The Moral Landscape

About a year ago, I posted an audacious TED video by Sam Harris in which he argued that science can play a role in understanding and defining morality. This was a retort to the widely held belief that science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be — that you can’t derive ought from is. Now Mr. Harris has published a book on this subject: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, which I just finished reading. Unlike his earlier books he is treading uncharted territories this time, but the book does live up to the standards set by his earlier work (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.)

Harris’ core argument is this: Ultimately, the question of values and morality are really questions about human well-being. And the well-being of conscious creatures can be scientifically understood. Think neuroscience and neurophysiology which can observe and explain emotional impulses (happiness and suffering) in the brain as a result of outside stimulus (violence, mercy, co-operation etc.) By understanding how actions relate to impulses in the brain we can categorize those actions into two groups: actions that elevate human well-being, and those that hamper it.

We do have to assume, however, that improving the well-being of conscious creatures is intrinsically good. But once you make this assumption (which seems an obvious and reasonable one to make), science can step in and help us improve and maximize the human well-being.

This claim is a controversial one (especially among moral relativists). For centuries, science has busied itself in discovering empirical truths about nature, and stayed away from giving out opinions about values and morality — as if morality belonged to a realm beyond the reach of science. Those who believe that morality comes from religion have the biggest issues with this claim. If what Sam Harris proposes is right, this would increase the ever expanding sphere of science even further and there will be almost nothing left for religion to do. Philosophers like David Hume and Stephen Jay Gould have long argued that science and religion belong to two different and non-overlapping magisteria: science deals with discovering facts that help us understand the world, while religion deals with values and moralities. If, instead of Jesus and Lord Rama, we start looking up to science for  moral guidance, then wouldn’t that give a pink slip to religion? This fear seem to drive disagreements (with Harris)  in the religious circles.

The second, and more rational, critique comes from scientists and philosophers. The crux of their counter-argument is: how do you measure well-being? In order to improve something, we need a measurement scale. What’s the unit of well-being? To this, Harris responds with an example of health. There’s no specific metric in which we can define health. But that doesn’t stop us from using science to try to improve health. There might be various different ways (as opposed to one objective and universal way) to improve health, but that doesn’t stop us from saying that there are answers to the question related to health. Similarly, there might be several peaks of well-being on the moral landscape – more than one ways to be happy – but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to define what those peaks are, and how we can attain by the means of science. There might be multiple answers to questions about morality (different people find happiness in different things) but not-having-an-objective-answer shouldn’t deter us from studying what those answers are and how they affect our well-being.

Whether one agrees with Harris’ stand or not, this book is a very interesting read; he does raise some very convincing points, arguing with such specificity, that make you think hard and deep. The book has already stirred a lot of intellectual discussions (see here, here and here); many don’t agree with him completely but they all concur that The Moral Landscape is quite a stimulating and novel idea.

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One response to “The Moral Landscape

  1. dan

    Using science to improve health is an interesting concept. I work in the health field. I must say that merely improving ones health via science doesn’t necessarily improve the health of others. Take managers, politicians for example. Science then could be blamed as improving their health and subsequently affect my workplace and decisions within it, my well being then deteriorates. So what do I do, pray to God??

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