Note before we go on that Harris is replying to the issues in play as they are summarised by Jerry, rather than to the detail of the argument over in my review. That's fine as far as it goes, as long as we're all clear. Further, some of the points that he's responding to are more Jerry's than mine, or at least reflect Jerry's formulation.
That said, Jerry and I are, I think, largely in agreement in our criticisms of the Harris book. If we do disagree anywhere, it will probably be on something fairly subtle, or where Jerry raises a problem of his own that isn't part of my critique. E.g., Jerry raises an issue about trolley cases that I don't deal with directly in my review. I'm not saying I necessarily disagree with him here - I'd need to think about it, and the trolley cases may, for all I know, cause Harris difficulties - but it's simply not something that I relied on in pointing out that there are complexities that The Moral Landscape skates over, and sometimes gets wrong.
The metric for "well-being"
The first point that Harris deals with, however, is made by me as well as by Jerry. This is a problem with any talk that relates to maximising the well-being of conscious creatures or comparing the respective effects of two different strategies (two different actions, say, or two different systems of laws and customs) on their well-being. It's not the deepest problem with the book, but it's a genuine one that Harris needs to deal with somehow. It's this: We cannot make objectively binding comparisons of well-being unless we have a metric for well-being. We need to know what "well-being" actually is, and it needs to be something that comes in units of some kind, so comparisons can be made.
Harris just repeats a point that he makes in the book:
This is simply not a problem for my thesis (recall my “answers in practice vs. answers in principle” argument). There is a difference between how we verify the truth of a proposition and what makes a proposition true. How many breaths did I take last Tuesday? I don’t know, and there is no way to find out. But there is a correct, numerical answer to this question (and you can bet the farm that it falls between 5 and 5 million).I thought he might try to put an argument that there actually is a metric for "well-being", discoverable perhaps via research in neuroscience. That would be something of a leap of faith, though, especially without a very clear definition of "well-being". Instead, he gives an answer that misses the point of the criticism. Alas, it simply is a problem for his overall argument.
His example of how many breaths he took last Tuesday would do for my purposes, but let's first take another example that brings out some extra complexities. We can ask how many grains of sand there are on a particular beach. This might be difficult to answer precisely, partly because we need to know how far down the "beach" goes and partly because the boundaries of the beach on the map are somewhat vague: it will shade into whatever environment lies behind it, it will vary between high tide and low tide, and so on. All in all, we are going to have to agree on a thin line around the beach, thin enough so that each grain of sand falls on one side or the other, plus some kind of two dimensional boundary beneath. Only at that stage can we be sure what we are even measuring.
Once we've done that, however, we have a metric - probably. I'm assuming that we have a clear enough agreed understanding of what a "grain of sand" is to avoid disputes in particular cases. If that's so, our metric is "grain of sand" and there will be an objectively correct answer as to how many grains of sand there are on the beach (as defined by our boundaries) at a particular time. The answer might, theoretically, be, oh, let's say, 125 billion grains of sand. This figure can vary enormously among larger and smaller beaches.
Similarly, if we can agree on what the precise boundaries of "Tuesday" were (this will include working out which timezone we are going to use), and if we can agree on what is an inhalation strong enough to count as a breath, and on how we will count any incomplete breaths at the ends of the day, then theoretically there is an objectively correct answer, let's say 16,000, to the number of breaths that Harris took last Tuesday.
He is also correct that it is difficult - for all practical purposes impossible - to count the number of grains of sand on a particular beach or the number of breaths taken by a particular person on a particular day. That, however, is not because of the lack of metric. In these cases, we do have a metric: we know what counts as a "grain of sand" and what counts as a "breath". It's precisely because we have a metric in each case that there is an objectively correct answer, even if it's not possible for us to establish the answer in practice.
But the point about well-being was not that it is difficult - or, in practice, impossible - to count the number of units of "well-being". It's that we simply don't have a unit at all. If I decide to apply for a particular job, rather than deciding not to, we can't compare the respective number of units of well-being that are contributed to conscious creatures by these different causes of action, and it's not simply or only because of practical difficulties in counting, as with the number of grains of sand on the beach or the number of breaths taken by Sam Harris on a particular day. The problem, rather, is that we don't even know what we are supposed to count. The mere practical difficulties of counting might also cause a problem for Harris at some point in his discussion, but it is not what was raised. The problem is that we don't know what we're counting at all. We don't even have agreement on what "well-being" actually is.
Likewise, it's not good enough for Harris to say:
These are all interesting questions. Some might admit of clear answers, while others might be impossible to resolve. But this is not my problem. The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice). The fact that we can easily come up with questions that are hard or impossible to answer does not challenge my thesis.However, if some of the issues in question are impossible to resolve - and not just because of practical difficulties in counting - it certainly does challenge the thesis of moral objectivism, to which Harris appears to be committed. He could defuse the whole issue here if he simply abandoned moral objectivism, which I believe he could do quite readily. (Leave aside that the argument in this quote is not, as it stands, logically valid.)
One suspicion here (I don't put it beyond that at this stage) is that well-being is not simply one thing. It may be a combination of things, and reasonable people may disagree about the relative importance of those things. Harris seems clear that it is not simply pleasure, but if not what is it? Is it pleasure minus pain (and can these be placed on the same scale?)? Is it some set of goods that a person possesses, such the ability to do certain things? Is it some sort of summation of a number of things that people tend to care about, measurable in different units if they are measurable at all?
There will be no objectively correct answer - not even one that we can't discover in practice - as to what course of action produces more well-being units unless well-being actually has a metric. If it does, there will be deeper questions as to why we should feel bound to act so as to maximise these well-being units, whatever they are, but if it doesn't ... well, we can't even get that far.
Making judgments of merit
Note that we can still make judgments about the merits of moral systems, systems of laws, particular acts, people's characters, and so on. Moreover, those judgments need not be just arbitrary. In any actual discussion we may have, not just anything can count as a "good" act or a "good" system of customs and laws, or a "good" set of dispositions of character. Harris is quite right to attack people (none of whom seem to be found in philosophy departments, but it's rumoured that anthropology departments are well stocked with them) who see all this as just arbitrary. But he doesn't have to make claims to the effect that one course of action or whatever is objectively the correct one, or that one is always objectively superior to all others (except in the rare event of a precise tie). We don't think like that about other value judgments - not usually - so it's something of a psychological puzzle why so many people want to think like that about morality.
Consider how we judge the merits of motor-cars. I can't imagine that many people think that judgments of the respective merits of two similar cars are the sort of thing that can be just plain true or false, as if my 2009 Honda Civic is worth 1000 car-merit units while the price-equivalent Mazda is worth only 990 car-merit units. That is not how it works.
Rather, we can take account of data about such matters as performance (which can be broken up into many other sub-components, such as maximum speed, acceleration in a range of circumstances, towing power, stability when cornering, braking, and others), fuel economy, comfort, how easy the car is to drive (and maybe how "fun" it is to drive), various aspects of styling, reliability, and doubtless others. These are not arbitrary considerations for beings like us to take into account: they reflect stable desires that are widespread among human beings, given the kinds of beings that we are and the kinds of circumstances in which we find ourselves. Not just anything can count as a "good" car: we'd raise our eyes if someone recommended an uncomfortable, unreliable car that guzzles fuel while failing to accelerate, cornering with little stability, and braking dangerously.
And yet, I may judge my Honda to be of greater merit while you do likewise with the Mazda ... and neither of us is "just wrong" or being irrational. We may be placing different weights on different things. You might be putting more weight on some aspect of performance while I am putting more weight on reliability - or vice versa. My judgment of which is the better car will reflect my desires and values, while your judgment will reflect yours. Neither of us is going to be so naive as to insist that the Honda or the Mazda just is the better car of the two, as if one racked up more car-merit units on some scale that we are both bound objectively bound to apply.
Most of our judgments about the merits of things - knives, cars, friends, sunsets, or whatever you care to name - are like this. They are not simply arbitrary, so that just anything can count as a good knife (presumably we all want such things as sharpness, or at least the ability to be sharpened, and sturdiness), but nor must we all agree on pain of being just wrong ... objectively wrong like the person who produces the wrong figure for the number of grains of sand on the local beach.
Simple things and complex things
Once we see that judgments of the merits of relatively simple things, such as knives and cars, are like this, why do so many people struggle with the idea that judgments of the merits of much more complex things, such as people (with their complex psychologies) or systems of laws, are even less likely to be just right or just wrong? Admittedly, not just anyone will count as a "good" person, but we fool ourselves if we think that there are person-goodness units that we can use to decide as matter of objective fact that one person just is "better" than another. It's not because it's difficult in practice to conduct a count or do a sum, but because there are no such units.
But that doesn't entail that there are no non-arbitrary reasons to prefer a person who is honest, considerate, kind, non-violent, cooperative, and hard-working to someone with all the opposite qualities. Given widespread facts about human beings and our situation, these are not just arbitrary factors to take into account.
We can make perfectly rational judgments about the merits of systems of law, political platforms, individual actions, and people whom we meet or see in public life. In each case, we can use criteria that are not arbitrary for beings like us to use. In some cases, all the criteria will point in the same direction. But there remains room in a very large class of cases for people to disagree in their judgments of merit without either being just objectively wrong.
I doubt that Harris would lose much if he took all this into account. He could still make rational criticisms of religious morality and of crude, quietist forms of moral relativism, which seem to be his main targets, without being saddled with a naive kind of moral realism (and getting bogged down defending it).
He needs, however, to get a better sense of the points that are actually being made against him. In this example, we're not merely complaining about the practical difficulty in measuring well-being, like measuring breaths or grains of sand. The problem to be faced is whether well-being is the sort of thing that has a metric at all.