Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sam Harris: The Concept of Well-Being

Author's Note: I originally wrote this posting using the phrase "human flourishing". In fact, Harris' specific phrase is "well-being of conscious creatures." This article has been rewritten to use the more accurate characterization.

What Came Before:

In our previous episodes I agreed with Sam Harris' claim that there are moral facts and we can have a science of morality. However, I then disagreed with his claim that those moral facts are concerned exclusively with the well-being of conscious creatures.

My argument for moral facts is that ought statements either have some relevance to the motion of physical matter through space (and intentional actions constitute the motion of physical matter through space), or they do not. If they do, then they are facts that we can study scientifically. If they do not, then we shouldn't be talking about them as if they have relevance in the real world at all.


My use of the word tells you where I come down on that dichotomy. Trying to talk about the real world without using 'ought' and 'should' would be impossible. There are too many real-world relationships that we will not be able to talk about if we eliminated those concepts from our language. That we need ought terms to speak intelligibly about the world eliminates the eliminativist option, leaving only the realist option.

My objection to the claim that morality is concerned exclusively with the well-being of conscious creatures comes from the fact that we have the capacity to care about so much more than 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. Desire utilitarianism holds that beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes. Just as it is the case that we have the capacity to believe many propositions that have nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures, we have the capacity to desire many states of affairs that have nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures.

I ended my last post by asking how it can be the case that a particular arrangement of atoms in the universe can acquire value. Harris does not even pretend to offer an answer to that question. I offer an answer, but that answer does not support the thesis that morality must be concerned exclusively with human flourishing.

What Is Well-Being?

In my next episode I will present a more substantive argument against the idea that human flourishing is the sole moral value. In today's episode, I want to discuss what it is I am rejecting. What can we say about a concept of human flourishing?

The first problem is that the theory is so vague and ill-defined it is like attacking a ghost. The concept can easily change shape so that it avoids any attack launched against it. However, this does not make it immune from criticism. The very fact that it has this quality is a reason for criticism.

For example, I could offer the hypothesis that the sole object of morality is groknik. If you were to ask me what groknik is, I will answer that the term is certainly not very well defined at the moment. However, as we pursue our scientific study of value that we will be able to offer a more precise understanding of groknik in the future. In the mean time, we can still stay, with total certainty, that groknik is the sole concern of morality.

Nobody can refute this statement. However, this is because it does not say anything. It is not offering a theory of morality, it is offering a proposal for the definition of a new term that means, 'the sole concern of morality' without telling us what it is.

This theory would not be totally empty. It does assert that morality has a sole end. If it can be shown that morality has multiple ends, then this would prove that the claim that groknik is the sole end of morality is false (unless, of course, we redefine groknik to be the name for a particular set of ends). As such, it can be refuted. However, it is still the case that a good way to offer up a theory that others cannot disprove is to offer up a theory with such an ill-defined term that it can easily shape-shift any time it is attacked.

Well-being is not quite as vacuous as groknik, but it's not far off either.

Well-Being Is Good

In criticizing the claim that morality is exclusively concerned with the well-being of conscious cratures I am not going to deny that well-being is good. In fact, I cannot deny it. Well-being is good. However, well-being is good in the same way that circles are round and bachelors are unmarried. It is true by definition that well-being is good. If a particular state of affairs completely lacks any positive value it would be as odd to call such a state one of 'well-being' as it would to call a closed geometric shape made from four straight line segments a 'circle'.

When we have a theory of how particular arrangements of molecules can have more value than others, our theory is going to have to be compatible with the idea that the more specific arrangements of molecules called 'well-being' have value. However, it need not be (and, in fact, will not be) consistent with the proposition that specific arrangements of molecules known as 'well-being of conscious creatures' are the only possible sets of atomic arrangements that can possibly have value.

'The Well-Being of Conscious Creatures Is the Sole Good' Is Not Incompatible with Desirism

I also want to point out that the thesis that the well-being of conscious creatures is the sole concern of morality is not, strictly speaking, incompatible with desirism. Desirism states that a state of affairs has value to the degree that a being has a 'reason for action that exists' to realize that state, and that desires are the only 'reasons for action that exist'. It does not violate either of these two propositions to also state that 'the well-being of conscious creatures' is the only end that is desired - or that can be desired - or that has ultimate value.

However, I do deny that the claim that the well-being of conscious creatures is the only arrangement of molecules capable of having value. I will explain why in future posts.

Again, I will not deny that the well-being of conscious creatures has value. As I stated above, the proposition that the well-being of conscious creatures has value is true by definition. We would not call it 'well-being' if it did not have value.

Desirism Can Help More Precisely Define Well-Being

If we take the proposition that well-being is good by definition, and the claim that it can be compatible with desirism, we get a conclusion that says that says that desirism can help us to come up with a better understanding of what 'well-being' really is. When are conscious creatures really in a better state of (as opposed to falsely believing that they are flourishing, for example)?

In my next episode, I will use desirism to present a theory of well-being. That theory will not only support the idea that well-being is good, but also that it is necessarily good. However, it will not be compatible with the thesis that well-being has any particularly significant moral value.


Kevin said...

"However, I then disagreed with his claim that those moral facts are concerned exclusively with human flourishing."

I don't think he made that claim, at the beginning of his talk, he said that we have moral obligations to other animals and when introducing the the moral landscape, he refers to it as the well being of all conscientious creatures. So I don't know how you interpreted what he said to mean human flourishing is the only thing of value.

Cyril said...

I know you intended it as a made-up word, but if it's taken as a regular English derivation, "groknik" would have a fairly specific meaning:

Groknik n. (from "grok" + "-nik")
A word used (usually derogatorily) to those who to understand something thoroughly and intuitively.

So, something like how people use the word "nerd" pejoratively to refer to someone smarter than they are.

Also, I agree with rvkevin. I watched the speech, too, and I don't think he ever limited the scope of ethics to human beings in particular. Looks like you just aren't as much of a groknik towards his speech as one might have hoped.

Anonymous said...

Cyril: what dictionary are you using? It was not in the ones I looked in. However, I have seen "grok" used - but not in a pejorative sense. It's a good thing to "grok" something. :-)

Cyril said...

I'm not sure it's currently used as a word (that's why I said "if it's taken as a regular English derivation"), but both of its component morphemes are on (search for "grok" and "-nik").

I tried linking to them in my comment, but apparently the formatting I was using didn't make the translation.

David Cortesi said...

It seems to me that Harris is correct in this: it should not be difficult or controversial to state features of a community that are healthy. For example, a community with a low rate of disease is healthier than one with a high rate. Less malnutrition is healthier than more malnutrition, ditto crime or infant mortality. And it is possible to evaluate a community psychologically as well, for rates of life satisfaction, of divorce, of depression, etc.

All these are factual, and all are properly in the domain of sociology, psychology, medicine, and I'm pretty sure that such yardsticks of community health and well-being are what Harris had in mind. Harris would assert that there are policies, attitudes, and forms of law -- community actions -- that contribute to or detract from these measures of health. And he'd like the sociologists to be less cowardly about saying so.

There are two hurdles between such measures and morality, however. The first is that they can only be statistical, applied to a group. That one's community has a low incidence of cancer is of no relevance to the a person with cancer; that it has a low incidence of poverty is of no comfort to its poorest member; and neither gives any guidance on how those individuals should act.

Morality is inevitably personal, and I see no way to draw a direct line from a community attribute to an individual choice. There will inevitably be times when it is moral for a single person to do something that is (by some standard) fractionally detrimental to the community's health.

So Harris is, I think, issuing a correct call to the sciences, especially sociology, psychology and public health, to cowboy-up and start studying what does and doesn't help communities thrive, and saying as much when they have the facts.

But the simple fact that "human flourishing" can only be measured statistically and cannot be applied to moment-to-moment, individual actions, should automatically remove it from the realm of morality.