One of my mentors in graduate school once told me that it is worth paying attention to what smart people have to say even -- perhaps especially -- when they are wrong, because they are usually wrong in interesting ways. "The Moral Landscape" is a perfect example. It's wrong, but it is wrong in a very interesting way.
Let me say up front that I have tremendous sympathy for Harris's agenda. I wish it were true that one could derive "ought" from "is" (and I think it might be possible, but it's much, much harder than Harris -- or any of the new atheists -- seem to recognize). I do accept Harris's premise that maximizing utility for conscious beings is not only a reasonable foundation for such an endeavor, it is the only possible reasonable basis for it.
Unfortunately, between Harris's premises and his (predictable) conclusion that religion is the root of all evil (his Introduction has a section prominently entitled "The Problem of Religion") are a whole host of tacit biases and assumptions that render his reasoning circular. Harris defines the problem of morality as maximizing some utility function with respect to consciousness (which is perfectly fine), but then he goes on to assume without any foundation (and, worse, without being explicit about it) that this quality metric should have certain characteristics. Like erstwhile provers of Euclid's fifth postulate the assumptions he makes appear intuitively obvious. But if science teaches us anything it is that what is intuitively obvious is often wrong.
Harris's argument runs off the rails almost from the very beginning. This is taken from his introduction:
For my argument ... to hold, I think one need only grant two points: (1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world. To make these premises less abstract, consider two generic lives that lie somewhere near the extremes on this continuum:
The bad life
You are a young widow who has lived her entire life in the midst of civil war. Today, your seven-year-old daughter was raped and dismembered before your eyes. Worse still, the perpetrator was your fourteen-year-old son, who was goaded to this evil at the point of a machete by a press gang of drug-addled soldiers... Since the moment you were born your world has been a theatre of cruelty and violence. You have never learned to read...
I won't quote the whole thing; you get the idea. The good life, on the other hand, I reproduce here in its entirety because the details matter:
The good life
You are married to the most loving, intelligent and charismatic person you have ever met. Both of you have careers that are intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. For decades, your wealth and social connections have allowed you to devote yourself to activities that bring you immense personal satisfaction. One of your greatest sources of happiness has been to find creative ways to help people who have not had your good fortune in life. In fact, you have just won a billion-dollar grant to benefit children in the developing world. If asked, you would say that you could not imagine how your time on earth could be better spent. Due to a combination of good genes and optimal circumstances, you and your closest friends and family will live very long, healthy lives, untouched by crime, sudden bereavements, and other misfortunes.
Surely it is obvious that the Good Life is preferable to the Bad Life in every way? Well, alas, no it is not. It is certainly preferable from the point of view of an affluent Western academic, which both Harris and I happen to be, so I can certainly understand the appeal. But it is not true that this need be the case for all conscious beings, or even for all rational conscious beings. But Harris dismisses this possibility out of hand:
Anyone who doesn't see that the Good Life is preferable to the Bad Life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion about human well-being. Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc. enjoyed in the context of prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?
Well, yes, we must. Hidden in the trees of horrific detail is the forest that makes Harris's Bad Life preferable to his Good Life for many people: the woman in the Bad Life scenario (one wonders if Harris considers being a woman to be a salient characteristic of the Bad Life) has children while the person (notably with gender unspecified) in the Good Life scenario doesn't (or, if s/he does, they don't figure prominently in Harris's reckoning.)
Now, I do not mean to suggest that any rational person would choose the totality of Harris's Bad Life over his Good Life. I merely point out that Harris's quality metric is heavily prejudiced by the fact that he is an affluent Western academic male. Money, in particular, figures very prominently. He mentions it three times. It is particularly noteworthy, I think, that helping the poor unfortunate children in the developing world is done with a billion dollars of other people's money rather than your own.
Let us give Harris the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is simply ignorant of the evidence that providing financial assistance to developing countries does more harm than good and that his heart is actually in the right place. But look at where he puts the emphasis: helping other people is not good because of the benefit it provides to others, but because of the personal satisfaction that it provides to the benefactor. The Good Life is not good because you are good, it is good because you feel good. You are free of pain and want, and on top of that you get to bestow a billion dollars of largesse on some poor unfortunate urchins without compromising your standard of living. That sounds good to me because I am a member of Harris's demographic. But I wonder how it sounds to the urchin.
(If you still doubt this point, let me add just one sentence to Harris's Bad Life: "Because of your suffering, the attention of the world's media has been drawn to the plight of your people, and years after you are dead millions will be living better lives because of your sacrifices." And another to the Good Life: "Unfortunately, though you are blissfully unaware of it, the money you have given out to third world countries has ended up in the pockets of corrupt dictators and the net result is that you have made the lives of millions of people worse, not better." Now which life is the Good Life and which is the Bad Life?)
Again, my point here is not to argue that Harris's Bad Life is superior to his Good Life, only to plant a seed of doubt that the superiority of every aspect of Harris's Good Life is beyond question. Unfortunately, even this small seed of doubt undermines Harris's entire agenda. The problem with applying science to morality is that it requires you to choose a quality metric from a complex space with multiple incommensurate dimensions. Even as simple a premise as, say, all else being equal it is good to minimize physical pain is open to rational doubt: it may well be that a certain amount of physical pain is necessary to psychological well-being (as measured according to some other quality metric). Maybe people who never experience any physical pain end up being so risk-averse that they become dysfunctional cowards. I really enjoy my affluent lifestyle, but I really wonder if I'm going to be up to the challenges that are going to come our way when, say, the planet's reserves of crude oil start to run out. (Or, what ought to be even more frightening, phosphorus.)
The fundamental problem is that "the interests of conscious beings" is not well defined. What exactly are those interests? To exist? To exist free of pain? To exist at some balance of pain and comfort that maximizes some other ineffable quality like "self-fulfillment" (whatever that might mean)?
The ultimate irony is that the reason that the interests of consciousness is not a coherent basis for morality (or anything else for that matter) is precisely because consciousness was created by evolution and not by God. Consciousness exists not because it is the cosmic destiny of the universe, but rather because, like all other complex things, it has survival value -- but not for itself. Consciousness is not an end, it is a means. Consciousness exists because it provides a powerful motivator for an entity afflicted by it to keep itself -- and hence its genes -- alive. Wealth and physical comfort feel like wins because up to a point they increase reproductive fitness. But as soon as it gets to the point where consciousness starts to value things like "self-fulfillment" over having children, trouble begins. The interests of that sort of consciousness are not longer aligned with those of its creator.
This is why Harris's program is almost certainly doomed to fail. Advancing the interests of consciousness will not lead to a planet full of humans singing kumbaya in blissful conscious harmony because that's not what consciousness is for. Consciousness exists to make us care about making sure our children stay alive long enough to have children of their own. Our children. Not someone else's. Of course, the situation is complicated by the fact that the boundaries between "ours" and "theirs" are fluid and can change opportunistically (because that kind of flexibility also has survival value). But there is nothing in the laws of physics that says those lines should be drawn around a single species, or even a single mental attribute like consciousness.
I wish things were different. I really do. I would like nothing more than to be able to preach the Gospel of Sam and so help to bring peace and harmony to the world. But Sam Harris of all people should be able to sympathize with someone like me who has a limited ability to suspend disbelief, so I trust he will forgive me.