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Sam Harris: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Review)

First Posted: 11/04/10 06:55 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:10 PM ET

As advances in cognitive sciences further our understanding about the brain, belief, and how those beliefs translate into action, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris proposes a purely scientific route to understanding human morality.

"A business man who is generous to all his employees but falls in love with his stenographer is wicked; another who bullies his employees but is faithful to his wife is virtuous. This attitude is rank superstition, and it is high time that it was got rid of." ~ Bertrand Russell

Reading Sam Harris, one might be reminded of Thomas Hobbes, whose indispensability in the annals of public intellectualism, it is generally agreed, stems from his ideation -- the groundbreaking approach whereby he derived his philosophical elixir for mankind. Hobbes was the first to apply a burgeoning scientific method of sorts, specifically mechanics, to the full study of politics and the ordering of society, and he did so in such a manner as to leave pregnant the coming Enlightenment notion that systems of just governance are best arrived at through reason, rather than dogma or unexamined traditions.

In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris, a neuroscientist studying the nature of human belief, has not produced a Leviathan. But he has, in modest yet impressive fashion, set the stage for burgeoning fields of cognitive science (neuroscience, psychology, etc.) to be applied to human values. Harris argues, in short, that if cognitive science can someday amply tell us how thoughts and intentions are formed in the brain, how they translate into action, and how those actions affect conscious beings, then, perforce, cognitive science can advise us on questions of morality. Breaking from a widely held consensus, the author rejects outright any theoretical distinction between facts (Earth is round) and values (Thou shalt not kill); to him the study of values is reducible to the study of the well being of conscious creatures. Like physics in Newton's day, morality now is but "an undeveloped branch of science".
Due to his previous bestselling works (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation), which aimed right at the heart of modern faith and spirituality, Harris has positioned himself as somewhat of a lightning rod in the public sphere. His proposal for examining morality through a scientific lens is bold, even in the modern era, and it provides ample opportunity for potshots from his many haughty detractors (who range from reputable fellow scientists to philosophers to all manner of spiritual and religious chiselers and wangateurs). Indeed, some of their rebukes seem valid. How does one define well being? Should universal values aim to achieve the most evenly distributed well being for the most people, or should they be utilitarian in nature, directed towards maximizing the greatest sum well being overall?

For Harris, these questions are duly noted, but often specious. Rather than offer specific moral prescriptions, he is more interested in altering the method for how we might eventually find them. He stresses that it is a mistake, rampant among "moral relativists" and "multiculturalists", to allow ambiguity in moral questions to elide the fact that there must be concrete answers to how values can and do contribute to or detract from human flourishing -- from the happiness, prosperity and success of a given society and the individuals who comprise it. Harris writes that, "the moment we admit that we know anything about human well-being scientifically, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures can be absolutely wrong about it". That is to say, no sincere person today will admit total obliviousness to the difference between a good and happy life versus one of abject hardship and misery.

Even the most strident Western "moral relativists" (though as Harris notes, nobody actually refers to themselves this way) do not hesitate to see the virtue in combating famine or poverty in places like Haiti today. And in doing so, they reveal an understanding of human well being. But why isn't this presumptuous of them? Some past societies, such as the Spartans, made it a centerpiece of their culture to subject their youths to the brutal realities of the natural world. Why not allow for such a society today without condemnation? For some reason over the millennia, most of us seem to have gleaned that such a society is not the best way to achieve human flourishing. Mankind also may have some who are ahead of the curve in this regard. In a fascinating aside on the neurology of psychopathy, Harris conjectures that, just as there are specimens representing the utmost of human moral depravity, there must be those who exemplify moral excellence -- a genetic and cognitive basis for that campy high school superlative: moral fiber.