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A Response to Sam Harris's Writings on Moral Truth Pt 3 of 3

Why Sam Harris is correct about so much concerning morality except moral truth.

[This is part 3 of a 3-part blog post response to Sam Harris's book, The Moral Landscape. This portion of the response will make much more sense to you if you first read Part 1 and Part 2.]

Evaluation of the Thesis of The Moral Landscape from My Noncognitivist Viewpoint

In his announcement of his Moral Landscape challenge, Harris claimed that, nearly three years after the publication of his book, he had "yet to encounter a substantial criticism [of the book's central thesis] that [. . .] was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks)." He presented the central thesis of the book as follows:

"Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life."

In the above thesis statement, Harris says that moral questions must have right and wrong answers and that science can help us discover the right answers. On this view, science should be able to tell us whether it is right or wrong to provide abortion on demand. Framed differently, he would say that there is an objectively correct answer to the question, "Is abortion on demand good?" Stated yet another way, he would say that "Abortion on demand is good" is a proposition that can be evaluated as true or false. Harris argues that the truth or falsity of moral propositions can be evaluated by the amount of suffering and well-being that would result from acting on allegedly good behaviors. If providing abortion on demand created more suffering and less well-being in the world than restricting abortion, then Harris would say that the statement "Abortion on demand is good" is false. If abortion on demand caused less suffering and greater well-being than restricting abortion, then Harris would evaluate the proposition "Abortion on demand is good" as true.

In moral philosophy, the idea that moral truths exist, making it possible to evaluate the truth or falsity of a moral statement, is called deontology. Deontologists maintain that certain moral principles are necessarily true, and that these principles can be discovered by careful thought and observation. In contrast, philosophical noncognitivists deny that moral statements are truth-apt propositions. Emotivist noncognitivists claim that moral statements are an expression of feelings of approval or disapproval. On this view, someone who says, "Abortion on demand is good" is in effect saying, "I feel good about providing abortion on demand." Such an expression of feeling simply is what it is, not a proposition that can be evaluated as true or false. Prescriptivist noncognitivism claims that statements about what is good not only express what a person feels good about, but also represent a demand to others to act in accordance to the statement. Thus, a prescriptivist view of "Abortion on demand is good" means "I favor abortion on demand, and we ought to provide it!"

Deonontologist and noncognitive philosophers each think they are correct about the nature of moral statements and continue to argue for their positions today. This philosophical issue simply has not been settled. Even though there is no consensus among all philosophers on whether moral statements are truth-apt propositions, those of us who think and write on these issues ought to at least demonstrate familiarity with the arguments on either side of the issue. Harris apparently disagrees, because he says the following his first endnote to chapter one of The Moral Landscape: "Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven't done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, 'noncognitivism,' 'antirealism,' 'emotivism,' etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe" (p. 197).

I sympathize with Harris. Like Harris, I also arrived at my views on morality primarily through sciences of the mind (developmental psychology; evolutionary psychology). I agree that philosophical discussions can be boring. Nonetheless, I found his decision to ignore the philosophical literature and his failure to consider the validity of noncognitivism a mistake. My own research and reading of the scientific literature on the nature of morality and moral development vindicates philosophical noncognitivism. Scientific research has demonstrated that the judgment of moral right and wrong arises spontaneously from feelings, and that these feelings motivate prosocial behavior within groups. Evolutionary psychology provides a deeper understanding of the evolution of the moral emotions and the way in which they have facilitated cooperation within groups. If psychological research is correct about the nature of morality (that it originates in evolved emotional responses), then the noncognitivists are correct: Moral statements are not propositions about what is true, but emotional expressions meant to persuade others about how to behave.

The model of moral judgment arising from the research of Haidt and Greene does indicate a second, rational process that sometimes follows the immediate emotional reaction to a moral issue. During this secondary process, a person attempts to justify his or her emotional responses in a quasi-logical fashion and sometimes considers whether alternative responses might be more valid. Haidt believes that this second stage of processing is merely the rationalization of a person's primary emotional response. Greene is a little more optimistic, believing that continued rational debate and discussion can move people from their initial emotional positions to positions that are in some sense better. Either way, what people are attempting to do is demonstrate or get at the "truth" of the issue in order to win a debate. Yet both Haidt and Greene remain noncognitivists, recognizing that "what is good" is defined by an emotional response (not a truth) and only supported by rational arguments.

Harris is familiar with the research of Haidt and Greene, touching upon it in his book and describing it as a "worthy endeavor" (p. 49). However, he dismisses it as "all but irrelevant to projects 2 [thinking more clearly about the nature of moral truth to help us decide how we should behave] and 3 [using moral truth to convince people following silly and harmful moralities to change their ways]" (p. 49). In my opinion, what Harris calls Project 2 (searching for moral truth) will not help us accomplish Project 3 (an endeavor I fully support) because it would represent simply one more example of rationalizing feelings. If our goal is to persuade people to behave in less harmful ways, I think that Project 1 (understanding the psychology of morality) will be more useful than trying to establish moral truths.

Although I am a noncognitivist who does not believe in the existence of moral truths, I am nonetheless sympathetic with Harris's effort to frame morality in terms of human well-being/happiness/flourishing. I think it is a scientific fact that the behaviors that are most consistently seen as morally good around the world (caring for others, protecting people from harm, treating others fairly) all increase the well-being of everyone. On the other hand, specific, local moralities may benefit the well-being of some at the expense of others. For example, in some cultures men benefit from the subjugation of women. In these cultures the subjugation of women might increase the well-being of men, but it lessens the well-being of women. Harris would argue that men in these cultures who think that it is morally good for men to be the masters over women are promoting an untruth because oppression of women is hurting the well-being of half the population. Scientific evidence can demonstrate that subjugation detracts from the well-being of those who are being oppressed. Harris therefore proposes that we define as "morally good" only actions that, according to scientific evidence, maximize well-being for everyone. Although I heartily endorse the call for everyone to engage in activities that increase the overall well-being in the world (this is the classic utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill), I still do not regard promoting the general welfare as a "moral truth" and I doubt that referring to such activities as "moral truths" will necessarily persuade people to engage in these activities.

As I have said before, my position on goodness is that no activity is "simply good" in a universal way; therefore it is impossible to answer the question "Is X good?" The only question about goodness that we can potentially answer is what an activity is good for ("Is X good for causing Y?"). It seems that what Harris wants to do is set Y equal to "maximizing the well-being of conscious beings" and then conduct scientific research to discover the range of Xs that cause maximized well-being. He would then say that X1, X2, X3, etc. are simply "good" ("X is good," leaving out the "for maximizing well-being" part) and calling this "moral truth" because the X-Y connections were discovered through empirical research. Obviously, I believe that leaving out what an activity is "good for" is a mistake. I elaborate below, using a portion of a lesson from the positive psychology course I taught for many years.

I invite you to answer the following questions I use to get my students to think about the nature of goodness:

Is hammering with a hammer good?

Is shooting a gun good?

Is watching TV good?

Chances are, you might have had an initial emotional reaction that led your thinking in a certain direction. Maybe you really love watching TV, so you answered "yes" to this question. Or you feel that TV is a terrible waste of time and answered "no." But if you kept thinking past your initial emotional reaction, you might have come to the conclusion, "it depends." Or, more specifically, "it depends on what you want to accomplish." If you want to attach pieces of wood to each other with nails, hammering with a hammer is a very good thing. But if you are trying to attach pieces of wood to each other with screws, hammering is not good. What you need is a screwdriver.

The same is true for shooting a gun or watching TV. If you find target shooting enjoyable or if your life is in danger, shooting a gun may be good. If your goal is to resolve differences with someone peacefully, shooting at the person is probably not good. If you want to be entertained or educated, sometimes TV is good for this. If you want to practice conversational skills in a second language, watching TV is not as good as actually conversing with another person. The conclusion is that no activity is just plain "good." Activities are good for accomplishing some things, but not others. No activity is good for accomplishing everything, so the goodness of an activity is limited to what it is good for—what it can actually accomplish.

I then point out to my students that evaluating goodness requires answering another question beyond how well something produces a specific consequence—what about the goodness of the consequence? A hammer might be good for driving nails through wood, but is driving nails through wood good? To be consistent, we would answer that question by asking what nailing pieces of wood together might be good for. One answer might be that nailing pieces of wood together is good for creating a bird house. But is creating a bird house good? Well, creating a bird house is good for attracting songbirds to your backyard. Is attracting songbirds to your backyard good? Well, it is good for filling the air with the sound of birds singing. Is filling the air with bird songs good? If you enjoy hearing birds sing having birds sing in your backyard is good for making you happy. At this point most of us are willing to accept our own happiness as intrinsically good. In his 2006 book A Primer in Positive Psychology, Chris Peterson calls happiness an "ungrounded grounder, a rationale that requires no further rationale" (p. 75).

What makes me happy, however, may or may not make others happy. My neighbors might not appreciate the racket made by the birds I attracted. The men in cultures that subjugate women might be happy about the arrangement, but not the women. The interests of living creatures are not always in easy alignment with each other. One of my favorite illustrations of this principle is a short conversation between Master Po and his student, Kwai Chang Caine, from the television series, Kung Fu (Episode 11, March 15, 1973):

Master Po: "Where is evil? In the rat whose nature it is to steal the grain. Or in the cat, whose nature it is to kill the rat?"

Caine: "The rat steals. Yet, for him, the cat is evil."

Master Po: "And to the cat, the rat."

Caine: "Yet, Master, surely one of them is evil."

Master Po: "The rat does not steal, the cat does not murder. Rain falls, the stream flows, a hill remains. Each acts according to its nature."

What is good for the rat is not good for the farmer. What is good for the cat is not good for the rat. From an objective, outside viewpoint, what the cat and rat do is neither good nor evil in an absolute sense. Each is acting according to its nature, doing what is good for itself. And so it is sometime with people. One person, acting according to his or her nature in trying to achieve what is good for himself or herself might do something that is not good for another. The act is neither good nor bad from the impartial viewpoint of nature, yet it most of us still feel uncomfortable about the morality of an act that is good for one person but bad for another. The conversation between Po and Caine continues:

Caine: "Then is there no evil for men? Each man tells himself that what he does is good, at least for himself."

Master Po: ". . . a man may tell himself many things but is a man's universe made up only of himself?"

Human beings evolved as social, enormously interdependent creatures. No person can do everything for himself or herself; this is what encouraged the evolution of moral emotions. Because we depend on others, if we try to achieve what is good for us in ways that are bad for others, we end up losing the support we need from other people. Doing what is bad for others eventually will be bad for us. I therefore argue that we should strive for what is good for us without harming others, not because this is objectively "true" or "right," but because, from a practical standpoint, is the best route for maximizing our own happiness. To persuade other people to give up their silly and harmful behaviors, I would appeal to their own self-interest rather than arguing for "moral truths" that do not exist.