Sunday, November 11, 2012

"The Moral Landscape" -- Introduction

The Introduction of Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape" lays bare, in 26 and a half pages, the argument he will expound upon through the entire book. His argument is as follows:

 "... questions about values -- about meaning, morality, and life's larger purpose -- are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood...  The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values (p. 2). ... I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science (p. 4)." 

Essentially, Harris is arguing that acting in a moral way is acting in such a way as to increase the well-being of conscious creatures. In this paragraph, he goes on to say that brain states, as determined through the discipline of neuroscience, are universal among like-brained sentient creatures (universal among all humans, therefore) and therefore transcend the boundaries of culture. He argues that just as one disease or condition in one culture is the same disease or condition in another culture, compassion and well-being (as determined by brain state) are also the same cross-culturally. Therefore, he says, values can ultimately be right or wrong. He writes, "moral truth can be understood in the context of science." As I have come to read his presentation of the topic, he is using logic to determine what a person should do in a given situation (using a logic-based code of ethics). 

Important to discuss is Harris' refutation of the current 2 existing views of morality, as he sees them: "... People who draw their worldview from religion generally believe that moral truth exists, but only because God has woven it into the very fabric of reality; while those who lack such faith tend to think that notions of 'good' and 'evil' must be the products of evolutionary pressure and cultural invention. On the first account, to speak of 'moral truth' is, of necessity, to invoke God; on the second, it is merely to give voice to one's apish urges, cultural biases, and philosophical confusion. My purpose is to persuade you that both sides in this debate are wrong. The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science (p. 2)." 

His argument, he writes, is based on one, core premise: Human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Therefore, he postulates, there must be scientific truths to be known about it. Understanding these truths in more and more detail as science progresses will force us to "draw clear distinctions between different ways of living ... judging some to be more or less ethical." Such insights would help us improve the quality of life, he writes, and in so doing draws the line between philosophical debate and practical choices we must make that affect the lives of millions. 

An important aspect to his presentation of the argument is that we are not guaranteed to resolve every single ethical dilemma immediately through science; differences of opinion will still remain, but as science improves and as we learn more and more about the world and the human brain, these opinions will be "increasingly constrained by facts (p. 3)."  A bit later in the introduction, he introduces the concept of the moral landscape, from which the title of his book is derived. 

In the same way that a mountain range has many peaks and valleys, and everything in between, so too does the moral landscape -- "a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving -- different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc. -- will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I'm not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery (p. 7)." 

{To liven things up here, and to take a breather, here's a picture of the Alps I took this spring. (Pretend the peaks represent the Good Life  -- the best imaginable life, full of good health, intelligence, a fulfilled romantic life, a fulfilling and rewarding career, etc. --  and the valleys represent the Bad Life -- the worst imaginable life, full of dwindling health, starvation, loneliness, war, emotional and physical suffering, the death of several loved ones, etc. Harris goes into more detail on p. 15) }

Harris points out an important truth early on: "... Our inability to answer a question says nothing about whether the question itself has an answer... Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? Of course not. ... The fact that we may not be able to resolve specific moral dilemmas does not suggest that all competing responses to them are equally valid (p. 3)."

For the next portion of the Introduction, Harris discusses  how our two current conceptions of morality which reside on opposite ends of the political spectrum are both  incorrect and harmful, from fundamentalist religious conceptualizations of predetermined, objective morality to liberal secularists' views of completely subjective morality -- cultural tolerance (even when dealing with harmful or shameful practices) and science as an inadequate source to inform us on how we ought to live (p.11). While I cannot be sure, my own personal viewpoint is that Harris is addressing more of the second type of person (the secular, liberal scientist) in this book, so his commentary is weighed more heavily in this direction.

However, he does provide some examples of how the morality that religious individuals often adhere to is often directly in opposition to well-being. Harris gives the example of corporal punishment in schools: "There are places where it is actually legal for a teacher to beat a child with a wooden board hard enough to raise large bruises and even to break the skin. Hundreds of thousands of children are subjected to this violence each year, almost exclusively in the South. Needless to say, the rationale for this behavior is explicitly religious... "the Creator ... has told us not to spare the rod lest we spoil the child" (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13-14). However, if we are actually concerned about human well-being and would treat children in such a way as to promote it, we might wonder whether it is generally wise to subject little boys and girls to pain, terror, and public humiliation as a means of encouraging their cognitive and emotional development. Is there any doubt that this question has an answer? (In fact, all the research indicates that corporal punishment is a disastrous practice, leading to more violence and social pathology -- and, perversely, to greater support for corporal punishment) (p. 3)."

To address the more secular-minded, Harris presents the reader with a few common points of possible refutation and defends them using a combination of logic and real world examples:

-"Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions. If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie -- and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned. But the existence of moral truth ... does not require that we define morality in terms of unvarying moral precepts. Morality could be a lot like chess: there are surely principles that generally apply, but they might admit of important exceptions. If you want to play good chess, a principle like "don't lose your Queen" is almost always worth following. But it admits of exceptions: sometimes, it is the only thing you can do. It remains a fact, however, that from any position in a game of chess there will  be a range of objectively good moves and objectively bad ones (p. 8)." In the same way, there are objectively good moves and objectively bad ones in terms of human action, and science will dictate (with increasing accuracy) which are good, neutral, or bad.

-"Well-being is hard to define!" ... But so is the concept of 'physical health.' Currently, in developed countries, living to around age 90 is considered physically healthy. However, this is open to revision, as technology and medicine improve over time. But this does not mean that the definition of physical health is vacuous. In the same way, well-being is, though extremely difficult to pinpoint and frame at this point in our development as a species, clearly a spectrum of "better" or "worse."

-"But there may be exceptions." What if what produces well-being for me is, say, killing young children, raping their corpses, and dismembering them, as Jeffery Dahmer's idea of a life well-lived was? Does this mean that morality is to be treated subjectively? No, Harris argues. Other branches of science do not merely throw out opinions -- certain things MUST be true, and some MUST be false, just as in all other branches of science.

I will end this summary with one of my  favorite passages from these 26 pages: "It seems inevitable ... that science will gradually encompass life's deepest questions. ... Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals. A science of human flourishing may seem a long way off, but to achieve it, we much first acknowledge that the intellectual terrain actually exists (p. 7)."

And just for kicks, here's a quick link to Harris' 2010 TED talk (~ 23 minutes) on how science can answer moral questions: In all likelihood, watching this, in addition to reading my post, will be much more informative than just reading my post. Just a hunch.

Please, discuss!


  1. The old adage is that "you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is.'" This means that science only describes what exists, not what should be. Harris can't avoid this. He smuggles in an assumed "should" - the well being of conscious creatures. He has no scientific basis for assuming that as a moral value. If you're really a consistent atheist, then there are no moral values, only human conventions.


  2. I agree, having thought about it. Science tells us what "is." So, in this context, neuroscience can tell us what is indicative of well-being. This is how we measure it. Simply saying 'science can tell us how we ought to live' is absolutely smuggling in a "should."

    But perhaps the combination of science (an objective way to measure well-being) AND logic (some eloquently stated amalgamation of Utilitarianism/the Golden Rule), we might be able to derive a "should" logically? Logic and science together would, I argue, be able to inform us on "better" or "worse" courses of action.

    This is my own view; I'm not sure about Harris. I'll have to keep reading to see what he really thinks on the matter.

    But I absolutely agree that Harris seems automatically assume that we should increase the well-being of conscious creatures. In this way, he is sidestepping the question (or I guess jumping over) of WHAT, exactly, morality is, or why we should be moral. (At least, from everything I've read of his so far).



  3. I would like to know what conclusions Sam has come to regarding any universal moral truths, even if they are one of many peaks. Has anyone seen anything like this?