Increases/decreases in the well-being of conscious creatures fully determine which states of the world are morally better/worse.
The argument is named for its key premise: “The worst possible misery for everyone is bad.”
In this post, I’ll lay out WPME. As a bonus, I’ll connect it to two more of Sam’s arguments. One is his argument that all value depends on consciousness. The other is his main argument for a scientific theory of objective morality.
Let’s begin with Sam’s own words, excerpted from The Moral Landscape (pages 39—40). You can also watch Sam make WPME.
[U]niversal morality can be defined with reference to the negative end of the spectrum of conscious experience … [Imagine] a state of the universe in which everyone suffers as much as he or she (or it) possibly can. If you think we cannot say this would be “bad,” then I don’t know what you could mean by the word “bad” (and I don’t think you know what you could mean by it either). Once we conceive of “the worst possible misery for everyone,” then we can talk about taking incremental steps toward this abyss … I am saying that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being. This is all we need to talk about “moral truth” in the context of science. Once we admit that the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing … are different and dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.
This excerpt captures the core of WPME. What’s more, the last two sentences give us a sense of Sam’s main argument for his science of morality. Below is a plausible reconstruction of both arguments, plus one more about consciousness as the source of all value. You’ll see some claims not found in the above excerpt that talk about the relationship between values, conscious creatures, and the natural world. These claims—namely, (1), (2), and (6)—are found elsewhere in The Moral Landscape and in this video.
- No value/disvalue (good/bad) exists in a world permanently devoid of conscious creatures.
- Therefore, All value/disvalue that exists in the world is value/disvalue to (good/bad for) conscious creatures.
- A state S of the world in which every conscious creature is maximally miserable is bad.
- Therefore, A state T of the world that replaces at least some of the misery in S with the experience of well-being is better than S.
- Therefore, Increases/decreases in the well-being of conscious creatures fully determine which states of the world are morally better/worse.
- Facts about the natural world, science’s domain of inquiry, fully determine increases/decreases in the well-being of conscious creatures.
- Therefore, Facts about the natural world, science’s domain of inquiry, fully determine which states of the world are morally better/worse.
Sam might consider just (3) and (4) to be WPME, whereas I’m considering it (3), (4), and (5), since (5) packs more conclusive punch than (4). In fact, (5) opens Sam’s main argument for his science of morality, stated in (5)—(7).
Sam, and readers of The Moral Landscape, might wonder why (5) and (6) don’t refer to the collective well-being of conscious creatures. After all, the goal Sam sets for his science of morality is to “maximize collective well-being.” I choose to leave out “collective” in (5) and, consequently, (6) based on the principle of charity. In other words, I’m trying to present what strikes me as the best version of Sam’s argument, based on reasoning he appears to follow. Compare (1)—(7) to what Sam has identified as the central argument of The Moral Landscape (see Challenge FAQ, question #1). I’ve enumerated Sam’s claims for easy reference.
(i) Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. (ii) Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, (iii) questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, (iv) some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.
Sam makes no mention here of collective well-being. And as best I can tell from reading The Moral Landscape, although Sam endorses maximizing collective well-being, he offers no explicit reason to believe that producing the greatest overall amount of well-being trumps, say, achieving the most equitable distribution, were those two ends to clash.
Now, here’s how (i)—(iv) relate to (1)—(7).
- (i) combines (2) and (5). I add (1) based on Sam’s intuition that evaluative concepts (good/bad, right/wrong) do not apply in a universe without conscious creatures, an intuition he pumps using an apparent thought experiment about a universe sans consciousness.
- (ii) matches up with (6).
- (iii) corresponds to (7).
- (iv) takes us a step beyond (7), seemingly to emphasize that Sam’s argument, if successful, refutes moral relativism.
Based on this analysis, either (i)—(iv) simply omit WPME or else (i) can be understood to encapsulate (1)—(5). In either case, (1)—(7) strike me as a fair representation of Sam’s overall case for a scientific theory of objective morality. What’s more, (5)—(7) form a deductively valid argument, whereas (i)—(iii) do not. So, I actually may have helped Sam’s case a bit.
In my next post, I’ll finish up this two-parter with a critique of WPME. That is, I’ll evaluate (3)—(5). I’ll likely also address (1)—(2), since (2) could be construed as support for (5).