The Moral Seascape

In his 2010 book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris explains why he believes, as the book’s subtitle suggests, that “science can determine human values”, “science” here referring to rational inquiry in general.  In much the same way that science has narrowed down our theoretical models of how the world works (bringing it from an indeterminate multitude of mythical animisms to a more determinate handful of formulae applicable in their respective fields), Harris believes that it can determine, or narrow down the possibilities, of how we ought to act.  He begins by positing consequent “well-being of conscious creatures” as the proper goal of any moral action; like any concept, that of “well-being” will admit of ambiguity, but a pursuit of it may yet succeed in differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practices independent of any appeal to the cultural norms associated with the practice’s historical or geographical surroundings.  Since “well-being” and its antithesis, suffering, are ultimately mental states, and mental states are ultimately physical brain states, Harris hopes that the goal of well-being might be pursued through a (more or less) unified “science of morality” in the same way that the goal of health (ultimately, a physical state) has been pursued through a (more or less) unified science of medicine.

In the same way that the concept of health functions as a fixed standard by which one might evaluate the quality of medicinal practices throughout history and geography, a concept of “well-being”, on Harris’ view, functions as a fixed standard by which one might evaluate the quality of moral practices throughout history and geography; for my own purposes here, this will be accepted (despite any risk of naturalistic fallacy) as the determination of an objective relation between fact and value.  One might illustrate this relation on a mountainous three-dimensional graph, with each point on the horizontal xy-plane representing a possible moral practice, and the vertical z-axis representing a continuum ranging from maximal consequent well-being (a peak on the graph) to maximal consequent suffering (a valley); this is what Harris seems to be referring to as the “Moral Landscape”.  The value of a practice is directly proportional to its consequent increase in the well-being of conscious creatures in general; scientifically tested theories are our best means of predicting consequences given certain occurrences, so it would seem that they are also what we should use to determine the consequent increase in well-being, and thus the value, of moral and medicinal practices alike.

However, Harris’ vision of a moral landscape, wherein every practice has a determinate corresponding degree of consequent well-being, is ruined by the general nature of morally relevant consequences, as opposed to the specific nature of consequences in a strictly medical context.  My point hinges on the fact that the totality of existing brain states, and thus the totality of mental states, and thus the net consequential well-being caused by some practice or another, vary with respect to time.  In medicine, the set of relevant consequences of a practice are as finite as the lifespan of the patient; in Harris’s conception of morality, relevant consequences are not limited by the interests of any one creature, group, or timespan in particular.  Regardless of their chosen standard of evaluation, nobody can predict the ‘overall effects’ of a moral practice, not only because it is impossible in practice, but because it is impossible in principle; a practice may have an aggregate effect of E between its moment of occurrence m and some later time t, but its ‘overall effects’ in their totality will always extend past this, into t+1 and beyond, including additional fluctuations left unaccounted for in the aggregate effect on general well-being between m and t.  Thus, E will never truly be the ‘overall effects’ of the moral action or practice in question.  Time as a dimension seems necessary to make any sense of cause and effect whatsoever, but its infinite nature makes the question of ‘overall effects’ nonsensical–a question without a determinable answer.

In his book, Harris mentions Daniel Dennett’s problem of the “Three Mile Island Effect” as an example of moral paradox:  “At first glance, [the Three Mile Island nuclear incident] surely seems bad, but it might have also put us on a path toward greater nuclear safety, thereby saving many lives”.  In other words, the Three Mile Island incident may have had a negative aggregate effect (a valley on the moral landscape, due to immediate radioactive pollution) between its moment of occurrence m and one week later at time t, but also have had a positive aggregate effect (a peak on the moral landscape, due to added safety measures preventing an even worse accident) between times t and t+20 (20 years after the incident), for example.  These two aggregates can be combined into a single determinate aggregate of consequent well-being between m and t+20, but this will still not be the incident’s ‘overall effects’, as those will inevitably stretch further than t+20 and into the infinity of space and time.  It then becomes clear that a moral practice or action does not have only a single amount of consequent well-being as its ‘overall result’, but rather that the aggregate consequent well-being caused by a given practice may vary, in direction and intensity, with time; the “moral landscape” becomes a wave pool, making it impossible to pin down a definite height (i.e., the overall value or totality of consequent well-being) of any point on its surface (i.e., any given moral practice), even in principle.

In response to a multitude of moral paradoxes, including Dennett’s Three Mile Island problem, Sam Harris maintains that “such puzzles merely suggest that certain moral questions could be difficult or impossible to answer in practice; they do not suggest that morality depends upon something other than the consequences of our actions and intentions.”  However, the indeterminacy of “the consequences of our actions and intentions” in general suggests that, if morality is to make sense at all, it must be different from the way Harris imagines it.

Choose Your Roots

People often seek a sense of purpose by participating in institutions more spatially or temporally extensive (i.e., ‘bigger’) than themselves; they feel that their lives can gain meaning or value from playing a part in religious revivals, political movements, scientific progress, and the like.  Some might even find greater meaning in serving with AmeriCorps, it being a program with a history and a large number of (past & present) participants unified under common principles of service.  At the end of training (thus, at the beginning of Round 1) for FEMA Corps, an event was held at my campus wherein the various teams were congratulated for finishing training and wished well on the upcoming projects; one of the ideas shared at this event was that we Corps Members are now part of something ‘bigger’, something with twenty years of history bestowing honor upon all who wear the AmeriCorps logo.  Our lives seemed to be imbued with value by the institution in which we were taking part, until a blasphemous thought entered my mind: what if my class was not deriving value from the program, but rather the program as an institution was more so gaining value from the participation of myself and my class of Corps Members?

Of course, if the institution and its members are viewed as a single entity, one can simply affirm the value of that composite whole and not worry about the primacy of one over the other; the question only arises when one component is said to give the other some value, some meaning, some purpose, some reason.  This is due to the paradoxical way in which, as Kierkegaard puts it, “to defend something is always to discredit it”; to justify something’s actuality (that is, to defend it as honorable or valuable) by appealing to an institution or external purpose is to deny the sufficiency of its own properties for justification in the first place.  Rather than a mere perk or bonus, a real reason for something’s actuality is a precondition of its justification; either this reason is external to it, and the thing is not valuable in itself, or the thing functions as its own justification, which is really to say that it needs no justification.  That which is intrinsically valuable (that is, valuable in itself, regardless of its relations to other things) needs, and thus has, no “reason”; its value is ultimately irrational.

This does not entail that the principle of sufficient reason (basically, the idea that there will always be an answer to the question “why”) has no place in the philosophy of value; not all of ethics is ultimately irrational, but only the roots of intrinsic value (the subject matter of “normative ethics”), from which the value of concrete actions “in context” (the subject matter of “applied ethics”) is derived.  Actions can be justified by reference to that which is good in itself, but that which is good in itself is not justified by reference to anything.  Moral progress is also possible, insofar as we can bring our actions more in line with root foundational principles given the state of the world as it is; what in one state of affairs may be justified by reference to an intrinsic good may not be so justified in another.  Nevertheless, in order for reasons to justify things as valuable, they must ultimately refer back to a standard of value which must be chosen as such, rather than logically derived itself.

If the principle of sufficient reason is never applied to itself–if we ask, “why?” and demand reasons for every action, without asking when we ought to ask “why” in the first place–then every possible standard of value is assumed to be merely extrinsically valuable (that is, valuable only because of its relation to something else); in the same way that the principle of sufficient reason (in the sense of a scientific quest for answers) is necessary for discovering a root order of nature, the principle’s suspension is necessary for affirming root standards of value.  Somebody thinks that their life derives value from participation in national service; from what then does national service derive its worth?  Why is their life not valuable enough in itself?  One can only properly value that which is good in itself by choosing it without reason, and by affirming that very act of irrational choice over and over again.  It appears that a sustainable love of the intrinsically good requires, as a precondition, a love of the absurd.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or Americorps.