The Moral Landscape – Part 5: Implementation

the-moral-landscapeMorality is not merely a theory to be espoused and explained, but also, and more so, an attainable practice for actual moral actions. How, then, does Harris’ moral landscape work itself into the life of its believers?

Since morality is the concern for the maximal well-being of conscious creatures, then it follows that everyone must pursue the maximal well-being of conscious creatures. ‘Good’ is that which maximizes well-being. There is thus a goal for conscious creature’s moral exertions, whether it is justifiable or not is simply unimportant, but the means of attaining that end is the follow-up consideration. Since values are a type of fact, and facts can be measured by science, then science can inform conscious creatures of how to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures. Conscious creatures, therefore, rely on the ability of science to measure a given action’s influence on the well-being of conscious creatures. Simple examples are countless: murder, rape, and torture do not maximize the well-being of conscious creatures, and therefore, are immoral actions. Despite these clear-cut examples, Harris recognized the need for moral exceptions within an objective morality. For example, the pursuit of physical health often requires temporary suffering – e.g. surgery, physical therapy, disabling medicines, etc. One of the more interesting analogies supplied by Harris concerned the game of chess. He noted that ‘losing your queen’ in chess is often discouraged, but there are certain scenarios where ‘losing your queen’ is a strategically good move.

Decisions and moves have consequences, where the player is ultimately seeking to win the game. Moreover, concerning the ultimate goal of the game, a decision or move is weighed beyond its apparent, immediate, and isolated consequence within the player’s mind. Good chess players are those that can foresee the immediate consequences of their moves in hopes of better paving the way for the ultimate end, which is victory. Certainly, this is the great difficulty – i.e. determining the consequences is subject to the analysis of several outcomes, and those outcomes are in the present game contingent upon the other player’s decision. The study of all the probabilities is a gargantuan task that is, nonetheless, possible in principle and perhaps already accomplished by some super-computer in practice. But what happens when the chessboard and its pieces are increased into what seems like infinity? Such a happening would look very much like the current situation of human existence and the constant call for decision-making. Human beings are called to make moral decisions (which presumably subsumes all decisions) on an infinite chessboard with infinite pieces. Nevertheless, science has been equipped with the ability to inform human beings that ‘such and such’ move increases well-being for ‘such and such’ conscious creatures in ‘such and such’ a situation. The information is certainly valuable, but it does little to inform the player of the consequences of his or her decision in relation to the universality of things. How can one determine if ‘losing his queen’ at this point in the match will ever advance him to a position of victory? How can one determine whether the moral exception will truly maximize the well-being of conscious creatures? This problem of measurement can render even the most noble and well-motivated actions as moot and utterly pointless.[1]

As a matter of correlation, Harris claimed that the ultimate aim of morality consists in the concern for the maximal well-being of conscious creatures – this is the victory. The issue appears in that the typical advancement towards accomplishing an ultimate end is often constituted by subsequent ends that in fact operate with exceptions to the precepts of achieving the ultimate, chief end. More specifically, well-being is often sacrificed as a subsequent end in hopes of attaining the ultimate end. Sacrifices of these sorts are necessary (as noted by Harris); but the sacrificial exceptions must be necessarily informed by the ultimate (universal), since only the ultimate (universal) can exercise authority over the subsequent (particular). Now, the only means for exercising an exception to moral precepts is by route of knowledge concerning the universal well-being. However, the mere knowledge of the ultimate end is insufficient, just as it is insufficient reason to sacrifice one’s queen merely because the player knows that victory is the ultimate end. The knowledge of the ultimate end must be supplied with a connection in regards to the subsequent end’s ability to advance towards the ultimate end. The player must know that ‘losing one’s queen’ in this particular decision will ultimately result in victory. Furthermore, this is typically not a simplified identification of one connection, but a tracing out of a series of connections, each one being as contingent as the former in regards to reaching the ultimate goal. Once again, without a transcendent knowledge, a knowledge of the ultimate end and its connection to a particular action, the imperatives of science will consist solely in mechanical demonstrations for seemingly similar situations.

The assumption that particular well-being necessarily results in universal well-being is simply that – an assumption – and is difficult to couple with the concession of necessary moral exceptions. Further, from within the Christian worldview, a teleological suspension of particular well-being now resides as the paradigmatic center of universal well-being, where the most hideous, heinous, and unjust act – the crucifixion of the perfect Son of God – ultimately resulted in the most beautiful, delightful, and gracious maximization of well-being. This isolated, irreproducible event of the utmost misery was scientifically untouchable in regards to warranting an exception, but the exception has made all the difference.

[1] The ‘problem of measurement’ was another categorized argument that Harris noted in his response to his critics. Ryan Born also labored in addressing the inability of science to determine the intentions of human actions, but Harris answered, “As our minds are, so our lives (largely) become.” He is intimating that the mental state of a person with bad intentions will inevitably produce bad actions and bad consequences, thus inevitably placing him within the mercy of science’s ability to render his actions as ‘immoral.’


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