Review: The Moral Landscape

Sam Harris. The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values. Free Press, 2010.

Reviewed by By Edwin Cartlidge

When anthropologists visited the island of Dobu in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s they found a society radically different from those in the West. The Dobu appeared to center their lives around black magic, casting spells on their neighbors in order to weaken and possibly kill them, and then steal their crops. This fixation with magic bred extreme poverty, cruelty and suspicion, with mistrust exacerbated by the belief that spells were most effective when used against the people known most intimately.

For Sam Harris, philosopher, neuroscientist and author of the best-selling The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, the Dobu tribe is an extreme example of a society whose moral values are wrong. In his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris sets out why he believes values are not, as is widely held, subjective and culture-dependent. Instead, he says, values are a certain kind of fact — facts about the well-being of conscious creatures — and that they can therefore, at least in principle, be objectively evaluated. The “moral landscape” of the title is the concept that certain moral systems will produce “peaks” of human well-being while others, such as that of the Dobu, will lead to societies characterized by a slough of suffering. Harris maintains that it is possible to determine objectively that the former are better than the latter.

Harris is not the first person to advocate an objective basis for morality. The biologist E. O. Wilson, for example, has previously explained how he believes moral principles can be demonstrated as arising objectively from human biological and cultural evolution. But in arguing that there is an objective basis to morality, Harris puts himself at odds with a principle put forward by the 18th century philosopher David Hume and regarded as inviolable by many philosophers and scientists today: the idea that statements about how things ought to be cannot be derived from statements about what is true. In other words, it is impossible to derive values from facts.

Harris dismisses both this reasoning and the objection that there are no grounds for favoring his moral framework over any other. He takes it to be essentially self-evident that morality is about well-being, arguing that some practices, such as forcing women to dress head to toe in a burqa, are bound to reduce well-being. In Harris’s view, it is not right to treat all cultural practices as being equally valid and maintains that multiculturalism and moral relativism are wrong.

This dogmatic certainty in the superiority of some moral values over others would seem to put the outspoken atheist in a strange alliance with religious believers, especially with the current Pope, a fervent critic of relativist thinking. But Harris is certainly no friend of religion, arguing that not only are religious metaphysical doctrines false but that the dogmatism of faith prevents a better understanding of what really allows humans to flourish. How, then, does Harris determine which moral principles are objectively true? He identifies some moral beliefs as being such reliable guides to producing well-being that they are, for all practical purposes, absolute. Not lying, he believes, is one such principle. But he argues that truth-telling must be dropped in the few cases where it conflicts with well-being. For example, he says, it would be wrong for someone to alert the SS to the presence of Jews in his neighbor’s basement when questioned on the subject.

Harris, it turns out, is what philosophers call a consequentialist: someone who believes that the moral worth of an act depends on its measurable consequences. And, he says, science — especially neuroscience — will play an increasingly vital role in assessing the soundness of alternative courses of action. Measurements of the brain will precisely reveal a person’s well-being in a given situation, and will therefore be a more reliable guide than that person’s own reports of how they are feeling. It is possible to think we are feeling compassion, he says, when we are not, and we can think we love our children equally when in fact we don’t. As he puts it, “the world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled.”

What to make of this? There is no doubt that science can be crucial in helping us make ethical decisions. Careful measurements could provide information about how much pain different animals really feel and therefore contribute to judgements about animal testing. Knowing how human beings are conceived and grow inside the womb can also provide crucial information in shaping our views on abortion and stem cell research. But while scientific data can contribute to our decisions in such ethical matters, they cannot determine them. As Hume knew but Harris denies, telling us what takes place in certain situations is fundamentally different from telling us what we should do in response.

It is undeniable that human (or animal) well-being is central to questions of morality. But how are we to decide what counts as well-being? Harris leaves the concept deliberately open-ended, saying that it can encompass everything from feeling compassion to satisfying one’s intellect, in addition to the narrower notions of pleasure central to some forms of utilitarianism. But would it ever, even in principle, be possible to exhaustively define well-being, as well as to know what relative weight to assign to each of its components, and then be able to tie these components to actual brain states? Harris does not answer these questions convincingly.

What’s more, in advancing his view that we can define moral values objectively, he has a tendency to choose extreme supporting examples. Few people would disagree that the short, widowed life of a girl who has known nothing but hunger, fear and loneliness amid a brutal civil war is a better existence than that of a woman who lives a long, happily-married, intellectually satisfying, financially comfortable and emotionally satisfying life. It’s far more ambiguous to compare two women who have similar levels of material comfort but who live in differently organized societies, such as free-market America and more welfare-oriented Sweden. True, Harris says that his moral landscape can have multiple peaks, so perhaps he would say there is no reason why these two lives could not exist on parallel peaks. But admitting that there are many peaks takes the force out of his argument. His framework can tell us the right answer in some situations, but not in others.

In any case, it seems overly simplistic to argue that ethics can simply be reduced to maximizing well-being. This is particularly true where more abstract notions such as truth and justice are concerned. While many would agree that lying is the right thing to doin certain extreme instances, such as the case of the hidden Jews, it is likely to be widely regarded as the wrong thing to do in other cases where it would nevertheless maximize human well-being. Giving evidence that imprisons a murderer may, in some cases, reduce the sum total of human well-being — perhaps the victim was a wife-beater, and the killer’s children will be left orphans if she’s jailed — but it may still be justifiably regarded as the morally correct action. Harris’s consequentialist utilitarianism strains to make moral sense of a case like that.

The Moral Landscape is a thought-provoking book and certainly worth a read, but it is ultimately unconvincing. Harris’s failing is his over-fondness for theoretical neatness. It seems patently true that some moral systems are better than others and it is refreshing that he criticizes the flawed thinking of moral relativists. But ethics does not have to be objectively established to have power. Indeed, tying morality to science has had a very mixed track record. While Darwinian evolution was invoked in support of causes now widely regarded as morally just, such as the abolition of the slave trade, it was also used to justify those now considered abhorrent, such as eugenics.

The point is that values are not logical deductions from the measurements of processes taking place inside peoples’ heads but are instead arrived at through a complex and continually evolving interplay of experience, reflection, and debate. As such they are, and should be, decided by society as a whole and not, as Harris would want, by groups of experts. Whether or not there exists a supernatural being, Harris’s view of morality falls short because it is narrowly materialistic. Ethics, while a branch of reason, is not science.

This review originally appeared on Big Questions Online.

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