Not only are Sam Harris’ recent thoughts about morality in tension with basic philosophical distinctions such as is/ought and fact/value, it also re-raises basic questions raised by utilitarian ethics – namely which version of ‘happiness’ is right?
I listened to an interesting discussion of Sam’s ideas today (thanks to Damian for highlighting it), and at one point they were talking about the hypothetical possibility of finding a “wellness” part of the brain. You might as well name it the “wellness according to this brain’s owner” part of the brain. But anyway, apart from the problems with this thought experiment, it did start me on a thought path that led me to the following:
Consider that we define ((somewhat arbitrarily and non-scientifically, I hasten to add)) the goal of morality to be not only the maximal happiness of one individual, but the maximal happiness of all humans (leaving non-human ‘happiness’ aside for the moment). Suppose we could tell from brain function when humans were feeling (and to what degree they were feeling) ‘happy’ as defined by them.
The most ethical action to achieve or work toward this goal, then, would be any action which would cause the most (or all) humans to have that specific brain function (or the highest intensity of that brain function) which signaled human happiness.
Putting aside the fact that implementing this ‘action’ (whatever it might be) with universal scope – all of humanity – would almost certainly involve forcing it upon a good many people, we can also speculate that it would be very, very expensive. Imagine voting on that use of our tax dollars.
It could well be that (again, putting aside the issue of forcing it on unwilling humans) the most financially expedient way to accomplish this would be to find a way to make people believe that things were happening to them that were too expensive to actually make happen in reality.
Every single human could – conceivably – simultaneously enjoy a state of maximal happiness. The utility goal getting the big tick…