Reflections on The Moral Landscape—Abstract

Harris’s account of moral theory is examined with respect to its strengths and limitations.

Its strength is said to be its proposed empirical-normative analysis that separates the morally good from the morally bad.  This empirical-normative analysis is largely novel in that it overcomes two untenable distinctions in previous moral philosophy: the fact-value distinction and the naturalistic fallacy.  Because of these two accomplishments, and because he correctly points out that the end-in-view implied in all previous moral theory is the well-being of conscious creatures, it is suggested that Harris’ idea of a moral landscape be accepted in the terms in which he offers it.  Sound arguments against it are unlikely, if even possible.

Its limitations as a theory of the moral life, however, are two-fold.  First, it is suggested that Harris erroneously limits moral theory to sorting the morally good from the morally bad when in fact genuine moral problems arise only when conflicting goods or ends arise in a specific situation.  To put the issue in his terms, genuine moral problems only arise when two peaks of the moral landscape exist, and conflict arises over which one to pursue.  Second, it is suggested that determining the peaks and valleys within a moral landscape intrinsically poses a set of problems unique to genuine moral reflection, namely, that of deciding whether well-being is increased or maximized with respect to individuals first or society as such first, or through the balance of both together.  No solution to this problem is offered; it is only suggested that the problems remains normative in an extra-empirical and therefore extra-scientific manner, guiding as it does the empirical and scientific determination (those suggested by Harris) in the first place.  Taken together, these two limitations in Harris moral theory can be said to define the problem of method of moral reflection.  Instead of resolving what that method entails, only its necessity is asserted here.

Throughout the essay abortion is used as an example of a genuine moral problem where two peaks on the moral landscape, as it were, collide—where two acknowledged goods come into conflict.  Whether or not that analysis applies in this specific example does not undermine the idea that in other moral contexts, alternative peaks can be reached by means that come into conflict with one another.  At least that is the supposition here.  Whether or not it actually obtains is an open question for legitimate inquiry.

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