Thursday, 26 April 2012

And another thing!

Before leaving the subject of The Moral Landscape completely, I want to write a post specifically to defend Harris's idea against one particularly bad criticism.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was quite annoyed by a howler of an error made by William Lane Craig in a debate he had with Sam Harris on the topic of whether there could be an objective basis for morality without God.

What was even more annoying was that Dr. Craig was convinced that he had unambiguously proved his argument with this ridiculous misunderstanding. Unbelievably, Harris never bothered to challenge this, resolutely ignoring Dr. Craig and evidently concentrating on all the points he had scripted for himself well in advance of the debate.

After the jump, Dr. Craig's bogus argument and why it's so wrong.

Now what’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book, Dr. Harris explained that about three million Americans are psychopathic. That is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others. They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape. The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people. But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either. For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A. So if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.
Now since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and goodness are not the same, as Dr. Harris has asserted in his book.
Now it’s not often in philosophy that you get a knock-down argument against a position. But I think we’ve got one here.  Uh, by granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Dr. Harris’s view becomes logically incoherent.
This betrays a fundamental understanding of what Sam Harris meant by the term Moral Landscape.

The Moral Landscape is a metaphor devised by Sam Harris to help us to visualise the space of possible future worlds we navigate with every choice we make.

It's hard for me to understand precisely how William Lane Craig interprets the metaphor, but it appears to be that he imagines that each peak on the landscape is occupied by a person who is experiencing extreme well-being. He therefore can conceive of a world where all the peaks are occupied by evil people, and I presume the valleys occupied by normal people, and so believes that he has proven that Harris's landscape has nothing to do with morality.

This is not what Harris means at all. Each point on the landscape represents an entire world. The height of each point represents how much aggregate well-being there is in that world, while the "latitude" and "longitude" are co-ordinates representing variations in the moral values we might uphold or the moral choices we make.

In reality, there will be so many such choices that two "value" dimensions are nowhere near enough. But as a crude simplification, we might imagine latitude to be the spectrum from socially conservative to socially liberal, while longitude is the spectrum from economically socialist to economically capitalist.

Now, if we could somehow objectively calculate the aggregate well-being that would be found in a society with specified social and economic values, we could plot a moral landscape. We should seek to progress our values in whatever direction would lead to the tallest peak, while trying to avoid descending into any valleys on our way.

In fairness, it's possible to imagine that Craig does understand this interpretation. It's possible that he is imagining that it is possible for well-being to be maximised in a society full of psychopaths, in which case he is criticising Harris for maintaining that such a society is morally desirable.

If this is what he is trying to say, then I have to dispute that this is conceivable at all. A psychopathic society would surely be a miserable place to exist even for the psychopaths. Without cooperation or trust, social institutions would disintegrate and we would descend into primitive anarchy. There would be no science, no technology, no industry. It would be back to the stone age, only much worse.

If we allow for the sake of argument that it is somehow conceivable for a society of psychopaths to be a peak of moral well-being, then perhaps it would be moral to seek such a society. The reason it is not in fact moral to do so is simply that it would not in fact be a society in which well-being would be high at all.

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