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The inutility of utilitarianism

By Robert Martin - posted Wednesday, 29 January 2014

This summer I've been reading two fascinating and provocative books.

The Moral Landscape by world leading atheist Sam Harris is an attempt to demonstrate how 'science can determine human values'. Previously it was thought that science had nothing to do with determining values or morality – science solely deals with the 'is' questions and can not adjudicate on the 'ought' questions at all. Hence morality was often left to the realm of 'religion'. Yet Harris writes passionately to overturn this and he seeks to objectively ground ethics in science.

An eloquent summary of Harris' project is found in the endorsement on the book by fellow atheist Richard Dawkins:


I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape changed all that for me … As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.

The central argument of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape is that questions of morality are essentially about the maximisation of 'well-being' of conscious creatures.

Well-being is crucial to Harris' argument because he suggests that this is the 'only thing we can reasonably value' (p11). In Harris' conception "good" is "that which supports well-being' (p.12) and 'values' are the 'set of attitudes, choices and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being".

I've found Harris' book enormously stimulating and challenging (so much so I've written a series of blog posts on my reflections on the book). At one level Harris' conception is very appealing. Our individual and corporate well-being is something that we seem to innately value and it seems to make sense to want to maximise our 'well-being'. Who doesn't want a society where well-being is maximised?

Yet as I've thought and pondered Harris' moral landscape paradigm, I've been deeply unsatisfied. Despite the immediate appeal of his offer, there are serious problems. One crucial stumbling block in accepting Harris' proposal is that he fails to even remotely define well-being. Harris himself even admits that well-being "resists precise definition" (p.11/12)

This raises many problems. How can we maximise well-being if we don't really know what it is? What is 'the good' when well-being is not defined? Further, it's not clear who we're aiming to maximise well-being for? Is it for everyone, for just the important ones, or only for myself?


Even if we can come up with some notion of well-being, given that it will be generally a qualitative value, how can it be measured? The problem of measurement raises the difficulty of weighing incommensurable values. Incommensurable values are values of different types, e.g. freedom, prosperity, equality, happiness. These values cannot easily be compared, yet these values must all be considered as constituent parts of 'well-being'. How do we measure, compare and assess economic well-being against and with environmental well-being and assess if overall well being is greater or less? How do we measure and compare 'freedom' with 'responsibility and sacrifice' - it could be argued that freedom provides well-being but what of the consequences of unfettered freedom?

Moreover Harris' paradigm, like any utilitarian ethical system, justifies injustice. On page 33, Harris makes the confident assertion that justice forms part of the average person's well-being, "I think there is little doubt that most of what matters to the average person – like fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality – will be integral to our creating a thriving global civilization and, therefore, to the greater well-being of humanity".(p 33)

Notwithstanding the slightly selective list of virtues Harris has chosen, Harris goes on to contradict himself in his own footnote where he says, "Are there trade-offs and exceptions? Of course. There may be circumstances in which the very survival of a community requires that certain of these principles be violated. But this doesn't mean that they aren't generally conducive to human well-being." Harris opens up a clear avenue for justifying injustice - if it's for the greater good.

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About the Author

Robert Martin is the Melbourne director of City Bible Forum, an organisation which regularly hosts events engaging the big questions of life. He is a published author, blogger ( and speaker who specialises in engaging modern atheism.

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