A Challenge to The Moral Landscape

The other week I explained the basics of ‘The Moral Landscape’ to my dad, and then made an argument in favour of its premise: morality is borne out of wellbeing. He almost immediately gave me a challenge that stumped me, and a little later I shared that challenge with my brother. My brother almost immediately gave me the exact answer.

My dad’s challenge was this: assume you have the opportunity to successfully save one girl from a Nazi concentration camp. Doesn’t the wellbeing of every Nazi go down? And if so, doesn’t that make saving the girl immoral?

I had no answer to this, not even a clutching-at-straws attempt. But when I shared the same challenge with my brother he answered it instantly:

“Does dad think the Nazis were happy doing what they were doing? Not all the Nazis would know a girl has escaped, but of the ones that do find out, does dad really think that would make them sad? He really thinks that Germany was filled with inhumane people who didn’t hate what they were doing and secretly wanted people to escape. Of course dad doesn’t think that. The girl is happy, the girl’s family is happy, you are happy and every single, poor, humane Nazi only doing their job out of fear is happy.”

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2 thoughts on “A Challenge to The Moral Landscape”

  1. Well, I hate the book and think Harris is wrong, but I do have an answer to this.

    You are supposed to take an individuals well being into account and also the extent. So obviously the advance of the girl’s well being would out weigh the Nazis well being.

    It does point out a major problem with the theory. You could kill one person if it increased the well being of ten other people to an extent that you could justify it. This is a problem for consequentialism in general, not just Harris.

    1. There are thousands of Nazis who might have had a small drop in wellbeing that would have totalled a greater drop that the girl would have gained. But that is only true if you assume the Nazis were monsters, which they weren’t. Diaries and documents suggest the Nazis were very upset and traumatised by the things they did. A girl escaping would have made them happier.

      As for your critique against consequentialism, you are not looking at the bigger picture. If we permit that a person can be killed if enough people don’t like you then we will always live in fear of being killed. You’ve assumed people like death (which I am not convinced of). You’ve ignored the guilt and trauma the average person goes through if they will someone… you are trying to deal with wellbeing while behaving like emotions don’t exist.

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