The Moral Landscape

Last year we talked a bit about Sam Harris’s attempts to ground morality on science:

See especially the third one there, where I try to be relatively careful about what I am saying. (Wouldn’t impress a philosopher by a long shot, but by scientist/blogger standards I was careful.) Upshot: concepts relevant to morality aren’t empirical ones, and can’t be tested by doing experiments. Morality depends on science (you can make moral mistakes if you don’t understand the real world), but it isn’t a subset of it. Science describes what happens, while morality passes judgments on what should and should not happen, which is simply different.

By now Harris’s book The Moral Landscape has appeared, so you can read for yourself his explanations in full. In a different world — one where I had access to a dozen or so clones of myself with fully updated mental states, willing to tackle all the projects my birth-body didn’t have time to fit in — I would read the book carefully and report back. This is not that world.

Happily, Russell Blackford has written a longish and very good review, in the Journal of Evolution and Technology. He also blogged about it, and Jerry Coyne blogged about Russell’s review. As far as I can tell, Russell and I basically agree on all the substantive points, and he’s more trained in philosophy than I am, so you’re actually doing a lot better than something one of my clones would have been able to provide. It’s an extremely generous review, always saying “I liked the book but…” where I would have said “Despite the flaws, there are some good aspects…” So you’ll find in the review plenty of lines like “Unfortunately, Harris sees it as necessary to defend a naïve metaethical position…”

Any lingering urge I may have had to jump into the debate again in a substantive way has been dissipated by Harris’s response to Blackford’s review, which appears in the form of a letter to Jerry Coyne reprinted on his blog. It seems that very little communication is taking place at this point. Coyne paraphrases Blackford as asking “How do we actually measure well being?; for that is what we must do to make moral judgments.” Seems reasonable enough to me, and echoes very closely my first point here. Harris’s response is:

This is simply not a problem for my thesis (recall my “answers in practice vs. answers in principle” argument). There is a difference between how we verify the truth of a proposition and what makes a proposition true. How many breaths did I take last Tuesday? I don’t know, and there is no way to find out. But there is a correct, numerical answer to this question (and you can bet the farm that it falls between 5 and 5 million).

This misses the point, to say the least. The problem of measuring well-being is not simply one of practice, it’s very much one of principle. I know what a breath is; I don’t know what a “unit of well-being is.” The point of these critiques is that there is no such thing as a unit of well-being that we can look inside the brain and measure. I’m pretty sure that’s a problem of principle. Of course, Russell and Jerry and I (and David Hume, and a large number of professional moral philosophers) may be wrong about this. The way to provide a counter-argument would be to say “Here is a precise and unambiguous definition of how to measure well-being, at least in principle.” That doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.

Latter Harris says this:

The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).

Taken at face value, this implies that truths about the best TV shows or most delicious flavors of ice cream also exist. My opinion that The Wire is the best TV show of all time is a natural phenomenon — it reflects the state of certain neurons in my brain. That doesn’t imply, in any meaningful sense, that the state of my brain provides evidence that The Wire “really is” the best TV show of all time. Nor, more programmatically and importantly, does it provide unambiguous guidance concerning which new programs should be green-lit by studio executives. The real problem — how do you balance the interests of different people against each other? — is completely ignored.

At heart I think the problem is that Sam and some other atheists are really concerned about the idea that, without objective moral truths based on science, the field of morality becomes either the exclusive domain of religion, or simply collapses into nihilism. Happily for reality, that’s an extremely false dichotomy. Morality isn’t out there to be measured like some empirical property of the physical world, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be moral or to speak about morality in a rational, thoughtful way. Pretending that morality is a subset of science is, in its own way, just as much an example of wishful thinking as pretending that morality is handed down by God. We have to face up to that temptation and accept the world as it is.

This entry was posted in Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

64 Responses to The Moral Landscape

  1. Arun says:

    The new Descartes: “I am, therefore I ought to (continue to) exist”.

  2. Arun says:

    “Why should I be moral?” has implicit in it the assumption that the “I” — the sense of self — stands independent of the moral choices the person makes.

    The riposte is – “If I’m not moral, do I remain me?” “I” am a process constantly under modifications which depend on the choices that I make. Making immoral choices degrades my self, and eventually leaves me as not-I, just as the connection of the cadaver and the living being.

  3. Patrick Dennis, MD says:

    The physicist and mathematician Jacob Bronowski, known for his BBC produced series, “The Ascent of Man,” suggested years earlier in “Science and Human Values” that science itself, as an idealized enterprise, could provide a moral framework offering more or less concrete definitions of values such as honesty and integrity. Without them the (idealized) structure would collapse.

  4. Jason says:

    1. There’s no single definition of well being
    I think there is, Charles Darwin and Alexander Wallace got it right. Well being is that which results in successful offspring
    2. It’s not self-evident that maximising well-being, however defined, is the proper goal of morality.
    I think it is self evident. When one compares the moral codes of different species, each seems finely tuned toward maximising their chance of successful offspring. From eating your sexual partner to life long monogamous relationships, they’re all the “goal” of the morality of that species.
    3. There’s no simple way to aggregate well-being over different individuals.
    Well the simple way is to see if the populations increase or decrease. If the moral code works, then the group will succeed, if it doesn’t then the group will fail. It works fastest and most clearly in small genetically somewhat isolated groups (“genetic islands”) just like any other natural selection.
    If you want to check the moral “rightness” of a behaviour think of it in a small band/group of humans in a forest/grassland situation. That’s where we evolved our moral compass. For instance we find it immoral/repugnant to defecate in the place we eat. Other animals don’t care, grazing animals just defecate where they happen to be standing and the rest of the herd doesn’t mind. It doesn’t take long to figure out why there is a difference in what we find to be acceptable behaviour. For a grazer, that behaviour doesn’t reduce the reproductive success of the group/herd, but for humans it would.

  5. Pingback: The Moral Landscape – The Prestidigitator

  6. psmith says:

    @Jason, 54. Ah yes, your definition of morality resonates with me. I remember well the profound sense of well-being I experienced while conducting an intensely pleasurable affair with my friend’s wife (fathering two children in the process, the home team advantage was of no consequence!). It is a relief to know that my continued deception of my wife is a necessity to maintain my moral behaviour (and that my residual feelings of guilt can be written off as childhood exposure to primitive religious teachings).

  7. melior says:

    I look forward to reading Sam Harris’ book; I’m now intensely curious how many of the army of strawmen slain in this thread he pre-empted therein.

    For now, at least, it seems clear to me that it would be tilting at windmills to reject Harris’ proposal in its entirety for failing to achieve a standard of purity upon which even Mathematics stumbles (praise Goedel).

  8. windy says:

    “I think there is, Charles Darwin and Alexander Wallace got it right. Well being is that which results in successful offspring”

    Then how would you define well-being for a childless person? What about the existence of such things as sexual conflict and parent-offspring conflict, which would seem to suggest that defining well-being as successful reproduction is not likely to produce harmonic agreement even between members of the same population?

  9. I think your television analogy misses one substantial point, which is at the heart of Harris’ book (which I am currently in the middle of listening to in audiobook format). Your subjective determination of THE WIRE is irrelevant, but the fact is that a study could be conducted of a large range of people and their brains could be scanned while they watch a diverse range of television shows, including the THE WIRE. The brain maps could indicate their levels of pleasure versus their levels of displeasure in some quantitative way. The total amount of net pleasure gained from watching THE WIRE could be compared to the total amount of net pleasure gained from watching other television shows. If the total amount of net pleasure is greater for THE WIRE than for any other television show (a study which would, obviously, have logistical problems), then you could objectively say that THE WIRE is the best show ever … or, at least, better than all shows included in the study.

    This assumes, of course, that the net pleasure gained from watching a show is an adequate measure of its quality, which is I think true even of horror movies. Still, you could throw in other factors, such as intellectual stimulation, if you were so inclined to include them as measures of quality. The fact is, though, that there are studies which could either support your claim or refute it scientifically.

    Harris makes it very clear in his book (and in most of the related commentary I’ve seen related to the book) that this isn’t a process to discover moral absolutes, but rather an effective way of guiding decisions based upon specific moral stances. There can be multiple different outcomes all of which occupy the space of high morality, by yielding objectively positive outcomes to individual well-being.

    And you might find multiple “top” choices, just as a study to measure the most massive stars might location several that fall in the same upper range of mass, instead of coming out with one definitive solution … but this does not mean that you cannot state, with a great deal of confidence, that those large stars are clearly more massive than the other stars.

    Back to your television analogy: Given a specific set of television shows, you could determine a course of study to quantify the “betterness” of the shows in an objective way based on the physiological effects of watching the shows. The word “better” loses all meaning if it cannot in principle be quantified in some way in the physical reactions of those watching the show. Such a study would almost certainly find that those who spend their time watching THE WIRE or NOVA are, on the whole, having a far better experience than those who are watching THE GONG SHOW non-stop. They would not find the one absolute best show, but given a range of shows, you could absolutely, objectively, determine which shows are better than other shows … and people who disagree with the findings are just as mistaken as those who disbelieve evolution.

  10. Pingback: The Moral Landscape at

  11. Pingback: Morality, Health, and Science | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

  12. Pingback: 5 February 2011 « blueollie

  13. Pingback: The Moral Landscape | A Blank Slate