Saturday, November 06, 2010

Comments on Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Sam Harris argues for moral realism, and a version of consequentialism in which the proper target for moral concern is the maximization of human well-being. Furthermore, he says the substance of well-being consists in the qualities of conscious experience, and modern neuroscience is giving us the tools to assess conscious states: hence answering moral questions is properly within the domain of science.

Harris endeavors in the early parts of the book to anticipate some complaints and potential misunderstandings. He says: “I am not suggesting we are guaranteed to resolve every moral controversy through science. (p.3)” But he insists there are answers in principle even if not always in practice. When thinking about morals, many seem to make a mistake in thinking that persistent disagreements and difficulties mean there are no correct answers in principle: Harris persuasively points out that we don’t seem to make this assumption in other analogous contexts (e.g. health, economics). He also thinks there may be more than one way to maximize well-being (multiple peaks on a “landscape”). Finally, he is not saying any of this will be easy!

Along the way, he argues against the idea that facts and values are in different domains: values are features of conscious states, and these are themselves natural facts. The lack of separation between facts and values may also supported by neuroscientific evidence, particularly studies of how we form beliefs.

Because this is a book by Sam Harris, we also get plenty of pointed criticism of traditional religion. This time, however, it is coupled with indignation toward secular liberals who express various degrees of moral relativism or anti-realism.


I think Harris is on the right track: I’m a moral realist and I think he’s got the right target for moral concern: the qualities of conscious experience.

I concur with one criticism made of Harris, which is that he should concede he needs more than science to build his foundation. He can acknowledge that this is a philosophical project, and argue (persuasively I think) that our moral reasoning will be much more successful now that we can leverage modern scientific tools and techniques. As I set out below, I think the project would also benefit from an explicit metaphysical grounding.

But first, let me mention some criticism of Harris I don’t agree with. Moral philosophy is an incredibly complicated subject and there are extreme practical challenges faced by any sort of consequentialism. But I don’t think it is an adequate critique to throw out examples of these moral dilemmas and difficulties. The review by Kwame Anthony Appiah fit this pattern: he emphasizes the challenges that historically have faced philosophical utilitarianism/consequentialism (a sentence begins: “Even if you accept the basic premise…). But the point should be to seek some consensus on the principles, and then form a coherent research program for tackling the complicated practical questions with the aid of modern tools.

Appiah also questions (as does Jean Kazez, in her review) whether the moral relativism that Harris targets is all that common. They believe most secular liberals are more likely to be moral realists. This may be true if you conduct a survey, but I would assert that holding to a vague sense of moral realism that lacks a clear foundation for where moral facts reside is a poor backdrop for making moral arguments. A case in point was found in my post about cosmologist Sean M. Carroll’s responses to Harris, where Carroll’s inability to locate a ground for morality in either natural facts or the supernatural left him without a convincing way to refute Harris’ thesis.

This points to a broader issue. Most secular thinkers tend to hold to a variety of scientific materialism which doesn’t have a clear home for conscious experience: the idea is that third person descriptions of brain states, which can be explained ultimately in terms of physics, are what constitute the facts. This stance strands our subjective, qualitative experience outside of nature, and this leads in turn to a difficulty in seeing values and morals as truly real. Harris is arguing that values and morals are natural facts like all the others, but he isn’t putting forth a metaphysical picture which backs this up. I think this is what leads to differences between him and other materialists on this topic. Religious folks, of course, are more confident they have a foundation for morals in their embrace of the supernatural.

I would argue that Harris would benefit from adopting an explicitly expanded version of naturalism which treats first-person experience as a fundamental feature of reality.

Book recommendation:

I recommend the book because I think the argument Harris puts forth is one people should hear about and grapple with. One quibble: I had listened to his TED talk and read his essays on the topic beforehand, and the book didn’t actually flesh out the thesis all that much more. It was padded with some off-topic material (some of which you’ll enjoy if you liked his previous books).


Crude said...

I concur with one criticism made of Harris, which is that he should concede he needs more than science to build his foundation.

To make that concession is to concede the entire game for Harris. To say 'We need to get into philosophy / metaphysics to solve this' is to say there is a task, and a major one at that, that science is inadequate to handle on its own. There's a reason Harris gives 'science' the task of deciding this right in the title of his book, after all.

Mind you, it's not that I disagree with you on this. It's that I think advising Harris to do that goes dead counter to his obvious, stated aims. The same goes for making the subjective fundamental - I'd cheer Harris if he did that, but I'd also be amused because I'd bet my car it would yield a very amusing, public 'atheist excommunication'. Harris is already on thin ice with the rest of the New Atheists for his toying with buddhism, and this moral realism play went over like icewater in large part. (The natural law theologians, however, thus far seem very pleasantly surprised.)

That said, Penrose may be up your alley. I see you've blogged about him re: consciousness, but I've also seen Penrose state flatly that he believes mathematics and ethics reside in a 'platonic realm' along with math. I take it full blown platonism isn't your thing, but hey, there's someone doing the 'natural but not material' thing.

Steve said...

Thanks Crude. I'm agree it's not likely Harris takes my advice! Although he does seem to take subjective experience pretty seriously at times.

Regarding Penrose, I do like his forthright Platonism. I think math and morals may be grounded in necessary features of the omniverse - which makes me a variety of platonist.

hexag1 said...

"I would argue that Harris would benefit from adopting an explicitly expanded version of naturalism which treats first-person experience as a fundamental feature of reality."

??? Harris makes this point extensively in 'The End of Faith'. He also does it in his latest.
From 'The Moral Landscape' pp. 29-30 :

When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively,” we generally mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counterarguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, and so on. This is to make a claim about how we are thinking. In this sense, there is no impediment to our studying subjective (i.e., first-person) facts “objectively.”
For instance, it is true to say that I am experiencing tinnitus (ringing in my ear) at
this moment. This is a subjective fact about me, but in stating this fact, I am being
entirely objective: I am not lying; I am not exaggerating for effect; I am not expressing a
mere preference or personal bias. I am simply stating a fact about what I am hearing at
this moment. I have also been to an otologist and had the associated hearing loss in my
right ear confirmed. No doubt, my experience of tinnitus must have an objective (thirdperson)
cause that could be discovered (likely, damage to my cochlea). There is simply
no question that I can speak about my tinnitus in the spirit of scientific objectivity—and,
indeed, the sciences of mind are largely predicated on our being able to correlate firstperson
reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.

Liberation said...

Interesting thoughts here. I appreciate you taking the time to share them with us all. It’s people like you that make my day.

Steve said...

hexag1: thanks and good job rebutting me. I like that Harris takes first person experience that seriously. I guess I'm just riding my own hobby horse in wanting him to "come-out" and announce that scientific materialism isn't an adequate metaphysics to the extent it doesn't assign a foundational role to experience the way I would like to do (contra Dennett,

Steve said...

Liberation: thanks very much for visiting and for your kind comment.