I should confess: I’ve read this one before. I was a big fan of it then and things haven’t changed much. The first time I read it, it was a revelation. Now, it seems almost self-evident. That’s how good his argument is.
What Harris does in this book is refute the idea of moral relativism—that in disagreements about what is moral and immoral, neither party is objectively right or wrong and therefore one ought to tolerate behaviors from ethically different cultures. This is sort of a philosophical trump card, nipping in the bud attempts at defining right and wrong due to one’s inherent cultural bias. It doesn’t add to the discussion of morality; it shuts it down.
On the surface, moral relativism seems a progressive, modern, worldly thing to think. With a sort of a postcolonial guilt complex, one might judge the wise thing to do is to withhold judgement of others’ actions from drastically different cultures and simply label them as different—neither better nor worse.
Sometimes, this is reasonable.
“Wow! You value societal impact more than individual desire? How different and interesting!”
Sometimes, it’s not.
“Wow! You mutilate your children’s genitals? How different and interesting and not at all morally repugnant!”
I admit that I staunchly supported this position for a long while: claiming that it was impossible to objectively assert that one person’s values were inherently better than others. And I wasn’t alone. Many of my educated friends and colleagues hold this position, as it is currently in philosophical vogue. But why was I, and so many others, wrong?
It has to do with the basic assumption of values. To hold a relativist view, one must believe that there is no universal basis to values. That just like the gold or silver standard, values are just an arbitrary arrangement of the moral economy based on social agreements. Different agreements, different economies, same, unjudgeable process.
Harris disagrees. He (correctly) asserts that questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. He poses a challenge to the reader: think of any value, any moral, and notion of good or bad that is not based on the actual or supposed well-being of a conscious creature.
Everything I could think of—from laws to morals to social taboos—everything was based around this idea of its affect on a conscious thing (or if you’re not into nonhuman animal rights, substitute conscious thing for human). Almost by definition, values depend what effect it has on people. Therefore:
Human well-being entirely depends upon events in the world and on states in the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it.
Once you admit this—that well-being is a product of how the world interacts with a person, and how this person is feeling (which is a product of their brain state)—once you admit this, you grant the feasibility of scientific inquiry. That if well-being is dependent upon things that happen in the world, then doggonit there’s a science of well-being, because science is simply the best tool there is to investigate the world.
Certain things we know are harmful to one’s well-being. Like being pelted with stones. Or genital mutilation. Or developmental isolation. We know that these things have adverse effects on the body and the brain. But, at least for me, it took the simple and brilliant rationale of Harris to make the jump from adverse effects on well-being to being called “wrong.”
The entire book elaborates on this central idea and I think it is one that will slowly be popularized. It should be a major boon to the anti-religion crowd that there is a scientific understanding of what is good and bad, that morality isn’t solely the domain of philosophy and religion any longer.
Yet many of that target demographic disagree with Harris. Critics repeatedly reference the is-ought problem articulated by philosopher David Hume. It states that one cannot derive what ought to be from what is; or just because things are a certain way, doesn’t mean they should be that way. With this framework, critics dismiss Harris’ argument, restating that just because morals are based on well-being doesn’t mean they should be, therefore there can’t be a science of morality, therefore neener neener neener, hahaha, and away into the sunset they ride on their intellectual high horse.
And to those people, I nod my head and say good day. Because they do not want to engage in a discussion of morality; they only want to reside in the echo chamber of popular, post-Eurocentric opinion. Despite their recalcitrance, the fact remains that morals exist. And if they exist, they must be based in something; there is no other option for that something than well-being. The concept of well-being, like the concept of health, is difficult to define but indispensable. And just as health resists definition, yet definitive facts concerning health exist, so too do facts exist about well-being, facts that are bound to transcend culture.
Harris doesn’t argue that science will provide a specific answer to each moral dilemma, whether it is right to steal food to feed a starving family, to sacrifice one life to save five, or to tell her that yes, the dress makes her look fat. All he argues is choices that aid human flourishing are a cardinal direction pointing vaguely toward “good,” while the opposite choices we can vaguely label as bad.
And if humanity ever has to decide on one governing moral principle, doesn’t that sound like the right one?