The Moral Landscape – An excellent read!

By Michael Edmonds 13/11/2010 6


About a month ago I bought a copy of ‘The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values’ by Sam Harris, a book which has stimulated discussion and debate across the blogosphere. It is an interesting and thought provoking book which has met with resistance from a number of quarters.

The basic contention of the book is that science can guide us in determining what is moral behaviour, and what is not. Many opponents argue that science cannot assume this role. My question to them is what is the alternative? For centuries many have looked to religion for moral guidance, and religion has failed — using fear to control their followers, and with a damaging history of slavery, child abuse and misogynistic and homophobic behaviour. Given that many religions base their teaching on fallible writings from antiquity this is not surprising.

Dr Harris uses the idea of a ‘moral landscape’ as a metaphor for moral behaviour, an idea I find both creative and elegant. The idea of a moral landscape is that there is no one position of absolute moral behaviour. Rather there are behaviours that can be considered moral (peaks on the landscape) while there are others that can be considered immoral (valleys on this metaphorical landscape).

The crux of the argument then becomes ‘how do we decide what is moral, and what is not?’ Dr Harris has linked morality to the identification of what are the beliefs and behaviours that will enhance human well being. While opponents argue that this concept is difficult to define, in my opinion Dr Harris makes a convincing effort to do so. Some philosophers claim that Sam’s arguments are simply utilitarianism, which I believe is an overly simplistic interpretation of his work. It is interesting to note that in challenging Dr Harris on his writings, no one actually suggests a viable alternative.

Dr Harris also strongly and quite rightly criticises moral relativism, a position that has been used to condone appallingly immoral behaviour such as female genital mutilation, slavery, rape and child abuse. He also incorporates some of his preliminary work in neuroscience to lend tentative support to his ideas.

Sam Harris’s book, ‘The Moral Landscape’ is articulate, intelligent and thought provoking, a book I am likely to read over and over again in order to fully appreciate his ideas and their many nuances. This is definitely a purchase that I can highly recommend.


6 Responses to “The Moral Landscape – An excellent read!”

  • I fail to see how this is science based. Pegging morality on what is good for people is a philosophy, it is not science. Because then you have to define “good”, which cannot be done in any convincingly scientific manner. Good can be defined in several different ways and there is little scientific rationale for claiming that science can choose the best definitionthat covers all situations.
    His view is also humanocentric. Should good be solely defined as simply what is best for us? That is little better than saying good is simply what is best for me. What is best for me can often be bad for those around me and my descendants. Likewise, what is best for the descendants of current humanity is likely to be in some way detrimental to those of us living today. What is best for the planet may require a situation that is NEVER best for humanity. I can easily imagine a situation that humanity decides that it is inits best interests to leave earth behind, but the effort to do so leaves the earth a smoking wreck. What is the good here? How can science without resorting to philosophy guide us in these sorts of decisions?

    I can see the use of science in possibly testing how various philosophies would play out, so in this way I can see how science could help define morality. But one is still stuck with philosophy deciding which result is “good” and which is “bad”. How can science truly define which is better: a philosophy that dictates the survival of humanity above all other considerations or a philosophy that says the survival of the most diversity and quantity of life as a whole is best and to accomplish that requires the death of humanity? I think most people would opt for a middle ground,but one would be hardpressed to argue the logic of either extreme.

    • It’s impossible to communicate all of Dr Harris’s arguments in a short review, but I believe he answers many of your points. I think he very carefully does show that “good” can be defined as something that enhances the well being of a person/group of people. I think your points quite rightly indicate that sometimes determining what action/behaviour will create the most good, this is why the “moral landscape” is invoked. Absolute morality may not be determinable, but by comparing different options science may indicate better choices.
      You say that “I can see the use of science in possibly testing how various philosophies would play out, so in this way I can see how science could help define morality. But one is still stuck with philosophy deciding which result is “good” and which is “bad”.” If science is providing the evidence for the philosophies, then can it not become an integral part of the philosophy itself. Both science and philosophy are based on the application of rational argument and the application of a critical, generally systematic approach to interpreting the world around us.
      His view does not have to be humanocentric or focused on the present. Science could be used to suggest what is best for humanity/the biosphere not just at present but in the future. This is where science backs and is contributing to the idea of sustainability. Science is currently providing us with the most vigorous warnings about the state of the planet ever. The fact that the majority of us are ignoring the science, is not the fault of science or philosophy. (also re your suggestion that if humanity did leave the earth. This would be a good thing for the planet itself as it would probably allow the planet to recover over time). You rightly identify that there will potentially be decisions for which it will be near impossible to determine what the option that will do the best “good” is. Dr Harris agrees that determining such an option may be impossible but that does not mean there isn’t one. That also does not mean that science cannot assist in helping sort out what some of the better and worse choices might be.
      Even in this reply it is impossible to capture the nuances of his work. Your comments suggest that you are familiar with the book, but your questions make it unclear as to whether you have read the book. Have you read the book?

  • Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book but it’s on my list somewhere. I have read various responses to the book, good and bad, and am basing my reply on those.

    “good” can be defined as something that enhances the well being of a person/group of people.

    Sure it can be, but it could also be defined as being that which increase the well being all life on the planet, or possible just felines. What makes one a better definition than the other other than our ego? What I, and I think the previous poster, is getting at is that at some level you will need ‘ethical axioms’ if you like where you decide to consider those things good and then science/logic could possibly tell you what other things are good/not good based on that. To summarise I firmly thing science can help inform your ethical system but at a fundamental basis can’t tell you what is good or bad.

    I’m also a little disappointed by your appeal to ‘if not science, then what?’ What happened by a scientific theory standing or falling on it’s own right. Certainly there are numerous examples of religion based ethics leading to atrocities, but there are also groups (watch as I try hard not to Godwin this :P) who have, at least claimed, to base their position on science and that has also lead to atrocities. THere is also an amusing joke when talking about maximum likelihood which I think also relates to picking science to determine reality “cos what else?” It goes: It’s like an obese man in a woman’s lingerie shop. Just because there’s a piece of clothing that will fit him best it doesn’t mean that it will fit him well. You also might want to keep in mind results like Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem which found that a polling system based on ranking with only 3 very reasonable demands can’t actually exist.

    Finally I’ll say it sounds like Harris is confusing relativism with normativism. Relativism is the position that all ethics are relative and there are no ‘objectively true’ ethical facts. Normativism is the extra step from there which asserts that therefore every ethical system should be tolerated. I really don’t see the problem with saying ‘my ethics are based on the axiom of that which promotes human well being is good’ while denouncing the systems which do not support such a position. Not being ‘objectively true’ doesn’t rob it of importance.

    • ‘[good] .. could also be defined as being that which increase the well being all life on the planet, or possible just felines. What makes one a better definition than the other other than our ego?”
      Perhaps this is where science does help. It is becoming quite clear through science that the well being of humans is intertwined with that of other organisms on our planet and with the “health” of the Earth itself. Science is showing us this now. Psychology (assuming you accept it as a science) and neuroscience can also help to determine what is promotes well being at an individual level, which isn’t necessarily mutaully exclusive from what is good for society or the planet.

      My “if not science then what?” comment was not meant as a justification of Dr Harris’s approach, rather it’s a question that hasn’t been dealt with by his critics, and while it is perfectly valid to criticise a scientific hypothesis/theory without providing an alternative, I would be interested in their alternatives.

      “To summarise I firmly thing science can help inform your ethical system but at a fundamental basis can’t tell you what is good or bad.”
      I see what you mean, but I’m not quite sure I agree (though I’m not quite sure I disagree either). Your comments are thought provoking and will provide a useful perspective as I reread the book.

      Also I doubt that Dr Harris is “confusing relativism with normativism” it is more likely my apparently poor explanation of the books contents. (Another reason to reread it).

      Thanks for your thought provoking comments. Would love to hear from you again once you’ve read the book, as Dr Harris’s arguments in full may be more persuasive than my short review.

  • Thank you for your answer and sorry for the long delay in responding. To answer your question, no, I had not heard of the book before reading your discussion of it. It does sound intriguing, though, and I plan on checking it out as soon as I have the opportunity.

    I agree with much of what you say. It seems to me though, that the fundamental decision of good and bad is still a philosophical one. Once one decides upon a particular philosphical stance, then science may guide specific decisions based on that stance. I can scientifically and logically argue that the best good is to exterminate humanity, but I think few would accept that as good.

    I agree with you that much of what many consider bad is a result of people not listening to the science and philosophical understandings. Science I think can certainly guide us towards a better and more sustainable world as you suggest. But that definition of good still seems a philosophical one.

    Perhaps this might be better. I propose logic as the best principle for determining good. Logic is different from science, but critical to its correct function (hrmm, I wonder if this is closer to what Dr. Harris was thinking about). Logical argument can be used to break down a particular definition of good to its most fundamental expression and build up from there logical corollaries that science can then inform all decisions based on that premise. Start with a definition of good, then ask “why?” until the foundations of the belief are firmly and clearly understood and all logical fallacies are discovered and removed. then logically build up the structure of a more complicated belief system.

    I am talking off the cuff here and probably not at my most cogent, with incompletely formed thoughts (my logic is certainly up for critique), but hopefully, the nuggets of my thoughts are adequately clear.

    Your essay and response have been thought provoking and certainly piqued my interest in his book.