Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Moral Landscape

I’ve recently read The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris and found it to be an intriguing read; I’m in the process of rereading it as I write this post. My impression thus far is that it’s not a book that lays everything out for the humanist but it does get the discussion going in the right direction. The most salient point of the book is probably the notion of well-being and how science ought to have a say in how our sense of well-being might be optimized. Far from applauding moral relativism, Harris promotes a more objective view of morality. For instance, we ought to know that mutilating the sex organ of a young Somali girl is not promoting her well-being and science should not shy away from saying so. This abhorrent act isn’t morally justifiable just because the cultural context differs or the personal opinions of what is morally just differ. Harris also promotes this notion of a global civilization or nation-state where “wars can be a distant memory.” This is sure to get some Christians riled up since this ideology oozes with eschatological sentiments. I can just hear it now, “see he is the anti-Christ; he wants a new world order where all of humanity is subject to a single diabolical ruler.”

Harris is just stepping over the threshold of a virgin territory in the untapped potential scientific arena of morality. So, many of the scientific concepts he appeals to are still in their infancy or are just concepts which he would like to see come to fruition. For instance, he talks about lie-detecting technology that would enable the legal system to convict the right person and be able to tell when someone is lying without fail. This would undoubtedly increase the well-being of the innocent who find themselves on death row because a jury could not accurately tell if they were being truthful or not.

One point of warning, I was reading a question and answer interview between Harris and Katherine Don of the Salon website. Don asks Harris a straightforward question about how science can answer a specific moral dilemma and Harris seems to appeal to his own sense of morality.
Don: What's a concrete example of how science can answer a moral dilemma?
Harris: Many of the basic facts we understand about human well-being don’t even require scientific data at this point. Given that we know that there must be better and worse ways for humans to flourish, we also know that all cultural strategies and personal opinions aren’t on the same plain. We don’t need to run any scientific experiments to know that life in Congo right now is not perfectly tuned to maximize human well-being. You’ve got people being raped by the tens of thousands and hunted with machetes.

So, please be aware that some of the science is just not flushed out yet in Harris’ explanations of how science could directly determine how good or bad something is in regards to a person’s well-being. This may be a bit frustrating for some since the book is supposed to be How Science can Determine Human Values but Harris, when asked to give a single concrete example, just appeals to his own sense of right and wrong. As stated previously, the science of morality is just in its infancy so Harris is simply cheering the scientific community on in this book to begin an aggressive approach toward the study of morality.

The book does not disappoint for those who enjoy Harris’ insightful analysis of religion—like me. He devotes an entire chapter to the cause and refers to religion off and on throughout the book; I don’t think Harris can help himself when it comes to criticizing the Bible! He goes into an in-depth critique of Francis Collins’ book, The Language of God and thoroughly discredits and debunks Collins’ rationality for believing in the Judeo-Christian god.

I would be most unsurprised if Harris comes out with a sequel to this fascinating read but it remains to be seen if science will take the baton and run with this idea. Harris’ holds no punches when he argues that the scientific community is reluctant to step on the religious enterprise because they might lose valuable funding. They have also willingly, perhaps grudgingly, bought into the idea that science and religion can embrace each other and not be at odds. As Steven J. Gould once suggested, science and religion answer two different kinds of questions and have a “nonoverlapping magisteria.” As Harris puts it, religion is supposedly best equipped to answer questions regarding meaning, morality and values while science can answer questions regarding the workings of the physical universe. Harris rebukes this sentiment and insists that “Meaning, values, morality and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures—and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain.”

I may be back to write a fuller review of this book in a future post!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome dude, definitely looking forward to hearing you talk more about this. I'll just copy and paste what I said over at Advocatus Atheist:

    I haven't read the book yet, but I like what he's saying. I think that the catch is that his arguments are great IF you agree with his definition of morality. And I think that really, the term "morality" is archaic; the Hitch prefers to talk about "solidarity". But while I think science can indeed quantify things that are good or bad for our well being and that Sam Harris is absolutely right that we need to re-frame the dialogue about morality in terms of universal human values, I'm still highly skeptical that complex moral dilemmas can be quantified. The example I always think of is the true story I hear of a hospital post-Katrina. They were overwhelmed with patients, and had to make many difficult decisions about who to treat and how much help to give them. Worse, many patients had to be flown out, and they had to choose which ones should be left behind. I don't know that the "right" answers to those things will ever be clear, from philosophy or science. It's just not in the nature of our physiology, which struggles between the cost-benefit/rational and empathetic parts of our brains.