Book review: The moral landscape


Many people have argued that science and religion, when done correctly, can only answer questions about disjoint areas. Perhaps the most oft-cited person espousing this view is Stephen Jay Gould, who popularized the principle of non-overlapping magesteria and coined the term in his eponymous essay. Still others propose that, while religion and science attempt to answer some of the same questions, science has nothing to say on questions of morality, whereas religion does.

Neurobiologist and prominent atheist Sam Harris is not one of these people, and he has devoted his most recent book The moral landscape to challenging these ideas.

Harris’s starting point is that humans and other animals prefer pleasure to suffering, and that it then follows that a choice that leads to pleasure is objectively preferable to one that leads to suffering. While I have heard people take issue with this as an axiom, I find it hard to take any such objections seriously. So, I think this is a reasonable starting assumption.

Subject to that axiom, is it possible to determine whether some line of action is preferable to another? I think that, under only the one axiom, it’s not possible to do very much, since there’s too much that’s ambiguous in it. So far, we’ve said nothing about how to deal with options in which some will derive pleasure, and others will suffer. Is such a choice good or bad? How many dolors of suffering are allowable in order to provide one hedon of pleasure? And how can we measure those things anyway?

Harris doesn’t provide compelling answers to these questions, but he does acknowledge that we must think hard about them.

Under a suitable definition, we must be interested in increasing overall pleasure, but whose overall pleasure do we wish to increase? Are we trying to increase average pleasure? Or, perhaps we’re trying to increase total pleasure?

Both of these potentially allow for pathological difficulties. If we’re trying to increase average pleasure, then it would be desirable to cause a few to suffer tremendously if it would make many more marginally happier. But, most of us have serious moral qualms about such an approach.

If we’re trying to maximize total pleasure, we have to be more careful just to define it, since now the choice of normalization is very important. (Harris doesn’t discuss this issue, but as a mathematician, I can’t possibly ignore it.) Can we have negative pleasure if our lives are terrible? If not, and we’re interested in maximizing total pleasure, perhaps we should arrange for there to be as many people as possible, even if their lives are only barely livable. But that doesn’t seem right either. (I don’t agree with this calculation anyway, but Harris appears to think it makes some sense. The point seems to be that the existence of more people only makes everyone else’s life negligibly worse, at most, which is far outweighed by the contribution from that extra person. This seems highly suspect to me.)

I don’t have a good answer the question of what we’re trying to increase, but suggest that it must at least cause the minimal happiness to increase or stay the same. But beyond that, it’s hard for me to say anything.

Harris claims that measuring happiness is something we can do scientifically (with an EEG, if nothing else), and using that measurement, we can determine the morality of actions as being positive if it increases happiness and immoral if it decreases it. So, Harris thinks that he can determine scientifically whether or not actions are moral.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have many examples yet. His favorite example seems to be whether or not we should force women to wear burqas. He concludes, of course, that we should not. I don’t know if his method is capable of dealing with more challenging problems, but if not, it’s not particularly impressive. (Any other reasonable theory would also tell us that forcing women to wear burqas is immoral.)

He proposes various standard moral dilemmas, such as the trolley problem and some of its variants. Instead of answering them using some techniques he has cooked up, though, he simply points out some curious artifacts of our thought processes that seem to lead to contradictory or near-contradictory results. I don’t think he’s close to being able to give compelling answers to these difficult questions, and I’m doubtful that he will be able to do so any time soon.

But whether or not he is currently capable of answering these questions, it’s relevant to ask whether he (or anyone else) will eventually be able to do so. It’s not fair to criticize Harris for not having fully worked out the entire theory on his own yet, and if it’s a good theory (and I do not yet know whether it is), we should be pleased that he has proposed it and made some progress on it. Then, we should be hopeful that other people will take up the work and make further progress. That’s the way research is usually done (and should be done), after all: someone has an interesting new idea and sets out the groundwork, then others build on it, iron out the difficulties, and draw exciting conclusions.

I was rather disappointed by what seems to be one of his main arguments for the existence of secular or scientific morality. The line of reasoning is we clearly have an innate sense of morality that’s relatively consistent among different people (and can thus be considered objective, if we wish). Then, if there is no god, this morality must be a secular morality. Thus secular morality exists. (Or, we can use the phrase “scientific morality” if we believe that secular = scientific, which of course is rather suspicious on its own.)

While this line of reasoning may be reasonable from a logical viewpoint, I don’t think it’s a very interesting argument. The argument does nothing to explain why we have a moral sense (although this is something that has been discussed from an evolutionary perspective by many people), or how we can make decisions based on anything other than pure instinct. On top of that, it’s thoroughly unconvincing to theists, and presumably Harris wishes for them to appreciate his arguments as well.

In addition, he takes a lot of jabs at religion in the book. While I of course think that religion deserves to be probed and challenged (and there are mountains of legitimate complaints to make about religion), it’s unclear to me what purpose such attacks serve in this book. They don’t seem to make his case any stronger, and they appear to be unrelated to his thesis.

I think Harris has some interesting ideas, and I’m glad he’s exploring them. But, I would really like him try to give answers to moral problems that are more challenging than determining whether or not burqas, suicide bombings, and other hideous crimes are acceptable. In other words, I’d like to see him (or anyone, for that matter) solve new problems, not just old ones. I think that axiomatic systems like Harris’s have a lot of power to answer real questions about the world, so I suspect that there’s quite a lot of potential there for us to solve new problems.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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