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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19 Responses to Review: The Moral Landscape

  1. A very complicated article on a very complicated subject matter…

  2. The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled.

    Harris suggests that we accomplish this by deriving all meaning from measurement–objectifying the subjective. A hideous idea that only seems to make sense if consciousness is reduced to matter, at which point nothing in any absolute sense matters.

    • With respect, Harris’s most compelling analogy is to nutrition. We all know that certain foods are much less healthy than other foods. You know that some low-sugar yogurt is a better snack than a fried pastry. But can you reliably tell the health difference between yogurt and an apple? Here we need to have more information about the immediate nutritional needs of the eater: which would benefit them more, fiber and fructose, or protein and gut-friendly bacteria?

      In the same way, SOME actions are reliably more moral than other actions. You know that giving a person a ride in your car is better than beating them up. However, can you be sure that giving that person a ride is better than lending them your bicycle? Again we arrive at a situation where we simply need more information.

      Harris’s major insight is that, while a definite, short set of rules that fit all situations will not be achieved, science is offering us some very useful metrics (via MRI scans and other measurements) that really will provide some broad answers regarding human welfare that we haven’t had before. We already know what we’ll find in the case of the guy you beat up: he isn’t happy. But we’ll also be able to develop performance measures of human happiness that tell, for example, whether it’s better for women to dress in burqas or Western clothes. Interpretation of these data will be open for long debates, because this is science.

      We would be luddite fools not to avail ourselves of these new metrics, and utopian fools to think that they will reduce all questions of human morals to 1’s and 0’s in somebody’s computer. I didn’t find that Harris’s book pretends to the latter case.

  3. I read 5 reviews of this book, and all of them fault Harris for a generally simplistic endeavor. Everything is built on this idea of morality being that which promotes well-being among conscious entities, but according to these reviews, Harris never does much to address the immediate issues that arise from this utilitarian-esque notion: what defines well-being? (if it is brain scans as he seems to suggest, who defines what brain scans indicate well-being?) are we after the largest average well-being? the greatest well-being for one person? and so on and so forth.

    Interestingly, most reviewers appreciated the part of his book that takes on moral relativism, but of course the foundation that he stands on to do so (materialism) is ultimately questionable. One other interesting and surprising tidbit that came from another review was that a recent study showed that 2/3 of American academics said they believed in moral realism. That’s relatively nice to hear.

  4. I think that the purist “Atheists/Secularists/Materialists” should actually develop their culture seperately, so that the results of their culture can be tasted by them. What’s the loss? Why should all cultures try and become one ? You don’t see Zebras mating with Horses. In the Vedas, the Demi-Gods and Demons are at odds most of the time. I think there is enough space on planet Earth for seperate development in the “New Age” combined with a mutual understanding at least in trade relations and the “mundane morality” that the atheists are all about etc….

    I’ve argued at extreme length with Atheistic and Mundane Religious people and they will not accept the transcendental logic of Krsna Consciousness. If anything, progress and aesthetics will attract the conditioned humans. After All, Krsna attracts everyone and so should his “religion”. Ultimately it’s pointless to regard these people’s opinions. If the superiority of the Vedas can be effected, then these people will automatically bow at its glory [this is my grand imagination at work here :)].

    The point is that if Krsna Consciousness should prevail as the supreme “religion” on this Planet Earth, then there is a lot of intelligent and sly work/infiltration to be done. Unless, the gates of the Paravyoma are to open for all to see that is…..

    Hare Krsna

    • Vikram Ramsoondur

      This smacks of ‘Vedic’ supremacism to me. Many of the most compassionate and balanced individuals on earth are meat-eating atheists. They are to be respected for sure. Perhaps my take on this is a smidgen too fatalistic, but those who are destined to join Mahaprabhu’s movement and sever their ties with the mundane realm will in time do so. There really is no need to forcefully try catapulting Caitanya Vaisnava Vedanta to the metaphorical helm of world religions. More than likely, it isn’t even possible to do that.

      The beauty of Vaisnavism as the perfection and distilled essence of Vedantic thought shall manifest naturally in due course in the hearts and minds of those whom Providence itself picks, for bhakti can be forced upon no one – that would actually defeat the very purpose of it.

    • The point is that if Krsna Consciousness should prevail as the supreme “religion” on this Planet Earth, then there is a lot of intelligent and sly work/infiltration to be done.

      Robotmule, for some reason the idea of Gaudiya Vaisnavism becoming the primary religion in the world scared the heck out of me. I must say, that as an organized religion, and in healthy relationship to the world, GV has been extremely disappointing. We need to really think about the relationship we hope to have with each other within the tradition, as infighting is not only a sign of a problem, but utterly off-putting to people observing us. We need to really think about the relationship we have to the world itself, as the idea that the world is maya or at best an object to be used in service to god, reinforces the fact that we do not care about social welfare activities and earth-loving practices. Most practitioners will not even be attracted to the concept of detachment or seva… but still be attracted to Krishna nonetheless. These individuals need to be engaged in seva appropriate to their level of interest, and be the face of GV in performing social-welfare activities and earth-preserving functions. We also seem to have a malignant infection within our tradition made up of contention, contempt, conflict, and primarily fueled by envy. Envy is the enemy of growth and change as it kills the value of anything that is growth and change promoting. How are we going to look healthy and desirable to others if we are so sickly? If we change our relationships to each other and to the world, and we do so sincerely, we might create a respectable face for GV.

      We have perfected the theology articulating our relationship to the absolute, Sri Krishna, but have really lacked in these other areas. As a mystical path, informed by the theology and practices of Caitanyadeva, we have been relatively successful. The mystically inclined will be the heart of GV… and inspire it from within. To say we have a strong theology and a mystical trajectory is pointless to our religious growth if people in the world look at us and we seem off-putting at best, and repulsive at worst. The idea that we must do “sly work” and “infiltration” is an awesome example of how we would perpetuate the way people look at us. People do not have to be tricked or manipulated into GV. You want a more prominent role for GV? I promise, it will not happen until we become the brilliant tradition deserving of that position.

      • Om Tat Sat to that Gopa!

        • My comments are addressed to us as well Madan Gopal. Take the thorn out of our own eye first….

      • I thought that people have to be tricked or manipulated into GV. That was the whole idea of the difference between preaching and siddhanta.
        I think why Goswamis could make adjustments in preaching is that their own life was simple and austere and people saw that they used everything in Krsna’s service. Compare that to what happened later that gurus used tricks to get money of people and had a crown on their head and said this was the service to the parampara and nobody can understand like nobody can understand Pundarika Vidyanidhi because he was surrounded by wealth!
        I think personal example of service and compassion like shown by BVT and Goswamis was able to compensate for the adjustments in the preaching they made to “trick” the public in. But if the personal example is of enjoying one’s own senses and hypocrisy and fanaticism, it is better to not use tricks.

  5. Great, I really appreciate the replies 🙂 Perhaps my words are not directly indicative of the exact nature of my goal or plan that I have in mind. All I can say is that the mission’s name is “Super Excellent Planet” and it aims to use Maya as a tool to manifest a Vaikuntha destination on this planet. Maybe I’m just a crazy artist, like most artists with “high” ideals. I cannot shake that facet of my nature.

    I am on the battlefield and every arrow of Maya that hits me, gives me more reason to defeat Maya. I am not a “pure” devotee in the sense of regulation, but I know and have faith in the end goal, which is personal association with Krsna, God. Therefore I appreciate the association of pure devotees, even if it is only online at the moment.

    Hare Krsna!

    PS. Swami Tripurari, you have a very nice abode !

  6. Sam Harris needs a bully. We need more Spiritual Tyrants ! Kidding….

    • A bully huh? More battle metaphors.

      What Harris needs, as he is a known for being a rather upright man, is some group to prove him wrong by being progressive, life-affirming, moral, and religious simultaneously. I don’t think bullying is the solution for this age.

      • Never thought of myself as a bully.

        • For some boys… it is natural to play rough. Some cannot be blamed for a little bullying if that is their ultimate nature. The rest of us, so far from our own ultimate nature, should do well to cultivate diplomacy.

        • Ha, yes, of course leading by example and creating an attractive ontology would be the noble way. Preaching and debate ultimately boils down to somewhat of a battle for people’s hearts and minds for some perceived greater goal.

          What can we (followers of Vedic Philosophy and Krsna) offer to all these people? Well pretty much the Supreme Absolute Truth, so when guys like Sam Harris comes around and says something that is (to our knowledge) very limited and limiting, a natural response is to want to proverbially “slap him over the head”. It is not just because of him as a person, but because we are well aware of all the demoniac qualities that are involved in the whole “schpiel” of these “intellectuals” and their effect on the mundanely oriented masses. It irritates the hell into me.

          When “The God Delusion” came out, everyone thought they were Atheists. There is almost nothing worth defending in these peoples’ produce. They are simply producing more smug, false prestige, false mentalies in the minds of the humans who aspire to some intellectual credit.

          The ultimate question in this is : Why engage in debate or commentary in the first place? Because fundamentally it is a battle. If not, then it is just idle entertainment as in : “Hmmm, it is so interesting to see what the “demons” are up to now”. In that case, it is more akin to a visit to the Zoo.

          Some people in Krsna Consciousness believe that the upcoming “Golden Age” in Kali Yuga will be largely based on Caitanya’s approach. If that is so, then something obviously needs to happen. Who knows what? The collapse of the current Civilization etc….. In any case it is just Nature, so we can sit back and do nothing and it will happen anyways, but it is quite obvious that some of us want to engage in this “battle” as intelligently as possible that is. Thats why intelligent critique and also importantly, humour is key.

          After all, it is just a temporary little situation on a puny planet in the middle of nowhere that we’re talking about here….

          I would love to see these guys defeated, just for the sake of seeing them defeated, philosophically. Maybe I’m a bit of a bully ;).

  7. I would love to see these guys defeated, just for the sake of seeing them defeated, philosophically. Maybe I’m a bit of a bully .

    Yes… I think you noticed something true. You want to defeat so that you can take pleasure in observing defeat. Mahaprabhu always defeated those he spoke with, but not for the defeat, but rather for the conversion to something better. I do not think he would ever want to leave someone in a defeated state so that he could feel big.

    • Hehe, yes, to me, the defeat of their philosophy will bring much personal pleasure (As in, I’m going to sit in front of my PC and laugh), but that is not the point.

      The point is that their “public defeat” will further the “Transcendental Onus” and possibly change the minds of millions of people that they have lead away from Sat-Cid-Ananda in their ignorance.

      So, my personal pleasure is not “personal” anyways. Mahaprabhu couldn’t instantaneously broadcast his victories to millions of people, but that possibilty is here now.

      Check this post :

      Who can stand up to the “almighty” Stephen Hawking? Who has the rhetoric? Who wants to? Who can do it without seeming archaic? Sounds like a fun challenge/project…..

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