The Moral Landscape Challenge

Now that I’ve got a place to post things, I may as well make the most of it. Here’s something I wrote a while back but didn’t use. It was a response to Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge. Unfortunately he didn’t accept submissions until six months after announcing the Challenge, and when the time to submit entries came around, I missed it. Pity, because I thought my argument was quite compelling, and I can’t help feeling I might have had a modest chance of winning.

This piece follows the same kind of plan as my refutations of John Searle’s arguments: home in on the core error, and address that as clearly as possible, trying to ignore any distractions. It probably helped that entries were limited to 1000 words.

Hello Sam,

I intend to refute just your argument from worst possible misery. I’ll first make my refutation in a brief form, and then in more detail.

(P1) The worst possible misery for everyone is bad.

You claim that P1 is so tautological as to need no further argument. But the word “bad” is ambiguous–it can be taken in both moral and non-moral senses. P1 is only tautological if we take it in a non-moral sense, meaning “bad for people”, not “morally bad”.

(P1a) Producing the worst possible misery for everyone is morally bad (or morally wrong).

When P1 is disambiguated in such a way that we’re forced to take it in a moral sense (=P1a), it no longer appears tautological. It is now a moral judgement, not a tautology.

If we take P1 in a non-moral sense then you’ve failed to argue for any moral fact. If we take P1 in a moral sense (=P1a) then it’s not the tautology you claimed it to be, and you haven’t given us any other reason to accept it. By conflating the two senses you’ve created the false impression of having found a moral fact that’s as undeniable as a tautology. This is a fallacy of equivocation.

Now for the detailed version. The logic of your argument is not spelled out clearly, but it seems to be little more than an appeal to intuition: here’s a moral claim that is so self-evidently true that surely no reasonable person can deny it; therefore at least one moral claim is true.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a very constructive way to proceed. Those philosophers who deny objective moral truth (or all moral truth) think they have good general reasons for denying all such truths. And one can hardly expect them to abandon such reasons on the basis of no more than an appeal to intuition about one case.

The appeal makes a little more sense if it’s seen as an appeal to our linguistic intuition, our instinctive competence with language. After all, we have to assume some shared competence with language, and specifically with moral language. In fact, the following footnote (no. 22) does suggest that you are appealing to our linguistic intuition:

“And I don’t think we can intelligibly ask questions like, ‘What if the worst possible misery for everyone is actually good?’ Such questions seem analytically confused. We can also pose questions like, ‘What if the most perfect circle is also a square?’ or ‘What if all true statements are actually false?’ But if someone persists in speaking this way, I see no obligation to take his views seriously.”

I see analytical facts as those which follow from the meanings of the words alone. For a circle to be a square is inconsistent with the meanings of those words, regardless of any contingent facts about reality.

(P1) The worst possible misery for everyone is bad.

I take you to be claiming not just that P1 is analytic, but that (like your examples) it’s a tautology, by which I mean a fact that follows so directly from the meanings of the words that one can hardly insert any significant intermediate logical steps. In these terms, mathematical theorems are analytic but not tautological, since they follow by proofs from more basic mathematical facts or axioms. If you were claiming P1 to be analytic but not tautological, then we should expect you to have provided some connecting steps.

Though appeals to linguistic intuition have their place, it’s implausible that such a simplistic and unexplained appeal will suffice in the case of moral language, given that the meaning of moral language is so disputed among philosophers. So we should be very suspicious of this argument. In fact, you’ve just created the false appearance of an effective argument by committing a fallacy of equivocation.

P1 is (near enough) a tautology if we interpret “bad” as “bad for people”. You define “bad” to mean “reduces well-being”, and that’s a reasonable definition for this non-moral sense of “bad”. But this sense of “bad” doesn’t mean the same as “morally bad”. The word “bad” clearly has non-moral senses, since we can say that a hammer is a bad one without making any moral judgement–we just mean that it’s not fit for purpose. To say that smoking is bad for people (or reduces their well-being) can be just a neutral statement about the likely outcome of the behaviour. It doesn’t in itself tell us that smoking is inappropriate, though that might be a further conclusion we would draw. On the other hand, to say that genocide is morally bad (or morally wrong) is in itself to say that genocide is inappropriate.

As long as you continue to use “bad” in the non-moral sense, you haven’t established anything that helps support your case for moral truth. But even though you didn’t state the conclusion of this argument unequivocally, it’s clear that it was intended to support that case. So at some point you must have switched from talking about non-moral good/bad to talking about moral good/bad. At no point did you do this explicitly. If you had done, you would have seen the need to justify the move from non-moral good/bad to moral good/bad. Instead, you appear to have made this move without even noticing, through conflating the two senses.

Here’s a place where you seem to have switched to a moral sense of “good”:

(P2) “…it is good to avoid behaving in such a way as to produce the worst possible misery for everyone.”

We’re much more likely to read this as a moral judgement than we are with P1, because here you’re applying the word “good” to a behaviour, rather than a state of affairs. We usually make moral judgements about behaviours, not states of affairs. But you can read P2 as a non-moral tautology if you try hard enough to take “good” in a non-moral sense. If you substitute “conducive to well-being” for “good” in P2 you get:

(P3) …it is conducive to well-being to avoid behaving in such a way as to produce the worst possible misery for everyone.

This is a tautology, and not a moral judgement. To ensure that P2 is read as a moral judgement we can insert the word “morally”:

(P4) …it is morally good to avoid behaving in such a way as to produce the worst possible misery for everyone.

I hope it’s obvious that this isn’t just a tautology, equivalent to P3. It’s a moral judgement. But let me make some more adjustments to make the point even clearer:

(P5) Reducing everyone’s well-being is morally wrong. [Note 1]

If P5 seems to you like a moral judgement, and not just a tautology (reducing everyone’s well-being reduces well-being), that shows that “morally wrong” means more to you than just “reduces well-being”. Unfortunately, if you’re committed to saying that “morally wrong” just means “reduces well-being”, then you might mentally substitute this definition into P5 and get another tautology. That would be begging the question. You need to resist that temptation and read P5 with an open mind, being guided by your instinctive competence with the words “morally wrong”. (This is the right sort of appeal to linguistic intuition.)

So, P2 is ambiguous. On the more natural reading it’s a moral judgement, not a tautology. On the other reading it’s a tautology, not a moral judgement. By conflating the two meanings you can make it seem that you’ve found a moral judgement that’s as undeniable as a tautology. [Note 2]

Given your conflation, I can understand why you seem to find some people’s views on the subject baffling. Sometimes you’re interpreting the word “good” as meaning non-moral good (conducive to well-being) when the other person means it as moral good. So you’re talking past each other.

You may say that the whole purpose of the book is _only_ to argue that science can tell us what’s conducive to well-being, and nothing more. But when you argue for moral truth you _are_ arguing for something more. If that weren’t the case, you could just as well have omitted the word “moral” from your book altogether, and talked about well-being alone. You could even have called the book “The Well-Being Landscape”. That would have been clearer, more direct, and avoided many of the objections the book has received. But the reason that alternative didn’t suit your purpose is precisely because talk of moral rightness and talk of well-being are not equivalent.

Incidentally, you also conflate different senses of the word “value”. Are you talking about people’s values (what they actually value). Or are you talking about moral values in the sense of moral facts (i.e. facts about what it’s morally good to do)? In your argument about values you seem to conflate the two, jumping from the first sort of value to the second. This ambiguity even affects the subtitle of your book. You presumably mean it to say that science can determine the moral facts. But it can also (and I think more naturally) be read as saying that science can determine what people value.

In general, I feel you haven’t been sufficiently sensitive to the ambiguity and context-dependency of key words, like “good”, “value” and “ought”.


1. I’ve switched from ‘morally bad’ to ‘morally wrong’, as I think that’s even more clearly a term of moral judgement. I think you have no grounds to complain about the switch, since the book frequently uses the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in a moral sense, and you never attempt to establish that these are significantly different from ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

2. Russell Blackford made a broadly similar point about tautology (circularity) in his review of your book. In your reply you didn’t respond to those remarks, and I would urge you to read that section of his review again.


One thought on “The Moral Landscape Challenge

  1. I think that this correctly identifies the central flaw at the heart of Harris’s scheme. Lots of people saying this has not, though, changed Harris’s mind!


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