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.


We Must Converge

Sam Harris delivers an impressive talk in which he argues that science does have answers to questions about morality.

Most people have skepticism about science’s role in leading us to moral values. That science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be – is a widely held belief. But Harris claims that values are a certain kind of empirical facts. They are facts about the well-beings of conscious creatures. And science can help us to discover these factual values.

Thought-provoking and audacious as they might be, I don’t completely agree with Harris’ arguments about the objectivity of morality. The sufferings and well-beings of conscious creatures might very well be empirical facts, and science can be a very useful, even vital, tool to understand these facts, but that still doesn’t tell us how we should act or feel after acquiring this knowledge.

However, I do agree that we must converge regarding the answers we give to the most important questions about human life. And in order to converge, we must agree first that there are answers. But as a moral relativist, I don’t believe there are ultimate objective moral values waiting to be discovered (like scientific facts). I can comprehend the universality of morality but not its absoluteness.


While talking about Sam Harris, here’s an earlier post of mine: Religious Moderates.

Also, read his debate with Rick Warren (the pastor who gave invocation to Obama’s presidential inauguration): The God Debate. A couple of excerpts below:

Sam, is there a God in the sense that most Americans think of him?

SAM HARRIS: There’s no evidence for such a God, and it’s instructive to notice that we’re all atheists with respect to Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom now nobody worships.


The core problem for me is divisive dogmatism. There are many kinds of dogmatism. There’s nationalism, there’s tribalism, there’s racism, there’s chauvinism. And there’s religion. Religion is the only sphere of discourse where dogma is actually a good word, where it is considered ennobling to believe something strongly based on faith.

Religious Moderates

Friedrich Nietzsche, the great German philosopher, had it right when he said “Faith is not wanting to know what truth is”.

What is faith anyway? We can think of faith as a belief system. Believing a particular proposition means that we believe that it represents some true state of the world. “Indian food is spicy.”, “Entropy of a closed system tend to increase over time.”, and “Jesus was born of a virgin.” are beliefs. Some are based on facts, some on logic, while religious belief is considered to be beyond facts and logic. The concession that we’ve made to the religious belief – the idea that belief can be sanctified by something other than evidence – separates it from all other beliefs. Religious faith is rendered as entirely self-justifying.

This, in spite of its extravagant claims and paucity of its evidence.

Let me clarify that I don’t have any particular issue with faith when I think of it as a solace to people, as a hope that there’s a reward for good deeds, as a doctrine that assigns a higher meaning to life. Science, or our understanding of the world, will never surpass religion in how it provides emotional comfort and spiritual experience. But (1) the necessity of faith doesn’t mean a validity of faith, and (2) the terrible price that we’re paying for that emotional and spiritual needs seems to outweigh the benefits (think religious fundamentalism).

To digress a bit, I have my disagreements with Christopher Hitchens (see my earlier post here) but I find it hard not to agree with, and not to smile at the audacity of the his quote: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

The ‘People of Faith’ can be broadly categorized into two groups: moderates and fundamentalists/extremists. The moderates are loyal to their own religious doctrine but they are tolerant of other faiths and respectful of diversity. The extremists are also loyal to their faith, but they are willing to die/kill for their faith and can take extreme measures to put an end to the ‘non-believers’.

While few would disagree with the fact that religious extremism is one of the biggest issues that we are facing today, not a lot of people realizes the problem that religious moderates poses to our world. Below is an excerpt from a thought-provoking article by Sam Harris (whose book The End of Faith I recommend if this topic interests you):

Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian claims of each. As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of judgement, he can not possibly “respect” the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by the very ideas and awaits their adherence even now. Muslims and Jews generally take the same arrogant view of their own enterprise and have spent millennia passionately reiterating the errors of other faiths. It should go without saying that these rival belief systems are all equally uncontaminated by evidence.

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything critical to be said about the religious literalism. We can not say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we can not even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scriptures is generally unrivaled. […]

Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question – i.e. that we know there’s a God, and that we know what he wants from us – religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of wilderness.

Read the whole article (here), it’s quite impressive, well-argued and almost pugilistic assault on religious moderation and on religion itself.

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