Review of Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape"
Sam Harris sets out his goal in the introduction to the Moral Landscape which is to argue that “human knowledge and human values can no longer be kept apart. The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled. And science and religion—being antithetical ways of thinking about the same reality—will never come to terms.” This is a huge task for such a small book but it is an entertaining introduction to these themes nontheless.
I am going to focus on Harris’s moral view which can be broken down into three components.
A) A theory of value – this translates into the well being of conscious creatures.
B) A theory of morality – this translates into actions that that increase the well being of conscious creatures being right and wrong in so far as they diminish them.
C) A claim about the role of science in morality – this translates into the claim that since the well being of conscious creatures is realized in the brain states of conscious creatures it is amenable to being measured scientifically. As such science can help determine what actions best increase the overall well being and so help determine what actions are right or wrong. *Harris also uses the term “science” more widely to refer to any empirical investigation into the world.
There are a few reviews of Harris that object to the view that science can tell us what sort of things are of value (A) or what sort of actions are right (B). Yet, Harris informs us that the claims of A and B are made on “first principles”. Harris does not point to any scientific results that support A or B. Instead he asks us to imagine a world without any conscious life. In such a world there is little sense to speak of things being better or worse for anything. Such a world appears to lack any value. Once we introduce conscious creatures to this scenario it makes sense to talk about creatures with states of positive and negative value, where things can go better or worse for them. Even the main religious traditions recognize basic human values and use them as motivators for moral behavior e.g. positive (eternal bliss) and negative states (eternal suffering). So with conscious creatures we have a world of value and without them we do not.
If questions about values are questions about the well being of conscious creatures then it seems plausible, at least for many cases, to hold that morally right actions are those that increase what is of value, and morally wrong actions are those that decrease what is of value. Hence it will be right to give a child about to undergo an operation an anaesthetic, wrong to confine animals to factory farms and so forth.
If facts about value are facts about well being then all conscious creatures that can be said to have some kind of well-being or engage in some kind of suffering must have moral standing because they have states of value and disvalue as we do. However, it is important to note that Harris does not treat all conscious creatures as being of equal value and he marks this difference as being due to differences in the capacity for well being and suffering in the different creatures. This much squares with our current understanding of morality.
However, the extent to how well the well being of conscious creatures can be scientifically understood is more difficult. Harris often refers to what the effects of specific laws and social institutions have on human relationships, and the relationship between neurophysiology and happiness and suffering. So the so called ‘soft sciences’ such as psychology and sociology will be involved as much as neuroscience in finding out the conditions that best contribute to the well-being of conscious creatures.
Harris goes on to explain that some of the most important facts about what constitutes well being and what causes well being will be facts that are universal and transcend culture just as facts about physical and mental health are universal and transcend culture. So it would be wrong to put cholera in the water as this would negatively impact not only on people’s health but also on people’s well being and it would be right to eradicate malaria for the same reasons. We can say that climate change is likley to be the greatest threat to human life and so we have a moral duty to take steps to reduce carbon emissions without any need for a divine law giver to make this claim objectiviely true according to this view.
There will also be many different types of right/wrong action, or right and wrong political policies, and ways of organizing social life depending on how they relate to well-being, just as there are many different ways of playing good moves in chess that relate to winning the game. Even so there are still objectively better or worse actions/policies just as there are still better or worse moves to make in a game relative to the overall objective.
The metaphor of the “Moral Landscape” is invoked in order to capture the relationship between morality and well-being. Harris describes this as a space of "real and potential outcomes" whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being for everyone and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering for everyone. "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."
This view allows for there to be many different peaks and troughs (or variables) that constitute better or worse states of affairs in different societies depending on how they relate to the flourishing of conscious creatures. So some societies may be better in terms of income equity and education opportunities, whist others do better in terms of job opportunities and housing. It is possible for societies to be structured differently in terms of these variables without one being worse than another, but it is still possible to rank these different societies as being better or worse places to live.
However, according to Harris, it is important to maintain that there are objectively better and worse states of affairs or better or worse forms of living arrangements within our own and different societies. In philosophical terms this view makes Harris a ‘moral realist’ since it is whether actions, policies, governments improve the well being of conscious creatures that determine whether it is a right or wrong action not the beliefs of any individual or group of individuals making moral judgments.
Moral realism, moral subjectivism, and moral relativism.
The Moral Landscape aims to give us an account of objective morality that does not require a divine law giver or collapse into moral nihilism, moral subjectivism, or moral relativism. Religious leaders often charge the non-religious with being unable to have any moral values without religion and societies that are undergoing a transition from being predominantly religious to non-religious are said to be living on the cultural capital of the waning religion. Harris thinks there is no need for such pessimism.
On the consequentialist picture that Harris has outlined we should think of right and wrong action (or perhaps better and worse actions) in terms of how they impact on the well being of conscious creatures then this will provide a framework for an objective account of morality. It won’t be objective in the sense of being mind-independent for it relies on the positive and negative states of conscious creatures as the data for what is of value, but it will be objective in the sense that any individual can be mistaken about whether their actions are actually improving the lives of both themselves and others or making them worse off.
Harris illustrates this by asking us to consider Jeffrey Dahmer's idea of a life well lived which consisted in killing young men and having sex with their corpses. We can explain why these actions were not morally good by reference to the simple fact that killing young men did not contribute to their well being, instead it deprived them of all of their future goals and pleasures. We might want to add that if Dahmer’s pleasures are held to have any value then the suffering and lost pleasures of all his victims must also be of value and these will surely outweigh his own bizarre desires. So on consequentialist reasoning he is not contributing to the sum total of well being but detracting from it through acting in this way and hence is actions are wrong. But there is more to this, for Harris holds that moral deviants like psychopaths are often unable to live as fulfilling lives as others. [This incidentally was also true for Dahmer who felt compelled to act in this way even though it made him deeply unhappy].
Whilst few people would be willing to claim that killing and having sex with corpses constitute morally good actions and would feel confident in saying this, Harris notes a peculiar trend in modern western cultures whereby people feel unable to criticize the practices of other cultures even when such practices lead to a loss of well-being. The strange logic of relativism is nicely captured in a passage where Harris quotes the Anthropologist Donald Symons saying:
If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes "culture," and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible..
The puzzle here is to explain why a single act of genital mutilation is deemed wrong, it can be made permissible when large numbers of people engage in the practice, or why it should be considered wrong in one location but permissible in another.The thinking of cultural relativism appears strangely ad hoc or arbitrary, after all how can harming others become right when it is practiced enmass and the harm multiplied?
This is another theme that Harris picks up on during his arguments against relativism. He claims that we are prone to double standards when discussing moral issues as contrasted with when discussing religious or scientific issues. For instance when we are discussing human evolution we do not take the widespread disagreement that is generated by those who hold religious beliefs are a reason for thinking that there is no fact of the matter as to the origins and nature of human evolution. In contrast when there is disagreement from those who hold religious or superstitious beliefs people often take this as a reason for thinking that there is no fact of the matter as to what the right action is and so it seems everyone’s opinion counts equally. Of course this difference is most likely due to a fairly widespread belief that that there is a fact of the matter to be discovered about the origin of humans whereas there is a fairly widespread belief that there is no fact of the matter to be discovered about what actions are right or wrong. Instead we have to invent different moral codes and laws in order to live together. This line of thinking draws us back into relativism and subjective ways of thinking about morality but if we think of morality as an invention that is for some end (ways of living together) then we can talk about morality as being an invention whilst still applying standards that rank the inventions as better or worse.
Every society has institutions and norms that channel behavior in certain ways, to reduce conflict, encourage co-operation, and settle disputes, and it seems plausible to say that there are better or worse ways to do this in terms of how they relate to the well-being of those societies inhabitants. Within different societies there are commonalities. For instance moral justification is not like expressing preferences e.g. I like this, but instead it has to appeal to a set of values that we share in common with others. As such framing morality in terms of the well being of conscious creatures is one of the most impartial ways of doing this that will have widespread appeal. It may be the best of the available options.
Not only is there a form of moral objectivism on the table but Harris presents a form of objectivism about subjective wellbeing. If there are certain courses of action that would better contribute to my own well being than others and it is possible for these to be independent of my beliefs and my present motivation then there will be objective facts about what best contributes to my own subjective well being. On this account it must be possible to value the wrong things i.e. to be mistaken about what is valuable for you. This is because we are not always well placed to know what is in our own interests but also because we may mistakenly rank what we take to be of importance to us in making us happy. For instance Harris claims that we are liable to rank factors such as "wealth, health, age, marital status," as extremely important and so make our most important life decisions on them when such assumptions are inaccurate in terms of how they will impact on our future well being. We are also prone to make mistakes with regard to remembering how bad, previous painful events were and also in predicting how good future events will be (we tend to focus on the event to the exclusion of how events at the periphery affect us. Hence, as Harris muses, "It seems little wonder, therefore, that we are so often unfulfilled."
Criticism of the theory of value (A).
Harris seems to confuse a necessary condition of anything valuing something with the sorts of thing that can be valued in the above. For instance someone in terrible pain with a terminable illness might value non-existence as contrasted with prolonged pain. But a person's non-existence is anything but a form of consciousness or well-being. It might be conceded that a person only finds non-existence valuable in light of their current conscious state of suffering, and so the value of non-existence is derived from these states but even so it would still follow that there is more to value than conscious states or well-being. Further, conscious creatures value truth, but truth can consist in a relationship between our beliefs and the world rather than a form of consciousness. In fact the value of truth can conflict with the value of well-being as some people may prefer to know the truth even if it 'hurts' them.
The concern here is that the well-being of conscious creatures may then be too narrow to capture everything that is of value.
Criticism of consequentialism (B).
The standard criticism of consequentialist thinking is to invoke a scenario whereby the consequences result in an increase in whatever has value but there our intuitions tell us that the action is wrong or that we are not morally obligated to produce such an act. For instance non-consequentialist such as deontologists hold that some acts are right/wrong in themselves, typical examples of such actions include promise breaking, killing innocent people, lying. The idea here is that we should not lie, kill innocent people, or torture anyone. These prohibitions constrain us in what we may do, even in pursuit of good ends.
Consider the practice of water-boarding and torture at Guantanamo Bay (or one could equally consider the practice of unmanned drones over Afghanistan). Many people are kept without trial and subject to torture on the basis of being suspected of being involved in terrorism. Out of these people we can reliably predict that some, perhaps most, will be innocent of any involvement with terrorism. The question then arises whether it is right to maintain such practices with the knowledge that innocent people will be tortured even if such a practice causes a reduction in terrorism.
We also consider ourselves to have special obligations to our friends and family that we do not have with strangers, such that where I have promised to take my friend on holiday, even though I could bring about a greater good (in terms of happiness) by taking someone from a deprived family on holiday, or by giving the money to a charity for third world children I do no wrong in taking my friend on holiday. If consequentialism is right then I have done something wrong each time I spend time and money on my friends instead of those more in need whereas we ordinarily do not think that this is so.
There is likely to be a threshold whereby the consequences of keeping a promise are likely to cause serious suffering to others that it would be wrong to keep the promise and right to break it e.g., I may not turn up to an appointment that I promised to attend because on the way I came across someone at an accident that needed help. But this does not mitigate against the wide spread intuition that some actions are right/wrong not in terms of their consequences but in terms of the types of actions that they are.
Criticism of the role of science
Many reviewers of Harris have criticized the emphasis he puts on science resolving moral problems. It is certainly difficult to see how neuroscience (which is Harris’s specialist field) can play much of a role in determining answers to moral disputes. It is also difficult to see how science in general can play a role in resolving such disputes. Take a classical moral topic like abortion. If I think that abortions are morally wrong and ought not to be made easily accessible because I think the value of future human life outweighs personal preferences and another person thinks that abortions are morally permissible because there is no harm to any conscious human being, how does Harris think that science is, even in principle, going to resolve this dispute? Perhaps we can point to countries with prohibitions on abortions and look at the effects on those people who live in such countries as compared to others but this will likely lead back to the question of whether actions that generate the most happiness are the right actions to take.
Criticism of the role of well-being
Given that the concept of well-being has such a prominent role in Harris’s book it is surprising that there is relatively little analysis of what it consists in. Sometimes it feels like Harris is talking about happiness and when he talks about neuroscience it is the pleasures and pains that we experience that he seems to be talking about. However happiness typically gets broken down into three components:
1: The pleasures and pains that we experience in our life
2: Our happiness at achieving some standard that we set ourselves e.g. not cutting ourselves whilst shaving today, running a marathon, writing a book review.
3: Our overall satisfaction with the way our life is going or has gone.
CF: Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, by David Nettle
It is the pleasures and pains that we experience that are amenable to the science of brain scanning, but the other forms of well being would be more amenable to study by the methods of social psychology and permit a far greater variation.
It must be admitted that Harris shovels aside a great many objections to the consequentialist programme that treats moral matters in terms of increasing well being. Is it better to have an aggregate level of well being for everyone or does the total well being even if such well being is distributed unevenly matter more? How reliable are our predictions about the sorts of actions that generate well being? What sort of procedure is available for solving conflicts of interest between radically different sorts of values e.g. truth and autonomy?
On the plus side Harris's goal is to remind us that that science already plays an important role in determining moral issues that reflect our shared values such as how to live longer and healthier. He is calling for this to be extended into other areas that deal with how we organize society. How can we best alleviate homelessness in our own society? Which societies are best to live in and why? These are questions that have answers to in principle even if these questions are difficult to answer at present.
The book is written in Harris's usual witty and sharp style. It is wide ranging, covering topics from the nature of belief, determinism and free-will, the role of religion in morality, and of course moral realism and relativism. It is an introduction to these themes and does not contain the tightest reasoning but it makes up for rigour in terms of its engaging prose. It is also, I feel, broadly correct in its analysis.