Craig’s Modal Critique of Harris’s Moral Landscape

In 2011, the University of Notre Dame hosted a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on whether morality depends on God. I think it’s fair to say Craig won the debate inasmuch as he gave respectable arguments for his position and against Harris’s, and his opponent failed to engage seriously with those arguments. Harris seemed unable to stick to the topic of the debate, and was reduced to railing against the moral beliefs of religious people (as if that were relevant to the metaethical claims under debate).

Anyway, I thought it would be worth highlighting one of the arguments Craig leveled against the position Harris stakes out in his book The Moral Landscape. By way of background, the twofold aim of Harris’s book is to show (1) that morality doesn’t depend on God or anything else supernatural, and (2) that science can provide us with answers to moral questions, at least in principle. The central plank of Harris’s position is that moral goodness — i.e., whatever it is we should be aiming for when we seek to act morally — should be defined in terms of “the well-being of conscious creatures.”1 This claim serves as Harris’s response to G. E. Moore’s “open question argument” against moral naturalism. Moore famously argued that whenever someone tries to define goodness in terms of some natural phenomenon X (e.g., pleasure) it always remains an open question whether X really is good (or, alternatively, whether an act that brings about X really is a good act). If it makes sense to pose such a question, then X can’t be identical to goodness. There must be a logical gap between X and goodness.

Harris writes:

If we define “good” as that which supports well-being, as I will argue we must, the regress initiated by Moore’s “open question argument” really does stop. While I agree with Moore that it is reasonable to ask whether maximizing pleasure in any given instance is “good,” it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is “good.” It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is “good,” is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being.2

Harris thus wants to identify moral goodness with either the well-being of conscious creatures or whatever “supports” such well-being. (Note that when Harris uses the term “good” in the quote above, he’s speaking about moral goodness. That’s the subject of his book, after all.)

Having set the stage, we can now turn to Craig’s critique:

But Dr. Harris has to defend an even more radical claim than that [the flourishing of conscious creatures is objectively good given atheism]. He claims that the property of being good is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing, and he’s not offered any defense of this radical identity claim. In fact, I think we have a knockdown argument against it. Now bear with me here; this is a little technical.

On the next to last page of his book, Dr. Harris makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people then his moral landscape would no longer be a moral landscape. Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and bad people or evil people alike. Now what’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book Dr. Harris explained that about 3 million Americans are psychopathic, that is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others. They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape. The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people. But that entails that in the actual world the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either, for identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A, so if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B. Now since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and goodness are not the same, as Dr. Harris has asserted in his book.

Now it’s not often in philosophy that you get a knockdown argument against a position, but I think we’ve got one here! By granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Dr. Harris’s view becomes logically incoherent, and all of this goes to underline my fundamental point that on atheism there’s just no reason to identify the well-being of conscious creatures with moral goodness. Atheism cannot explain the reality, the objective reality, of moral values.

This is a nice example of a modal critique of a position, i.e., one that trades on the logical concepts of necessity and possibility. Specifically, Craig observes that Harris is committed to an identity claim: moral goodness is identical to the well-being of conscious creatures (or whatever supports such well-being). Identity is a necessary relation: if A and B are identical, they are necessarily identical, which is to say that A is identical to B in every possible world. The problem for Harris is that in the final pages of his book he concedes the possibility of a world in which morality and well-being “come apart”: a possible world in which the landscape of “subjective well-being” (understood in terms of human happiness) isn’t a moral landscape. Harris writes:

It is also conceivable that a science of human flourishing could be possible, and yet people could be made equally happy by very different “moral” impulses. Perhaps there is no connection between being good and feeling good — and, therefore, no connection between moral behavior (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being. In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints. This scenario stands the greatest chance of being true, while still seeming quite far-fetched. Neuroimaging work already suggests what has long been obvious through introspection: human cooperation is rewarding. However, if evil turned out to be as reliable a path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it. It would no longer be an especially “moral” landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks. 3

A Moral Landscape?

So it looks like Harris has committed himself to two claims:

(P) Moral goodness is identical to the well-being of conscious creatures.4

(Q) Possibly, moral goodness is not identical to the well-being of conscious creatures.5

Craig is simply pointing out that P and Q are inconsistent, given that identity claims, if true, are necessarily true. I think he’s right: that’s a knockdown argument!

So what are Harris’s options here? One option would be to deny P, but that would mean abandoning his moral theory altogether. Claim P is absolutely essential to Harris’s argument in The Moral Landscape.

The other option would be to deny Q. But as Harris and Craig both recognize, one can easily imagine a world in which sinners experience at least as much happiness as saints — for example, a world with a suitably high number of psychopaths. Given that conceivability is strong evidence of possibility, we have very good grounds for accepting Q (and thus for rejecting P).

So how did Harris rebut Craig’s argument in the debate? As far as I can tell, he gave no response at all — at least, no relevant response. But judge for yourselves.


  1. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, Free Press, 2010, pp. 1, 11.
  2. Ibid., p. 12.
  3. Ibid., pp. 189-90.
  4. Or identical to whatever supports the well-being of conscious creatures. Craig’s critique can be pressed either way.
  5. In other words, there is a possible world in which moral goodness is not identical to the well-being of conscious creatures.

6 Responses to Craig’s Modal Critique of Harris’s Moral Landscape

  1. “The central plank of Harris’s position is that moral goodness — i.e., whatever it is we should be aiming for when we seek to act morally — should be defined in terms of ‘the well-being of conscious creatures.’”

    I haven’t read Harris’s book, but wonder how he goes about justifying his definition of moral goodness, as it seems quite arbitrary. For instance, if I countered that moral goodness should be defined in terms of “the well-being of all living organisms” to include bacteria and viruses, on what rational basis could he maintain that his definition is true over mine? Or, if I asserted that moral goodness should be defined in terms of “the well-being of the Caucasian race” over all other human beings and living creatures, how could he possibly prove me wrong given his naturalistic worldview?

    • Harris makes a couple of arguments. One is a thought-experiment: we’re invited to imagine a world with the worst possible misery for everyone, and to observe that any action that would improve anyone’s well-being would be considered a moral action in that world. In other words, moral actions are those that take us in the opposite direction from that maximally miserable world. Thus, we’re to conclude, moral action has to be indexed at some level to well-being.

      His other argument is that everyone, no matter their moral theory, when pushed to justify their moral claims, will end up appealing to something like well-being. Conversely, if an action has no impact on anyone’s well-being, it’s hard to see why it would have any moral status (either positive or negative).

      • “In other words, moral actions are those that take us in the opposite direction from that maximally miserable world. Thus, we’re to conclude, moral action has to be indexed at some level to well-being.”

        I still don’t see how Harris justifies such a moral claim given his naturalistic worldview. A maximally miserable world simply is what it is. On what rational basis can he say that we “ought” to attempt to alleviate that misery? Moreover, it’s simply not true “that everyone, no matter their moral theory, when pushed to justify their moral claims, will end up appealing to something like well-being.” Christians justify their moral claims upon God’s revealed will, which includes a future world wherein the wicked “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelations 20:10). If that’s not a “maximally miserable world” then I’m not sure what is!

        • I’m not defending Harris’s arguments, just reporting them!

          • Yes, of course. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I thought otherwise. I’m just honestly surprised at how pathetic Harris’s argument is! If this is one of the best and brightest of the new atheists, the movement doesn’t have a prayer! ;-)

  2. In your penultimate paragraph you say that “a world with a suitably high number of psychopaths” would disprove Harris’ moral identity claim. Why does there need to be a certain number of them? Wouldn’t a single person who experiences the peak of well-being while doing evil derail this identity claim?

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