challenge essay

This essay will confine itself to a small portion of my response to Dr Harris’s book The Moral Landscape (available at []). My intent is to initiate dialogue concerning his theory by pointing out legitimate concerns, if not fatal flaws.

Flawed in principle

Dr Harris argues that regardless of our ability to obtain answers in practice, the existence of answers in principle provides sufficient foundation for a scientific conception of moral truth. Although using a broad definition of science, he arguably exceeds its limits. Indeed, my experience has been that mistaking the existence of answers in principle for a right to claim “scientific concept” in practice is a source of great intellectual confusion. After all, we just finished making that point with intelligent design (ID) theory. I mean there really are answers in principle to whether certain biological phenomena can emerge from evolutionary processes, or if universal constants were fine-tuned to generate humans. In essence ID theorists claimed that the existence of answers to such questions granted their ideas scientific status, set mysteriously beyond criticism regarding methods. That move didn’t work for them and it shouldn’t for Harris. It is the quality of the underlying method, and its potential for practical discovery that defines concepts as scientific. In a recent article Harris appears to acknowledge this, defining scientific thinking as “adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence.”

A major obstacle to meeting such criteria is centering moral judgment on the undefined value “well-being”. Harris defends its merit by comparison to the term “health” used in medicine. That argument fails, however, as the ambiguous term health (even if limited) is neither informative nor required for medical practice. Scientific medical assessments are confined to specific components of physical form or function that are defined, and stand despite variable interpretations of health.

Attempting to demonstrate its utility, Harris constructs a metric for moral judgment: a spectrum of well-being book-ended by the polar extremes of absolute well-being or absolute misery for everyone. He claims that these states are easily conceived and once admitted allow people to judge actions based on how they move some* people’s lives, some* distance toward either end, for some* period of time. Unfortunately, the additional undefined quantities (*) only compound his initial problem. Given all valid qualitative and quantitative goals, some contradictory, a single moral “landscape” matching actions to ranked outcomes (with peaks sharing a consistent, intelligible meaning) seems logically impossible. Suggestions it can be imagined do not constitute proof it can exist, even in principle. And assertions that moral verdicts may already be rendered without developing a “landscape” model (for actions deemed incapable of maximizing well-being) simply beg the question.

More problematic, basing moral judgment on outcomes eliminates our ability to distinguish mistakes (factual errors) from intended consequences (commonly considered a criterion of moral error). Take female circumcision for example. Unlike a psychopath butchering little girls, cultures practicing circumcision do not intend harm. The graphic analogy Dr Harris endorses to link the two morally only works when focusing on particularly gruesome results, which for circumcision is the by-product of people acting on beliefs regarding beneficial sexual traits (arguably factual error) without access to modern medical care (circumstance). The difference in intent is clear, as people from those cultures have sought access to medicine that could remove the “septic blade” and tortured “screaming girl” from the vividly painted scenario. While the practice would then become a form of surgery (generally equivalent to male circumcision) some people want to avoid any improvement and so normalization of the practice by blocking access to medical care at home and abroad. Yet these actions inherently extend the suffering and potential deaths the practitioners are trying to avoid. As described, Dr Harris’s moral theory would seem to treat all groups as roughly morally equivalent, regardless of the vast differences in intent. That is a major misfire on an initial test.

But the final punch line, among other reductios, is that science itself appears a moral evil. Whatever its benefits, it has delivered overpopulation, apocalyptic weaponry, and life-threatening pollution (clearly not maximized well-being). Any defense of science is undercut by Harris’s reasoning against the burqa where potential secondary cultural effects and abuses by others trump intended uses.

Flawed in practice

Can the human brain extrapolate results of single actions to mythic levels of experience (absolute well-being/misery) with any accuracy and without bias? Dr Harris claims that moral experts will emerge capable of these feats… and surprisingly without having to understand the natural development or function of morality.

Harris uses sexual jealousy to demonstrate the difference between the scientific projects of 1) understanding why we are jealous and 2) knowing how we can deal with it in a morally proper way. He hand waves at the first project (our “inner ape” has swung into view) to show how independent and so irrelevant that knowledge is to finding answers for the second. Instead he reveals a problem. Contrary to his assumption, human sexual practices (serial monogamy, prostitution, polyandry, partner-swapping, and orgies) are closer to nonaggressive bonobo sexual behavior. Is jealousy inherited from distant ancestors, and bonobo-like behavior limited to those freed by recent, convergent genetic mutations? Or could jealousy emerge from our frustrated “inner bonobo”, caged by recently imposed beliefs of “beneficial and natural” monogamy (factual error)? Each cause suggests radically different solutions, and without data from the first project moral experts are unlikely to identify which responses to jealousy are possible much less “maximize well-being”.

In advocating a scientific conception of morality (driven by progress in neuroscience) how can Dr Harris claim moral expertise is possible, independent of knowledge concerning the development and function of this mental faculty? This seems a serious contradiction, and barrier to any credible practice of his system.


While science can inform our moral choices, it is arguably not as Dr Harris suggests. If anything, these flaws demonstrate the dangers of lowering standards to jury-rig support for one’s beliefs when scientifically sound evidence proves hard to find.

[Note: the essay above was submitted as an entry in Dr Harris's Moral Landscape challenge on February 2, 2014.  Font styles are in the original document but may not have transferred through his submission page.]


  1. Undefined concept of "well being"? Seriously? What does this man have to do to have his operant definitions acknowledged?

  2. Thanks for your comment! This was a serious criticism regarding it's merits as a measurable parameter in science. You may very well be correct that well-being can serve some operational capacity (around which we could build parameters that can be measured), but he was arguing that well-being itself could be used as a parameter for measurement. A 1000 word limit may have left that unclear. My full response expands on the concept, using his own example of "health". As a scientist working in medicine, my goal might be to improve health but that is an impossible/unusable parameter for measurement. The same would be true for well-being, and that is where his landscape map would come apart as a scientific tool.