Monday, July 9, 2012

A Scientific Basis for Morality?

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
Sam Harris
Free Press, 2010
307 pp; pb.


    The Moral Landscape, by the outspoken New Atheist Sam Harris, is an attempt to find a scientific basis for an objective system of morality. The attempt is a bold one, for conventional wisdom says that it cannot be done. Science cannot deduce an "ought" from an "is."
    Dr. Harris is well aware of the difficulty. He is a neuroscientist with a degree in philosophy. Those on the secular left say that no such objective morality exists, while those on the religious right say that no such morality is possible without reference to a Supreme Being. Dr. Harris, however, thinks that he has found a way out of the difficulty.
    We should note that when Dr. Harris speaks of "morality" he is not talking about a set of unvarying moral precepts or an abstract principle that exists outside of the human mind. He even goes so far as to say that, strictly speaking, morality is not even about an "ought" at all, but rather about how we as humans would like to structure society.
    He argues that most human beings would prefer to live in a well-ordered society that has achieved a high level of peace and prosperity. By the same token almost no sane person would want to live in a poverty stricken country terrorized by corrupt warlords. The answer, then, is to learn how to cooperate with each other in a spirit of reciprocal altruism. And science, he says, can show us how to achieve that. In a word what Dr. Harris offers us is an updated version of Utilitarianism, the idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
    Dr. Harris' grand vision sounds very appealing, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. Dr. Harris' book has received a great deal of attention, much of it critical, and in an afterword to the 2011 paperback edition Dr. Harris responds to some of his more thoughtful critics. In particular he addresses three major criticisms; 1) the Value Problem; 2) the Persuasion Problem; and 3) the Measurement Problem. Due to limitations of space we will confine our attention to the first two.
    Dr. Harris contends that the goal of morality should be the general well-being of conscious beings. But how do we define "well-being"? Good health? Satisfying relationships? Material success? The good feeling that comes from acts of kindness? Religion? Wine, women and song? Dr. Harris offers us plenty of opinions of his own, on everything from burqas to embryonic stem-cell research. But significantly, he rarely provides us with a specifically scientific basis for his opinions, which raises the intriguing question, what is the real source of his values? Since he does not tell us, we can only guess. But the answer, apparently, is either from his own intuitive sense of right and wrong, or else he has borrowed them from his Western (i.e. Judaeo-Christian) culture. We seem to recall Someone else a long time ago telling us about the Golden Rule! That being the case, Dr. Harris has left himself wide open to the criticism from the left: his supposed universal standard of morality rests on nothing more than his own cultural or emotional biases.
    The other problem that Dr. Harris has is what he calls "the Persuasion Problem." The problem here is that Dr. Harris is trying to find a basis for altruism in self-interest. Here is how he himself states the problem: " . . . there is often a tension between the autonomy of the individual and the common good, and many moral problems turn on just how to prioritize competing values" (p. 42). "Prioritize" indeed. Why should anyone think about the common good at all? Dr. Harris says that it is in our own self-interest to do so, and so it is. But in real life self-interest and the common good often collide with each other, and when one's own individual self-interest lies close at hand, the "common good" can seem like a hopelessly vague abstraction. Adam Smith had a surer insight into human nature: capitalism works precisely because it appeals to our selfishness and greed.
    In the final analysis we think that Dr. Harris failed because the tried to combine two opposites: human autonomy and the common good. In so doing he eliminated the element of duty or obligation from morality. In the end his "moral landscape" is neither universal, nor truly moral, nor even scientific. Dr. Harris, it seems, is a law unto himself.


  1. It's not surprising to me that you miss Harris' central thesis altogether; most people do so stuck are they in the is/ought divide. The thesis is that all we need to determine right from wrong is to first appreciate why we require only a common starting point rather than the impossible-to-determine one and only one 'objective' standard. He shows this by comparing morality to elevation (hence the title of the book) and successfully argues that right and wrong - like higher and lower elevations - do not require one and only one starting point but a common one for relative comparisons that can be measured by scientific means. In other words, any standard will do - like sea level, or a fixed place, or a celestial point - as long as we accept a common one to go by for our comparison of right and wrong. And the one he suggests is human well-being. Like other critics, you go completely off the rails by assuming first that such a relative standard negates legitimate and practical comparisons. It doesn't, and we know this from pilots who use cooperatively DIFFERENT standards - depending on what kind of flight they are undertaking - but agree to use a local and common one for determining their relative elevations. Obviously, if two pilots are using different standards locally, then they cannot relatively know which is higher or lower than the other; but it works very well if they use a common one. That starting position for the standard DOESN'T MATTER as long as it is held to be the starting position common to both. The same is true for morality, Harris argues. No single objective standard is necessary or required if we agree to use whatever standard we want in common. And that commonality is what Harris spends much of the book defending on the basis of human well-being.

    So Bob, the real question is whether or not you are able to be more concerned with human well being (that can be measured to mutually compare and contrast moral positions that enhance or reduce it) than you are to impose your willingness to submit to the bigoted, misogynistic, anti-life standards described in the writings of the bible?

    1. Ah, but how do we define "human well being," and how do we measure it?

    2. Ah, but how do we define "human well being," and how do we measure it?

    3. There are various ways but one seems to work very well: imagine you are charged with assigning all the rights and freedoms and duties and obligations to another. The catch is that you are doing so for a person on the other side of a curtain, someone you have not seen. The person may be of a different gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, language, whatever. The person may turn out to even be you! What moral standards do you assign to the unseen person?

      When this experiment is carried out in real life around the globe, we get a very consistent response across all boundaries. This is a good starting point. Like with elevation to determine relative highs and lows, so too can morality be used to determine right from wrong... as long as we start with a common point. Like with elevation, the differences of highs and lows can be determined with exacting accuracy relative to each other. The argument from theists is that such relativity renders comparisons useless when we know it doesn't. The only difference is that theists think morality MUST be exempt from relative comparisons because it REQUIRES an 'objective' authority... which just so happens to be cherry-picked bits of a particularly favoured scripture. (And this is why theists cannot even agree among themselves which 'divine' authority is the 'real' one, which is comical to those of us busy dealing with the pointy moral corners of the real world!) Of course, morality - like elevation - is not the purview of religion simply because theists claim it is. It is the concern of all who need to compare and contrast right actions with wrong actions and this obviously is a ubiquitous human concern. Asking how we define well being and how do we measure 'it' shows a rather dimwitted approach to morality as a relative standard that you yourself impose on your scripture... an imposition you bring TO your bible and exercise automatically to disregard all kinds of moral injunctions demanded by this capricious god without first defining by whose authority other than your own good sense to exercise your morality long before you learn this supposed moral standard may be from a close reading and correct interpretation and applications of various apologetcs FROM that scripture. Biblical morality is an Iron age authority long gone. That's why you yourself reject it but pull it out to shroud some asinine moral discrimination - like claiming atheists don't have values and ideals - with this label of 'god-sanctioned'. It's transparently false, just as demanding that those who point out the absurdity of using biblical authority must replace a relative moral standard we use successfully to navigate life with an equally stupid 'objective' replacement.

    4. Well first of all, regarding my claim that atheists don't have values and ideals, I should probably retract the first part of the statement. "Values" is actually a secular, sociological term, and all that it means is that individuals and societies place value on certain qualities. And, of course, everyone has values -- some perhaps sillier than others, but real values nonetheless. Thus it is entirely possible for an atheist with a naturalistic worldview to have values. Most would probably argue that as a species we have evolved a social instinct, that as a part of that social instinct we have a desire to work together in a human society, and so we establish a common set of rules and norms. And it is also true that there are certain basic moral and ethical principles that are widely recognized around the world.
      "Ideals" are a little different. This harkens back to Greek metaphysics, Plato in particular, and we all know what you think about that! The distinction is between an ideal world, in which everything is perfect, and the real, temporal world, in which everything is corrupt and deformed, and needs correcting. Or, to put it another way, it is a question of whether essence precedes existence or the other way around. In the Christian theistic worldview, everything begins as an idea in the mind of the Creator. That is not, however, the way it exists now. Most modern philosophers, however, would probably argue that existence precedes essence. "Essence" is artificial and man-made. We begin with our own concrete existence and then acquire an essence as we go through life. I would assume, then, that you would readily dispense with "ideals." -- at least you're always telling me that science deals with reality, not abstract metaphysics.
      When Dr. Harris tells us that science can define "well-being," we might point out to him that religion has already done this. We have learned from centuries of long experience that certain types of behavior are not very helpful, and this insight is generally reflected in the moral and ethical teachings of the world's great religions. One could compare the teachings of these religions, and deduce a common moral code -- it would probably look something like the Ten Commandments. It is probably safe to say that it is only in the modern, secular, Western world that anyone has a problem with this, which is why we have the culture war that we do.
      The task, however, is likely to be more difficult than Dr. Harris imagines. The problem is not that we can't infer some kind of a moral code from our consciousness; it's that we don't often follow the one that we have. We are fundamentally motivated by self-interest, and have all kinds of urges and desires that lead to behavior that is compulsive, anti-social, and self-destructive. Crime and corruption is a constant problem in society. What most of the world's great religions recognized a long time ago is that if we are to achieve any harmony in society, and even a sense of our own individual well being, these passions and desires must be held in check, and this requires self-discipline. As Sam Harris starts out on his journey to discover a workable plan of social ethics, he might just do well to check the works of other people who have already wrestled with the problem, such as Moses and Jesus, Confucius and the Buddha, and Mohammed. He might be surprised at what he learns!

  2. There seems to be a remarkable lack of quotes from Harris.
    It's all "Let me tell you what he said and just trust me on this".

    1. That's what a book review does. You have to read the book for yourself to find out if the review was fair.

  3. That's what a book review does. You have to read the book for yourself to find out if the review was fair.

    Reviewers quote the books they read. It happens all the time.
    It helps the reader understand that the reviewer is being fair.

  4. I should also mention that Tildeb has done a good job of explaining the difference between "exigesis" (deducing the meaning from the text) and "isogesis" (reading something into the text). Jesus said, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." Which approach to the text is the mark of a true disciple?

  5. I should also mention that Tildeb has done a good job...

    I assume that tildeb is not relying on your review and that he's read the book himself.
    I have not.
    I am reading your review and noticing the lack of quotes.

    Which approach to the text is the mark of a true disciple?

    Are you now saying that you are a disciple? Wha...?

  6. I certainly try to be. The word "disciple" was generally applied in the New Testament to all Christians (e.g., Acts 6:1,2,7). A disciple is basically a student, which in the context of 1st Century Judaism meant following a rabbi, listening to his teachings, and observing his manner of life. Jesus told His would-be disciples that "whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27). The early Anabaptists called this "die Nachfolge Christi" ("nachfolgen" is a German verb that means "to follow after").
    C.S. Lewis was certainly a Christian and a disciple, but I wouldn't look to the Anglican Church as a model of New Testament Christianity. A state church becomes an instrument of state policy, and as such is a parody of what Christianity is supposed to be like. A true church is made up of true believers -- those who have made a personal, voluntary commitment to follow Christ. There are true believers in state churches (such as Lewis), but they are often a minority. The Germans even have a word for them: "die Stille im Lande" -- the quiet ones in the land, the humble believers who follow Christ and are largely ignored by society.