By Sam Harris
Edge, September 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

People think it is impossible to speak about moral truth because there is no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil. I want to undermine this assumption. As a global civilization, we need some universal conception of right and wrong.

In science we are always in the business of framing conversations and making definitions. There is nothing about this process that condemns us to epistemological relativism or that nullifies truth claims. We define physics with respect to the goal of understanding how matter behaves. The fact that a Creationist "physicist" cannot be brought into our conversation about physics does not undermine physics as a domain of objective truth.

We seem to think that because someone can come forward and say that his morality has nothing to do with human flourishing, there's no such thing as moral truth. But this is a fallacy. We have an intuitive physics, but much of our intuitive physics is wrong. Much of our intuitive morality may be wrong with respect to the goal of maximizing human flourishing and to the facts that govern the well-being of conscious creatures.

The only sphere of legitimate moral concern is the well-being of conscious creatures. Consciousness is the only context in which we can talk about morality and human values. When we're talking about morally significant outcomes, we are talking about actual or potential changes in conscious experience. The concept of well-being captures everything we can care about in the moral sphere.

The moral landscape is a space of peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to the heights of flourishing possible for any conscious system, and the valleys correspond to the deepest depths of misery. Any change that can affect a change in human consciousness would lead to a translation across the moral landscape. There will be many ways to move from our present position to the nearest available peak. There are right and wrong answers to the question of how to maximize human flourishing.

We must not get confused by the difference between answers in practice and answers in principle. The difficulty of answering certain problems in practice does not suggest that there are no right and wrong answers to these problems in principle. We have convinced ourselves that science is value-free, but it is not. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. If you don't value those things, you can't participate in the scientific conversation.

AR  I look forward to Sam's new book on developing a science of morality.

The Moral Landscape

Susan Jacoby

Edited by Andy Ross

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
By Sam Harris

Sam Harris argues that "people who draw their worldview from religion generally believe that moral truth exists, but only because God has woven it into the very fabric of reality; while those who lack such faith tend to think that notions of 'good' and 'evil' must be the products of evolutionary pressure and cultural invention. My purpose is to persuade you that both sides in this debate are wrong."

Harris believes that science has a crucial role to play in assessing moral values according to their observable earthly consequences. Those who uphold the notion of separate domains want domain over values for their religion. Neuroscience attempts to explain human behavior by studying the physical brain rather than by evoking the existence of a soul. The idea that humans may not possess free will is as threatening to our sense of human specialness today as Darwin's theory of evolution was in his time.


By Edwin Cartlidge
Big Questions Online, October 5, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

Sam Harris says values are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures and that they can therefore be objectively evaluated.

Harris takes it that morality is about well-being. In his view, it is not right to treat all cultural practices as being equally valid and maintains that multiculturalism and moral relativism are wrong. He argues that religious metaphysical doctrines are false and that dogmatism prevents a better understanding of what really allows humans to flourish.

Harris believes that the moral worth of an act depends on its measurable consequences. He says neuroscience will play an increasing role in assessing the soundness of alternative courses of action. Measurements of the brain will reveal a person's well-being more reliably than that person's own reports of how they are feeling.

Science can be crucial in helping us make ethical decisions. But scientific data cannot determine our decisions in ethical matters. Telling us what takes place in certain situations is fundamentally different from telling us what we should do in response. It seems simplistic to argue that ethics can be reduced to maximizing well-being.

The Moral Landscape is unconvincing. Ethics is not science.

Morality Without God

By Simon Blackburn
Prospect, March 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

Sam Harris holds that "questions about values — about meaning, morality, and life's larger purpose — are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood." Religion and moral philosophy are unnecessary now that we can observe and calculate. But it is one thing to know the facts, it is another to select and prioritize and campaign and sacrifice to promote some and diminish others.

Aristotle thought that ethics concerned well-being. But he appreciated the twists and turns involved in that idea. According to Aristotle, well-being is the state of living well in the world around one. My successes and failures, knowledge, social relations, memories, hopes, fears and loves make up my well-being. This could not be indexed by a brain scanner.

Harris' view of well-being is nearer to that of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, who saw it as a simple balance of pleasure over pain. Perhaps sufficient knowledge of the state of someone's brain could help to measure this ratio. But if Bentham's hedonist is in one brain state and Aristotle's active subject is in another, it is a moral, not an empirical, problem to say which is to be preferred. Even if this were solved, how are we to balance my right to pursue my well-being against the demand to help maximize that of everyone? Harris joins the ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just an instance of their doing it badly.

The Science of Right and Wrong

By H. Allen Orr
The New York Review of Books, May 12, 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
By Sam Harris

Sam Harris is concerned with the sorry state of moral thinking. Religious people are convinced that moral truths are handed down from on high and secular people frequently believe that morals are relative. Harris hopes to show that objective moral truths exist and that we can discover them. He is well aware that science trades in facts and ethics trades in values, and that a long intellectual tradition says facts can never justify values.

Harris make three main claims:

1 Neuroimaging studies of the human brain at work reveal that the same regions of our brains are active when people judge the truth or falsity of both factual statements and ethical statements. In the face of such findings, he doubts the view that a divide separates facts and values.

2 The good is the well-being of conscious creatures. This is associated with a moral landscape, a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks measure well-being and whose valleys measure suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving translate into movements across this landscape and into different degrees of human flourishing.

3 The moral landscape can be studied by science. Science can map the landscape and help us climb to peaks of well-being. Science may not always uncover the relevant facts but they exist.

I dispute the three main claims.

1 It seems odd to try to assess the relationship between two ideas or judgments by analyzing whether they activate the same brain regions. Factual and ethical judgments are obviously similar and the neuroimaging studies bear this out. But the claim is that statements about facts cannot justify statements about values.

2 For Harris, morality is a kind of utilitarianism. But the view that morality concerns the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures is not science. It is a philosophical position.

3 Enhancing human well-being has no bearing on qualms about a science of morality. If you’ve decided that you want a long life, medical science can help. But medical science can't prove the value of living a long life.

What really animates Harris is moral relativism. The well-being of conscious creatures is a sensible end for ethics and science can help us to attain this end. But one can deny a science of morality without relativism. Moral truths may be a priori, like mathematical truths.

On Sam Harris

By Jackson Lears
The Nation, April 2011

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist. Against the menace of mobilized religious dogma, he says our only defense is to reject both religion and cultural relativism, and to embrace science as the true source of moral value.

Harris claims that experiments in neuroimaging reveal that the brain makes no distinction between judgments of value and judgments of fact. From this finding he concludes that fact and value are the same. He does not consider the idea that perhaps the elusive process of moral reasoning is not reducible to the results of neuroimaging.

Harris ignores the messy realities of power. His books display a stunning ignorance of history. The End of Faith, written in the wake of 9/11, argues that the attacks demonstrated the mortal danger posed by dogmatic religion and that we must remake the Mideast in the name of science and democracy.

Harris says that pragmatism and relativism undermine our capacity to acknowledge our moral superiority to most of the rest of the world. He treats the recognition of legitimate moral differences as a sign of moral incompetence. He dismisses not only Islam but also all the Western monotheisms as “dangerously retrograde” obstacles to the “global civilization” we must create if we are to survive. He espouses the Enlightenment master narrative of progress.

Harris: “It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for.” The glove fits.

A Guide To Sam Harris

By Scott Atran
The National Interest, March-April 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

According to Sam Harris, neuroscience points the way to a "science of human flourishing" in "a global civilization based on shared values" where religion and other primitive beliefs are banished forever.

Harris says the division between facts and values is unsustainable and moral relativism is a bad thing. He pretends to refute the distinction between what is and what ought to be by adopting hedonic utilitarianism. But there are intractable problems with any general standard of happiness. Moral relativists say we should tolerate the behavior of others if it makes sense relative to their cultural traditions.

Harris aims to prove that we can increase moral enlightenment by moving away from religion and toward science. But every cultural group entertains sacred and transcendent values that defy calculation and motivate commitment. Human rights are anything but natural. Conceptions of freedom and equality were originally legitimized by their transcendent sacredness. Universal monotheisms created individual free choice and collective humanity to extend moral salvation to all peoples. The secular isms of modern history have all tried to continue the drive to advance human rights.

Harris imagines that religious beliefs are fixed propositions with truth values. But core religious beliefs are impossible to understand based on the meaning of the words alone. Their meaning remains open to interpretation and can vary according to context. Religion is cognitively contagious because its miraculous and supernatural elements grab attention, stick in memory, readily survive transmission from mind to mind, and prevail in the competition for ideas. Like other human productions that are easy to think about and good to use, religious beliefs reoccur across cultures in similar forms.

Harris ignores or disdains analyses of religion as attempts to find a way through our existential dilemmas, to manage the contradictions of human nature, and to maintain cohesion among genetic strangers. Religion may no longer be necessary for any of this. Yet its creative role in getting us out of the caves and begetting civilization is evident. The strongest human social bonds and actions are borne of commitments that are sacred and ineffable.

Harris thinks science education is a natural antidote to Islamist terror. But a majority of al-Qaeda members and associates went to college, and engineer and medical doctor are the professions most represented in al-Qaeda. Few Muslim suicide bombers ever had a traditional religious education. Religion is not a good predictor of who becomes a terrorist.

Thin science, dubious philosophy, and poor rhetoric
My Amazon review of the book