In Moral Landscape, Harris puts up an effective argument for his worldview that science, not religion, should be the grounds on which we navigate morality. For the most part, I came into this book in agreement with this hypothesis so I didn't have much to critique. Per usual, Harris puts up a solid and well-supported view here however I do feel his argument lacks in the implementation aspect of science-backed morality.
🚀This Book in 3 Bullets
An effective moral framework is one where ethical and moral decisions are based solely on increasing the wellbeing of all conscious creatures. "Wellbeing" is a material state of the human brain that can be studied and understood, allowing us to conclude that there are facts about which courses of action will allow one to pursue a better life.
Philosophy, supported and lead by scientific methodology, is our best tool to discover and navigate the moral landscape and establish appropriate values. Science can usefully define morality using facts and empirical data about the material states' of people's well-being.
It can achieve this in three ways: -> Explaining why humans do what they do in the name of morality (e.g., traditional evolutionary psychology). -> Determining which patterns of thought and behavior humans should follow (the science of morality) which lead to greater well-being for all, and -> Generally persuading humans to change their ways.
🕵️♀️Adlers' How to Read a Book Investigation (4 Questions)
🧩What is the book about as a whole? (General topic & context)
Morality and how science is better suited to determine human values.
🔍Is the book true in whole or in part? (what are the strong points & critiques)
There are many critiques, of course from religious philosophers and peers to Sam Harris. I've shared my own opinion in the next section but here are some of the critiques and reviews I found on the internet (I wanted to compile them for readers to see the objections):
"The Moral Landscape represents an important contribution to a scientific discussion of morality. It explicates the determinants of moral behavior for a popular audience, placing causality in the external environment and in the organism's correlated neurological states." - A review by James W. Diller and Andrew E. Nuzzolilli
"Imagine a sociologist who wrote about evolutionary theory without discussing the work of Darwin, Fisher, Mayr, Hamilton, Trivers or Dawkins on the grounds that he did not come to his conclusions by reading about biology and because discussing concepts such as "adaptation", "speciation", "homology", "phylogenetics" or "kin selection" would "increase the amount of boredom in the universe". How seriously would we, and should we, take his argument?" - Kenan Malik
"Harris further shows his arrogance when he claims that neuroscience, his own field, is best positioned to help us achieve a universal morality. ... Neuroscience can't even tell me how I can know the big, black, hairy thing on my couch is my dog Merlin. And we're going to trust neuroscience to tell us how we should resolve debates over the morality of abortion, euthanasia and armed intervention in other nations' affairs?" - John Horgan
Many critics claim that my reliance on the concept of “well-being” is arbitrary and philosophically indefensible. Who’s to say that well-being is important at all or that other things aren’t far more important? How, for instance, could you convince someone who does not value well-being that he should, in fact, value it? And even if one could justify well-being as the true foundation for morality, many have argued that one would need a “metric” by which it could be measured—else there could be no such thing as moral truth in the scientific sense. - From Harris's own response to critic.
Many reviews also state the simplicity of Harris's argument, which to be honest, is completely invisible to me, being a layman. However, I've read multiple places that his argument doesn't do enough to convince a well-informed audience. Beyond this, I saw a criticism that Harris doesn't do a great job of staying on point, considering one of his chapters is on religion, another on belief systems, he sort of piles on his hatred for religious dogma specifically, This last criticism, I did see in the text.
Harris also compiles all the critics reviews and challenges to his book into three separate points: -> The Value Problem - There is no sceintific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else’s. -> The Persuasion Problem - Hence, if someone does not care about well-being, or cares only about his own and not about the well-being of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. -> The Measurement Problem - Even if we did agree to grant “well-being” primacy in any discussion of morality, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure well-being scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of morality.
🕸️What of it? How does this information fit into your understanding?
I completely agree that science and specifically, our understanding of well-being will inevitably be the guiding light to morality in the future of humanity. But religion does a fantastic job of embedding a moral compass (even if that compass is distorted) into the heart and minds of children and adults. Religions proactively cultivate a moral compass by 1) making very clear moral directions (Ie. good and evil) and 2) through rituals and sermons that exercise the practice of favorable moral directions. Science can do this, no doubt. But it hasn't made this a priority and therefore most of our culture gathers what's right and wrong from religious practices and as a result people naturally tie morality into the fabric of religion. I'd worry about the consequences to society on mass if Harris's wish for the world changed overnight. I think it's critical to have moral principles exercised and drilled into us consistently. How would this look without any religious activity?
I think Harris is correct in his assertion that science should be the light we use to discover the moral landscape as it's reached a point where it's very clearly better suited for the job BUT this only one step in a thousand step journey. It's one thing to state a philosophical argument and another (much more challenging) to outline a practical map to see it manifest into reality. In my opinion, Harris makes a good first step but barely touches the surface of what needs to be done to substitute religion with science as a moral lighthouse.
PS. I don't think Harris intended to lay out a plan, this is just a question I kept realizing throughout the text myself and it seems Harris tackles it with limited and simple explanations.
📜Book Summaries & Key Lessons
"The crux of Harris's argument is that the well-being of conscious creatures should be the paramount consideration when determining whether an action is morally correct or incorrect." A review by James W. Diller and Andrew E. Nuzzolilli
"A major premise of Harris's work is that there is variability in the degree of “goodness” that individuals experience in life, and this variability can be accounted for by brain states and events in the external environment. If one accepts the distinction between “the good life” and “the bad life” and the idea that there are lawful patterns and factors that contribute to each of these outcomes (i.e., a deterministic framework), it allows the development of a scientific view of morality." A review by James W. Diller and Andrew E. Nuzzolilli
Harris acknowledges that if science should take an active role in determining human values, behavior analysts must be a part of that conversation. No other tool is better suited to describe and modify human behavior.
One of my favorite analogies Harris uses to support science-backed morality is that of human health. He touches on it in the book but writes more about it in his response to much of the criticism he receives afterward.
The analogy goes like this, if you substitute the well-being of all conscious creatures **(which is what Harris wants to use to measure moral standards) for the health of all conscious creatures then we have a subject already supported and encourage by science. Health is a body of knowledge largely entrusted to science to maintain and progress in. Whereas once we substitute well-being in the context of our own morality, for some reason we deem it as shaky ground. I think this is Harris's best argument for science backed morality. It's hard to debate, especially considering the history of how science backed health prevention and recovery substituted spiritual/religious forms of health prevention and recovery hundreds of years ago. I imagine there was once a time where it would be foolish to choose scientific methods over prayer for health concerns.
“Human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it.” (p.2)
Indeed the difference between a healthy person and a dead one is about as clear and consequential a distinction as we ever make in science. The difference between the heights of human fulfillment and the depths of human misery are no less clear even if new frontiers await us in both directions. (p. 12)
Harris defines morality as “the principles of behavior that allow people to flourish” (p. 19).
“There is simply no question that how we speak about human values—and how we study or fail to study the relevant phenomena at the level of the brain—will profoundly influence our collective future” (p. 25)
“Despite our perennial bad behavior, our moral progress seems to me unmistakable.”
“Once we see that a concern for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values, we will see that there must be a science of morality… As we come to understand how human beings can best collaborate and thrive in this world, science can help us find a path leading away from the lowest depths of misery and toward the heights of happiness for the greatest number of people.” (p.28)
When we believe a proposition to be true, it is as though we have taken it in hand as part of our extended self, we are saying in effect, “This is mine. I can use this. This fits my view of the world.” (p. 121)
“Clearly, one of the great tasks of civilization is to create cultural mechanisms that protect us from the moment-to-moment failures of our ethical intuitions.”
“Knowing what a person believes on a certain subject is not identical to knowing how that person thinks.”
“Our moral reasoning is plagued by two illusions. The first illusion can be called the wag-the-dog illusion: We believe that our own moral judgment (the dog) is driven by our own moral reasoning (the tail). The second illusion can be called the wag-the-other-dog's-tail illusion: In a moral argument, we expect the successful rebuttal of an opponent's arguments to change the opponent's mind. Such a belief is like thinking that forcing a dog's tail to wag by moving it with your hand will make the dog happy.”
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