Morality and health

Sam Harris recently wrote a response to critics of his latest book, The Moral Landscape.

He tries to address three problems: the Value Problem, the Persuasion Problem, and the Measurement Problem.

The Value Problem

The Value Problem asks what scientific basis we have for valuing well-being. This is a question central to the theme of Harris’s book, which argues that science can be used to determine what actions are morally right and wrong based on how they influence well-being.  The Value Problem is an expression of Hume’s “is-ought” problem, and asks what logical argument could possibly link well-being and morality.

Harris responds that no formal logical link is required. He uses two analogies to demonstrate his point. The first is science: when scientists pursue knowledge of the natural world, they are not expected to logically justify themselves. Instead, simple curiosity about the natural world is taken as an acceptable justification for scientific investigation. The other analogy is health: no one asks if the pursuit of better health can be logically defended. It is simply assumed to have value. By comparison, then, Harris argues that the pursuit of greater well-being can proceed in the absence of a water-tight logical defense of its value.

The Persuasion Problem

The Persuasion problem suggests that there is no mechanism to convince others to value well-being, and therefore to follow along with moral prescriptions based on well-being. Harris responds much as he does with the Value Problem, arguing that in both science and health, we recognize that there is no reliable mechanism of persuasion, but we nonetheless find it worthwhile to pursue scientific knowledge and better health.

The Measurement Problem

The Measurement Problem asks how well-being can actually be measured. This is, I think, the least worrying of the three objections to Harris’s theory, and I do not discuss it further here.

What if Morality is Therapy?

In reading Harris’s response to his critics, something struck me about his comparison between well-being and health, namely that they aren’t really separate ideas. Surely well-being, as some measure of a person’s mental state, is simply one aspect of that person’s health? Why then, should well-being not be considered part of our existing definition of health (mental health, specifically)? And if this is the case, then surely moral prescriptions that tend to increase well-being are really just therapies prescribed to improve health? If this is true, then the objections to Harris’s theory reduce directly to a defense of pursuing greater health. Few people, I think, would object to such a pursuit.


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