Where I part company is when Harris seems to think that well-being is something we can measure, maximise, and at least in principle, compare in an objective way. In his writings he often refers to the practical difficulty of counting in situations such as the following: how many breaths did I take on a certain day? how many blades of grass are there in my lawn? how many grains of sand are there on a particular beach? If we define the question a bit more precisely, it will have an actual quantitative answer in each case, but there are practical difficulties in arriving at the answer. If the problem of measuring well-being is like that, the implication is that there are, indeed, units of well-being, and there is an actual quantitative answer to the question of whether one set of laws and customs (say) produces more well-being than another. It's just that there may be practical difficulties in making the measurement. Harris even contemplates the theoretical possibility that there could be a tie between two societies with different legal and customary arrangements.
Talking in this way does suggest that well-being is something with a metric. Despite the practical difficulties of measurement, there will be objective, quantifiable answers as to which set of social arrangements, or which course of action, produces more well-being than others. If we could get over the practical difficulties, we could say that course of action X produces more well-being units than course of action Y and is in that sense "morally better" than course of action Y.
Much in The Moral Landscape suggests this interpretation. In particular, when the book discusses various criticisms of utilitarianism, it seems to accept that well-being is - by analogy with "utility" in these discussions - something that can be quantified and maximised, despite the practical difficulties of measurement.
The Moral Landscape could probably be trimmed of some of this language, or some clarifications could be made to the effect that well-being can't actually be quantified, and I'd have less problems with it. However, I do need to insist that there is a difference between lacking a precise and practical method of counting (as with the grains of sand on the beach) and lacking a metric at all (perhaps because the concept is fuzzy and is really a placeholder for more precise concepts). In the former case, objective comparisons can be made and there is something to maximise. In the latter case, we have a more complex situation. If the concept used is a placeholder for other things, and if different people can quite rationally weigh those things differently, there will be cases where there is no objective answer as to which course of action actually maximises "well-being". That's not to deny that there can be extreme and clear-cut cases; nor is it to deny that perfectly rational and non-arbitrary judgments can be made. However, it does leave room for a class of disagreements where no one is objectively wrong.
We usually accept this with value judgments outside the area of morality, but there seems to be a psychological pressure to think that morality must be different, perhaps because what is at stake seems so important, and perhaps because societies, families, and religious traditions tend to indoctrinate children with the idea that their established morality is "just true" or absolutely authoritative or inescapably binding. Perhaps there are other reasons why we are tempted to treat morality as different from other value judgments, but in any event the temptation is surely there.
Harris talks about the measurement problem like this:
Even if we did agree to grant "well-being" primacy in any discussion of morality, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure well-being scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of morality. (The Measurement Problem)But that is not the problem that I see. First, Harris does seem to "get" here that we are not talking merely about practical difficulties in measuring well-being (as with the grains of sand on the beach) but about whether we even have a rigorous definition of well-being. If we have only a fuzzy definition of well-being we may still be able to have perfectly rational conversations about it, but they will leave areas of rational disagreement, areas where there is no fact of the matter as to which party is right and which party is wrong. Even in principle, this will be enough to prevent us adopting an overriding policy of maximising well-being.
Whether or not that prevents us having "a science of morality" is another thing. I don't see why we can't still at least have a scientifically informed practice of morality. Harris may think that doesn't go far enough, but I have happily said in various places that I think he is approximately right in many of his views. I think it's not quite correct to talk about a science of morality, but this may be partly a matter of semantics. For example, I don't consider the design of automobiles to be a science, but I certainly acknowledge that it is informed by science - and just as well. I don't consider the practice of medicine to be a science, but again it is informed by biomedical science - and again, just as well.
So, okay, if Harris is using a concept of science broad enough to include the practice of medicine (by a GP, say) as a science, along with the practice of automobile design, then nothing I've said so far rules out a "science of morality". Indeed, it may well be appropriate to talk about a "science of morality" even from my viewpoint, but in rather a different sense. If anthropology is a science, then that part of anthropology that examines the social phenomenon of morality can be a science or a scientific specialisation.
My problem when I raise the idea of a metric is not so much with the possibility of a science of morality in some sense. It's that we can't simultaneously think that well-being is something which lacks a metric while also thinking that morality is ultimately about producing the maximum amount of well-being. Or that there will, in principle, despite the practical difficulties of measurement, always be an objectively correct answer as to which of two practices produces more well-being than another (or whether we have a tie).
I don't know how far Harris is really committed to this idea. There are passages in the book where he seems to use it. Even the idea of the moral landscape is developed in such a way as to involve tied quantities of well-being. Since he has a broad conception of science, however, he could pursue his idea of a "science" of morality while also accepting as a scientific outcome that there are cases where we don't have a mere tie. Rather, because well-being is a fuzzy concept we have a situation where fully informed rational people can disagree on a course of action without either being objectively wrong.
That is certainly the case in the practice of medicine. Biomedical science finds out all sorts of things about the functioning of the human body and how this can be affected by various decisions that we might make as well as by events that are not our choice (such as invasion by infectious micro-organisms). When a GP or a specialist actually practises medicine, and when a patient actually makes decisions that affect the functioning of her body, there is very good reason to take into account the findings of biomedical science. But that doesn't mean we can simply read off from biomedical science how a particular patient should act in a particular case.
We could, for example, have a situation where a patient may be able to get some significant reduction of the pain that she's experiencing, but only at the expense of dying sooner. Or she may be able to gain a greater capacity to get around and do things, but only at the expense of being in greater pain. Two patients may be in the same situation but have different values - one prefers less pain even at the expense of dying sooner, while the other is prepared to put up with greater pain in order to get that extra period of life - so they act differently. In such a situation, we don't try to say that one decision more than the other maximises "health" and is therefore objectively superior. Rather, we accept that different people can make different decisions based on the same information without either behaving irrationally or being simply wrong.
The word "health" is a useful one in many contexts. It is not simply arbitrary to prefer not to be suffering from a debilitating disease or, say, a broken leg. We use the word "health" with a great deal of confidence and fluency, and I don't suggest for a moment that we abandon it. But it would be an illusion if we came to think of it as something that can be quantified in itself in some objectively correct way so that there is always as an objectively correct answer as to which possible course of action is correct from the point of view of "maximising health".
At one point in his recent response to critics, Harris actually acknowledges this point with respect to health (and also well-being). He says:
What if there are trade-offs with respect to human performance that we just can't get around -- what if, for instance, an ability to jump high always comes at the cost of flexibility? Will there be disagreements between orthopedists who specialize in basketball and those who specialize in yoga? Sure. So what? We will still be talking about very small deviations from a common standard of "health" -- one which does not include anencephaly or a raging case of smallpox.The thing is, I don't disagree with this. In a very large class of cases it will be obvious how to act. We wish to cure people who have debilitating and potentially fatal diseases, and we mourn the birth of a baby with anencephaly. We do, indeed, have a great commonality of values that leads to consensus on these things. Given the sorts of beings that we are, our agreement to try to prevent (as we've now successfully done) or cure cases of smallpox is not something that we reached arbitrarily. But that's just my point.
We do not have to choose between (1) some kind of crude relativism in which anything at all counts as "health" or "well-being" or as a "good" car or knife or legal system, and (2) a kind of naive objectivism in which there is always, at least in principle, a correct answer as to what maximises some governing value, so that there is no room for legitimate disagreement by well-informed rational people. We have more sophisticated alternatives to either picture, and to the extent that the folk (or philosophers) think that picture (2) is part of the very definition of morality ... they are in error when they make moral judgments. But I agree with Harris that people who have adopted picture (1) are also in error.
It may be that Harris really agrees with me to some extent, judging by some of his comments in his reply to critics, but there is much in the book (and even in his reply) that suggests that he still has picture (2) in mind.
The problem with a metric is only a problem for someone who is thinking in terms of maximising something. Whatever is to be maximised must actually be quantifiable. Someone could have an objectivist picture in mind but be working with, say, a deontological system, and the metric problem will not arise. There are, however, deeper problems with objectivism which I won't address today.
Meanwhile, I don't think the metric problem prevents a scientifically-informed practice of medicine or even a scientifically-informed critique of laws and customs. It need not necessarily stand in the way of Harris's overall goals, but it can create a difficulty for the way he sometimes talks and writes. I'm reasonably happy to accept those ways of talking and writing as thought experiments and approximations, but it does seem that Harris really does believe two inconsistent things - that well-being is not the sort of thing that can have a metric, but at the same time it is an overarching value that we are to maximise in some quantitative sense. I think it's the second of these that has to go. Of course, Harris could fall back to some other value that is a more plausible candidate for being the sort of thing that can be maximised - pleasure, for example - but this will have its own problems.
I'm quite happy for him to go on talking about well-being, with the understanding that this is a fuzzy concept and to some extent a placeholder. That is a perfectly reasonable way of talking, and I do it myself, but it does impose certain limitations on the kinds of theoretical conclusions you can draw. In particular, it becomes difficult to talk like a utilitarian as Harris often does. But talking like a utilitarian has other problems (as Harris acknowledges in his brief discussion of Parfit), and it is not required for rational, reasonable, non-arbitrary discussion of laws, cultures, customs, and the other things that Harris and I both want to subject to rational critique.