In the Moral Landscape, Sam defines good as attaining the maximal wellbeing for conscious creatures. Assume we label that goal as X, thus good is defined as X. However, Sam did not address a major problem in Metaethics, Moore’s open question. So how do supporters of moral naturalism answer the open-question argument. This question was raised by G. E. Moore in his work Principia Ethica to refute moral naturalism. A question is closed if it can be deduced from conceptual terms alone, while that cannot be done for an open-question. For instance, “I know he is a vegan, but does he eat meat?” would be a closed question. However, “I know that it increases wellbeing, but is it good?” is an open question. Moore maintains that since there is a difference between analytic and synthetic statements defining good in naturalistic terms remains an open-question.
Premise 1: If X is (analytically equivalent to) good, then the question “Is it true that X is good?” is meaningless.
Premise 2: The question “Is it true that X is good?” is not meaningless (i.e. it is an open question).
Conclusion: X is not (analytically equivalent to) good.
the principle is much more important than the “how”.
If we have achieved a state of such blissfulness that we can no longer tell what would be better or worse for conscious wellbeing, we would lead blessed lives indeed.
A question is closed if it can be deduced from conceptual terms alone, while that cannot be done for an open-question. For instance, “I know he is a vegan, but does he eat meat?” would be a closed question. However, “I know that it increases wellbeing, but is it good?” is an open question. Moore maintains that since there is a difference between analytic and synthetic statements defining good in naturalistic terms remains an open-question.
Can you give an example of a situation where you would say “Yes, X does increase well-being but X is not good”? If someone asked you to explain why X was not good what justification would you offer?
There are plenty of synthetic statements that are true. I was born in 1983 is a synthetic statement but it is still true. So even if the claim “saying something is ‘good’ is equivalent to saying it increases well-being” is synthetic it does not mean it is false. I think language is a blunt instrument and we probably should not draw too many conclusions based on what can or cannot be deduced from the meaning of particular terms. Words are not attached to pure meanings in some Platonic heaven. The meaning of a word like “good” is caught up in the history of how it has been used.
I think that there are certain norms built into us as organisms but we have limited insight into those norms or, if you prefer, we have limited insight into our “true good.” Therefore, lots of things have been labelled good that would not be judged good if we had a full understanding of the world and those norms. The meaning of the word good is tangled up in those mistakes.
I think the word “good” is similar to the word “rational”. The meaning of “rational” is not given to us. We have to try to determine what it means. We have a desire for truth and we have to figure out what the best method for reaching the truth is and whatever that method turns out to be that is what we should ultimately call “rational”. Similarly, we have a desire for “well-being” conceived in a very broad sense and we have to try to figure out what the best way to achieve that desire is and whatever that turns out to be is what we should call “good”.
Notice, there is an ought statement in there. It is what we should call good. What i am trying to get at is, the meanings of terms like “well-being” and “good” are not simply handed down to us by God in such a way that we can determine whether the statement “it increases well-being, therefore, it is good” is an analytic statement or not. Rather, the meanings of the terms are constantly changing based on insights we have into what truly constitutes well-being or the good.
In other words, there were times when the statement “it increases well being, therefore, it is good” would certainly not have been an analytic statement because this is not how those terms would have been defined. But it is possible that with more insight into what is truly good we might decide the terms really are equivalent.
I like Sam Harris but The Moral Landscape is a mess in my opinion. Sam dismisses questions of meta ethics as boring and makes a hand waving argument from common sense. I would say that the book dodges questions like this altogether.
I agree completely Brick. I just finished listening to the audio book for the first time and despite the fact that I basically agree with many of Sam’s points I was very disappointed in the book overall. It is a mess. He spends almost a whole chapter making fun of Francis Collins which has next to nothing to do with his primary thesis. That time would have been better spent addressing issues that were actually related to his chosen topic. I felt like Sam was using the book as an excuse to respond in print to people who have criticized him over the years whether those criticisms were related to the topic of morality or not.
Interesting thoughts here. I think the notion of “good” carries many connotations, and the philosophical implications go beyond its technical validity in statements that might be either analytic or synthetic.
My general impression of Sam Harris is that he has a concept of ‘flourishing’ which is relatively common-sense, and encompasses personal or collective fulfilment (these are all very ambiguous words - I would include health, intellectual advances, creativity, science, loving relationships, egalitarian social systems, and a fairly long list of criteria that we can probably intuit). I also think - from the podcasts - that he is sympathetic to Peter Singer’s fairly strident ethical positioning (more than I am, at least).
This might suggest an inherent connection between morality as a “thing-in-itself” (either a desired or necessarily created, randomly arising, socially constructed or even the result of some inexorable external force) and whatever is, or it is to be, unarguably “good”. But I think there has been a fair amount of philosophical wrangling about this throughout the ages so I don’t take any of this as a given.
One basic trouble with any form of utilitarianism is that it allows for what would in practical terms be vast amounts of suffering based on an often fairly convoluted calculus of benefit. If 49% of the world suffer and 51% thrive, that is better than 50/50, so 1% actually end up worse off, and so on. At the other end of the scale, trolley problems force us to confront the extreme moral discomfort of actively inflicting harm regardless of the equation. Philosophers have managed to find plenty of space between the lines to show that what is “right” in moral terms cannot always be said to be “good”, and vice versa. There are other angles too. Along with Neitzche and the existentialists there is plenty to muddy the waters, at least.
Even Christian and Islamic thinkers wrestled with this, at times constructing potentially heretical interpretations of God as a kind of possibly random autonomic moral existent rather than a teleological interventionist. It’s hard to reconcile the problem of evil, but even more prosaically in a divine framework it’s tough to categorise a good action (even unintentionally) undertaken by a clearly bad person (or for bad reasons), or vice versa, without resorting to mystery.
My own somewhat unfocused explorations have taken me an equal distance from moral relativism (which is often unhelpfully suffused with political correctness) and any assumed connection between ‘moral’ and ‘good’. I’m also not convinced the evolutionary by-product argument, or even active group-advantage component of selection, is sufficient to encompass either what morality could or should be, and what it clearly isn’t. So I’m still working on it .
Can you give an example of a situation where you would say “Yes, X does increase well-being but X is not good”?
Yes. A perfect example is discussed in The Moral Landscape itself, albeit in the endnotes: Chpt. 2, note 50. Suppose that there was a race of aliens who wanted to devour us - the entire human race - and that, as it turns out, the total amount of well-being they would get from doing so outweighs the amount of negative well-being we would suffer (that is, out loss). In that case, the aliens devouring us would increase well-being, but would it be good?
Sam answers that it would indeed be good. I disagree. What’s really interesting, though, is that even if you agree with Sam, it seems you have to admit that there is a real moral question here, namely, would it be good or not? But that shows Moore was right - that it is an open question whether increasing well-being is necessarily good.
There are plenty of synthetic statements that are true. I was born in 1983 is a synthetic statement but it is still true. So even if the claim “saying something is ‘good’ is equivalent to saying it increases well-being” is synthetic it does not mean it is false.
Of course! But that is analogous to saying that whatever is good is, as it turns out, whatever increases well-being, as opposed to saying that “good” just MEANS “whatever increases well-being”. And then one must demonstrate - provide evidence of some sort - that increasing well-being always turns out to be good. Sam didn’t take that route - which of course has its own difficulties. (How DOES one go about demonstrating such a thing?) Instead, he opted for the view that “good” is or should be defined as what increases well-being.
Words are not attached to pure meanings in some Platonic heaven. The meaning of a word like “good” is caught up in the history of how it has been used.
Agreed. And that means that “good” could one day be used to mean what Sam says it does. But first, it doesn’t mean that now. As you say, the meaning is caught up in the history of how its been used, and it hasn’t been used to mean “an increase in well-being”. Second, I doubt that it will actually ever mean something like that, for the simple reason that “good” (and other such terms, like “bad”) serve a different kind of function - a non-descriptive function - that is essential to our communication with others and which therefore will never be replaced by a purely descriptive concept like “increases well-being”. When we say something is good, we express our approval of that something. And that is different from describing what properties that something has.