“What would our world be like if we ceased to worry about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’…and simply acted so as to maximize well-being, our own and that of others? Would we lose anything important?”[i] -Sam Harris
What is lost in Sam Harris’ account of moral truth is subtle but all-important. His legitimate concern is that right vs. wrong is a standard too elastic to have meaning amid the ceaseless rebuttals of: “According to whom?” The bane of moral relativism will endure as long as we allow space for the petulant follow-up: “What if some people prefer torture and murder to spreading joy?” Given the absurd prospect of such relativism actually holding sway in our world, Harris simply allows what is intuitively obvious about morality to stand as a self-sufficient truth. It is enough that the moral ideal is obvious: “It makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good.’”[ii]
He is right, of course, that in order to make any sense of our world, maximized well-being must reside at the positive end of the moral spectrum. It is obviously true. In The Moral Landscape, Harris treats the obviousness of moral truth as something so superficially evident that it is essentially unremarkable. What is then remarkable, and the focus of his book, is how the purview of science is expanding into knowledge about how we suffer and why we suffer, how we prosper and in what environments we prosper.
But while moral truth may appear obvious, the obvious is a very deep wellspring: The obvious rests upon a paradox that is not superficially evident. When elucidating moral truth, the all-important task is to invite people into the depth of its paradox. Because Sam Harris doesn’t do this, his book is only tangentially about moral truth, and its thesis—that moral truth falls within the purview of science—is mistaken.
The paradox of morals is essentially this: The negation of our being is linked to the affirmation of our being as the moral ideal.
I invite you to encounter this paradox in the short space below.
If, as Harris asserts, moral truth is maximized well-being, how does this principle look when considered within the context of the physical universe? As Woody Allen, among many other artists, has come to know and express, it looks absurd. The principle looks absurd because it is undermined by the physical universe, the very environment within which we elevate the principle. Maximized well-being is surely being affirmed in what we do, which is utterly insignificant within the vast context of the physical universe. Maximized well-being is surely being affirmed in our own unique identities, which are completely dissolved in relationships within our astronomical, ecological and social milieu. Maximized well-being is surely being affirmed in our existence, which is swiftly washed away by the cycle of life and death instantiated by the very mechanisms of the physical universe.
In short, as individual actors inside the universe, we are decisively negated. It is obviously true. The hidden paradox is that it is precisely this negation that transforms our sense of self and directs us toward the state of maximized well-being.
Despite Harris’ justified distaste for theology, its greatest minds have occasionally expressed the paradox of morals in intelligent and inviting ways. Paul Tillich wrote, “We live in two orders, one of which is the reversal of the other.”[iii] Karl Barth wrote, “What dissolves the whole wisdom of the world also establishes it.”[iv] Precisely because an all-embracing ‘No’ engulfs our being, an all-embracing ‘Yes’ emerges through us.
People who have realized this fully tend to speak about the principle of losing yourself in order to find yourself. When you surrender to the all-embracing ‘No’, who is it that remains? Clear and effortlessly present, the shock of the obvious is an all-embracing ‘Yes’ within you.
There is a reason why relatively few people today give voice to this paradox. It is because relatively few people today accept its burden.
The paradox of morals indicates a link between self-contrived security and moral transgression.
When we cling to fleeting shelters from the all-embracing ‘No’, our ‘Yes’ becomes the scaffolds of our sheltered state of being. In other words, our sense of being well is leveraged toward denying the negation of ourselves. This manifests itself in our distressed idealization of beauty, wealth or status, religious dogma or human ingenuity to transcend the negation of our being—all potent idols in the world today, mistaken for the essence of well-being.
True well-being only emerges to the extent that the human ‘Yes’ is integrated with the cosmic ‘No’. Moral truth is clearly paradoxical. It cannot be accounted for one-sidedly. How could the affirmation of our being, on its own, be defined as moral truth in a universe that decisively negates us? But Harris never acknowledges this paradox. For a scientist of well-being, his effort is somewhat like trying to define a fish without acknowledging the existence of water. The two go together. ‘Yes’ is defined and enabled by ‘No’. This paradox is both obvious and subtle, which is why so many critics of The Moral Landscape viscerally sense it skews reality, but are unable to coherently say why.
To appreciate this paradox is to realize that the essence of well-being is beyond the grasp of science. Only people touch its essence by integrating both ends of the obvious within themselves. Certainly, through the advancing power of science, both the human ‘Yes’ and the cosmic ‘No’ are now more obvious to everyone. But the wellness that emerges when ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are integrated falls beyond the purview of science, both in principle and practice. It is, by definition, a paradoxical state of being, not reducible to its appearance, and therefore not definable in scientific terms. It is like a doorway to the end and the beginning of ourselves. Moral questions about how people and cultures might develop the wisdom and courage to unshut this doorway are beyond the arbitration of a scientist.
[i] Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape. New York: Free Press, 2010, 64.
[ii] Ibid, 12.
[iii] Tillich, Paul. The Shaking of the Foundations. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950, 27.
[iv] Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans. London: Oxford University Press, 1933, 38.
Nick Astraeus received his M.A. in theology from Union Theological Seminary. He is a freelance writer. You can reach him for queries at Nick.Astraeus@gmail.com.