A murky “Moral Landscape” in the horizon?

By | September 6, 2010

Sam Harris, one of the “new atheistic” writers, apparently has a new book coming, The Moral Landscape: Thinking about human values in universal terms. Someone sent me a text of a recent interview in which he answers a few questions about the way in which science provides answers to moral questions. Below are the first three questions and Harris’s reply to each. I will show that his replies are as perplexing as they are problematic and seem to discount the really hard questions of moral situations. To anyone (like myself) who holds out hope that the work of the sciences is relevant to moral philosophy, Harris’s perspective on these issues leaves a lot to be desired, to put it as generously as I can.

1. Are there right and wrong answers to moral questions?

Harris: Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures. If there are more and less effective ways for us to seek happiness and to avoid misery in this world — and there clearly are — then there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.

2. Are you saying that science can answer such questions?

Harris: Yes, in principle. Human well-being is not a random phenomenon. It depends on many factors — ranging from genetics and neurobiology to sociology and economics. But, clearly, there are scientific truths to be known about how we can flourish in this world. Wherever we can have an impact on the well-being of others, questions of morality apply.

3. But can’t moral claims be in conflict? Aren’t there many situations in which one person’s happiness means another is suffering?

Harris: There are some circumstances like this, and we call these contests “zero-sum.” Generally speaking, however, the most important moral occasions are not like this. If we could eliminate war, nuclear proliferation, malaria, chronic hunger, child abuse, etc. — these changes would be good, on balance, for everyone. There are surely neurobiological, psychological, and sociological reasons why this is so — which is to say that science could potentially tell us exactly why a phenomenon like child abuse diminishes human well-being.
But we don’t have to wait for science to do this. We already have very good reasons to believe that mistreating children is bad for everyone. I think it is important for us to admit that this is not a claim about our personal preferences, or merely something our culture has conditioned us to believe. It is a claim about the architecture of our minds and the social architecture of our world. Moral truths of this kind must find their place in any scientific understanding of human experience.

Now let’s consider Harris’s reply to each question in turn.

#1: What is a question of morality, and in what sense are there right and wrong answers to moral questions? Harris and the interviewer seem to limit questions of morality to questions about the well-being of conscious creatures (e.g. humans), and seem to further delimit these to the problem of maintaining or increasing the well-being of such creatures and decreasing or eliminating suffering. As a colleague pointed out, this is the perspective of utilitarianism. On this perspective, given that we can outline effective ways of maintaining and increasing human well-being and effective ways of reducing suffering, then we have the utilitarian’s proposal for resolving those moral issues which lend themselves to this ‘weighing benefits against cost’ of our policies and actions. In principle (on utilitarian principles), there are right and wrong answers to this limited set of moral questions. But aren’t there other types of moral questions? Don’t we sometimes have to act out of respect the rights of an individual and not in terms of purported consequences of our action, as when we have to keep a promise we made to that person? Don’t we sometimes have to speak honestly although the consequences may not result in more benefit than harm?

#2: In what sense can science answer such questions? Harris assumes that human well-being can be scientifically defined; and assumes also that the means for achieving human well-being also rests on “scientific truths.” Somehow science can tell us much about how we “flourish in the world” and how our actions affect others. Given these ‘facts,’ he suggests that science can answer moral questions.

Taken by themselves, these remarks are far too simplistic to offer much help to those who wish to connect the sciences with morality. Science might be able to explain what kind of creature we are (evolved biological creatures with big brains) and even explain the social culture necessary to understanding the kind of social animals that we are. But how does this explain human flourishing? A full explanation of that requires that we explain values and purpose, and explain individual decisions as to what values or purposes to realize in one’s existence. Does science explain these? Science might be able to provide a menu of choices that a person may face; but it does not determine which of those choices the person should select. Regarding the issue of our how our actions affect others, science can offer some explanation, but not a full explanation. The consequences of our actions can be traced only in simply cases; but there are many consequences of our actions which cannot be foreseen, even by the best that science can offer. Insofar as answers to moral questions rest on our ability to foresee the consequences of our actions, those moral questions cannot be answered fully, with or without the aid of science. Whenever our actions have an impact on others, moral questions do apply. But this does not mean that such questions can be answered. (An example of what seemed to be good moral policy which had unforeseen bad consequences is the establishment of huge units for public housing back in the 1960s, public housing which soon became the base for a variety of socially dysfunctional families, criminal activities, juvenile crime, illicit drug trade and prostitution. The moral choice to offer public housing to poverty stricken families seemed to be a good choice; the best of the social sciences supported that policy; but nobody foresaw the bad consequence resulting from that policy.)

#3: This question relates to moral conflict, and Harris simply dismisses it as applicable in most cases of moral question or moral choice. He assumes that the significant moral situations are those in which it is clear what we should do in order to bring about “what is good, on balance, for everyone.” But this is too fast and not at all a case of dealing seriously with the issue of moral conflict. Harris dismisses such cases as “zero sum” contests which differ from the “most important moral occasions.” This might be a convenient position to take when one is trying to show that morality is reducible to utilitarian considerations amenable to scientific treatment; but it hardly strikes me as an honest effort to deal with real cases of moral conflict, cases in which the best reasoning we can apply does not give us an answer as to what is the right thing to do and in which any prediction as to the consequences of our decision is questionable at best. It is well enough to assert that we all know that child abuse is bad for everyone, and that this can be explained in terms of the “architecture of our minds” and “the social architecture of our world.” This sounds good and may impress the unwary reader, but often the hard choice is one that does not lend itself easily to a choice leading to child abuse and one which avoids it. (E.G. Is it better to remove a child from dysfunctional parents when the child welfare system often subjects that child to abusive foster parents? Someone has to make the hard choice without any guarantee, scientific or otherwise, that the action will be the one most beneficial for the family and child directly affected by the action.)

Moral conflict is more significant in the area of practical morality than Harris assumes. Many aspects of our individual and social circumstances, including those that Harris lists — war, nuclear proliferation, malaria, chronic hunger, child abuse – are such that involve moral conflict, hard choices between alternatives in which it is not at all clear which is the best choice in terms of beneficial or harmful consequences of the alternative actions. War is generally a very bad thing for most humans affected by it; but there are many cases in which it is far from clear which choice between war and avoidance of war is the morally good choice in terms of beneficial consequence. Nuclear proliferation is another very bad thing to impose on the world; but is it obvious that the correct moral choice for any nation facing the choice of developing as a nuclear power or foregoing such development is to avoid such development? Is it possible that the consequences of such a choice might turn out to be most harmful for that nation? Surely neither science nor rational analysis can give a definitive answer to that question. The frequency of malaria, chronic hunger, and child abuse in large parts of the world is surely a moral failing on a grand scale. But do any of the experts, scientific or otherwise, know exactly which national and international policies are ones that insure beneficial consequences in resolving these scourges? That we should work to eliminate these as much as possible is without dispute. What we must do and what actions individual societies must take is subject to trial and error. The best intentions of individuals and governments often result in bad consequences. Science can help to reduce these tragic mistakes; but neither science nor the most enlightened thinking will insure that the hard decisions that humans must make will have the best consequences.

Any “scientific understanding of human experience” will divulge that humans often face tragic situations, moral dilemma, in which there is no guarantee as to what is the right choice in terms of beneficial or harmful consequences. Jean Paul Sartre offers the example of a young French man during the Nazi occupation of France who had to decide between joining the underground resistance fight the Nazi invaders or staying with his aged mother who needed him to care for her. This is not a choice that could resolved by tracing the consequences of each alternative, weighing the benefits and cost, and making a morally correct decision. All the science in the world would not help him; knowing the “architecture of the mind” would not help him. The young man had to make a choice without the comfort of knowing that he made the correct moral choice. He had to make a choice and then live with it, never sure that he had done the right thing. Many moral situations are like this, contrary to Harris’s facile dismissal of such situations as not being “important moral situations.” Any situations in which there are more potential recipients of some benefit than there are benefits to dispense: when there’s a shortage of food or water and a decision must be made as to who gets fed and watered and who must do without; when some medical procedure (vital organ transplant) is limited to a few patients out of a large waiting list; when a decision must be made as to who ( of a limited number) gets the position at a company or the admission at the university and there are many qualified applicants or when trying to decide where to direct our donated dollars when many worthy charitable organizations are making honest appeals. In all these cases, the moral choice is not one that can be made in terms of a scientific understanding of human experience or anything close to an ability to make a cost-benefit analysis of the consequences of our action.

In summary, based on the Sam Harris’s replies to the first three questions by the interviewer, I have little or no confidence that his latest literary effort, The Moral Landscape, will offer much that is helpful to those who look to the sciences for some help in dealing with moral issues.

One thought on “A murky “Moral Landscape” in the horizon?

  1. Firooz R Oskooi

    Morality controls the science, not vice versa. Science is used as a tool to help us make (Hopefully) WISE decisions! If human (Of Course non humans don't deal with morality issues) morality is likened to a flower garden, then the morality teacher would be like a Gardener. Who is qualified to be that Gardener?


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