Sam Harris wrote:
It seems to me that there are three, distinct challenges put forward thus far:
1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)
2. Hence, if someone does not care about well-being, or cares only about his own and not about the well-being of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)
3. Even if we did agree to grant “well-being” primacy in any discussion of morality, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure well-being scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of morality. (The Measurement Problem)
I believe all of these challenges are the product of philosophical confusion. The simplest way to see this is by analogy to medicine and the mysterious quantity we call “health.” Let’s swap “morality” for “medicine” and “well-being” for “health” and see how things look:
1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value health, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)
2. Hence, if someone does not care about health, or cares only about his own and not about the health of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)
3. Even if we did agree to grant “health” primacy in any discussion of medicine, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure health scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of medicine. (The Measurement Problem)
While the analogy may not be perfect, I maintain that it is good enough to obviate these three criticisms. Is there a Value Problem, with respect to health? Is it unscientific to value health and seek to maximize it within the context of medicine? No. Clearly there are scientific truths to be known about health—and we can fail to know them, to our great detriment. This is a fact. And yet, it is possible for people to deny this fact, or to have perverse and even self-destructive ideas about how to live. Needless to say, it can be fruitless to argue with such people.
To what does the phrase, “within the context of medicine,” correspond in the original template, which is: “1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem).”?
One must assume that the missing (implied) phrase is “within the context of life.” But the problem with this is obvious. “Medicine” is, by definition, the area of inquiry concerned with human health. On the other hand, there is no such definition of “Life”. Life is not an area of inquiry. Life does not have a set of one or more objectives that we all (necessarily) agree upon (by definition). That is the crux of the objection to Harris’ position. The success of this analogy depends on our willingness to acknowledge that “well-being” is just as obviously the objective of life as health is the objective of medicine. But, clearly, this is begging the question.
It’s not necessary to go further. It is this first step that Harris can not justify no matter how hard he tries. “Well-being” is a value like any other. There is no way to rationally establish either its primacy or universality.
(Russell Blackford’s superb, and generally favorable, review is highly recommended.)
I think you could also substitute “. . . within the context of survival. . . .” Would that put a different light on it, or does the problem remain no matter what is substituted? I honestly don’t know, but I agree with you that there does seem to be a problem.
I also find #1, the Value Issue, the most interesting. I think you make a mistake by saying that we are talking about the purpose of “life”. I am not sure that Harris is making that point - and I don’t think there is “a purpose of LIFE”. The question that is analogous to “What is the purpose of medicine, should we chose to engage it” seems to be “What is the purpose of morality, should we chose to engage it”.
That is, Harris wants to reclaim the word Morality amongst scientists/secularists. He wants us to be confident when we call something unhealthy, but also when we call something immoral. In many ways, Harris’ case consists of him saying “really…why are we entertaining critique X, Y, and Z..?” the way a doctor might be outraged by a ‘new relativist doctors movement’ that advocates secretly giving people diseases. Unless Morality is to become a uselessly personal word (as the word ‘God’ increasingly becomes) then it must refer to something - what better candidate than people’s well-being (as science best understands it at the time)?
Harris says in his reply that someone can always say “what’s that to me”? It is the unstoppable trump card. “Oh, THAT’s what health is? Well, what’s that to me??”, “Oh, THAT’s what morality is? Well, what’s that to me??”, “Oh, THAT’s what reason is? Well what’s that to me, I have blind faith!”. Someone who doesn’t care about health during a discussion about a child’s sickness needs to be dealt with, but not by saying ‘well, really, health is a construct…” - that gets nothing done, and we really risk losing things we care about.
Likewise if someone is morally misguided, or refuses to use reason, they need to be persuaded or at least rendered harmless somehow. The fact is, WE care about that thing - it just happens to be called health. We care about every creature’s flourishing - Sam Harris is just saying it happens to be called Morality. Oh, and science is as useful in understanding it as ever.