The Moral Landscape

Author: Sam Harris

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

Published: 2010

I read it: September 2011

moral landscape

Sam Harris is a slippery one when you try to catch him off guard from a fan’s perspective. As a master of clarity, devastating logic, and possessor of the most level head and clear mind, he’s bound to hold me in his sway on almost all topics. The Moral Landscape offers a juicy proposition that secular types will flock to: science can determine human values (it’s there in the subtitle, folks!). This is a more pointy topic than some might guess at first glance. It means the death of moral relativism at the very least. Harris is no stranger to attacking traditional morality claims, namely those birthed by religion. He sees no compatibility between religion and modernity and thinks that something has to give: “The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled.” Sign me up.

Harris’ moral landscape–peaks of well-being, valleys of suffering–rests on his purportedly simple premise: “human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain.” Of course, in order to extrapolate he delves into all sorts of scientific and philosophical terrain, including truth, good vs. evil, belief, happiness, ethics and its dilemmas, and, you guessed it, religion. Harris’ insistence on writing lengthy chapters on this last topic constitute the weaker pages. And not for the arguments–he is spot on in describing the foolishness of Frances Collins’ Christian beliefs as head of the National Institute of Health, and in his continual reminders about the dangers of radical Islam (although he amusingly acknowledges that this group of righteous crazies is “especially low-hanging fruit”). It seems to me that these arguments might be a tad outside the scope of the book–that a shorter description of why religion fails to reliably deliver morality would have sufficed. After all, Harris must leave room to explain his proposals about the capacity of science to substitute in the vacuum left after people come to the light of reason.

The vacuum is mostly illusory (we have moral patterns due to our evolution as social creatures, which should be enough) but it will be necessary for 21st century citizens to be able to get a grasp as to why we do what we do. Harris discusses implications of neuroimaging (with interesting findings that show that people believe in deities in the same way they believe carrots are orange, though the brain is working at a slightly slower pace while contemplating the supernatural) and supposes an intriguing future in which humans cannot hide their lies due to the specificity of brain scan technologies (imagine being able to detect a fib in a bar as easily as you would secondhand smoke). Our science is making the first steps toward marrying the measurement and the meaning.

However, I do think the subtitle of the book should probably have been “Why Science Should Determine Human Values” instead of “How Science Can.” It’s simply too early to know how science can do this, even if this book sets the stage. Harris is proposing his argument with a desire to generate interest in hard physical research: we need to get the ball rolling on honest scientific study of how to pin down what is moral, and what is not. We have reliable ground to say that many actions are one or the other, but it will be all that much more fruitful to be able to say exactly how and why this happens. As Harris points out, “We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrass us. This is moral progress.” If humans agreed that this was a goal to live up to, we would go far. I can’t help but think that Sam Harris is on the right track, and so far I’m on board. When it comes to moral possibility, it’s all in the brain. We’re good and bad because of gray matter, not god memes.

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3 thoughts on “The Moral Landscape

  1. “However, I do think the subtitle of the book should probably have been ‘Why Science Should Determine Human Values’ instead of ‘How Science Can.'”

    Such a ‘should’ would go against Harris’ claim that ‘ought’ and ‘should’ are artificial constructs of the human brain. Moreover, Harris believes that ‘can’ (facts) wholly consume ‘should’ (ought), and thus, in Harris’ use of terms, his subtitle does read ‘How Science Should.’ But that is the real contention, is it not? – that science’s descriptive is prescriptive? And this contention was poorly handled by Harris.

    All in all, Harris’ ‘Landscape’ adequately demonstrated the inconsistency of claiming an objective morality within a materialistic worldview by conducting circular conversations on the sidelines, intermixed with the truth of neuroscience, the confusion of terms, appealing to the obvious, answering moral questions with non-moral answers, and supplying red herrings with his misinformed understanding of the Christian ethic. It appears that all of the frenzy could have been avoided if Harris had simply resolved to leave the term ‘moral’ out of his discussion, supplying an agreed upon scheme of maximizing human flourishing with scientific advancements. Nonetheless, the frenzy was intentional, not formed out of Harris’ ignorance, where he sincerely attempted to include morality in the discussion because morality supplied the ‘ought’ for his imperatives. Without ‘the well-being landscape’ functioning under the title of ‘the moral landscape,’ there is no ‘ought’ for Harris to appeal to in the occasion of needed correction. His effort is enthralling, but it will require more than the mere semantic performance of redefinition to transfer ‘is’ into an objective ‘ought.’

    • Hi Taylor, thanks so much for commenting. I appreciate it. It’s been a while since I’ve read this book, but I do keep up on Harris’ blog posts so I feel I maintain a general understanding of his positions. But forgive me if I slip up in recapping some areas of this specific book.

      You’re right that in general Harris is always arguing that the old “science is descriptive and can never be prescriptive” idea is either untrue or harmful, or both, especially in our modern world. This, I think, is why he put in such a bold subtitle–he wants to demolish the notion that science has nothing to say about morality. I think this is a worthy starting place, but I feel like the science was lacking in the book. That’s why I proposed a change in subtitle, but I feel like you might be focusing on the wrong word. Not the How/Why, but the third word is what’s important–the Should/Can. He argues that science should help determine moral values. He does not effectively demonstrate how it yet can.

      I agree that definition of terms is important. On that note, I’m not sure what you mean when you claim Harris thinks “ought” and “should” are artificial constructs of the brain (beyond the fact that all words are basically artificial constructs). I think he would argue that these words hold great weight. “Should” (and ought–they are the same thing) gets directly to the heart of his argument. Morality is about what people should–or should not–do. Yes, the options of answering the dilemma of “What should I do?” are informed completely by facts, and in that way I suppose the facts “consume” the morality question. But this is just to say that the facts exist, and are either objective (scientific) or subjective (in one person’s mind, and therefore dubiously labeled a “fact” at all). But there is nothing else besides these that could inform judgment about “What should I do?” How could there be anything else besides real, natural facts, and subjective thoughts we take to be facts personally?

      I’ll give you the contention that Harris appeals to the obvious and harps a little too much on Christianity (which I mentioned in my review, although I’d be interested to hear where you think he went wrong). I’m not sure I understand the “answering moral questions with non-moral answers” or the claim that he should not have used the word “moral” at all in his thesis. If anything, I remember this being the one word he did define, at least for his own purposes. He means something to be moral if something increases well-being, and immoral if something decreases it, as long as the agent behind those increases and decreases has some sort of intention (is not, for example, the weather). The well-being landscape IS the moral landscape. If this does not sit well, then I would challenge you to come up with another definition of “moral.” I’m sure others are out there, but Harris argues that unless you’re talking about the well-being of creatures who have the potential to suffer, then speaking of “morality” is very misleading. That is, in the past it may have been considered deeply “immoral” to smoke marijuana, even if the smoker is just enjoying him or herself to the detriment of no one else. This is using “immoral” in a completely useless way, because the potential for well-being/suffering is not on display. Human laws and precepts do not always equate with moral guidelines, as much as we would like them to.

      In case you hadn’t seen it yet, Harris invited a rebuttal essay to this book, then recently responded to it. It’s a good conversation: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/clarifying-the-landscape.

      I’d be curious what you think about his book Free Will. My review on this site is not very comprehensive, and I’m eager to read it again.

      Take care.

      • Thank you for the quick reply Levi! I appreciate your clarity and the friendly discussion.

        I noted Harris’ artificial ‘ought’ on pg. 38 of his work.

        And I agree, Harris never claimed that his moral landscape was practically resolved; but such a hopeful concession is worthy of criticism for another time.

        Yes, all values are necessarily related to facts. Notice, however, that the agreed upon relation between facts and values is not the same as agreeing that there is no distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values.’ Values certainly and necessarily relate to facts at some level, but this in no way necessitates the marked distinction between ‘values’ and ‘facts’ as illusory. Relationship, even a derivative relationship, expresses distinction. Although values may be derived from facts, the substance of the transference is not purely and exclusively the substance of the fact, the antecedent. The fact does not intrinsically produce the value. There is a process that transforms the fact into a value, and this transformation is conducted through human agency, which differs in its interpretive value contrived from the fact. It is apparent why Harris differed so much from his fellow atheist scientists and philosophers in regards to the relationship between facts and values – i.e. he allowed the agreed upon relation to abolish the distinction.

        Nevertheless, how does the relationship between facts and values reconcile ‘is’ and ‘ought’? How does the claim that values are a type of fact disarm Hume’s ‘is/ought distinction?’ Is the resolution as plain and simple as recognizing that all values are built from facts? How could these philosophers be so blind? Obviously, it is because one cannot see what one is not looking at – i.e. Hume’s ‘ought’ is not the same as Harris’ ‘values,’ but Hume’s ‘is’ is equivalent to Harris’ ‘facts.’ Harris’ claim demonstrated the non-distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is,’ because he shows that values are types of facts; but he does nothing to demonstrate a non-distinction between ‘ought’ and ‘is.’ For example, ‘ought’ is not necessarily removed from valuations. If one were to claim that they value the act of giving to charity, both in their life and in the lives of others, does such a claim nullify another person’s questioning as to why they ‘ought’ to give to charity? Harris would then point the questioner to the fact that charitable-giving maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures. And it appears that the cycle would continue on in its normal fashion, because values are types of facts, and facts have no ‘ought.’ Harris’ merely noted that values are extended facts, thus expanding Hume’s ‘is,’ and then concluded that there is no division between ‘is’ and ‘another type of is.’
        There appears to be a missing premise: (A) Values are a type of fact. (B) … (C) Therefore, the ‘is/ought’ distinction is illusory. Though (C) was not explicitly espoused by Harris, he appeared to mean to lead the reader to such a conclusion. Adding ‘values’ to the discussion, and then marking them as facts, merely placed the ‘ought’ question further along. Harris apparently attempted to supplement ‘ought’ for ‘values’ and then, in the act of demonstrating values were a type of fact, attempted to lead his readers to believe that ‘ought’ is a type of ‘is.’ One cannot prove that there is no distinction between a cat and a turtle by placing another turtle in the room, calling it a cat, and then demonstrating its similarities to the other turtle. In doing so, one has made all cats to be turtles (and vice versa), and thus there is no distinction between the cat and the turtle. A turtle is not a cat whether you call it one or not. And how has the third turtle called cat now affected the overall deliberation? It has only prolonged the real distinction of concern. Once the turtles were proven akin, the cat still remained in the room, remaining to be dealt with. Harris’ ‘values’ is simply an ‘is’ calling itself an ‘ought,’ while the ‘ought’ still remains in the room, remaining to be dealt with. The question remains: why ought one be concerned with the maximal well-being of conscious creatures? Why should human flourishing be an objective moral good? And stating that maximizing well-being ought to be ‘good’ because ‘good’ is defined by that which maximizes well-being can hardly be called an answer, let alone a satisfactory answer.

        When I referenced Harris answering moral questions with non-moral answers, I was essentially noting his interchangeable use of non-moral ‘good’ – i.e. a thing’s fitness to achieve the end for which it was designed, e.g. a good football player – with moral ‘good,’ e.g. virtuous action, beautiful dispositions of the human will, etc. The question remains how human well-being (flourishing) concerns morality; and the simple equivocation of the two by Harris does not solve the reconciliation. Of course, mostly all conscious creatures strive for the Good Life as opposed to the Bad Life, but how does the pursuit of morality relate to the pursuit of well-being? The Christian theist asserts that the pursuit of the non-moral ‘good’ – i.e. a thing’s fitness to achieve the end for which it was designed – is within and subsumed by the pursuit of the moral good. In other words, the pursuit of human flourishing is a component of the pursuit of human morality. Thus, there is a relationship between the two, but there is also an apparent distinction. Harris, however, building off the recognized relationship between human flourishing and human morality, simply nullifies the distinction and equivocates the pursuits – i.e. the pursuit of human flourishing is the pursuit of human morality. In a profound sense, this maneuver by Harris allowed him to note the obvious – the relation between human flourishing and human morality – and appeal to the common agreement, but moreover (rather sneakily) expel any distinction between the two. Austerely, he allowed the agreed upon relation to abolish the distinction. Harris continually utilized such a tactic throughout his book, and it provided some significant confusion. His blurred line between moral ‘good’ and non-moral ‘good’ (human flourishing) allowed him to speak of the latter under the guise of the former, which supplied the ability to speak of science as determining the moral ‘good’ when it truly is restricted to determining non-moral ‘good.’

        I would define morality within my worldview, which supposes the existence of the ontological Trinity. Morality is essentially expressed as ‘love to being in general, which necessitates primary love to the Being of beings.’ I could unpack that another time, but it is certainly more philosophically justifiable than Harris’ definition, though it absolutely includes Harris’ claim – i.e. ‘love to being in general, which necessitates primary love to the Being of beings’ will maximize the well-being of conscious creatures.

        My issue will Harris’ free will assessment is that it logically inconsistent to suppose that the ‘will’ causes itself. Once again, we could really develop that criticism, but I will leave it at that haha.

        Yes, I have kept up with most of Harris’ reply to his critics, but found it to be really unconvincing. Sorry for the long reply!

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