A problem faces any secular person interested in morality: How do we find a system of morality that is objective, which we can all broadly agree on? One that is not beholden to any religious tradition, and that does not require us to embrace moral relativism? Can we be scientific in our choice of morality?
Sam Harris’ most recent book The Moral Landscape is Harris’ attempt to find an objective basis for morality which doesn’t rely on religion. How does he fare? Let’s see.
The Moral Landscape
Harris makes some valuable contributions to the broader discussion of morality.
The strongest aspect of Harris’ book is his critique of moral relativism. He makes a good case that the ideas of “good” and “evil” are not simply a product of one’s culture. Particularly memorable is a conversation he recounts with a person who suggested that we couldn’t condemn any culture, even if that culture blinded every third child. Harris effectively exposes the madness of wanting to affirm every element of culture, without assessing them by some objective measure of value.
On the contrary, Harris argues that, as our moral choices have real outcomes, these can be measured and compared and evaluated. Harris uses a very effective metaphor to help us see this concept: the moral landscape.
He asks us to image a landscape of hills and valleys. The depths of the valleys correspond to decisions and ways of thinking that lead to poor outcomes for human wellbeing. The peaks are those which lead to human flourishing. It’s a nice analogy because it encourages us to find the peaks, but also allows people to find them via different ways.
Harris suggests that the field of neuroscience offers tools for objectively mapping this moral landscape. The book (and the extensive footnotes) are peppered with examples of recent research in Neuroscience.
Harris’ use of this research is twofold. The first is to inform us what measurements of brain activity reveal about the way our brains think. The second is to illustrate psychological biases in human decision making, and to suggest ways that, being aware of these biases, we can train ourselves to avoid them.
Can science determine human values?
I find the concept of a Moral Landscape is a helpful analogy for thinking about the outcomes of moral choices. But Harris wants to go further. The book is subtitled: how science can determine human values. However, Harris fails to demonstrate how science might do this. He fails in three ways: his definitions of key terms such as ‘science’ and ‘objectivity’ undermine his efforts to find an objective basis for morals; he relies on research that is (at this time) merely suggestive and not demonstrative of his case; and he grounds his argument in philosophy rather than science.
Is Theology “Science”?
What does Harris mean by “science” when claiming it can determine human values? Harris’ definition of Science is so broad as to even include Theology, a discipline he seeks to exclude from having a say in determining values. Harris says that …
Some people [define] “science” in exceedingly narrow terms, as though it were synonymous with mathematical modelling or immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn.
Whereas others might define science narrowly, Harris defines it too widely. Harris’ definition doesn’t establish a boundary between Science and Philosophy, or between Science and any other academic discipline. Indeed, non-scientific disciplines like Journalism and Theology use tools like “cause and effect”, “respect for evidence”, “logical coherence”, “a dash of curiosity”, “intellectual honesty” - the so-called tools of Science. I doubt, however, that Harris would agree that Theology should have any place in determining human values!
A different “objective”?
In addition to having a woolly definition of what constitutes Science, Harris offers a unsatisfactory definition of what is “objective”. Given Harris’ interest in neuroscience and a moral landscape, I expected he would have defined “objective” in such a way that it would describe how two neuroscientists, when reviewing the same experimental data, would come to the same conclusion about human wellbeing. No matter what their prior preferences or views.
But that’s not how Harris defines “objective”. For Harris, we are being objective then “we are free of obvious bias, open to counterarguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, and so on”. It is being “honest”. The problem with this form of objectivity is that it makes no reference to the experimental data itself, but only to the mental state of the experimenter. Both forms of objectivity are needed as a basis for an objective morality!
Harris is at this point exposed to the postmodern critique that all views are biased, and that his attempt to assert his own view is simply an exercise in the use of power. This critique seems particularly valid when Harris discusses how we should deal with dissenters who want to take a different view to moral truth. Drawing an analogy with the discipline of physics, which is undertaken by experts, he says “only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing”. Harris proposes that dissenters should be simply ignored and excluded, in the same way that physicists exclude non-physicists from their discipline.
The results are still out
A key issue with the book is that while much is made of the promise of neuroscience, Harris’ key arguments don’t rely on it. Harris says his main focus is to show how …
We can think more clearly about the nature of moral truth and determine which patterns of thought and behaviour we should follow in the name of “morality”.
The research results presented in the book don’t achieve that. Harris does point out a number of cognitive biases and errors of judgement that people tend to make. But the shape of Harris’ morality is determined by his philosophical outlook, not his science.
Not Science but Philosophy
Harris claims that science can determine human values. But it’s interesting to see what sources Harris uses in defining what are human values. Harris says …
I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value.
Harris then defines “morality” as “a system for thinking about (and maximising) the wellbeing of conscious creatures”
Harris is subscribing to Utilitarianism, and it’s worth observing that he does so without any reference to scientific data. He arrives at this view through philosophical reflection and “reason alone”.
Utilitarianism is a form of Consequentialism that argues that the merits of an action should be judged by it’s potential outcomes: in this case the wellbeing of conscious creatures. It’s a philosophy with its roots in the eighteenth century, and there are a number of serious objections to it (How does one aggregate each individual’s wellbeing into a measure of society’s wellbeing? Who decides which consequence is ‘best’? How are consequences predicted or measured? What is the value of abstract concepts such as Truth and Justice?).
So, rather than letting science determine his value system, Harris chooses his value system and then looks at how science might support his case.
Harris is open to where his ‘scientific’ morality might take us, and envisages the moral landscape has many peaks that we can discover. But he insists there is one thing we must give up. Religion.
Throughout the book, Harris condemns religion as “dogmatic”, opposed to reason, and “antithetic to science”. It has no place in determining human values. In chapter 4, Harris goes further and makes a sustained personal attack on Francis Collins (currently the Director of the National Institutes of Health in the US) for the crime of openly being a Christian while holding a prominent and influential position in the scientific community.
Yet despite his hatred of religion, many of Harris’ own moral values come out of the influence Christianity has had on his own culture. Harris unwittingly gives an illustration of this on page 1 of the book.
Harris opens his book with an illustration from the traditional Albanian legal code, the Kanun. Under this code, an act of murder is revenged by a reprisal killing, which is done to preserve Besa (honour). This practise means that a single death can result in further killings and, if unchecked, bloody family feuds. Harris is vocal in his condemnation of honour cultures, yet fails to consider what his own culture was like before the impact of the Christian gospel.
Christian writer Tim Keller illustrates this in his recent book The reason for God. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, Anglo-Saxon culture was an honour culture. Keller asks us to imagine the reaction of the Anglo-Saxons when they heard the story of Peter betraying Jesus. At the end of that story, Jesus forgives Peter and gives him a position of leadership. The Anglo-Saxons would have been horrified – such treachery should be punished with death. Yet modern Westerners like Harris and myself welcome this story of forgiveness and reconciliation, because we’ve imbibed the values of the gospel.
As I read Harris’ non-negotiable condemnation of Christianity, and his ridiculing of the message of Jesus, I am left wondering whether he is distancing himself from a powerful tool for transforming culture.
The Moral Landscape is an interesting book, but disappointing. Harris fails to show “how science can determine human values”. Science is not the starting point for Harris’ morality, and the science that is presented doesn’t take us to the promised destination.
Harris leaves some important questions unanswered.
Harris has an inadequate definition of “objectivity”: Why should we be confident that he’s discovered an objective basis for morality, when this boils down to us accepting he is honest and unbiased? Shouldn’t an objective basis of morality still be valid even if people are dishonest, mistaken, or biased?
Harris has an inadequate definition of “science”: Why should we accept science as the determiner of human values, when (following Harris’ logic) we could equally employ the disciplines of theology or journalism?
The book lacks experimental results that demonstrate his thesis: How will science be used in real-life to measure human wellbeing?
Harris inherits issues from Consequentialism but does not deal with them: Why should we accept Harris’ definition of “good” when he claims that those who disagree with the “experts” should be ignored? How do aggregate individual measures of wellbeing to obtain a measure for the wellbeing of society?
The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris, Bantam Press, 2010
The reason for God, Tim Keller, Dutton, 2008, on p111