Shouldering the Burden of Utilitarianism


Review of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, by Sam Harris

New York: Free Press, 2010.

Sam Harris sets out an ambitious project for himself. Harris—a neuroscientist and atheist who has argued militantly against religious belief—hopes to meet head-on a common response to the atheist position, that, as Dostoyevsky famously put it, in the absence of God anything is permitted. The fear is that without religious belief to guide us, we are flung at once into the quicksand of moral relativism dispossessed of any firm footing upon which to claim that anything is truly right or wrong. For a public intellectual who has made his bones using religion as philosophical target-practice, this is a logical move. Harris wants once and for all to vanquish the challenge of moral (and cultural) relativism. Unfortunately (and I mean that sincerely), the assault of moral skepticism upon the notion of objective moral truth cannot be swatted away quite as easily as Harris implies.

Harris claims that we can appeal to science to say something definitive about moral truth. Harris hopes to persuade us that “there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics...” (p. 28). To make his case, Harris must commit along the way what for many is intellectual heresy. It has long been the position of science that the descriptive and the prescriptive spring from entirely separate realms of human experience. The thinking is that science deals only with the descriptive—with facts. Science can tell us what the facts are, but it can never tell us what we ought to do in a moral sense. Rather, the latter is the exclusive domain of religious and philosophical discourse, a normative universe the morally indifferent instruments of science can never penetrate. This position is most associated with David Hume. Hume argued that statements of fact (“your mother gave birth to you”) can never lead to moral conclusions (“so you should be nice to your mother”). Yet against the cautions of Hume, Harris attempts to prove that it is in fact possible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’.

Harris is very clear about his mission. To use his own words: he is not merely saying that “science can help us get what we want out of life.” (p. 28) Harris is arguing that science can “help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want...” (p. 28) These are very different claims. The first is uncontroversial and rather obvious; the second is impossible. Harris is arguing for a “science of morality” (p. 27) that will provide humanity with the necessary toolkit to discover what is objectively right and wrong, and pinpoint a universal conception of human values. In advancing this science of morality, however, Harris takes enormous liberties in logic.

Harris’s Argument

Harris explains the core of his argument as follows: “Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe...Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.”[1] Then, drawing a comparison to maximizing health in the context of medicine (p. 37), Harris argues that “maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures… [is] the only thing we can reasonably value” (p. 11).

Harris is arguing that science can identify objective value because value is simply no more than brain states, and brain states are as measurable as any other feature of the empirical world. Positive brain states are the very definition of good. Therefore, maximizing positive brain states is an objectively good thing. I take no issue with most of Harris’s reasoning here. Linking the concept of value with the well-being of conscious creatures is perfectly coherent—if value means anything it must be in relation to the conscious minds that experience it. Likewise, if anything is bad, pointless mental suffering is a categorically bad thing. I agree that states of consciousness are natural phenomena, and as such, their undulations, in principle, fall within the purview of empirical science. So far so good. The problem is his next move: the only thing we can value, Harris reasons, is maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures. This is a huge normative supposition imported into his reasoning and it is far from new. With minor adjustments in presentation (he allows for an evolving conception of well-being), Harris is simply giving us a souped up version of Millsian utilitarianism, one anchored to the empirical wheelhouse of modern science.

The Problem

The problem with this is that, for all its intuitive appeal, utilitarianism offers no clear justification for its foundational claim: that everyone’s interests should count equally and that we cannot privilege some people’s interests—including our own—over the interests of others. The nineteenth-century utilitarian Henry Sidgwick described this principle of impartiality (rather poetically) as “the point of view of the universe.”[2] Yet utilitarianism provides no satisfying answer to the question of why we should adopt this stance. The ugly foundational question at the heart of normative ethics remains: why not me over you? Why does your hunger count equally as my hunger? Why is your pain as terrible as mine? Utilitarianism fails to properly deal with this question—what we may call the problem of subjectivity. Utilitarianism’s strongest conceptual punch—that pleasure and pain is the basis of value (this hedonistic account of course may be substituted with more elastic concepts, such as preference satisfaction, well-being, or human flourishing)—does not support the proposition that everyone’s interests should count equally. It does not follow from this that we are morally obliged to maximize the well-being (or what have you) of the greatest number. That is a leap in logic. The philosopher Simon Blackburn does not mince his words: This "argument is so bad that the conclusion not only fails to follow, but actually seems to contradict the starting point.”[3] If it is the experience of pleasure and pain we are concerned with (or whatever other substitute one wishes to use), if this is the well-spring of value, there is no reason to universalize the principle beyond the scope of one’s own subjective experience, and this is especially true if the only way to maximize my well-being is at your expense. The demand of impartiality simply does not track our experience of reality. So long as we remain imprisoned within the subjectivity of our own experience, pushed and pulled by preferences, goals and motivations that shape the private universes we inhabit, the identification of pleasure and pain as the basis of value does not get us anywhere.

Harris’s scientism does nothing to advance the discussion. Harris wants to use empirical facts to determine normative truths. However, the relativist challenge that Harris must defeat is (in its most popular form) the notion that moral judgements are only true or false from the standpoint of the individual or a group of individuals, and do not exist out there in the empirical universe the same way as salad bowls, tornados, and hardcover books. Moral value, the relativist argues, is not absolute: moral judgements are essentially no different than my view that pistachio ice cream is disgusting. While my dislike of pistachio ice cream may be a perfectly measurable brain state, a natural phenomenon fully constrained by the laws of the universe, this still does not show that pistachio ice cream is objectively disgusting. And conversely, what fact in the universe could possibly show that I am mistaken? What could be the foundation of such a claim? All the empirical data in the world on pistachio ice cream—its flavours, precise texture, nut composition, etc.—can never prove that this green goo is objectively delicious. Likewise, what are we to do if I am simply unmoved by the suffering of others? What empirical data can you produce to show that I must weigh the anguish of others equally with my own? There is of course an empirical answer to the question as to how to maximize the collective well-being of humanity—no one is disputing this. However, so long as the problem of subjectivity remains unsolved, there is no answer to the question of why we should do so. For Harris’s entire project to work, he must first solve the problem of subjectivity and show us why we are compelled to adopt the ‘point of view of the universe.’

How Harris tries to solve the Problem

So how does Harris propose to do this? The argument he marshals is as follows. He asks us to imagine a world “in which everyone suffers as much as he or she (or it) possibly can.” (p. 39). He then argues: “a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being. This is all we need to speak about ‘moral truth’ in the context of science. Once we admit that the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing...are different and dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted that there are right and wrong answers to the questions of morality.” (pp. 39-40) He continues: “Grounding our values in a continuum of conscious states—one that has the worst possible misery for everyone at its depths and differing degrees of well-being at all other points—seems like the only legitimate context in which to conceive of values and moral norms.” (p. 41) With this worst possible misery argument, Harris appears to believe he has delivered on his promise to bridge the fact-value divide, solved the problem of subjectivity, and directed us to a safe haven of objective moral truth. After all, who could deny that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is objectively worse than a universe in which they experience well-being”? Hitting normative rock bottom seems to give us solid footing. Can we not say with confidence that anything we can do to distance our world from such a state would be an objectively good thing?

The problem with this argument is that it arrives at this ‘objective’ truth by cheating. The thought experiment gives the impression that it has moved us from the subjective to the objective stance when in fact it has not. How? It does this by smuggling self-interest into the proposition. With this in place, an alignment of interests is created that guarantees a universal consensus in preferences. There are two problems with this move.

First, consensus is not objective moral truth. We should be clear on what Harris is not claiming in the Moral Landscape. He is not arguing the merits of normative consensus in a Rawlsian sense. Harris is speaking in the strongest metaphysical terms. (p. 28) For Harris, morality is a matter of objective fact, the consequence of brain states being empirical phenomena. His worst-possible-misery argument does achieve a limited normative consensus. But this is not Harris’s project. As powerful as it may be (indeed Rawls shows us its theoretical strength) moral consensus should not be confused with moral realism. The problem with consensus is that it has no objective purchase on anything beyond itself, and as such, can dissolve with the shifting sands of group opinion. Anyone outside the consensus is not wrong in an objective sense—they are simply in disagreement. Harris’s thought experiment does not locate objective value—merely a fragile alignment of interests.

The second (and more serious) problem with Harris’s reasoning is that even within this apparent consensus, there is in fact no consistency in value. While we would all agree that the worst possible misery for everyone is a bad thing, we would do so for widely divergent reasons, ranging from perfect altruism to the grossest forms of selfishness. The moment we leave the protected confines of the state of worst possible misery, this artifice collapses and the great inconsistency in value reappears. What we mistook as objective value was merely the impression of it.

An analogy may be useful here. The position that Harris’ thought experiment thrusts us into is comparable to sailors adrift on a lifeboat. Clearly, all of these sailors would recognize that it would be a positive thing if everyone on the boat had water to drink, or as Harris inversely presents it: a lifeboat with no water is objectively worse than a lifeboat with water. Thus—Harris’ reasoning goes—there are objectively right and wrong answers to moral questions related to having water on a lifeboat.  But where does this get us exactly? While all of these sailors may agree that having water is better than not having water, this does not bring us any closer to objective truth. There is in reality still no unity of value here, only the appearance of it. To underscore my point, let us assume that the Buddha and Idi Amin are among these sailors. Both the Buddha and Idi Amin would certainly agree that having no water on the lifeboat is categorically bad, but they would do so for entirely different reasons. While the Buddha may be adopting this position from the utilitarian’s ‘point of view of the universe’, having compassion for all people on the boat and viewing the situation from a perfectly objective stance, Idi Amin likely remains stuck in the subjective stance, thinking of himself. Yet the Buddha and Idi Amin appear to be in perfect moral agreement. What happened? The problem is that within Harris’s thought experiment, moral value is never actually identified, just preferences. Moral debate begins when interests start to collide—when there is some but not enough water for all the sailors—not when interests are comfortably aligned. Harris’s thought experiment does not bring us any closer to objective value—it merely achieves the illusion of it. With one cup of water, this illusion is shattered and the profound moral incongruity between the Buddha and Idi Amin that was present all along comes suddenly into view. 

And here comes the truly difficult part. While we may find Idi Amin morally repugnant, we cannot provide a rational account of why Amin should adopt an objective view of his situation. The insight that value is reducible to brain states tells us nothing about why Idi Amin should care about the brain states of other people. Harris's thought experiment fails to solve the problem of subjectivity. The hard questions in ethics are all about trade-offs—when pleasure for some causes misery for others. Harris promises to locate stable objective moral truth upon which we may plant our flag but then never even enters the realm of serious moral debate.

Harris takes other stabs at the problem of subjectivity elsewhere in the book, but his logic fails to persuade. For instance, he asks us to imagine there are only two people on earth, and then notes that “while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, most solutions to the problem of how two people can thrive on earth will not be zero-sum. Surely the best solutions will not be zero-sum.” (p. 40) Given the unique biblical predicament in which these two people find themselves, Harris is no doubt correct in his assessment. In this situation, these two actor's interests are aligned in that they can maximize their welfare through positive sum cooperation rather than conflict. He then continues: “Why would this difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?” (p. 41) If I may answer: it will disappear because actors are no longer directly dependent upon each other in the same way and there are now billions of zero-sum games where actors can maximize their individual interests at the expense of others while still reaping the general benefits of human cooperation. What Harris is doing here should alert us to the deeper fissures in his reasoning more generally. Harris is simply selecting to view the welfare of these two people—or 6.7 billion people—equally. He is assuming the ‘point of view of the universe’ as his starting point. Yet this is begging the question: why we must move from the subjective to the objective stance is precisely the issue at hand. This question is the very essence of ethical debate. Once we have decided on this point, the rest is really just bookkeeping.


The Moral Landscape is a well-written and thoughtful exercise in secular moral realism, but it attempts to do something far more ambitious—it purports to give us the basis for a science of morality. While the subtitle of Harris' book insists otherwise, science cannot determine human values—it can do no more than tell us how to best implement the values we already have. Harris is an exceptionally gifted writer and the book is well worth reading if only for Harris’ literary flourish. In that respect, I highly recommend The Moral Landscape. Yet Harris’s rhetorical power allows him to curate a conversation that obscures the logical gaps in his reasoning. The philosophical cornerstone of his case is simply an obfuscating appeal to 'commonsense.' I am surprised by this because Harris is such an impressively clear thinker. While I share Harris’s moral intuitions, I cannot, if I am to remain intellectually honest with myself, pretend I am persuaded by his reasoning. I am a self-hating moral skeptic eager to reach Harris’s conclusions, but I simply cannot get there while operating within the constraints of logic. Sadly, I must decline this philosophical catnip.

Posted on 9 March 2016

BRYAN DRUZIN is an Assistant Professor and Deputy Director of the LLM program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong where he teaches legal philosophy and contract law.

[1] Sam Harris, A response to Critics, The Huffington Post (Jan. 29, 2011), available at:

[2] See Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics 133 (2014).

[3] Simon Blackburn, Ethics: A Very Short Introduction 76 (2001).