Sam Harris tries to make a case for objective morals in his book “The Moral Landscape” by establishing that morality is not subjective; that it is possible to know with scientific certainty what is moral and what isn’t. How does he achieve this? The entire book rests on an assumption about the underpinnings of morality. He states that “maximizing the well-being of conscious beings is the only thing we can reasonably value”. From this simple axiom he claims to deduce whether specific actions are either good or bad for sentient beings like ourselves, and thus what is moral.
The problem with this approach is that Harris has simply chosen a arbitrary basis for morality which closely fits his own personal subjective morals. He then becomes outraged when what he believes to be objectively moral is questioned by others. It is of course a fact that most people have a moral code which is very similar to one derived from a belief in the importance of the well being of conscious beings. The problem is that it is all too self serving since we have defined good in such a way that it is human well-being exclusively which matters.
Imagine for a moment if we changed the definition to value the well being of sharks rather than “conscious beings”. As far as I can tell there is no factual reason not to prefer sharks over any other arbitrary group of living beings. To accept this would mean sharks eating people would be moral and acceptable while it would be morally unconscionable for a humans to eat sharks. Could we remove all bias and simply say that it is the well being of all animal life which matters? Why is it only conscious beings that are of value? One consequence of such an inclusive moral position would mean killing a fly would carry the same moral weight as killing a human. But why stop with animal life? Are plants not also alive? Why should we exclude them from moral consideration?
But if for a moment we accept “conscious being” to be considered of value, and that all mammals are conscious we can examine the question of whether the relationship is symmetrical. When a lion eats an antelope is the lion being immoral? If a human hunter were to do the same to the lion would it be immoral? The unstated position of Harris is that only humans are to be held to account for their actions.
Morality is a social code among humans. While we may choose for ourselves a moral behaviour where animals are treated well it can never be a symmetric relationship where other animals conduct themselves by the same rules. No matter how much Harris tries to be politically correct in including animals other than humans in his moral framework the reality is that morality can only ever be applicable to creatures capable of understanding them.
We must conclude that the assumption proposed by Harris is nothing more than a subjective and selfish expression of the self interest of humanity. If anything positive can be said about it at all it is that it puts all of humanity in the same boat. Accepting it means looking after all people regardless of their ethnicity, sex, sexual preferences, or beliefs. Just because our belief in the well-being of humans is nakedly self serving does not mean we cannot accept it.
As I have alluded to in previous articles one cannot find a rational reason to justify any action. Ultimately we end up trying to justify actions based on subjective reasons. Why did you eat what you did for lunch? Was it a rational decision based on the calories of the food and relative cost, or was it based on the taste? Life itself is an irrational decision, based on a irrational desire to stay alive.
It is all very well to talk about well being as the only moral good, but there are at least two further problems with concept. The first is that we can’t really identify what well being means. Are we talking about individual well being, community well being, or species well being. It is pretty obvious that the well being of individuals and the wider social groups may diverge. Should we expect a man in a famine who has food to share it? If the well being of the individual matters he should not share it, while if the well bring of the wider community matters he should share it. We also don’t know what aspect of well being is important. Are we talking about physical well being? Are we talking about mental well being? Are we talking about emotional well being? While there may be correlation between these things it may not necessarily be the case.
Climbing a mountain for example is an extreme danger to the health, yet can build a persons character and provide a huge amount of pride and happiness. Is climbing a mountain bad or good? I used to fly gliders which requires stringent training and involves a reasonable degree of risk to my life. Was flying gliders good or bad? It is easy to point to things which most humans call good or bad such as murder and rape and proclaim that your moral framework is consistent with these. It is more difficult to address the broad plains and deep valleys of human behaviour. Morals are rooted in the subjective values we hold, even ones so shallowly virtuous as valuing all conscious beings.
Judgments regarding morality depend critically on the values of those making the judgment. There is therefore a conflict between pure reason which cannot begin with assumed values and the Humanist philosophy which can hold irrational self serving values that are not subject to evidence. Humanists hold that the welfare of humans is an self evident good and true.
At this point our friendly local theist might jump in, claiming for themselves the moral high ground through the ‘Word of God’. Sadly for the theist their empty claims of a divinely inspired moral code are no more supported by the evidence than the Humanist value of human well being. But if Humanist values are self serving those of theists are obscenely so. The theist holds essentially the whole of the Bible to be true while dealing with the vast internal inconsistencies it contains. This is a logical black hole from which there is no return. Humanism by comparison is a silky smooth lake of perfect harmony.
So how can we reconcile cold rational objectivity with Humanism? Perhaps the way forward is in examining our definition of “Rationalism”. Real Rationalists are real people. They irrationally continue to do what is needed to stay alive. They might even eat tasty food without consideration of the nutritional value. They may watch films, attend concerts or listen to music; all actions which have no objective purpose and therefore unjustified. Personal enjoyment is reason enough. The desire to live is reason enough to do what we need to survive. That may include eating the flesh of animals we have evolved to eat.
We can soften the requirement for Rationalists to be coldly objective about all things. They can accept certain things that society at large accepts as true even though they are not objectively true. From these values we can reason the rest of the way. We can work out that torture, murder, rape and other acts are immoral according to this set of values. It may not be that our values are true in an objective way, but by holding these values we support the irrational need for people to be happy, loved and respected.