Presumably because he feels it would be too difficult to find a purely scientific ought in actually history Harris tells a story that he feels will prove his point. The scenario he spins out is this;

We are to imagine the worst possible world for humanity to find itself living in. In this world all things that can suffer are suffering as much as possible for as long as possible. This world of suffering is the 'is' part of the scenario. From that he tries to move to the ought as fact. He says if we were living in this worst possible world then surely anything that we do to alleviate some level of suffering must in fact be good. This ought fact could be demonstrated via a brain which would show that suffering was lowered and pleasured increased.

In this scenario Harris believes is has found if scientific moral 'ought' X. I disagree.
Samy, Be Good
Let me take the scenario and play with it and see if I can find actions that we would call bad even if there is supposed no action I can take that would make things worse. Trying to imagine the entire world in this scenario is somewhat difficult I am going to shrink our world into a village of 100 people. Let me toss out two possible ways to alleviate some level of suffering and I will leave it to you to decide whether they are good or not;

(Please keep in mind the rule that Sam Harris sets up is that the people are currently suffering as much as possible for as long as possible so it is impossible for them to physically or emotionally suffer more than they already are. These are his rules, not mine)

1. Among other problems they are cold, hungry, and thirsty. There simply is not enough to go around for all 100 people. A few people get together and decide the village would do a lot better if there were only 50 people in it. There would be more food, more water, and the existing shelters would better hold everyone. So the people take their idea and make it a reality. In one bloody night the village's population is reduced by half. If an outside were to come in and measure the survivors brains surely they would discover people who are either happier because they are better fed and clothed, or no change because their grief could not cause them to suffer more. Is this outcome good?

2. Without question the release of neurochemicals during sex is pleasurable. While it is only a temporary respite from the daily maximum suffering it is a boost in pleasure. The problem many are facing is that because everyone is suffering as much as possible for as long as possible there are not many people who are interested in having intercourse. However the men of the village decide they want to escape at least some of their suffering even if it is only for a few seconds so every night 50 men forcibly rape the 50 women in the village. If an outsider were to come and measure the level of suffering in men and women they would likely find the men are suffering has less and the women since they were already at the maximum level of suffering their brain scans would be unchanged. Is this outcome good?

I think the problem that Harris has here is he is unable to see past the very modern idea that pleasure is the chief goal in life, and suffering the worst vice. As long as we moralities chief concern is on whether my life is pleasurable we will never create people of virtue we will only build more narcissists and hedonists.