1. “The well-being of conscious creatures” is logically and empirically subservient to survival.

Biologically, “the well-being of conscious creatures” is logically and empirically subservient to survival, not vice-versa.

I.e. we empirically observe, and can logically conclude, that evolution created the desire for us to pursue “well-being” (which we then use as as a meaningful concept) because conscious creatures experiencing well-being are likely to survive. But the reverse is not the case: evolution does not select for those who survive survival because it leads to well being.  Empirically well-being is a subset, non-essential, aspect of survival. Because, obviously, survival of life forms predated, and can occur without, conscious life forms who could even experience subjective well being.

So, by placing well-being at the top of their moral hierarchy Sam Harris and the utilitarian’s have created a normative system that will often be out of accord with what scientifically is the case. Obviously, it makes no sense to say that we just happen to pursue well-being randomly, just tautologically because that’s what conscious creatures like.

For the utilitarian, long term survival of the metabolic process that moves through us into the distant future (an essential part of the literal meaning/definition of life), would only be of interest if it leads to well-being, not vice-versa. Utilitarians found their value systems in the subjective conscious experience of well-being; not in the physical world as a whole (then the biological world as a subcategory of that, then conscious beings as a subcategory of that).  Thus, when the hard science of biology is suggested or implied as a precursor value base, they tend to respond with a straw man argument against biological evolution as a base.   The closest Harris comes to addressing this issue is to say that a scientific account of human values “is not the same as an evolutionary account.” For example, in the introduction to The Moral Landscape, Harris admiringly quotes Stephen Pinker’s (another utilitarian) stunningly unscientific, ignorant, and dismissive straw man argument against attempting to make a biological survival based ethical foundation:
“If conforming to the dictates of evolution were the foundation of subjective well-being, most men would discover no higher calling in life than to make daily contributions to their local sperm bank.”*

Well, though such a strategy kind of makes sense for certain kinds of male fish, or the male portions of pine trees (spreading sperm and pollen far and wide), it doesn’t for homo sapiens. Evolution has “dictated” that members of homo sapiens employ far more behaviorally sophisticated reproductive strategies than pine trees. And, even with fish and pine trees, evolution has dictated that most of the business of living (being an individuated thermodynamic dissipative structure) is more about respiration and finding food for the individual fish, and respiration and finding sunlight for the individual tree. Perhaps Harris and Pinker’s simplistic idea of the “dictates of evolution” would apply best to a simple virus. However, virus’s have no metabolic apparatus; they are only all about spreading genetic copies of themselves, and so crucially according to most biologist’s viruses can only marginally be considered lifeforms.

With Harris and Pinker’s argument, one is reminded of the comic absurdity in the 1980 Saturday Night Live sketch, were Rodney Dangerfield is worn out because so many women are clamoring for his sperm at the local sperm bank. With homo sapiens a cast your genes far and wide strategy, will, at best, only work for a very few lucky individuals. So, in reality, in an uncontrolled “free market” sperm bank, virtually all women go for the handsome 6’3” star quarterback Harvard graduate. Most men don’t qualify. And because most men don’t qualify, most men wouldn’t have much reason to peacefully participate in such a society. So, in a functional sustainable positive sum game civilization (a “biological niche” which enlightened human organisms should rationally choose to participate in for the synergistic survival benefits) a sperm bank’s individual donor’s sperm would generally probably only be allowed for the creation of two offspring at most.

Seen in this light, conforming to the dictates of evolution (survival) is, or should be, the ethical foundation that precedes subjective well-being.

 

Perhaps another way to clarify what is going on here, is to consider the utilitarian versus pantheistic moral systems being advocated, in terms of two distinct concepts: evolution and survival. When the utilitarian is asked to consider basing an ethos on  hard science based biological survival, in this contemporary cultural milieu they have been reflexively presuming that  means an ethos advocating biological evolution. But evolution is not an essential part of the definition of life; as can be logically demonstrated by a theory/definition of life based on the universal laws of physics (given in the main essay above, and further elucidated in a sub essay below), and empirically demonstrated by life forms that have survived, but that haven’t evolved appreciably since the dawn of earth based life. Considering the near certain zero sum game nature of survival via biological evolution, versus the possible positive sum game nature of survival via human civilization, biological survival for the metabolic process that moves through individual modern homo sapiens (or for homo sapiens collectively as a species) is not best facilitated by an ethos that generally sees biological evolution as a positive.

 

*Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape T (New York: Free Press, 2010), 13

 

 

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