The Moral Landscape – Part 4: Mechanical vs. Transcendent Approaches

the-moral-landscapeApproaches to Ought: Mechanical vs. Transcendent

Nevertheless, more than a sentence of negligence explained Harris’ position later in his book, where he noted:

The most common objection to my argument is some version of the following: But you haven’t said why the well-being of conscious beings ought to matter to us. If someone wants to torture all conscious beings to the point of madness, what is to say that he isn’t just as ‘moral’ as you are?[1]

He correctly responded that no one truly and sincerely holds such a position; but continued, “I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value.”[2] Though he continued to elucidate from the foundation of human consciousness, the root of his answer is solidified – i.e. one need not a transcendent source of value because consciousness is the only intelligible source for value. How can values exist without some conscious mind to express the value? The confusion is apparent. Harris seemingly misunderstood the argument, reinterpreted it from within his materialistic worldview, and as such, he provided a solution that maneuvers the problem further in. To demonstrate the inconsistence: from where did human consciousness come from? Harris resolved human consciousness as a product of the human brain, and therefore the transcendent element is unnecessary. As to how evolutionary activity and natural selection cyclically produced human consciousness, it is an enigma; but the materialistic enigma is better suited for Harris than the moral enigma, because the former supposedly can do away with the latter.

Conclusively, this is the length of Harris’ claimed justification for his moral scheme: values must stem from consciousness, values are a type of fact, thus being measurable and determined by science, well-being captures all expressions of value, and therefore, all morality is concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures. Importantly, the question of justification is not one of mechanics, consisting in tracing out the way this objective morality works and functions in the life of conscious creatures – i.e. Harris’ tracing as far back as scientifically possible to the source (consciousness), then marking how the source works towards values through the human brain. Such a mechanical explication never ascends (or perhaps descends) the ladder to justification. The mechanics of morality remains exclusive to human consciousness routed through the human brain, because morality is an anthropological discipline; but the elucidated mechanics does little to justify the source of why the particulars are designed to move in such a direction. Just as the mobility of an automobile can be explained by the interworking of its engine, axels, and wheels, along with its environment consisting in natural laws, such an explanation only resolves the source of the automobile’s existence if one refuses to ask the question of who or what designed it, for what purpose, what powers the engine, and from where its fuel is sourced. The question of ‘source’ is only satisfied by such a presuppositional limitation conducted by the inquirer, and in the ontological consideration of the source of the vehicle itself, mechanical explanations hardly scratch the surface. Therefore, the mechanical explanation of morality, noting that it functions from human consciousness through the human brain, offers no source of morality itself. One cannot satisfy the question of why a thing exists by explaining how it functions within its existence.

With the noted analogy, however, is it necessary to know the source of the automobile in order to measure its effectiveness and function? Does one’s knowledge of the mechanical source (particularly observed) render the knowledge of its source of existence (generally observed) obsolete in regards to proper use? The mechanic may have sufficient knowledge for the proper workings of the automobile, but without the ‘transcendent knowledge’ concerning the automobile’s purpose in design, which is identified by one route of identifying the source, the mechanical ‘is’ provides no justifiable ‘ought’ for function. Is the mechanic permitted to tell the driver to obey traffic laws? Certainly, one can say that it is best for the longevity of vehicle’s brake pads and engine performance to not crash into other cars, run red lights, drive at careless speeds, take turns too quickly, or drive while intoxicated; but does the remarked ‘is’ of automobile maintenance obligate the driver to care for such things? A caring driver, one that is currently concerned with his automobile, will certainly value the mechanical ‘is,’ but this is an extremely important distinction. The ‘value’ of a maintained automobile for the specified purpose of the driver preceded his adherence to such mechanical indicatives regarding the ‘good’ use of his automobile. The value was not caused by the fact, but the fact was coupled to the valuation of the driver as to better inform his means of accomplishing the end for which he has determined for his automobile.[3] And where might one find the obligatory ‘ought’ in this progression?[4]

The obvious follow-up question is ‘But what driver does not value his car?’ Transferring the analogy, ‘But what conscious creature does not value his well-being?’ Truly, it would only be those that Harris correctly noted as psychopaths and sociopaths. What obligatory ought does Harris, or anyone for that matter, supply to the psychopath’s lack of valuation concerning others’ well-being? For one, the facts of how to maximize well-being will not generate a concern for the maximization of well-being in the psychopath ipso facto. Similarly, explaining how to maximize the performance of one’s automobile does not generate a concern for doing so in the reckless driver ipso facto. But how else might the psychopath or reckless driver be persuaded? This is where the transcendent approach provides an obligation for which the mechanical approach significantly lacks. The mechanic approaches the reckless driver, and he informs him that in order to maximize his automobile’s performance, he ought to drive the car in such and such a way. The reckless driver responds, stating that he does not desire to maximize his automobile’s performance, but he desires to utilize it as car bomb. The mechanical approach would instigate a reply from the mechanic that simply reverts back to his initial statement. The transcendent approach, however, has the ability to appeal to a greater fact, where the mechanic could reply, ‘But that is not the purpose of the automobile.’ Such an assertion assumes transcendent knowledge of the source of the automobile’s existence. Yes, the mechanical approach could produce a similar statement, but as soon as one noted the purpose of the automobile’s very existence, there is an obligatory ‘ought’ that is contrived outside of the mechanics of the automobile. The question of ‘why’ answered with transcendent knowledge supplies an obligation that the answer of the mechanical ‘how’ could not within itself supply. Surely, the mechanical approach could recite the fact and call it an ‘ought,’ but the distinction is in the transcendent method’s superior explanatory power. Notice, however, that the noted source of the automobile’s mobility (mechanical) is not thrown out with the noted source of the automobile’s existence (transcendent); rather the former is placed within the latter and, in fact, justifies the proper aim of its mechanics. Also, notice that the transcendent approach answered with a fact – i.e. the source of the automobile’s existence. The point to be made: facts certainly relate to human values and moral obligations, for all information is provided to the human brain as facts; but the valuation of those facts, which in turn result in moral obligations, necessitate a type of fact that is beyond a mechanical fact. The noted transcendent source of morality, elucidating its design and ultimate purpose, provides a greater obligatory force (ought) to moral objectivity.

Harris returned to Hume’s is/ought distinction, and continued to combat it by demonstrating that “this notion of ‘ought’ is an artificial and needlessly confusing way to think about moral choice.[5] The notion of ‘ought’ he referred to is that which supplied obligatory power to factual statements. It is artificial in the sense that “to say that we ought to treat children with kindness seems identical to saying that everyone will tend to be better off if we do it.[6] As it appears, all questions of justification in regards to ‘ought’ regard one’s concern for the maximal well-being of conscious creatures. This is a profoundly correct observation: there is an inseparable link between human morality and human well-being. However, the issue is not consequentialism particularly considered, but the problem arises when consequentialism is generally considered – i.e. when one looks beyond the mechanics of morality and unto the source of morality. Observing a necessary consequence of human morality does not thereby necessitate that human morality is comprehensively defined by the stated consequence.[7] Of course ‘ought’ is artificial within the limited examination of the mechanics of well-being, because ‘ought’ is only established and adhered to within the concession of a transcendent source of morality. Rather than admit this and necessarily hold to moral relativism, Harris seemingly marks the concept behind the term as man-made, and claims that there are obligations nonetheless. How can the notion of ‘ought’ be artificial, but so artificial as to be necessary for Harris to borrow it for his own obligatory force? Similar to his conduct with facts and values, where he allowed facts to consume values, he permits facts to consume ought, thereby leaving no remnant but facts.[8] Conveniently, such a remnant is now accessible for science.

[1] Harris, Moral Landscape, 32.

[2] Ibid., 32. This recognition allows Harris to answer a popular argument offered by Craig, which states, “Why think that what is conducive to human flourishing is any more valuable than what is conducive to the flourishing of ants or mice?,” On Guard, 138. In hopes that this student understands Harris’ position and points correctly, Harris would seemingly reply that ‘consciousness’ is what separates humans from animals. Since he determines human morality to have its roots in human consciousness, Craig’s argument may have a quick rebuttal from Harris.

[3]Harris cited one of his critics, who stated, “If you do not already accept well-being as a value, then there seems to be no argument for why one should promote well-being,” Moral Landscape, 36. Harris combated the contention by arguing that everyone desires well-being (even the Taliban), and science could correct how “they simply do not understand how much better life would be for them if they had different priorities,” ibid., 37.

[4] This objection to Harris was categorized by Harris himself as the ‘persuasion problem’ in his response to his critics. Also, there was the ‘valuation problem,’ perhaps the causative problem of the persuasion problem, which concerned science’s inability to produce a scientific basis for the value of well-being. Most of the present critique belabors the valuation problem, and this student has continued the assault due to Harris’ unsatisfactory response to his critics. He noted in the Huffington Post, “all of these challenges are the product of philosophical confusion,” and he ‘proves’ this claim by demonstrating how the analogy of health suffers the same challenges, but no one raises the same objections to the practice of medicine ( The only reason such an analogy transfers is because of Harris’ drawn definition – his equivocation of human morality and human well-being (human flourishing).

[5] Harris, Moral Landscape, 38.

[6] Ibid., 38. In Harris’ response to Ryan Born on his blog, he remarked, “In my view, moralizing notions like ‘should’ and ‘ought’ are just ways of indicating that certain experiences and states of being are better than others.”

[7] There are books and books over centuries of ethical examination that continually note the insufficiency of consequentialism and utilitarianism. It is simply not the purpose of this analysis, nor is there sufficient space to document the discussion. Nonetheless, one wonders what Harris glazed over in the historical criticism of the view he came to assert.

[8] In Harris’ response to Ryan Born on his blog, he remarked, “There is only what IS (which includes all that is possible). If you can’t find your oughts here, I can’t see any other place to look for them.”


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