“1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)
“2. Hence, if someone does not care about well-being, or cares only about his own and not about the well-being of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)”
Harris replies to these criticisms by means of analogies with the science of medicine and with science in general. Both analogies make essentially the same point. However, the second raises somewhat more complex issues which would take us too far off the main topic, so here I’ll consider only the first.
Harris reasons as follows: some of my critics complain that ethics must presuppose a fundamental value (well-being) and that therefore it isn’t a science. But medicine is clearly a science, and yet it too must presuppose a value (health). Therefore, there is no problem about ethics also being considered a science; it can be every bit as scientific as medicine.
To this, the winning essay of the Moral Landscape challenge replied that the analogy isn’t a good one because, whereas medicine must presuppose health is good in order to even make sense, ethics doesn’t have to presuppose well-being is good – there are competing views of ethics.
Now, that’s certainly true, and it points to one important flaw in Harris’s argument – but in my opinion, there is a more fundamental problem with the analogy. The science of medicine does not depend on the claim – and in fact doesn’t even make the claim – that health is objectively good. People desire health, and medical scientists therefore try to figure out ways they can achieve it. But medical truths in no way depend on it being a fact that health is good. Whether or not it is a fact that avoiding scurvy is good has no bearing whatsoever on the medical finding that it can be avoided by taking vitamin C. The medical finding is true quite independently of what position anyone takes on the desirability of scurvy. Harris’s “science” of ethics, on the other hand, does depend on the supposed objective desirability of well-being. And that’s where the fundamental disanalogy lies.
This point can be explained another way. Suppose Harris merely proposed that we develop a science of well-being – that is, a science that studies ways to measure and increase the overall amount of well-being. Now, I would have no fundamental problem with that. And it actually would be analogous to medicine. People desire well-being, just like they desire health (a subset of it, after all), and “doctors” of well-being could prescribe ways to increase it. But notice the difference between this proposal and Harris’s actual proposal: someone who disagrees that well-being ought to be increased wouldn’t be regarded as an unscientific, illogical person. He would just be someone with different preferences, someone who would never be a customer of the “well-being” profession.
To return to the value and persuasion problems, if we replace “health” for “well-being” in the above statements we get the following:
“1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value health, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)
“2. Hence, if someone does not care about health, or cares only about his own and not about the health of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)”
Harris appears to think no one would say such a thing about health. After all, medicine is a science, so what it values must be “scientific” too (whatever that might mean). But actually, the only thing that is objectionable in these quotes is the claim that they are problems. It is in fact true (contrary to what Harris implies) that there is no scientific basis to say we should value health, and that, form the point of view of science, there is no way to argue that someone who doesn’t desire health is wrong. However, these aren’t problems for medical science. They would only be problematic if medical science depended on the claim that it is a fact that health is a good that everyone must value. And as I’ve already explained, that is simply not the case.
Harris claims that his critics are confused, but the real confusion in all of this is that he does not appear to understand the difference between ethics and a science of well-being. His conflation of these two concepts is the real problem.