A Review of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

In this review of Sam Harris’ recently published book,  The Moral Landscape:  How Science Can Determine Human Values (quotations are from the Kindle edition), I want to focus on the meta-ethical theory he argues for.  I will not address his claims regarding science, philosophy, or religion unless I think it seriously impacts his meta-ethical theory.  Therefore my relative silence on such issues should not be taken as agreement with Harris.

Harris defines the good as that which brings about the most well-being in conscious creatures.  He asserts that the brains of conscious creatures are the only sources of value in the world.  More importantly, we value, first and foremost, our own well-being.  One way that Harris’ theory could be falsified is to point to another source of value that has nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures.  The theist may be tempted to point to God, but obeying God’s commands can also be viewed as a way of preserving our own well-being.  I’m sure that some nitpicking could take place regarding this first part of Harris’ argument, but it seems to me that he is at least on the right path for now.  Note that this also bridges the is/ought distinction to some extant:  if I value my own well-being then I ought to do those actions that bring about or preserve my well-being.

But this is only one type of ought statement.  When it comes to morality we also want to know why I ought to treat other conscious creatures kindly.  Harris does not provide a particularly convincing argument on this point.  The best answer he seems capable of giving is that doing good things (or what are generally considered good things) will contribute to our own well-being.  In other words, we ought to be good people because being a good person will contribute to our well-being.  But he admits that this could be very difficult in practice:  “Our assessment of consequences in the moral domain must proceed as it does in all others:  under the shadow of uncertainty, guided by theory, data, and honest conversation.  The fact that it may often be difficult, or even impossible, to know what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be does not mean that there is some other basis for human values that is worth worrying about” (1244).  The problem is that if I don’t know what will contribute to my well-being then I am unable to know what I ought to do.

The other problem, as Harris admits, is that some individuals (e.g., psychopaths) may feel better off when doing evil:  “While it may be difficult to accept, the research strongly suggests that some people cannot learn to care about others.  Perhaps we will one day develop interventions to change this.  For the purposes of this discussion, however, it seems sufficient to point out that we are beginning to understand the kinds of brain pathologies that lead to the most extreme forms of human evil.  And just as some people have obvious moral deficits, others must possess moral talent, moral expertise, and even moral genius.  As with any human ability, these gradations must be expressed at the level of the brain” (1713).  We now run across a situation where, using Harris’ reasoning, some people ought to do one thing and other people ought to do another.  At the end of the book the author writes “If some people are made happiest by brain state X, while others are made miserable by it, there would be no neural correlate of human well-being”  and his thesis would be falsified (3243).  Unless I am missing something, it seems that Harris has falsified his own theory.  Also, note that he assumes that the psychopaths have a brain pathology and not the rest of us.  Why ought we try to cure the psychopath and not the non-psychopath?  He appears to be assuming that there is a way humans ought to be but he never argues this point.

In summary, I think Harris’ meta-ethical theory could lead to a world that is morally decent (not great) but it is not satisfying to me for a few reasons.  First, we are too scientifically ignorant to apply his theory in practice.  Second, I am doubtful that it will be scientifically demonstrated that doing what is now considered the good will always lead to a better brain state for the individual, especially all individuals.  Third, without some form of teleology it seems that might will make right if no compromise can be reached between two opposing parties.  Fourth, Harris is open to the possibility that terrible means may be permissible to bring about a great end and therefore it wouldn’t surprise me if a society governed by Harris’ moral theory descended into an authoritarian hell-hole.

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4 Replies to “A Review of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”

  1. When it comes to morality we also want to know why I ought to treat other conscious creatures kindly … we ought to be good people because being a good person will contribute to our well-being

    Also, being good to other people is a direct link to well-being via positive feelings of empathy. I think it’s important to recognize our biological fine-tuning for social interaction and include that in a theory of morality.

    At the end of the book the author writes “If some people are made happiest by brain state X, while others are made miserable by it, there would be no neural correlate of human well-being” and his thesis would be falsified (3243). Unless I am missing something, it seems that Harris has falsified his own theory.

    Defining a human being under Christianity is easy, it’s a biological descendant of Adam with a God-created soul and spirit. In the absence of a supernatural marker, evolution tells us it’s impossible to create a strict definition for “human being” since there are always outliers on any criteria. Therefore, a moral theory without the supernatural can only strictly apply to a subset of what we think of as homo sapiens, and, further, will have to change if the subset changes. So I don’t see any hope of a secular moral theory that includes psychopaths, sociopaths in any fashion beyond a decree that they should be forcibly rehabilitated or cast out or quarantined from society.

    Also, note that he assumes that the psychopaths have a brain pathology and not the rest of us. Why ought we try to cure the psychopath and not the non-psychopath?

    Evolutionary speaking, psychopaths and sociopaths may not have a brain pathology but they are anti-society and social organisms will recognize in anti-social organisms a threat to their very existence. Curing/quarantining/casting-out the psychopath/sociopath is a matter of survival, not of choice/values/morality.

    In summary…
    First, we are too scientifically ignorant to apply his theory in practice

    Agreed, we have such a primitive understanding of the human mind that theories like this (and desirism) that require detailed models of human behavior will have to be extremely rough/error-prone for many decades.

    Second, I am doubtful that it will be scientifically demonstrated that doing what is now considered the good will always lead to a better brain state for the individual, especially all individuals.

    Certainly not all individuals, as argued above. However, it is already reasonable to suppose that a majority of human beings are happy when doing altruistic acts, thanks to biological hardwiring.

    Fourth, Harris is open to the possibility that terrible means may be permissible to bring about a great end and therefore it wouldn’t surprise me if a society governed by Harris’ moral theory descended into an authoritarian hell-hole.

    I don’t see how that follows. The only time terrible means would be allowed to be employed to a great end would be if there was almost no possibility of error. And if there really was almost no possibility of error, I would be quite surprised to find a society in an authoritarian hell-hole.

  2. Hi woodchuck64:

    In the absence of a supernatural marker, evolution tells us it’s impossible to create a strict definition for “human being” since there are always outliers on any criteria. Therefore, a moral theory without the supernatural can only strictly apply to a subset of what we think of as homo sapiens, and, further, will have to change if the subset changes.

    At places in the book Harris mentions that morality concerns the well-being of conscious creatures, implying non-humans are part of the equation. I don’t think there is any doubt that psychopaths and sociopaths are conscious creatures and therefore there is still a conflict that Harris’s theory does not seem to resolve. An even bigger conflict occurs when we consider the well-being of all conscious animals on the planet.

    Evolutionary speaking, psychopaths and sociopaths may not have a brain pathology but they are anti-society and social organisms will recognize in anti-social organisms a threat to their very existence. Curing/quarantining/casting-out the psychopath/sociopath is a matter of survival, not of choice/values/morality.

    Not everyone would agree. One might say that there is a way humans ought to be and that psychopaths do not conform to that norm (even if 99% of the population were psychopaths).

    Certainly not all individuals, as argued above. However, it is already reasonable to suppose that a majority of human beings are happy when doing altruistic acts, thanks to biological hardwiring.

    I’m admittedly ignorant on the science Harris and you reference so perhaps you could answer a couple questions. How is well-being defined in these studies (Harris does not have an exact definition)? How do you know that altruistic acts result in well-being due to nature and not nurture?

    I don’t see how that follows. The only time terrible means would be allowed to be employed to a great end would be if there was almost no possibility of error. And if there really was almost no possibility of error, I would be quite surprised to find a society in an authoritarian hell-hole.

    Harris is a consequentalist. It seems that if the odds for good outweighed the odds for bad he would pull the trigger (literally or figuratively).

    In one passage he notes that economist Samuel Bowles argued that altruism cannot emerge without some level of lethal conflict between groups (an in-group and an out-group). Harris says that if there was no other way for our species to progress towards altruism then lethal conflicts between in-groups and out-groups were a good thing because altruism is an extraordinarily important moral advance. He then asserts that we can transcend these evolutionary pressures today through reason. What would happen if Harris changed his mind and concluded reason cannot yet transcend in-group and out-group hostility?

    Since he links human well-being so closely to “brain states” one wonders whether human well-being could be satisfied with a pill that makes you happy, genetic engineering that makes you never feel anxious, or a machine you plug into that gives you pleasure without ever requiring you to interact with the external world. The issue of eugenics and genetic engineering lurk in the background of many passages in the book.

  3. Hi jayman777, thanks for fixing my errant blockquote.

    I don’t think there is any doubt that psychopaths and sociopaths are conscious creatures and therefore there is still a conflict that Harris’s theory does not seem to resolve. An even bigger conflict occurs when we consider the well-being of all conscious animals on the planet.

    Yes, In Dennett’s view, consciousness isn’t all or nothing, but can exist anywhere along a line from pure automaton to full-fledged concept of self, logically including quite a lot of the animal kingdom.

    But if we’re looking for general subsets of human behavior — which I’ve argued we have to — then we won’t find the psychopath in that set and we can argue to that group that we ought to treat other conscious creatures kindly in order to maximize each person’s well-being. (If we did find psychopaths in the majority, society would rapidly self-destruct I believe)

    One might say that there is a way humans ought to be and that psychopaths do not conform to that norm (even if 99% of the population were psychopaths).

    Sure, but that won’t make any difference to the true psychopath/sociopath –they’re indifferent to oughts by definition– and, in practice, we’ll still end up forcible curing, quarantining, or casting-out regardless of moral theory.

    How is well-being defined in these studies (Harris does not have an exact definition)? How do you know that altruistic acts result in well-being due to nature and not nurture?

    I’m not sure, but I’m sure it’s pretty vague. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness_economics seems to be a start, though, on a science of understanding and quantifying human contentment in some fashion.

    I expect altruism, in its full complexity, would be both nature and nurture.
    Nature might provide something like the “mirror neuron” phenomena and nurture would develop and enhance the behaviors associated with empathy (which would become part of social memes).

    Harris is a consequentalist. It seems that if the odds for good outweighed the odds for bad he would pull the trigger (literally or figuratively).

    If in evaluating a means, a consequentialist is faced with a 51% chance of a great end, but a 49% chance of a lousy end, I can’t imagine he would do it. I think a consequentialist proceeds like the rest of us, requiring increasing precision and confidence when there’s a risk. Otherwise, I would expect most consequentialists to die at railroad intersections trying to beat the train. :)

    What would happen if Harris changed his mind and concluded reason cannot yet transcend in-group and out-group hostility?

    If Harris could make the argument that social engineering is a good thing and be persuasive, than I don’t see why it would be rejected necessarily. It’s just that I can think of so many reasons why social engineering is not a good thing that the thought experiment doesn’t work well for me.

    Since he links human well-being so closely to “brain states” one wonders whether human well-being could be satisfied with a pill that makes you happy, genetic engineering that makes you never feel anxious, or a machine you plug into that gives you pleasure without ever requiring you to interact with the external world.

    It’s a fair question. Although I would have to try it to see, since the thought of existing only in a state of vegetative happiness makes me unhappy. Engineering out anxiety seems like a more advanced form of sedatives but could be risky except in a reality utterly free of danger (utopia?). The pleasure machine already exists, the Xbox. :)

  4. woodchuck64:

    If in evaluating a means, a consequentialist is faced with a 51% chance of a great end, but a 49% chance of a lousy end, I can’t imagine he would do it.

    I agree given those percentages. But, as an example, Harris believes it is “obviously ethical” to kill six or seven people if a cure for cancer was guaranteed. At the end of that paragraph he says: “How we should view the role that probability plays in our moral judgments is not clear.” As I hope I made clear, I am not saying that Harris definitely would do something terrible to bring about a great good, just that it seems quite possible. Why should we not, on Harris’ view, do medical tests on present-day cancer patients so that we can cure billions of cancer patients in the future?

    Although I would have to try it to see, since the thought of existing only in a state of vegetative happiness makes me unhappy.

    That’s one reason I think desirism, though not perfect, is better than Harris’ theory. We value actual states of affairs and not merely brain states.

    Engineering out anxiety seems like a more advanced form of sedatives but could be risky except in a reality utterly free of danger (utopia?).

    According to Harris, anxiety and fear serve as anchors to social and moral norms. Psychopaths experience less anxiety than normal people. Yet too much anxiety can also be bad (anxiety disorders and attacks). If we were going to engineer people’s anxiety levels there would have to be some trial and error.

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