The Moral Landscape: My Perspective

The Moral Landscape

Sam Harris, Free Press 2010

Sam Harris is best known as a ‘radical’ atheist-polemicist, a virulent campaigner for a civilisation who places heavy emphasis on the power and prestige of reason and who seeks to disabuse faith-claims, and the people who make them, of the totemic status that they enjoy in our society today. Having read Harris’s anti-God, anti-faith book, The End of Faith, I come to his new book, The Moral Landscape, with a fair notion of the nature of his ideas and contentions about the role and place of religion in society.

Up until now, the so called New Atheist movement has largely concerned itself with questions around the efficacy of religious belief, and writers and scientists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coin, Matt Dillahunty, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris himself have argued stridently against the taboos of discourse that for centuries have stood in the way of critiquing and debunking the flawed nature of religious belief and the received wisdom about the efficacy of ‘faith’. In some respects though, the New Atheists have avoided, or have been unwilling to focus upon the question of morality. In philosophical parlance, they have avoided questions of meta-ethics – how can one justify one’s claim to righteousness? How can a particular behaviour or way of life be said to occupy the status of “the right, the noble, the correct, the ethical, the good” as opposed to “the bad, the ignoble, the dangerous, the unethical, the immoral, the evil“?

Those who profess religious faith have always “known” the answer – our ethics, or at the very least the basis for maintaining certain ethical standards, are derived from God, is regardless of the particular manifestation He might happen to take on, depending on your faith. This “theonomous” argument has been ridiculed heavily by the New Atheists, who assert that regardless of where we find the source of our ethics, it should be obvious that moral authority cannot, and should not, be derived from a non-existent deity. While I agree with the New Atheists on this point, I have been concerned at the scarcity of alternative approaches – until now. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher at UCLA, has written a masterful work of intense energy designed to disabuse us of our traditional notions about the role that science has to play in questions of ethics and morality. It’s a work written lucidly and without recourse to tiresome philosophical jargon (although I’ll be referring to some traditional philosophy-of-ethics concepts in this review/essay), and so quite easy to digest. For those who wish to delve deeper, there are some interesting discussions of the usual philosophical ideas/contentions etc. consigned to the footnotes.

Let’s cut to the chase: Harris contends that science can, and should, inform human values. For centuries, observes Harris, humanity has sought to understand the nature and origin of moral strictures and ethical systems, so far without universal success. Harris thinks the time has come for humanity to converge in terms of the behaviours it values, citing our ever-present capacity for self-annihilation as good reason to begin serious investigations into the notion that not all cultures/religions/worldviews are created equal, and that some are even worth discarding altogether. In place of “Christian” morality and “Islamic ethics” Harris contends that we should end the absolutist approach towards differentiating science and values. Instead, we should acknowledge that science is the only way the real world has been illuminated to us; it is a highly useful process of investigation which contains checks against biases and enables near-objective results to be obtained, and therefore truths to be deduced about the state of the natural world. Harris argues we should no longer be ignorant about the potential for scientifically based investigation to shed light on not only what is, but how we therefore ought to behave. I realise all too well that the philosopher’s immediate response to this idea will be to raise Hume’s is/ought distinction and the naturalistic fallacy like some kind of religious dogma. But relax, Harris realises this too, and we’ll get to that.

Harris bases his claim on the notion of human wellbeing. “While the argument I make in this book is bound to be controversial, it rests on a very simple premise: human wellbeing depends entirely on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it.” For Harris, wellbeing is the basis for morality; he argues that we can therefore discard many “moral” questions, like gay marriage (which all evidence would suggest is beneficial for those wishing to get married and in no way works to become detrimental in the lives of everybody else) just as we should discard notions of the “Catholic” physics of the transubstantiation as bogus. Harris seeks to overcome old notions of metaphysical ethics, religiously derived ethics, “form” and “material” substance; any notion that depends for its efficacy on unsubstantiated metaphysical premises. Note that Harris is not saying that morals are “out-there” somewhere, waiting to be discovered; he understands all the relativist arguments against moral absolutism, but he does argue that it should be possible for humanity to converge on a largely homogeneous moral code, given what we know about human suffering and human flourishing. “There are facts to be understood about how thoughts and intentions arise in the human brain; there are facts to be learnt about how these mental states translate into behaviour; there are further facts to be known about how these behaviours influence the world and the experience of other conscious beings.” If certain behaviours cause certain measurable responses in individuals, responses that sit somewhere on the continuum between abject pain and glorious flourishing, Harris argues we have no excuse not to make judgements about these behaviours.

Why have scientists resisted questions of morality for so long, assuming that religion or philosophy are the most ideal paths through which to attain enlightenment? Harris quotes the psychologist Jerry Fodor on this question, who pithily encapsulates this view:

Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it couldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are. There couldn’t be  a science of the human condition.

Harris also relates a few of his many encounters with scientists who have been reluctant, even stridently opposed to, the idea of a science of “the human condition”. “Many people believe that something in the last few centuries of intellectual progress prevents from speaking in terms of “moral truth” and therefore, from making cross cultural moral judgements…” Ironically, many of those who would ostensibly oppose themselves to the idea that moral truths are knowable would also be the first to assert the right of religion to be practiced and accommodated in the public sphere, religions that themselves preach spurious and blatantly unethical dogmas about woman and homosexuals, for example. Nevertheless Harris does not blithely dismiss the problem; he tackles it head on and refuses to kowtow to its hypocritical double standard. “Having discussed this subject in a variety of public forums, I have heard from literally thousands of highly educated men and women that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions…and that concepts like well-being and misery are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them”. What has brought on this extreme and frightening form of moral accommodationism? Harris cites several possibilities, the two most powerful being the urge to “tolerate” those with different “cultural beliefs” and the fanatical adherence to Hume’s is/ought distinction, mentioned earlier.

“There are very practical concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything – the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world”. Harris’ point is that we no longer have reason to consider many practices and behaviours moral merely because some culture or religion sanctions them as such. Is it moral to stone homosexuals to death because they happen to enjoy having sex? If you take Leviticus on its word, then yes, it is. Most Christians would of course contest that point, arguing that Old Testament morality is no longer applicable to this day and age. Why would they argue this when their holy book intones, quite clearly, that homosexuality is a sin punishable by death? Are they not being disingenuous? Well yes, they are. The only reason they no longer believe this is moral is because the last three hundred years have witnessed an explosion in our capacity to understand not only nature in all its variety, but also each other. We are able to comprehend each other with ever greater precision, and we are therefore more able than ever to recognise the humanity in each other. Where religions would divide and demonize ‘non-believers’ and sanctify such practices like slavery in the past, science has affirmed beyond any doubt our shared humanity, and every individual’s capacity to experience both abject suffering and joyful ecstasy. This is the crux of Harris’ book, and also why it is of such import today. We no longer have any excuses to ignore the plight of our fellow human beings. Those among us who are honest should be ashamed to hide behind a veil of ignorance in the defence of “tolerance” – given the proliferation of weapons capable of wiping out large swathes of life on Earth, we do have a moral imperative to recognise human wellbeing as something that is knowable and to condemn those religious and cultural behaviours that fail to advance it. It is not as though God has changed his mind about stoning homosexuals; we have instead collectively come to the realisation that stoning homosexuals is bad because it does not promote anybody’s wellbeing, and serves only to destroy perfectly viable lives. This shift has been enabled not by God or religion, but by philosophers and scientists like Harris over the last 200 years.

The other objection to a science of morality is exemplified in this extract from a high school philosophy textbook, Mel Thompson’s Access to Philosophy: Ethical Theory. Yes, it is as dry and unenlightening as its title intuits, but it is useful for citing the abject and absurd notion that is G.E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy, developed from Hume’s is/ought distinction. For some reason, this dogmatic like assertion has been indoctrinated into philosophy students since Moore made it famous, and philosophy textbooks like this one spout it like some kind of inalienable creed:

…that children are starving as a result of  famine is in itself morally neutral. It simply describes the condition of those who die for lack of food. It only becomes a matter of moral debate [note, moral debate. Thompson apparently considers that the moral status of starving children is still ‘debatable’ even when we have the power to affect it] once, in response to this, it can be shown that a person is able to rectify the situation…therefore, ‘children are starving’ may lead someone to say: ‘You ought to do something to help them’. But the second does not follow logically from the first.

Surely it is moral issue that children starve, due to the fact of their demonstrable suffering, regardless of whether we can “rectify” the situation or not. Surely it then becomes a moral imperative to improve the situation, precisely because it is a bad thing to begin with. Harris calls this kind of attitude out for what it really is: moral ignorance. It is not some kind of well argued philosophy; it is an excuse to ignore facts that we can know about human well-being and human suffering. These facts should take on a moral dimension because it is demonstrable that human wellbeing leads to happier people, and there is no reason not call this a good outcome for individuals and for societies. This kind of notion does not call for a transcendental God, or some kind of metaphysical “absolute” from which to derive the Good; it relies on the notion that we can measure and obtain objective information about our states of being, and that we can verifiably identify the difference between pain and flourishing. “Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realise what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference.” And yet, “The amazing thing is that some Western intellectuals won’t even blink when asked to defend these practices on philosophical grounds…”  Notes Harris darkly, “As it turns out, to degenerate the Taliban [who rape, stone and generally treat women and minorities with despicable tortures and should therefore be condemned without qualification] at a scientific meeting is to court controversy.” This kind of postmodern groupthink is beyond our contempt; it should be ridiculed with the utmost intensity. I, along with Harris, deplore the scope of its reach in our universities and our institutions. All forms of moral relativism are toxic, even those that hide behind the protective veil of “philosophy”.

But how can we say that facts and values are really related? Don’t the philosophers have a point? Aren’t facts and values really “non overlapping magisteria”? Harris asserts there are three ways in which the “divide” between facts and values is illusory:

1. Human wellbeing (and the wellbeing of other conscious creatures) can be traced to states of the brain, and is therefore measurable. Resultingly, we have no excuse to ignore the reality that we can scientifically measure the difference between pain and flourishing. This of course rests on the premise that human wellbeing is all that we can reasonably value, which is Harris’ primary argument.

2. Our discussion of facts depends firstly on having a certain set of values, like intellectual honesty. There is no a priori reason to think these values are actually valuable. But they become valuable because they help us attain verifiable scientific results that concern facts.

3. The neurological processes that occur when we believe in certain facts and certain values are similar.

Harris’s subsequent argument is convincing. “To say that there are truths about morality and human values is simply to say that there are facts about well-being that await our discovery – regardless of our evolutionary history. While such facts necessarily relate to the experience of conscious beings, they cannot be the mere invention of any person or culture”. Facts do not merely underpin values; facts about human experience should guide us toward a convergent moral sense – and this is where the metaphor of the moral landscape is finally reached. Lest you think Harris is being dogmatic, be comforted. Harris recognises the folly of transcendental moral absolutisms like those espoused by religion. As such he is careful to qualify his argument: by no means is only one answer available to certain moral questions, there is every reason to think that many a moral “peak” could be attainable on the moral landscape. An important point, however, is that there are more valleys than there are peaks. There are many ways to be Good; many ways to scale the heights and flourish, but there are many more ways not to. Now that we are attaining the tools to be able to determine the difference between behaviours that lead to peaks and valleys, it is reasonable that we should discriminate between them, and draw ethical conclusions based on this knowledge.

“I believe that we will increasingly understand good and evil, right and wrong, in scientific terms, because moral concerns translate into in facts about how our thoughts and behaviours affect the well-being of conscious creatures like ourselves. If there are facts to be known about the well-being of such creatures – and there are – then there must be right and wrong answers to moral questions.” Harris’s assertions will be startling to many who would jump on the status-quo bandwagon, and will be refreshing to others like myself who believe passionately in the capacity of science to enlighten humanity and overcome old prejudices and failed wisdoms.

I highly recommend this book, especially to those who, after reading this post, may feel themselves disposed to disagree with Harris’s assertions. I have only scratched the surface of his arguments, which are lucidly and entertainingly written for any reader willing to take on the challenge. For those who wish to engage with Harris even more deeply, his extensive footnotes go into more detail and discuss contemporary problems in modern ethical philosophy, like the libertarianism/determinism/compatibilism/ divide that dominates the debates around free will.

This is a very, very important book: indeed, it is epochal. Everyone should read it, whether they are particularly interested in morality or not, because this book sheds new light on old questions that are often disabled by cultures of groupthink which render original ideas difficult to publish and profess. Harris has done something extraordinary: he has taken on religion, philosophy of ethics, and the humanities, and I think he has triumphed. Harris is a brave thinker, one who transcends and reimagines many of the old, tired debates. He makes philosophy interesting, and science relevant. He is a must read.


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