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

11/04/2010 05:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"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". 2010-11-03-41hbLnPyGL._SS500_.jpg 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.

Noteworthy in The Moral Landscape is the author's fastidiousness towards the implications of his proposal. He does not fall for the Hobbesian folly of inflating a still inchoate method into a decisive, universal theory of morality. The book is peppered throughout with qualifiers and caveats to drive home the point that science is really only beginning to understand the human brain, and has a long, long way to go (for example he concedes that, "a science of morality would, of necessity, require a deeper understanding of human motivation [than we now have].").

This characteristically scientific open-mindedness can be found in his title term "moral landscape". His landscape refers to near infinite peaks and valleys of human flourishing -- between societies which embrace, say, the doctrine of honor killing, and are thus eternally mired in deadly, retributive cycles of bloodletting (a valley), versus those which embrace institutionalized codes of law that allow members to go about their daily quest for individual fulfillment in peace (a peak). To his credit, Harris never explicitly asserts that Western, democratic, secular values are sine qua non, and he repeatedly leaves open the possibility that other distinct, hypothetical systems can achieve equal or better levels of human flourishing. Somewhat ironically, his landscape, in this way, admits of a certain degree of "multiculturalism" itself.

Parts of The Moral Landscape come off as gratuitous, such as Harris's continued fixation on the more obvious, unsavory effects of some currently regnant monotheistic values. Given his past works, this seems like beating a dead horse. And beyond being unnecessary, his renewed diatribe against religion will likely serve as a wedge to some readers who could otherwise find his argument accessible. What's more, he seems to suggest the irrelevance of this tangent on his own when he points out that, "research on people's responses to unfamiliar moral dilemmas suggests that religion has no effect on moral judgments that involve weighing harms against benefits." 2010-11-03-Torture_Inquisition.jpgOdder still, he reveals tentative findings of his own a few pages later to point out that there is no evident neurological distinction between religious and nonreligious beliefs anyway. That is to say, beliefs are beliefs, and being religious in nature does not elevate their profundity within the human psyche. It is fascinating findings like these that suffer most when Harris indulges his most favorite asides (which are fortunately confined mostly to one chapter anyway).

Indeed, inquiry into cognitive science can tell us why we believe what we do (religious or otherwise), often mistakenly, and allow us to adjust for numerous flaws in human reasoning that result in so much cruelty and destruction amid, as Albert Camus put it, the "gentle indifference of the world." Many of Harris's spiritually oriented critics -- conflating science as a monolithic institution with science as a method -- rebuke him for daring to advance purely materialist insights into human values. But he is a neuroscientist; and he knows that we are only just beginning to understand the mysterious workings of the human brain. Why shouldn't he wade into these waters within his field, as priests and philosophers have done before him in theirs? If there are moral ramifications to ongoing neurological findings, is one simply supposed to ignore them?

The easiest criticism to make of The Moral Landscape is that it is utopian. But this charge can be leveled against anyone who wishes to better the world around him. Harris is not furnishing his reader with answers to the most intricate and daunting moral dilemmas; but he does provide a promising framework for their deliberation -- so why not let it prove or disprove itself as science has done for medicine? Fortunately, in our free and open society, Harris has every opportunity to do just that.

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