Taking a Wrong Turn in the Moral Landscape

Taking a Wrong Turn in the Moral Landscape January 18, 2011


I really, really wanted to like Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. A large proportion of my philosophical disagreements with my boyfriend and with Christians generally center on the question of whether a belief in absolute morality is compatible with atheism, so I had my fingers crossed that this book would be useful to me as a rebuttal.


The problems start with Harris’s definition of science:

Some people [define] “science” in exceedingly narrow terms, as though it were synonymous with mathematical modeling or immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundaries between it and rational thought cannot always be drawn” [emphasis added]

So, in other words, the subtitle “How Science Can Determine Human Values” could be rephrased as “How Philosophy Can Determine Human Values” or even “How Having a Good Think Can Determine Human Values.” I don’t disagree with these rephrasings, but they’re no longer controversial or challenging.

And that’s really the problem with the whole book. Harris is using his ‘scientific’ method to derive really boring and obvious moral truths. Any halfway decent moral system should be able to argue that female genital mutilation is bad and that the existence of psychopaths do not disprove the existence of moral systems. You have to use better examples than that to explain your system of moral reasoning.

Harris appears to be a utilitarian, but he never talks much about how he defines utils. He talks a lot about happiness, but he clearly doesn’t accept all subjective experiences of happiness as legitimate since he argues that his happiness is only legitimate insofar as it promotes the happiness and well-being of others. If he explored realistic moral dilemmas, I’d have a better sense what he thought constituted ‘well-being.’ As is, he spends most of his time discussing bizarre future hypotheticals like how to run a justice system or a society if people can be chemically compelled not to lie.

Ultimately, Harris puts his hope for moral progress in scientific advances. He assumes that the primary limitation on making moral decisions is a lack of data. According to Harris, to progress, we need to be able to more finely differentiate between different outcomes. This seems to limit moral behavior to people who understand social science and Bayesian statistics. As much as I love both those things, I think it’s possible to cultivate a moral attitude without certain knowledge of the outcomes. But that’s not surprising, given that I’m into virtue ethics.

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