A Darwinian Response to Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge

In his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, the superb atheist debater Sam Harris is not even close to showing how science could determine values, let alone human values. For me this remarkably misguided book was devastatingly disappointing. Of course science is essential in deriving instrumental values from an intrinsic value, but how does science determine any value in the first place?

Sam Harris does not formulate any proper intrinsic value, nor does he properly discuss the immense problems which face the undertaking of formulating a rightness criterion. What is the moral relation between humans and other animals? Is it really in our nature to behave according toand intrinsically valuethe intrinsic value supposedly determined by science? In the light of Darwinism, how can anybody be expected to actually behave impartially? In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Sam Harris gives no proper answer to any of these four questions.

Due to the amount of criticism since its publication in 2010, Sam Harris issued a public challenge in 2013 to be entered in 2014. In under 1,000 words he asked for a disproof of his “central argument”:
“Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.”
Here is the 999 word response from The Inverted Fable of Reality:

1. The Ethic Most Compatible with Science

So, which ethic is most compatible with science, and with reality? Is it hedonism, which in its strongest utilitarian version claims that an action is right if and only if, for all beings and for all future, the action maximizes the difference of all pleasure and all suffering? I think not. Surely not in a version in which beings in order to be counted must have conscious minds, partly since that version no longer would have the tempting “difference of all pleasure and all suffering” as its intrinsic value.

I believe that neither morality nor values at the very core depend on minds being conscious or experiencing pleasure or suffering.

Certainly the ethic most compatible with science depends on life. What would be the value of a universe forever without life? What would the Sun and the water be good for without life? Nothing. The permanent extinction of life would mean the eradication of all values. So, how did life create values and ethics?

When a predator is about to catch a fleeing quarry, the two animals have incompatible interests. The interest of the predator is to catch and eat the quarry, whose interest is to get away unharmed. The predator shows by its behaviour that, for its own part, it would be right and good to eat the quarry, who by its behaviour shows that, for its own part, it would be wrong and bad to be eaten.

2. The Non-universalizable Ethic of the Predator and the Quarry

Are the two animals mistaken in not behaving according to a universalizable ethic, i.e. an ethic which could be held as right by everyone simultaneously without ethical disagreement? I think not. How could possibly the predator and the quarry be expected to settle matters? The hurried requirement that no ethic may be non-universalizable is mistaken and should not be made on rightness criteria, but on social contracts.

I believe that ethical opinions do not exist in any other way than as individual opinions, and that these only can be understood indexically. Not only aesthetical propositions but also ethical propositions are indexical in the same way as for example the word ‘I’ is indexical, which it is because what it denotes, i.e. whom it refers to, depends on who says or has written it.

As I see it, the meaning of an aesthetical proposition depends on who utters it. If for example the person P utters the proposition “Bruno Liljefors’s oil painting ‘A Fox Family’ is beautiful”, it does not mean the same thing as if the non-identical person Q utters the same proposition. In the first case this proposition means that P for its own part thinks that “A Fox Family” is beautiful, whereas in the second case the proposition means that Q for its own part thinks so. Neither P nor Q would be able to show that this painting in any higher, universal meaning really is beautiful. However, P, through its behaviour, and Q, through letting its nervous system be scanned, might show that P and Q, respectively, for its own part thinks that “A Fox Family” is beautiful.

The same is true for ethical propositions; they can only be understood indexically. That is why the predator and the quarry are not mistaken in not practising a universalizable ethic. Nonetheless, they both practise the same ethic. How can that be? Well, their ethic is indexical, and is created by natural selection, and so, is the ethic of animals.

3. The Ethic of Animals

Natural selection is the ultimate explanation of the behaviour of both the predator and the quarry, indeed of any animal. Richard Dawkins’s “central theorem of the extended phenotype” states that:
“An animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing the behaviour.” [Dawkins, 1982, The Extended Phenotype, Oxford University Press, p. 248].
To maximize the survival of the genes for one’s behaviour is precisely the behaviour which the ethic of animals prescribes. Therefore the ethic of animals is the ethic according to which:
An action is right for an individual if and only if the action maximizes the survival of the genes for this individual’s behaviour,
i.e. if and only if the action maximizes this individual’s behavioural fitness. This consequentialist rightness criterion makes the ethic of animals not only complete, consistent, indexical and non-universalizable, but also fully compatible with the modern Darwinian insights that the genes are selfish and that impartial altruism cannot be an evolutionarily stable strategy.

4. The Inverted Fable of Reality

Which ethic is actually practised on Earth? Certainly not hedonistic utilitarianism, which is evolutionarily self-defeating. No, it is the ethic of animals, which therefore is the ethic of reality.

The ethic of animals is the only ethic which is completely non-dependent on indoctrination and might be said to be a discovery rather than an invention, since its behaviour is created by natural selection.

The ethic of animals is not ultimately based on pleasure and suffering, even though it in practice takes them both well into account, since they are created by natural selection. Even an injured animal’s suffering (but not injury) is in the interest of the animal, since the suffering often decreases the risk of the injury to both be worsened and repeated, if for example the animal is limping.

That an ethic at the very core takes pleasure and suffering into account, like hedonism does, is ill conceived, since the cause of the fact that individuals seek pleasure and shun suffering is that they thereby increase their behavioural fitness, which I think it is more well thought out of an ethic to take into account at the very core. As I see it, the ethic of animals therefore trots a final step further in its justification of its intrinsic value than hedonism does.


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