The Moral Landscape: A [37G] Book Report

This week, I will examine Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I will break down the book by chapter and highlight the central ideas within each, responding to any interesting claims or concepts along the way. I hope this can be useful to those out there who might be interested in literature like this but have not had the time to take a look at the texts for themselves. I think a work like this is of particular importance for atheists and secularists because it attempts to do something positive: Harris aims to show how science and morality can – and, in his view, must – intersect, and how this intersection can shed beneficial light on morality and ethics. The central thesis, as Harris defines it, is as follows:

…morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds - and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life. (p. 28)

The entire work is essentially an attempt to overcome David Hume’s argument that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”; in other words, we cannot take the way world is and take from that they way the world should be. Harris states that, "... many people seem to think that because moral facts relate to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically "subjective"), all talk of morality must be subjective in the epistemological sense (i.e., biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue" (p. 30).

Harris is trying to bridge this gap between “ought” and “is” and he argues that science can help with this endeavor; indeed, he argues that it inevitably must have something to say on moral issues if his views on the nature of beliefs and values is accurate. To justify the claim that “science can determine human values”, Harris builds a consequentialist theory of morality that is grounded by the beliefs and valuations of conscious beings.

Step one of this building project is to establish an objectively accessible gauge against which moral claims can be measured. “Chapter One: Moral Truth” is focused on an attempt to justify well-being as the focal point of morality and ethics. Once this is established, Harris believes that it will be natural for science to be able to tell us what we should want as opposed to what we do want. By establishing a metric against which moral claims can be judged, Harris hopes to bridge a secular worldview with objective morality. This, in turn, will allow us to talk meaningfully about moral truth as opposed to moral opinion:

Once we see that concern for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values, we will see that there must be a science of morality, whether or not we ever succeed in developing it: because the well-being of conscious creatures depends on how the universe is, all together. (p. 28)

The reason such a project is important is that subjective moral systems are often derided as vacuous because the moral claims seem to only hold for the subject in question. Expanding these subjective moral judgments beyond the individual seems problematic, if not impossible. After all, people regularly disagree in their moral beliefs; who’s to say who is right in any particular situation? Harris sees this as incredibly problematic: "The categorical distinction between facts and values has opened a sinkhole beneath secular liberalism - leading to moral relativism and masochistic depths of political correctness." (p. 46)

If Harris is successful in taking well-being and justifying it as the basis of moral judgments, then we can make claims that rise above any individual and are applicable, in principle, to every human being because of our shared neurological, cultural and physical characteristics.

Harris does this by noting that everything that is valued is done so by conscious creatures:

All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of human values and morality is not an arbitrary starting point... Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that the concept of "well-being" captures all that we can intelligibly value. And "morality" - whatever people's associations with this term happen to be - really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures. (p. 32)

In short, conscious creatures value things and the things that are valued are those that relate to our well-being.

The obvious retort is that the meaning of “well-bring” is vague. Harris counters that we can postulate two worlds: one of “absolute misery” and one of “absolute flourishing”. If we ask which of these we should choose for everyone, given the chance to impose that choice on the world, what would the moral choice be? The obvious answer is the one that promotes “absolute flourishing”. As the nature of flourishing is dependent on facts about the way the world is – facts that are, in principle, discoverable by scientific, empirical means – then we seem to have dismissed the charge that “well-being” is an empty concept (and thus meaningless for moral purposes). Harris argues that “once we admit that the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing - and whatever these states amount to for each particular being in the end - are different and dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.” (p. 39)

In “Chapter Two: Good and Evil”, Harris explores the meaning of these terms within his conceptual framework. He then compares and contrasts his consequentialist theory of ethics with others, responding to anticipated criticisms along the way: “I believe that we will increasingly understand good and evil, right and wrong, in scientific terms, because moral concerns translate into facts about how our thoughts and behaviors affect the well-being of conscious creatures like ourselves.” (p. 62)

The specter that Harris continually confronts throughout The Moral Landscape is that of the moral relativist. This is the person who claims that there are no absolute, objective moral truths. Different cultures have different moral inclinations, which is used as evidence that moral objectivism is fundamentally flawed. In short, there are no moral facts (truths) – only moral opinions. Harris rejects this claim outright while simultaneously accommodating the differences in moral opinion evident in the world.

This is where the idea of the “moral landscape” comes in. Harris envisions the moral landscape as a series of peaks and valleys, with the former representing higher levels of well-being and the latter representing lower levels.  Because Harris is concerned with maximizing “well-being” based on observable facts about the world, he concedes that there may be various combinations of moral facts that yield peaks along this landscape of equal magnitude. This is an interesting move, because it makes room for the intuition that supports moral relativism while simultaneously taking away its “moral truth” destroying power. What Harris has done is argue for an objective moral barometer while acknowledging that different moral weather patterns can yield similar readings.

Harris also observes that we need not take everyone’s moral inclinations into account when determining how best to move about the moral landscape:

…where is it written that everything that people do or decide in the name of morality deserves to be considered part of its subject matter?.. It seems abundantly clear that many people are simply wrong about morality - just as many people are wrong about physics, biology, history, and everything else worth understanding. (p. 87)

This is an important move because it allows us to acknowledge that sociopaths, psychotics and the like may have nothing useful or relevant to say when it comes to moral questions. Their worldviews are simply not going to generate “well-being” in a appreciable way when applied to humanity as a whole, and I agree that there is nothing that states we must take their views into account.

I’m not certain how easily these arguments will persuade a moral relativist, but I do like what he has attempted to do. I am loathe to be absolutist in thought (particularly in a realm as grey-scaled as morality) but that does not mean I do not think there are nonnegotiable moral facts about what people should do. That there might not be a single answer to a particular moral quandary does not necessarily mean there are no answers to be had.

...failures of ethical consistency are often considered a strike against consequentialism. They shouldn't be. Whoever said that being truly good, or even ethically consistent, must be easy? (p. 82)

In order to reinforce he strength of the connection between “ought” and “is”, Harris brings his work in neuroscience to bear in “Chapter Three: Belief”. In this chapter he highlights scientific studies (some of which he has participated in directly) that aims to bridge the gap between moral beliefs and beliefs of other kinds. He also aims to show that “…there is no gulf between facts and values, because values reduce to a certain type of fact … if, from the point of the brain, believing “the sun is a star” is importantly similar to believing “cruelty is wrong”, how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?” (pp.121-122)

The goal is to pull our understanding of "belief" out of the realm of dry, abstract philosophical concepts and embed it fully back into the processes within the brain that actually lead to one holding any type of belief. In doing so, Harris can more readily draw the connection between value judgments and beliefs within neural processes. If we can take an act of believing that is supposed to represent the way the world is in some particular aspect and tie that act to the act of valuing something, then we can tie beliefs to moral judgments via our valuation of “well-being”.

Harris spends a fair amount of time going over research that supports the idea that the neural act of believing something is inherently value laden, even things that seem purely academic in scope:

If believing a mathematical equation (vs. disbelieving another) and believing an ethical proposition (vs. disbelieving another) produces the same changes in neurophysiology, the boundary between scientific dispassion and judgments of value becomes difficult to establish. (p. 126)

Harris observes that holding a belief is an active neural process which “can be thought of as a process taking place in the present; it is the act of grasping, not the thing grasped” (p. 117). If belief is neurologically tied to value judgments, then we have evidence to support the idea that the “ought/is” distinction that prevents us from discussing objective moral truths is either false, or at least blurred. By arguing that the divide is simply not applicable to the way human beings actually think, Harris is working to allow science to look at what people believe and value and then arrive at conclusions (that are empirically verifiable, at least in principle) about moral questions. For Harris, moral beliefs are judgments about the way the world is and if these beliefs should be judged against the metric of “well-being”, then we have in principle a way of deciding which moral beliefs are right and which ones are wrong. Assuming Harris is correct in his assumptions, we have obtained the objective truth that many have claimed a secular morality cannot capture.

In Chapter Four: Religion, Harris changes course and beings to examine the nature and impact of religious belief. As religious beliefs are ultimately claims about the way reality is, some of them must be falsifiable. This is especially true of those religious claims, such as those of Creationists - that have empirically testable hypotheses attached to them. Getting to the truth of the matter regarding these claims is an important endeavor if we are to be able to accurately tell which worldviews will lead to the greatest “well-being”. For that reason, religious belief should be held accountable to the same standards as secular beliefs.

If we believe that beliefs about the world should be held because they are related to truths about the world, and we believe that there is value in holding true beliefs, then we are obligated to confront beliefs that do not seem grounded in reality. Harris pushes back against the idea that some people hold religious beliefs because they make that person feel good; he claims this is simply not sufficient reason to hold any belief: “The inseparability of reason and emotion confirms that the validity of a belief cannot merely depend on the conviction felt by its adherent's; it rest on the chains of evidence an argument that link it to reality. Feeling may be necessary to judge the truth, but I cannot be sufficient.” (pp. 126-127) Furthermore, “a belief – to be actually believed – entails the corollary belief that we have accepted it because it seems to be true. To really believe a proposition - whether about facts or values - we must also believe that we are in touch with reality in such a way that if it were not true, one would not believe it.” (p. 136)

If these statements hold any weight, Harris argues, then we should be willing to challenge religious belief when it flies in the face of reality as we understand it. Although this may lead to uncomfortable situations in which we are basically challenging the intellectual integrity of the person(s) in question, we should be willing to move forward with the conversation. To do otherwise would be paternalistic and disingenuous; we would basically be saying that we do not hold the intellect of our conversant to the same standard as our own. Harris thinks this is the wrong thing to do and claims that those who advocate leaving religious belief alone are actually the guilty parties:

… let’s admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbors as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be completely mistaken about the nature of reality. (p. 175)

Harris finishes off The Moral Landscape in “Chapter Five: The Future of Happiness”. He notes that he has said little about current measurements of happiness or moral standards and grants that as cultural norms and standards shift, the factors leading to the well-being of a societies’ members may similarly change. Harris does not see this shifting moral landscape as problematic. Throughout the book he has used an analogy of the concept of “health”: we speak of health as a good to be sought after, even though the term itself is ever-changing and difficult to define explicitly. Why should “well-being” be any different? The fact that figuring out how best to navigate the moral landscape may be difficult in practice does not mean that it is not a journey worth taking. As we come to better understand the human brain and consciousness, we should develop increasingly accurate tools to allow us to determine our values. In doing so, we will have the necessary components to assemble moral systems that are compatible will maximizing well-being for everyone involved in the human experience.

Harris’ goal in this book has not been to give exact answers to moral questions; rather, his goal has been to demonstrate how it is that science can underpin an objective, secular morality through which we can assess objective moral truths. If he has done his job properly, then secularists can reclaim a level of moral certainty that relativists and religious moralizers have often claimed was impossible for secularists to obtain. Although there is plenty of material to engage with (and argue about), I think that Harris has presented a plausible bridge between the “ought” and the “is” and for this his effort is to be commended.


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Featured images are from and Sam Harris' Facebook page.