Reflections on The Moral Landscape

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris offers a controversial view of moral theory.  In it he stipulates that “human well-being depends entirely on events in the world and on states of the human brain.  Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it” (p. 2).  And to this stipulation he adds: developing this science of facts about the paramount human value presumably subtending all moral previous theories “will force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical” (p. 3).  While Harris doesn’t say that these distinctions will solve all moral problems—for he says that “differences of opinion will remain”—he does note that these differences will be “increasingly constrained by facts” and will remain answerable in principle, even when in practice answers are not readily forthcoming (mainly because of methodological limitations).  In this way, morality will be put on a scientific foundation, one permitting determinations of right and wrong in answering moral questions similar to the right and wrong answers determinable about health in medicine—an analogy he draws quite strictly.  In other words, Harris suggests that ethics can become a practical science delimited by scientific knowledge about human well-being much like medicine is a practical science delimited by scientific knowledge about physiology and health.  In short, moral theory can and should become a practical science that simultaneously opens up possibilities for human flourishing, even as it prescribes appropriate and inappropriate paths to it.

In this conception of moral science, Harris accomplishes two things, both noteworthy in their own right. First, he successfully dissolves the untenable fact/value distinction by pointing out that the paramount value of moral concern—the well-being of conscious creatures—is itself an issue of facts.  In other words, both the means of achieving well-being and a description of the state itself revolve and rest on factual matters; therefore what we seek in valuing it amounts to seeking facts about how to achieve it, as well as facts about what is actually achieved.  Second, he successfully overcomes that long-standing bugaboo of moral philosophy, the so-called naturalistic fallacy, and he does so simply by pointing out that since the well-being of conscious creatures is what is ultimately valued in moral theory anyway, what is factually true about what well-being is and how to achieve it quite naturally implies what one ought to do to achieve it.  Although not as clearly fleshed out as one could wish, one could expand Harris’ point here by noting that contrary to the “naturalistic fallacy”, the only sensible place to derive anought” is from an “is”—under the rather obvious stipulation that some end-in-view implied in an activity serves as the context of the process through which the activity occurs and the end is achieved.  For instance, if driving 55 mph on a snowy and icy winding road will likely cause an accident (as it will, in fact), and if one intends to get to one’s destination (a non-controversial end-in-view, for why else drive), then it follows that one ought not drive 55 on that snowy and icy road—or equivalently that one ought to slow down.  And so forth for just about any conduct fitting means to ends, including that aiming at moral ends.[1]  So Harris successfully steers moral theory away from both of these pointless philosophical obfuscations—facts versus values, “ought” versus “is”—and although he is not the first to do this (Dewey also did both in his 1939 Theory of Valuation), Harris’ attempt is the most direct, the most controversial, and the most recent.

It is supposed here that with the collapse of the fact/value distinction, the consequent collapse of the “naturalistic fallacy,” and the stipulation that human well-being is in fact the end-in-view for all previous moral theory, Harris successfully shows that “science can determine human values.”  In other words, it is here acknowledged with both hands that well-being, and how to achieve it, are empirical, factual matters implying an adjudication of norms on how to achieve it; that this science of morality returns questions of how we ought to organize social interaction into the realm of true and false, fact and fiction, i.e. to statements about how the world is, and therefore about the proper means factually fitted to achieving moral ends.  To this author’s mind, Harris accomplishes his stated goal to such an extent that better arguments for it are not likely to be found, even as the particulars can be worked out in more detail.[2]

But this accomplishment acknowledged, it is here suggested that the science of morality, as Harris conceives it, still cannot answer moral questions in the paramount sense in which moral questions still need to be answered, and it cannot do so because genuine moral questions arise not in the determination of what is good or bad, per se, or the means to it; rather they arise in deciding what to do when two or more acknowledged goods come into conflict, i.e. when pursuing morally equal or similarly desirable moral ends require conflicting courses of action.  Or to put the matter more directly in Harris’ terms, moral theory properly understood is what occurs when two (or more) peaks in the moral landscape are contested—not, as is often assumed, in determining what those peaks are or are not, relative to each other and/or relative to valleys.  So to put the matter as succinctly as possible, Harris is entirely correct to steer moral theory away from seeking a decision rule, or a set of decision rules, prescribing in an apriori way actions for achieving some universal good or end-in-itself (one which not incidentally always implies the well-being of conscious creatures).  In other words, he correctly opens moral theory up to a plurality of moral ends (multiple “peaks”).  Furthermore, he is also entirely correct to steer it instead toward factual determinations of what well-being is, and how to fit means the o the ends of achieving it, given plural moral ends—the multiple peaks.  But he is incorrect to assume—if he in fact assumes—that moral science, as the intelligent direction of social interaction, is limited to determining well-being in this circumscribed sense, i.e. to determining the peaks and valleys in the moral landscape.  To be sure, the factual determination of these peaks and valleys as paths or not to human flourishing are a necessary prelude to any moral reflection.  But moral theory properly understood as the intelligent and controlled reflection on moral decision making involves determining right and wrong for specific situations when actions based on competing ends—alternative peaks on the moral landscape—come into conflict.  In short, moral theory is not limited to deciding what to do in situations of good versus bad but is instead about deciding what to do in situations of “good” versus “good.”[3]  A specific example should make this distinction clearer.

For instance, consider the moral problem of abortion.[4]  Clearly at issue is the well-being of two creatures, the mother and the child.  The mother is clearly conscious at the time of conception, and at some point during pregnancy, the “child” transforms from an embryo without any consciousness, to fetus with perhaps some form of it, to a viable infant that is clearly a conscious creature in any sensible respect.  So it is not stretch to say that at issue in abortion is the well-being of two conscious creatures, at least implicitly throughout the entire pregnancy (if left alone the embryo will become conscious, barring spontaneous abortion), but certainly explicitly at some point, usually around the third trimester.   What, then, would a science of human values, as Harris conceives it, say about the moral issue of abortion?

In the first place, it could be pointed out that our current law regarding abortion tracks the moral intuitions one is likely to have under Harris’ account of the well-being of conscious creatures as the end-in-view subtending most—if not all—prior moral theory.  For under that law, once the infant is viable, i.e. once it becomes a ‘conscious creature’ with its own ‘right’ to well-being, the mother can no longer sacrifice the child as a means to further her own well-being at its expense.  Abortions after the time of infant viability are illegal; at that point, the child is considered to have a ‘right to life’ that trumps a woman’s ‘right to choose.’  Furthermore, consistent with Harris’ account of how science can determine our moral intuitions when bound to the well-being of conscious creatures, it is currently legal to abort an embryo when no consciousness is possible, and a fetus when consciousness—and hence well-being—may be possible but remain physiologically problematic.  These are scientific determinations.  So the current laws regarding abortion tracks somewhat with the moral intuitions people are likely to have in a regime of competing well-being[5], and it also tracks well with what we scientifically know about consciousness and well-being in human development.  But at a certain point science stops informing   the issue and a moral norm is invoked—in this case, one conscious creature cannot sacrifice another for its own well-being, once the latter’s become viable in its own right.

In the second place, it should be pointed out that once science determines ‘what is the case’ regarding the well-being and consciousness invoked in abortion, morally speaking the conflict arising ultimately involves not these questions of fact but rather the conflict between two mutually opposed courses of action, both of which pursue a desirable and largely non-controversial moral end in its own right: ‘the right to life’ as preserving the well-being as such of conscious creatures, and conscious creatures’ ‘right to choose’ courses of action paramount to their well-being, particularly when it comes to reproduction.  In this case, the conflict over abortion hinges on where along this spectrum of two competing “goods”—or moral ends-in-view—one falls: does one emphasize the right of the mother to choose the when and where of her own reproductive life, and therefore her own well-being, or does one emphasize the right of the child to its very conscious life of possible and actual well-being in the first place?  Whether one decides to solve this moral dilemma by deciding which “right” is the more fundamental—and therefore which end will be pursued at the expense of the other—the underlying moral issue remains the same: two moral “goods” (here called “rights”) desirable in their own terms[6] have come into conflict in a decision that will, by the very nature of the situation, favor pursing one good over another—if not completely at the expense of the other then at least in a sense that cripples it.  Without deciding in advance the morality of abortion, it is maintained that this conflict of goods is quintessentially a moral dilemma, and as such it is not amenable to the somewhat more direct determination of a ‘peaks’ or ‘valleys’ of human flourishing—for both goods in question may be (and probably are) peaks in some sense.[7]  When this kind of conflict occurs, genuinely moral problems arise.

And this contest between goods in conflict is not all there is to truly moral dilemmas, as opposed to the more direct question of fitting empirically appropriate means to the ends of acknowledged moral goods.  For in addition to representing the dilemma in which two peaks in the moral landscape arise and compete, determining peaks and valleys as such invokes moral considerations that go beyond the scientific determination of specific peaks or valleys within the given moral regime.  That is, in determining what a peak or valley is as such within the very idea of the moral landscape, one has to decide if individual or social flourishing is paramount—in other words, one has to decide if well-being is going to be determined with respect to the individuals within society or with respect to society as a whole.  As long as these two ends intertwine and mutually serve one another—as they almost certainly do—this determination can only be decided on criteria other than the scientific criteria used to determine the peaks and valleys after the alternative maximizing end-in-view is chosen.  To reiterate the point just made above about two or more peaks in the moral landscape, both increasing or maximizing individual flourishing as a means to social flourishing, and increasing or maximizing social flourishing as a means to individual flourishing, could represent alternative criteria for determining peaks in the moral landscape—in fact, this is likely the case: both views are probably valid.[8]  With this in mind, moral theory in Harris’ sense can be said to address the question of whether or not a course of action, or institution, or a norm represents a peak or valley under a decided regime of individual or social increase or maximization, but it can only serve as a prelude to answering the more fundamental question of which ultimate criteria should be chosen for determining peaks and valleys in the first place.   These ultimate criteria, in a loose sense, serve as the ‘meta-peaks’ of the moral landscape: maximizing well-being with either end-in-view as the general criteria for determining peaks or valleys will determine what peaks and valleys are, but strictly speaking the very concept of a peak or valley in the first place will be guided by the relative criterion of maximization, be it an individual or social emphasis (or of course, some balancing of both).  How this is so can be seen with further analysis of the abortion example, both by itself and in more general terms.

For instance, any woman faced with the question of whether or not to have abortion will do so in a situation and under circumstances that by definition are unique.  That is, certain states of the world will have led up to the pregnancy, certain states will constitute the pregnancy, and certain states will be the consequences of the decision to continue the pregnancy or not, and so forth.  That these states and events are unique should be no more controversial than saying any other state or event in the world is unique to its present, preceding and consequent circumstances, regardless of how that event or those circumstances can be abbreviated into causes and kinds.  Per this unique set of circumstance for any event or any decision, moral truths generally will be unique for each situation, even as they tend fall into a classes or kinds of problems (abortions, killings, abridgements of rights, etc.).  Under this recognition, the goal of moral reflection is to arrive at the conclusion most warranted for a given situation, given the moral principles brought to bear in the analysis of the situation—an analysis that takes into account the applicability of those principle to the specifics of the situation at hand, particularly regarding the consequences of the act.  But in any case the moral conclusion will be specific to the situation, and in need not—and indeed, as specific in an important sense it cannot—apply directly to any other situation.  In other words, moral theory does not provide a rule or set of decision rules that will prescribe in advance of all situations a moral truth for a class or kind of dilemma, one under which particular cases can be subsumed in order to derive a moral truth.  Instead, each situation will have its own moral truth, and the goal of moral reflection will be to bring moral concepts to bear on the empirical facts in order to arrive at that truth in its singularity.  This is not to imply that moral truth is therefore relative, only that it is particular, in the sense that whatever the truth is for the situation, it will be what it is for that situation, and not otherwise.[9]

Returning to the morality of abortion, then, let us assume that the sciences of consciousness, development, and society are so well-developed as to offer a handle on the unique circumstances of events and decisions leading up to and involving the pregnancy, even up to the point of reliably predicting unknown outcomes for the future (such as whether the child will likely have a healthy childhood, whether it will have ample opportunities for a good life, whether it has good genes, etc.)..  Assume, that is, that we can know just about all there is to know about the conditions leading up to the pregnancy, the conditions of the pregnancy itself, and within reasonable limits of foresight the consequences of continuing the pregnancy or not.  Clearly no such knowledge is practical today, but assume in principle it is possible by a society so advanced that more or less complete causal knowledge of physical, conscious, and social events is more or less possible.  How would this knowledge affect the moral dimensions of the dilemma inherent to abortion? Would those moral dimensions change in light of this complete, or nearly complete, scientific knowledge?  And more to the point, what are those moral dimensions that must be decided?

First, as for the moral dimensions to be decided, as indicted already, two acknowledged goods are in conflict: the ‘right to life’ and the ‘right to choose’.  Under a moral regime of increasing or maximizing individual well-being—that is, within a moral landscape where peaks and valleys are decided by the criterion of increasing or maximizing individual well-being—it is an acknowledged moral good that women should be able to control their own reproductive lives (when to have or not have a child), just as it is an acknowledged moral good that individuals have a right to life in the first place, and there upon well-being can become an issue for them at all.  To put the issue into more concrete terms, the moral decision to have an abortion or not centers on the competing goods of life and choice, both of which are non-controversial when taken in relative isolation from one another; therefore, in a sense, self-evident goods have become controversial in their application.  This conflict of intrinsically non-controversial goods is too often forgotten in the parsing whether or not the fetus is an individual entitled to rights, for guiding that determination is the acknowledged good of the rights it would possess.   In any case, it is here asserted that moral dimensions of abortion center on the genesis of a conflict of goods in a specific situation where a course of action requires emphasizing one good over the other—perhaps at the total expense but at the least to the partial detriment of the other.  The moral goods are, in a word, competing.

Second, once the moral dimensions are specified, scientific knowledge of the facts of the case can be brought to bear; in fact, they help clarify in a determinate way precisely what goods are at stake, and how they have come into conflict.  For the sake of argument here, assume that science can determine the exact conditions in which an embryo goes from being an organism without consciousness or feeling to a fetus with some sense of both to a viable infant with both fully developed—or at least as developed as they will be at the moment of birth.  Assume as well that it can determine the genes of the ‘child’, whether those genes will develop in a healthy childhood environment, whether that environment shows good prospects for the future, etc.  At this point, empirical knowledge can fully illuminate the moral conflict between the two competing goods, for if we as a society decide to assign a ‘right to life’ to a person defined as a conscious, feeling human being that can survive on its own, that has a shot at a good life, and so on and so forth, then the conflict becomes all the clearer: it becomes a conflict between the ‘rights’ (aimed at realizing some acknowledged good) of one individual and the ‘rights’ (again, aimed at realizing some acknowledged good) of another individual—in short, the right to life versus the right to choice.  The point here is not to decide which right should be paramount; the current author remains methodologically agnostic on that point because it need not be decided in order to make the reasoning here clear.  Instead, it suffices to point out that two avowed goods have come into conflict, and furthermore, that empirical knowledge can only bring us to the point of illuminating precisely how and where the conflict lies; it cannot decide between them as such.  For both goods most likely represent potential peaks within a moral landscape as assessed under the idea of increasing or maximizing individual well-being, peaks which the means of reaching can be decided in advance by science, but the choice between which cannot.  In other words, moral theory as Harris describes it, can tell with reasonable clarity—once science progresses far enough, as assumed in this analysis—whether or not individual well-being will be increased or maximized for the child if the pregnancy is carried to term, as well as whether or not the mother’s well-being will be increased or maximized under the same alternative.  But it cannot decide whether or not the mother or the child ought to be allowed to increase or maximize.  Since either alternative could represent a ‘peak’ within the moral landscape—and recall that a peak would be some rule or norm that allows mainly for the increase or maximization of individual well-being—intelligent inquiry can guide the decision which one to pursue, but science as such cannot answer as a question of fact which one should be chosen.  In short, science can decide whether or not a peak can be achieved, and even if the means to the end represents a peak, but it can only offer grounds that are taken up by other means when it comes to deciding between two peaks within the landscape.  Those other means are ultimately normative in a way that defies the norms that follow from naturally from what is.[10]  In short, this level of normative analysis is the problem of method in moral reflection—a problem only introduced here, not solved.

This inherent limit to Harris’ idea of moral theory becomes even more salient when one expands the question from one of determining peaks and valleys for increasing or maximizing individual well-being (i.e. the analysis of abortion this far) to include the question of the individual’s well-being vis-a-vis society’s, and not just the individuals’ with respect to each other.  For as indicated already, it remains an open question in Harris’ account whether well-being is measured as 1) an increase or maximization of individual well-being taken aggregately after that emphasis on individuality or 2) as the increase or maximization of well-being of society as such, with the well-being of individuals to follow as it can after that emphasis is made.  Both criteria can be used to determine peaks and valleys in the moral landscape, and in fact in most moral decisions one or the other, or both together, is used.  How could science—even one perfected for knowing conscious creatures and the states of the world leading to their well-being—decide which of these two criteria should apply in determining a peak or valley of well-being?  For the abortion example used thus far, how would science answer the question of whether a peak or valley regarding the decision should be determined with respect to increasing individual well-being first (as seems rather intuitive, given the stakes) or social well-being first (as would seem to follow from some empirical research)[11]—or more complicated yet, balancing both in one and the same decision?  This is not to say that on a case by case basis, determinations of fact won’t illuminate which standard will apply; they surely will.  But it is to raise the point that determination of the facts of a situation doesn’t by itself invoke which principle will apply.  Rather the criterion for deciding what is a peak or valley must be decided supra-empirically, in advance, otherwise the empirical analysis determining whether or not a peak or valley can be reached—i.e. the scientific analysis of the suitability of the means to the moral end—will lack necessary guidance.  To be sure, one can change gears, as it were, and invoke a different standard for determining peaks and valleys if one standard fails to yield any guidance, but in a situation when either standard yields some, the normative question of which standard to apply will be different in kind than the normative analysis that follows from determining the facts of each case.  To put the matter as succinctly as possible, the norms by which the scientific-normative analysis is guided will themselves be decided by extra-empirical means because these means themselves are what guide the empirical analysis.  Moral theory in Harris sense can usefully determine peaks and valleys in the moral landscape, but Harris leaves open (and rightly so) the problem of choosing the criteria by which peaks and valleys will be determined as peaks and valleys.  Into this opening enters the problem of moral theory in the quintessential sense: what kind of intelligent analysis can be used to decide the criteria by which empirical norms themselves are assessed?  Again, this normative analysis is the problem of method in moral reflection.

To summarize the two points developed thus far, Harris version of moral theory can rightfully be said to accomplish its important task, to wit: determining in an empirical manner the norms that follow from the facts of consciousness and states of the world specific to determining human flourishing, under the non-controversial—or what should be non-controversial—claim that all previous moral theory has implicitly sought this end anyway, namely the “end” or “good” of well-being for conscious creatures.  Furthermore, this empirical analysis can be used to determine specific peaks and valleys within the moral landscape; that is, certain norms, rules, or institutions, etc. can be seen to lead to more or less human flourishing, and moral science can decide which ones do or which ones don’t on an objective, empirical basis.

But this important accomplishment granted, Harris account of moral theory leaves two problems unaddressed, and in fact the way in which it is developed leaves them un-addressable using its own terms.

First, scientific reflection as a determination of matters of fact, and the norms implied in those facts, offers little, if any, grounds for choosing between two equivalent peaks in the moral landscape,[12] a possibility that Harris not only allows for, but one that also seems to follow from many, if not most, moral problems—once those problems are defined as the conflict between two acknowledged goods, as opposed to sorting the morally good from the morally bad.  Abortion as a particular example of these competing goods has been offered, but whether or not that analysis stands for that particular issue is largely immaterial; others could readily be offered in its place.  But the principle that true moral problems arise when acknowledged goods—alternative peaks—arise almost certainly holds in principle, if not in practice too.

Second, and more importantly, the question of how to determine peaks and valleys as such within the landscape is not addressed—and cannot be addressed—in Harris account of moral theory.  For that analysis as he presents it presupposes in some sense that well-being is to be increased or maximized, without specifying whether increase or maximization is measured relative to individuals or to society as such.  Either or both criteria for assessing well-being (and it is here assumed that a reasonable standard for that assessment can be devised) are morally important, but which criterion applies for determining peaks and valleys as such cannot be decided using the same empirical instruments in which peaks and valleys themselves are decided.  And it can’t be for a simple reason: the empirical determination of peaks and valleys is guided by this extra-empirical means, and this means allows for multiple peaks and valleys in what amounts to alternative moral landscapes—one that increases or maximizes individual well-being first, or one that maximizes social well-being first (or even more problematically, one that tries to balance both).  How to conceive the moral landscape as such is itself a paramount question, but the method for deciding that question in moral reflection will be different than the methods within a moral theory that sorts the morally good from the morally bad.  In short, the norm for empirical-normative analysis (the kind Harris proposes) must be determined, and this determination will occur by extra-empirical means.  Exactly what those means are and how they proceed is, perhaps, the ultimate problem of moral theory.

With these two points in mind, this essay ends with a question, not a solution.  Specifically, it raises the question of what moral theory in the broader and more genuine sense really is, as opposed to the more limited case—one decidedly critical as a prelude—of sorting the morally good from the morally bad as peaks and valleys within the moral landscape.  To be sure, simply acknowledging that the morally good can be objectively and factually sorted from the morally bad represents tremendous moral and intellectual progress—and if reactions to Harris thesis are any indication, this progress has yet to be made with him.  But this essay assumes that progress; it assumes that a science of morality in the sense of sorting the morally good from the morally bad—the sorting of the moral from the immoral—exists in principle.  What it proposes in addition is that this science remains incomplete, and it remains incomplete in that genuine moral questions arise not in determining whether an act or a norm or an institution is moral or immoral, but rather it arises in determining what to do when pursuing two acknowledged moral goods causes a conflict between them—or to use Harris terms, when alternative peaks in the moral landscape can be reached by contrary and/or mutually exclusive means.  That such situations now exist or are bound to arise in principle seems almost certain, and moral issues like abortion may already be such a case.  But in any case, it remains necessary in moral theory to account for deciding between alternative peaks within the moral landscape, even as this decision requires as a necessary prelude some determination of those peaks and valleys—of the morally right and the morally wrong—in the first place.

Finally, it is also proposed in this essay that this determination of moral right and wrong—i.e. this determination of peaks and valleys in the moral landscape—itself needs guidance, a guidance that must come from normative means outside the empirical-normative analysis that determines these peaks and valleys specifically.  Two criteria for this guidance currently exist: that of increasing or maximizing individual well-being first, with social well-being to follow as it may from that emphasis, or that of increasing or maximizing social well-being first, with individual well-being following as it may from that emphasis.  Both alternatives, of course, can also be—and perhaps must always be—balanced together.  Just how the moral landscape is conceived under these alternative regimes probably represents the paramount issue of moral theory broadly understood, but in any case it is one unanswerable by the more restricted moral theory that sorts the good from the bad because this sorting already presupposes this prior normative standard to some degree.

In two respects, then, the issue is raised: what is the means and method of moral theory within moral reflection?  What intelligence guides the reflection that employs Harris’ empirical-normative moral theory as a means to solving genuine moral dilemmas?  How is moral truth decided in a particular case when two moral goods, both acknowledged as true goods, come into conflict?  What does it mean call a decision “moral” or “immoral” when one act forces a path toward one peak in the moral landscape, as opposed to another equally moral peak?  What does this determination say about the ‘relative’ or ‘probable’ nature of some moral decisions, as opposed to those that are objectively true or false on empirical grounds?  All these questions arise and can only be answered in a fully worked out theory of the moral life.  Harris’s own moral landscape represents the most important step in the direction since the efforts of perhaps his only predecessor, John Dewey, who took the first steps in his Ethics and Theory of Valuation.  As such it remains a critical step in the enterprise, but only a step.

 

[1] This principle can be generalized to say that factual circumstances implicitly “ought” to be obtained if in fact those circumstances are both necessary and sufficient for obtaining reliable ends.  In other words, if one wants to achieve the ends of an activity—and why else would one do it—then “facts” bearing on fitting the actual means to those ends imply what “ought” to occur in order to achieve them.  Once with pragmatism one accepts the paramount importance of the means-ends relations—with elements ‘fixed’ together through an actual process both necessary and sufficient to connect them—then the factual circumstances of that connection imply the facts that fit the means to the ends.  As fitted “the facts”—what “is”—entail what “ought” to be.

[2] For instance, one could expand greatly on the idea that moral science as Harris conceives is yields warrantably true empirical propositions about means-ends or means-consequences relationships for any variety of moral ends, be those means laws, institutions, norms, etc. and those ends deterring crime, education, or child rearing, etc.  Harris, of course, would probably admit this wholeheartedly.

[3] It follows from this view of moral theory that the decision to steal or not to steal is not a moral decision per se, even though it invokes a moral end.   It is simply true that it is immoral to steal, therefore one should not do it.  Likewise with inflicting burkas on women, mutilating their genitals, or forbidding them jobs.  These directly cause harms to their intended target no less so than stealing, and since there is not competing good with which they come into conflict, there is no moral wrangling per se in the decision to do or not to do them.  In a non-controversial and straightforward way, they simply should not be done; they are immoral acts; so no moral dilemma arises from the question: should I do or not do them.  Simply put, whether to act morally or not is not itself a moral decision, though perhaps whether or not to intervene to stop immoral acts is (the competing goods of permitting autonomy and limiting immorality come into conflict).

[4] This example is chosen not because there is no correct answer to the issue, but because as a currently controversial issue involving competing moral ends it is particularly salient.  Many other moral issues could be used in its place, such as whether or not one should evade the draft to avoid a war, or whether or not one ought to donate significant portions of their surplus income to charitable causes, etc.

[5] “Likely to have” prior to being corrupted by religious nonsense…

[6] That is, when considered independently, outside the context of the current debate over abortion.

[7] Both probably represent “peaks” in the sense that promoting either, when not in conflict with each other, lead to human flourishing.

[8] To see that both probably represent valid criteria for peaks, consider either of two ways to measure flourishing or well-being within the universe as such: first as an aggregation of individual flourishing compiled into a composite score of social flourishing, or second as a division of social flourishing divided out among participating individuals.  Clearly the same ‘level’ of flourishing can occur in both measures, indicating that society as a means to individual ends or individual ends as a means to a social end probably represent valid criteria for peaks in any moral landscape—subject to the stipulation that the mechanisms for organizing either regime are equally known, as they should be under any though experiment of flourishing.  That stipulation made, though, it remains possible that in fact one form organization is more viable than another, given what is the case about human beings and sociality.  It’s just at our current level of biological and social knowledge, it remains impossible to say which ultimate end we should aim for as we assess the multiple peaks and valleys under either.

[9] The issue of moral relativism need not be taken up anymore here beyond pointing out that the same situation arising in different cultures with different ‘standards’ of right and wrong nevertheless has a particular moral solution, one irrespective of the ‘relative’ cultural context in which it is raised.  In short, the same moral solution obtains regardless of the culture in which it occurs.  The only question that arises within that relative occurrence is how right or wrong proponents of those different cultures in fact are.

[10] To put the matter again in terms of “the naturalistic fallacy,” the question here isn’t one of deciding if one ought to drive 55 or less given the goal of arriving at a destination over an icy and snow covered winding road.  That much can be determined from what is the case; the naturalistic fallacy doesn’t apply to that determination because it doesn’t exist.  Rather, the question now is one of deciding whether or not to drive versus taking the bus, when in fact both means of travel have an equal chance of reaching the destination safely, once the “oughts” which follow from what ‘is’ are appropriately drawn.  Travel by bus or car, then, would represent two peaks in the landscape of traveling, and the choice between them would not be decided by the same means as the relative peaks themselves are determined.  So by analogy to the morality of abortion, acknowledging the right to life and the right to choose would represent two potential peaks in the moral landscape of individual well-being—the mother’s or the child’s—and the existence and the reaching of either separately can be determined scientifically.  But whether to reach one or the other would be determined normatively in a sense of “normative” other than the normative analysis that follows from determination of facts of the case.  This normative analysis could still be controlled and intelligent—indeed, it must be—and it could invoke norms of analysis, but this analysis itself would remain different in kind from the scientific analysis that is put to use within it.

[11] See Donohue and Levitt (2001), “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime”.

[12] It remains possible that scientific analysis could show that at a given time with given resources, one peak as opposed to another can or can’t be reached, even as both peaks can be said—in an ‘ideal’ world of plentiful goods and services—to be morally equivalent.  In cases like that, whether to pursue one peak or not could be ruled out in advance without passing any judgment as to the morality of that decisions—beyond, of course, pointing out that it may be immoral to pursue a factually futile goal in circumstances under which it cannot be met, simply because in others it could.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s