In part 1 of this two-part series, I gave Sam Harris’s “worst possible misery for everyone” argument (WPME). I also situated WPME within Sam’s overall defense of a scientific theory of objective morality.
Now, I’ll finish up by evaluating WPME. I’ll contend that WPME fails to secure its conclusion that morality depends entirely on increases and decreases in well-being. Specifically, WPME fails to rule out justice—particularly in well-being’s distribution—as something that matters along with the amount of well-being in the world.
Recall from part 1 that WPME comes in the middle of a larger seven-step argument. Two steps precede it, and two steps follow it. Below I give just WPME.
- 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.
The “worst possible misery for everyone” is the subject of (3). Every human and non-human being in the world that can suffer is suffering as much as it can for as long as it can. Well-being is at its lowest level for every single individual.
Sam believes (3) is an uncontroversial moral judgment. In fact, he considers it a foundational moral truth from which we can infer other moral truths, starting with (4), which says that the world in (3) is made morally better by raising the level of well-being, however small the increase.
The contrast Sam seems to emphasize most, however, is not between the conditions in (3) and (4). It’s between “the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing.” Here’s the full quote from The Moral Landscape (page 39).
Once we admit that the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing—whatever these states amount to for each particular being in the end—are different and dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.
The extreme of “absolute misery” refers to the “worst possible misery for everyone.” So, the extreme of “absolute flourishing” refers, presumably, to the polar opposite: an (according to Sam) uncontroversially morally good state of the world in which every being that can flourish, i.e., enjoy well-being, flourishes as much as it can for as long as it can. Well-being is at its highest level for every single individual. Indeed, as I understand the latter extreme, no individual has to flourish less so that some other individual can flourish more. On the contrary, no individual could possibly be better off than he, she, or it is. Uncompromising utopian perfection prevails.
As you may have figured out, Sam assumes well-being can be quantified (“in principle, if not in practice,” he says). Quantifying well-being, if possible, likely wouldn’t be as straight-forward as quantifying, say, height. But Sam thinks it would be similar to quantifying physical health.
Supposing well-being can be measured and compared across individuals, it can also be summed or averaged across individuals, yielding the collective well-being. In my last post, I pointed out that Sam believes we should maximize collective well-being, yet he gives no explicit argument to show he’s right. I think we can fashion one from the second step of his full argument (also in my last post) for his science of morality. Here’s that second step, plus the one that precedes it.
- 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.
Here, saying “good for” is another way of saying “promotes well-being.” So, (2) is saying that nothing can be morally good except as a means to well-being.1 Well-being, in other words, is the only thing of intrinsic moral value. Let’s assume that intrinsic moral value is not subject to the law of diminishing returns: more intrinsic moral value is always better. Thus, maximizing the intrinsic moral value found in the world is best. On Sam’s view, doing so means maximizing collective well-being.
- Frankly, I think we can infer (5) from (2). But Sam seems to give (3) and (4) as support for (5), so I’ll evaluate them as such. In the course of evaluating (3) and (4), doubts will arise about (2). ↩