Is Sam Harris Redefining Morality?

As most people reading this probably know, Sam Harris claims that morality is concerned with well-being, and thus that science can, at least in principle, determine which are the correct moral values. However, some critics have claimed that Harris is talking about morality in a non-standard sense, and that as a result his argument doesn’t work.

Whether Harris is redefining morality came up in a recent discussion between Matt Dillahunty and YouTuber Stephen Woodford. (I didn’t watch the whole video, but the question is briefly discussed starting at 1:12:54.)

Woodford defended Harris by arguing as follows: Morality is about right and wrong, and Harris agrees with that, so he isn’t redefining it. He merely claims that right and wrong have to do with well-being. He is therefore using a different standard than what many others use to determine right from wrong, but is nevertheless still talking about morality. Dillahunty sort-of agreed with this.

But Harris’s position does amount to a redefinition. If he were merely defending a utilitarian ethic — in other words, if all he was doing was arguing that the right action is the one that increases well-being the most — he wouldn’t be redefining anything. In that case, he would only be talking about what he thinks is the correct moral viewpoint. But Harris doesn’t stop there. He also wants to maintain that morality is objective — that there is a fact of the matter regarding what is right and what is wrong. And in order to do so, he claims that morality is about well-being. Briefly, his argument is that, since moral questions are questions about well-being and well-being is an objective property, morality is objective.

But morality isn’t about well-being. It is, as Woodford said, about right and wrong.

The difference here is somewhat subtle, so I'll try to make it as clear as possible. What Harris is doing isn’t merely claiming that the correct standard to use in determining right from wrong is well-being. He’s also claiming that that is the only standard that even makes sense. For him, “right action” just means “an action that increases overall well-being.” And that’s a very different claim. Harris’s view implies that anyone using “right” in a different sense isn’t merely disagreeing on a moral matter. Instead, anyone who does so is using the word incorrectly.

But in fact, it is Harris who is using the word incorrectly. Right and wrong, good and bad, are not by definition about well-being. Someone who disagrees that increasing the overall amount of well-being is always the right thing to do isn’t misunderstanding the meaning of “right.” He just has a different moral view.

This is all the more important because Harris’s argument isn't just wrong: It is also tied to a utilitarian ethic that probably most of his followers wouldn’t support if they actually understood it.

Dillahunty says that the only people who disagree that morality is about well-being are divine command theorists. But that’s obviously not true! I think what’s going on here is that many atheists see only two possibilities. On the one hand, there are the religious moralists who base their ethics on a holy book, irrespective of whether that is conducive to human interests. (If God wants women to be deprived of equal rights and to wear burkas, too bad for the women.) On the other hand, there are those who see morality as being about the well-being of all of us. And of these two, which is better?

But if we are interested in having moral views that correctly reflect what actually concerns us, the above is far too simplistic. It completely ignores some very important moral distinctions.

Here’s one example. Most of us would say fairness is a good thing. Everything else being equal, a fairer outcome is better than a less fair one. The problem is that one cannot consistently say this while maintaining that the only thing that matters is the overall amount of well-being. For if two possible outcomes have the same net result in terms of well-being, they must be equally good, even if one is more fair than the other. In other words, overall well-being doesn't say anything about how that well-being should be distributed. What’s worse, an outcome may result in a greater amount of overall well-being while being less fair — which means it might reasonably be viewed as the less desirable outcome. And it’s not just with respect to fairness that this problem occurs. The same thing can be said regarding justice and rights.

I’m not denying the importance of well-being. We should all be concerned with it — and not with what is in some old holy book. But that doesn’t mean that morality is or should be exclusively about well-being.