The Moral Landscape, Chapter 1: Moral Truth

Chapter-by-chapter thoughts on Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

Summary: Moral truth does not have to be absolutely definable or absolutely objective in order to be a useful concept.

I’m reminded why I love reading Sam Harris so much: not only does he write with crystalline clarity, he is also capable of targeting his sarcasm with laser-like precision.  He continues his discussion on the wrongness (and inherent contradiction) of cultural relativism with this: “I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the ‘contextual’ legitimacy of the burqa, or of female genital mutilation, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that moral relativism does nothing to diminish a person’s commitment to make the world a better place.”

Harris reiterates his assertion that “science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want–and therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.”  This is obviously predicated on the presupposition that the common goal of human beings is individual well-being on this earth.  I think it also assumes (although Harris has not yet said this) that human morality is primarily molded by genetics rather than cultural circumstance.  Exactly how this would change a scientific approach to morality isn’t clear to me off-the-cuff.

One objection to scientific morality is that science is all about math and formulas and hard data.  Harris brushes this objection aside by saying that this defines science in “exceedingly narrow terms.”  “However,” he adds, “this is to mistake science for a few of its tools.”  Amen, brother.

Harris also tackles the confusion surrounding the terms “objective” and “subjective.”  He points out that “many people seem to think that because moral facts relate to our [personal, internal] experience…all talk of morality must be ‘subjective’ in the epistemological sense.”  So I think what Harris is saying is that, in an absolutist sense, no morality can be “objective”; i.e. the universe doesn’t care if you are evil and get away with it.  Our actions have no more effect on the Big Picture than two asteroids slamming together.  But they matter on the human scale, and we can discern better and worse ways of behaving by observing and comparing their impact on ourselves and our fellow human beings.  The moral landscape is then, in some sense, a sliding scale with no well-defined extremes.  Perfect?  No.  Useful?  Yes.

Something else I’d never thought much about, but about which I think Harris is correct, is the double standard used with respect to consensus.  “Most people take scientific consensus to mean that scientific truths exist…yet many of these same people believe that moral controversy proves that there can be no such thing as moral truth.”  In other words, people who understand science understand that there is no such thing as absolute certainty; that everything we think we know is subject to confirmation (or not) by the next experiment or set of data.  But for some reason, many people insist that it’s binary: either there must be absolute morality about which no one can object, or there’s just flatly no such thing as moral truth.  But why can’t there be contingent moral truth that’s gradually bootstrapped into better and better positions through observation and experimentation?

I think the bottom line for Harris is that some people will never be convinced that what human beings should want is to live a good life, that the good life is defined as what is good for conscious beings, and that the way to know how to achieve that is by rational analysis.  If you don’t buy into that, you’re not going to like anything else in the book.

Harris is intent on slaying the dragon of hard definitions.  It’s true we probably will never arrive at a concrete definition of “well-being” that everyone can agree on, but Harris points out that neither “life” nor “health” have iron-clad definitions, and yet no one can deny that biology and medicine have made fantastic advances.

Harris hinted, in the Introduction, that he had an Invasion of the Body Snatchers moment at a professional seminar.  He explains that in Chapter 1 by recording, “more or less verbatim,” an exchange with a woman who sits on the President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.  This was a woman who, presumably, would object to be personally genitally mutilated, or forced to wear a burqa in public, but who refused to allow that such practices can be said to be “wrong.”

Finally, Harris tackles the straw-man of scientism and decries the crippling of legitimate science by painting it as “capitalist science,” or calling for things like “feminist science.”  Just as there is no such thing as Jewish physics, Harris maintains that there is no such thing as morality based on one’s geographic or cultural circumstance.

The Moral Landscape is available at Amazon.com in hardcover, audiobook, or Kindle editions.

Read my thoughts on the Introduction.

For more on Sam Harris visit SamHarris.org.

John C. Snider

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One Response to The Moral Landscape, Chapter 1: Moral Truth

  1. Pingback: The Moral Landscape, Chapter 2: Good and Evil « American Freethought

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