The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris
Publisher: Free Press
Year: 2010
Pages: 304

Sam Harris is best known as part of the “Four Horsemen”, or the “New Atheists”; his book, The End of Faith, was one of many which came out a few years ago and effectively sparked media coverage of the “movement”. There was also Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. Some of these were better than others; some I haven’t bothered to read.

Harris is the youngest of these authors, but in some ways the most prominent. Since his initial publication, he received a Ph.D. in neuroscience at UCLA, and it is the scientific approach to cognition which informs the content of his new book, The Moral Landscape.

Harris is like Dennett insofar as he casts religion as a sociological or anthropological phenomenon, which to some degree it is. Even dedicated Christians understand that participation in a shared religious belief is heavily influenced by culture and society; for an impressionistic—if actively hostile—example, see Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement.

In the world of Christian apologetics (I suppose religious apologetics generally), perhaps the most resonant argument is that which hangs our moral sense upon religion and dares the scientist and the antitheist to come up with a plausible alternative for not only how we appear to have a shared moral sense, but why we should feel obligated to follow it without a larger metaphysical scaffolding such as provided by many religious beliefs. Most replies to this either shrug and say that Morality-with-a-capital-M as we generally consider it doesn’t exist (unpalatable), or is completely relative (positively vomitous), or arises from a shared biological imperative. This last has been the most convincing of these arguments and the de facto response for many years; see Robert Wright’s Nonzero.

The Moral Landscape is a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to update the argument that morality is a product of biology and culture; importantly, it’s also an argument against the sort of ultra-liberal relativism that infects academia, against which Harris has also written and debated. Why do I call it unsuccessful? First we have to understand Harris’ first principles.

He’s a consequentialist. Perhaps it would be fair to say that he’s some variant flavor of consequentialist, but a consequentialist nonetheless, and anyone familiar with the different schools of moral philosophy will not be at all surprised by his stances. As opposed to a more absolutist moral doctrine like that of many religious traditions, consequentialism argues that a given outcome is the sole determinant of an action’s morality—often colloquialized as “the ends justifies the means”. Thus, Harris’ spectrum of morality (or what he calls the “Moral Landscape”) largely a measure of our maximization of general human well-being. The term “landscape”, evincing a many-peaked vista of a snowy mountain range and green-bedecked valleys below, is important, because Harris does not employ a spectrum of morality in the traditional sense, wherein maximal morality marks the right extreme, a lack thereof marks the left, and gradations fill the middle; rather, well-being may be maximized (peaks) in several different ways for any given problem. Sometimes, as the relativists always argue, there’s no right answer.

The phrase “human well-being” seems simple enough until one remembers just how many cultural relativists there are. Anticipating these criticisms, Harris makes the—admittedly persuasive—argument that figuring out whether controversial cultural hotspots are morally good or bad is relatively easy, at least once you strip away religious or traditional justifications for doing so. To use one of Harris’ examples, consider enforced burkas for Muslim women (or general conservative Middle-Eastern disenfranchisement of women)? Posit a single benefit that isn’t simply a deflection of responsibility (i.e. removing sexual temptation from men). This conclusion is fair enough, and the machinery is one shared with religious folks as well, even if the product of that machinery is different. In fact, the only real villains in this respect are cultural relativists, apparently the sickly product of collective white guilt of several centuries of persecution and ethnocentrism. But of course Harris’ argument is that we don’t need revealed religion to tell us what these universal maximizers of well-being are—that, contrary to some popular opinion, we’re perfectly capable of intuiting it on our own.

Remember, however, that the subtitle of the book is “How Science Can Determine Human Values”. So far, there’s been a lot of talk about commonsensical approaches to morality, assuming we can agree that morality is a measurement of the “well-being” of conscious creatures like humans (and, I suppose, higher-functioning animal). We’re taking for granted that health and conscious happiness are inarguable gauges of well-being, a deceptive a priori assumption. To that effect, Harris’ book is not about scientifically determining moral values: Harris’ opinion about moral values must be accepted a priori before he can tell us about his fMRI studies about the brain and what constitutes neurochemical happiness and harmony. At least insofar as Harris has written, there’s nothing in his argument that confirms his initial premise; assuming you agree with it, this is no hindrance to the rest of the book, but if he’s attempting to persuade the religious to accept his moral basis and abandon their own, it’s a fumbled start from which he never recovers.

The Moral Landscape is not a badly written book, and in fact one gets the impression that Harris has a point (or points) somewhere, but it seems to lack focus, and ultimately fails to execute its promises.

§6204 · December 27, 2010 · Tags: , , , , , ·

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