Why Care About Human Well-Being? A Response to Sam Harris

Do you want other people to be happy? If you had a choice between making the world either happier or more miserable, which would you choose? Which choice would be the moral one?

These are questions that Dr. Sam Harris, a best-selling author and neuroscientist, has been discussing for many years now. His most prominent book on the subject, The Moral Landscape, was even a New York Times bestseller. Unfortunately, this book contained a number of elementary philosophical mistakes that Dr. Harris continues to misunderstand or ignore.

So, if you want to maximize the well-being of others in an intellectually coherent manner, read on!

The most important mistake of The Moral Landscape is what Harris, in a response to critiques of his book, calls “The Value Problem.”

Here’s how Harris summarizes the critique:

The charge is that I haven’t actually used science to determine the foundational value (well-being) upon which my proffered science of morality would rest. Rather, I have just assumed that well-being is a value, and this move is both unscientific and question-begging. Here is Blackford [Russell Blackford, the critic he decides to most directly respond to in his article]:

If we presuppose the well-being of conscious creatures as a fundamental value, much else may fall into place, but that initial presupposition does not come from science. It is not an empirical finding… Harris is highly critical of the claim, associated with Hume, that we cannot derive an “ought” solely from an “is” – without starting with people’s actual values and desires. He is, however, no more successful in deriving “ought” from “is” than anyone else has ever been. The whole intellectual system of The Moral Landscape depends on an “ought” being built into its foundations.

So we know that Sam Harris is aware of the problem. But how does Harris respond to this critique? Does he provide an argument that establishes, by careful reasoning, that human beings are morally obligated to seek “the well-being of conscious creatures”? Does he delve into the intricacies of the naturalistic fallacy, as presented by its best representatives, and explain the flaws in their logic?

Unfortunately not. Instead, he makes a pragmatic shift, saying, “science in based on values that must be presupposed — like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence, etc. One who doesn’t share these values cannot do science.”

Think about this. If you don’t share the values, you cannot do science.

That’s true for many values. In general, Sam Harris and I would agree on this.

Of course, one of those values is not a concern for human well-being. Imagine your favorite evil scientist from a movie. Guess what? These people also exist in real life and their scientific research, unfortunately, creates a great deal of human misery.

But that quibble aside, let’s agree that, whether for good or for bad, we have to share certain values to practice science. Now, for the sake of open mindedness, and to consider different points of view, imagine with me – for just a moment – that there is a sound logical argument that atheism (properly defined, etc.) leads to nihilism. In other words, what if a rational consideration of the atheistic worldview logically led to the denial of the values necessary to practice science? (This problem is directly addressed in True Reason). If that is the case, then, contrary to our contemporary cultural narrative, it is the atheistic scientist who would have to “check their brain at the door” before going into the laboratory to do their scientific work.

It is crucial that we distinguish between these different components of life. Consider it this way:

One day, a Christian, an atheist, and a Muslim scientist all walk into a laboratory. They all share the same values of ‘it is good to understand the universe,’ ‘it is right to follow the evidence where it leads,’ ‘logical coherence is a virtue,’ and so on. Therefore, they all work together well and discover a new scientific theory.

I apologize for the lack of a punch line. My point is that on a practical level, if it so happens that scientists from different world views share the requisite values for doing science, then they can practice science together.

But the more interesting question, and the one that Sam Harris is dodging, is what happens when the Christian, the atheist, and the Muslim go to the bar after work to celebrate their discovery? After a beer or two, perhaps they start to feel comfortable enough to discuss religion. Or perhaps they are the kind of hardy souls who can manage gracious disagreement on religious questions without the help of alcohol. At the bar, settled comfortably into their seats, they begin to discuss the question, “Which of our worldviews best justifies the existence of the values that we depend upon to do our jobs? Who can give the best reason to justify the moral values we each try to live by in all of our lives: to love our families, our friends, and our neighbors?”

If Sam Harris is our atheist in the bar, here is what he would say, to quote from his response to Blackford:

Scientists need not apologize for presupposing the value of evidence, nor does this presupposition render science unscientific. In my book, I argue that the value of well-being — specifically the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone — is on the same footing. There is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it. To say that the worst possible misery for everyone is “bad” is, on my account, like saying that an argument that contradicts itself is “illogical.” Our spade is turned. Anyone who says it isn’t simply isn’t making sense. The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could just as well be located in science as a whole — or reason generally. Our “oughts” are built right into the foundations. We need not apologize for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way. It is far better than pulling ourselves down by them.

You probably need to read his words again. This time, look carefully for an argument. Search his statement and find a premise, another premise, and a conclusion. Identify where he establishes the logical relationship between them. Remember, these aren’t Harris’ idle thoughts over a beer, but his considered, edited, and published response to his critics.

The problem, as I see it, is that Harris’ argument amounts to ‘I don’t need to argue for my presuppositions. I take them for granted because I have to in order to make practical advances in my work.’

As a Christian who reads a fair amount of atheist arguments against Christianity, this looks like a blind leap of faith. “I can’t justify my starting point, so I will just assume it is true.” If you reject that kind of defense of Christianity, as you should, then you should also reject that kind of a-reasoning for an atheistic morality.

And as Harris says himself, “The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could just as well be located in science as a whole — or reason generally.” So if this problem is truly a problem for Dr. Harris’ worldview, it undermines not just his moral philosophy, but the intellectual coherence of his scientific practice and, indeed, all of his reasoning. This is clearly an important flaw!

But actually, and regrettably, the problem gets worse for Dr. Harris. Why? Because he isn’t just taking a neutral presupposition for granted. Rather, even though he knows that other respected thinkers have carefully pointed out the logical contradictions between his form of atheism and his scientific and moral presuppositions, he continues to ignore their arguments. Instead of responding to reason with reason, he continues to assert that he doesn’t even need to reason! (And even worse, but somewhat irrelevant, is that he then has the gall to charge that it is his critics who are ‘unreasonable’! See Chapter Five in True Reason for more).

Sam Harris has simply avoided giving a rational response to what he calls The Value Problem. And so ‘The Value Problem’ remains a good reason to logically conclude that Sam Harris has failed to make a rational case for an atheistic and objective moral system.

But even though his worldview is logically incoherent on this essential point, we can still work with Dr. Harris to think about how scientific research can give us new insights to maximize human flourishing. Atheistic scientists may not be able to reasonably explain their starting points in the bar after work. Still, even if the values they bring to work are based upon a blind faith, as long as they have the right values for the work itself, we can collaborate together on scientific pursuits.

In conclusion: I agree with Sam Harris that, on a practical level, scientific research can help us maximize human well-being. But I disagree with him, for the reasons presented above, that he has explained how atheists can reasonably and coherently adopt an objective morality. As Dr. Harris himself has noted, if his system fails to justify morality, it is equally suspect when it comes to the coherence of atheism and science, and even more broadly, of atheism and reason.

So what do you think? Is it legitimate to wave these problems away as if they don’t matter? Or do atheists need to provide a logical, rational account for the coherence of their worldview?

More importantly: don’t you care about human well-being? The good news is that Christianity offers you a reasonable and coherent framework for loving every person. I invite you to consider the evidence for yourself.