2 June 2014

The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris

Posted by Callan Bentley

harris Sam Harris wrote a couple of excellent missives on the downsides of modern religious thinking and religious institutions in The End of Faith and the sequel which rebutted some of the U.S. criticism from it, called Letter to a Christian Nation.

He published a new major work in 2010, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. In this philosophical and scientific argument, Harris argues that the traditional dichotomy of scientific understanding and ethics is a false one, and that we can actually have a rational, empirical approach to human morality. What it boils down to is this: Harris thinks that morality is maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, and that that well-being is both (1) partially produced by and (2) totally experienced as states of the brain. Brain states can be measured, however crudely (MRI, etc.), and therefore are subject to empirical study. Ergo, science can study morality. Furthermore, this study can produce proscriptive advice about which actions are most likely to produce a positive shift in the well-being of the conscious creatures (e.g., people) under study, and which are likely to shift things in a negative direction. Though Harris acknowledges that some parsing of options may forever be out of reach of reason, we can at least say that some states of being are clearly better than others. He offers a harrowing comparison early on in the book between two lives, and it’s pretty clear that even a moral relativist would have no issues choosing the better of the two. So there is a distinction being made between broad-scale better-than/worse-than comparisons and fine-grained comparisons; only the former are really within current reach of empirical morality.

So: there are better and worse lives to live, and these are reflected in the states of conscious brains, and we can empirically evaluate (study) those brains. Ergo, we scientists can in fact evaluate moral issues – they are not “off limits” to science, which means that philosophers, priests, and popes no longer exclusively hold the keys to the moral engine. Furthermore, because scientific ideas are subject to falsification, and are data-driven, science is well positioned to “win” any arguments with contrary points of view. The Moral “Landscape” of the title is an imaginary surface, where the peaks correspond to the “good life” (more than one possible way to live the good life), and valleys correspond to the “bad life” (and there are also many different ways to be miserable). In general, Harris wants to find the ways to push more people up toward higher peaks – maximizing their well-being not merely over the short, hedonistic time span, but over the longer, multi-decade ‘satisfaction’/fulfilment time span.

There are several “tangents” Harris makes in the course of his argument, which I thought were (a) totally compelling as discrete essays, and (b) somewhat peripheral to his main argument, at least insofar as the scale of attention they warrant. One of these is the Catholic church’s horrific child sex abuse scandal. Another is the lamentable choice of Francis Collins as the director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the ludicrous conversion story through which Collins came to his faith. (Spoiler alert: It boils down to this: “Pretty waterfall, therefore Jesus”). Harris pulls no punches: his scathing critique of Collins’ sloppy non-scientific thinking is robust and compelling. There is also a protracted discussion of free will, which is more relevant to the main points of The Moral Landscape, but also less compelling. I get why people reject the notion of free will, but I’m not sure that Harris’ presentation of the topic was as convincing as I would have hoped it would be.

Much more compelling (in terms of exploring a biological basis for behavior vs. a dualistic independent soul) was an interesting exploration of “good vs. evil,” wherein Harris presents 6 or 7 hypothetical scenarios, each of which has a male killing a female with a gun. The details of each scenario vary to include various levels of mitigation factors such as the age of the person pulling the trigger (baby, boy, man), accidental/intentional firing, a childhood history of abuse, a brain tumor which affects behavior, etc. Which of them is acceptably “good”? Which qualifies as “evil”? The gradations between the actual situations are too fine to parse. So why do we have the concepts of “good” and “evil”? Harris argues that they are a vestigial trait, our culture’s inheritance from its religionist past (i.e., all moral authority flows from god/gods, and moral choices are like a light switch: the choice that gets you into paradise, and the one that damns you to torment for all of eternity). Even pyschopaths aren’t evil in some ultimate sense, he argues, it’s just that their brains are broken – a biological determinant. It should be noted that Harris pursues this line of argument while being very clear that psychopathic behavior is among the most awful in the world, causing horrific suffering. I’m haunted by one particular passage he quoted in the book to make this point. Be forewarned: it’s not for the faint of heart.

The Moral Landscape is put forward as a conversational catalyst, to encourage discussion and motivate investigation. A ‘science of morality’ doesn’t really exist yet in our intellectual culture, but Harris wants to make it happen. This book should be viewed as the start of that conversation. I find it a convincing start, and given the seriousness of the matters discussed, I think our intellectual community owes it to humanity to take a closer look at whether we can in fact use science to make moral judgements, and specifically rule out certain behaviors as more injurious than helpful.

I think it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I encourage you to read it.