Surveying Harris’ Moral Landscape

Simon Katterl*

Brisbane, June 11, 2014 (Alochonaa): Last night I came across a youtube clip of Sam Harris (neuroscientist, new atheist, public intellectual) debating Scott Atran (anthropologist, cognitive scientist, criminologist) on the merits of his then recent book, The Moral Landscape(“TML”)Harris, seeking to salvage his book from widespread academic criticism, put forth an essay competition, offering $2000 to the winner, and $10 000 “if it actually persuades me”. Because I find it intellectually-offensive (Harris usually attaches intellectually to adjectives in a failed attempt to legitimise his work) to submit a review to be assessed by the subject of the critique, I thought I’d write a post on Deep North.

If you haven’t come across TML, I’ll bring you up to speed on how I understood its central thesis. Weighing into the moral philosophy debate, Harris claims that science should not only explain how we come to value things, but should determine what those things are. TML contends that this is an empirical claim because morals and values (I will use the terms interchangeably here) are a type of fact; facts discoverable and explained through scientific analysis.

The first step in the TML thesis is to argue that all value relates in some way to the well-being (or suffering) of conscious creatures [1] (I will list Harris’ main sources at the bottom, whether he acknowledges them in his book or not). Next, given you accept consciousness is the substance of value, well-being is what constitutes good, and suffering is what constitutes bad.[2] To illustrate his point, Harris makes reference to “The Good Life” and “The Bad Life” which displace the best and worst possible experiences – basically a loving family, a sense of purpose, top-shelf sex on one side, and something which blends Saw/Human-Centipede/1984 on the other.[3]

And if I still have your attention, the theory goes that if well-being is the metric, then science can determine what actions, values and laws best actualise that state of being. And wallah! morality is solved, and we can all go onto bigger issues, like fighting the global Islamic take-over that is still not happening. But in all seriousness let me surmise: values are facts (states of well-being) that are observable by science, which means science can tell us what promotes well-being, and determine values.

It actually sounded like a pretty cogent and functional thesis when I first read it. Unfortunately closer inspection starts to illustrate that fallacious assumptions and misrepresentations are the only thing holding up Harris’ argument. Let me briefly take you through a few.


Naturalistic Fallacy

TML while devoting a couple pages worth of derision, fails to overcome the “naturalistic fallacy”. David Hume and G.E. Moore, two reasonably good philosophers, illustrated how it was a fallacy to misconstrue the way things are with the way things ought to be (is/ought distinction). Let me explain (let me explain!): if well-being is considered good, then really you’re just saying they’re the same thing. Sooo, what you’re saying is well-being is well-being, or better yet, good is good. The key question that arises from this synonymity is: why should we value the well-being of conscious creatures for a reason other than it enhances the well-being of conscious creatures. The key point here is that the claim is not a scientific one. Harris has responded (in the video) by suggesting rationality would answer these questions – the problem is rationality is left intentionally undefined, and also means that we don’t need TML to resolve moral questions.


Harris’ Scientific Truthiness

Now in addition to the fact that Harris’ central argument is not empirically-derived, his scientific creds take a real blow as a consequence of trying to sneak some vague truthiness by his readers. Briefly, I’ll note them below.

A major issue is “well-being” as a scientific concept. Its not properly defined in TML because Harris knows the subjective, dynamic and ultimately elusive components that constitute it. Nevertheless he seeks to use “health” as an analogous case of how science has prevailed over the dark forces of ambiguity. He claims that while we don’t know what “health” is, we manage to use science to regularly actualise it through medicine and the like. However medicine doesn’t seek to achieve “health” – its a prescription for a very specific diagnosis or aim (infection, dehydration, serotonin levels etc). Nice try pal.

This definitional issue leads to a broader and more unrealistic claim inherent in the thesis: that well-being (ie value) has a metric. That is that your well-being should be reducible to some sort of mathematical (where the corresponding attributes correlate with a prescribed number) value. Now, whatever, lets say I grant that. But how then do we determine the value of each attribute. TO THE EXTENT THAT IT PROMOTES THE WELL-BEING OF CONSCIOUS CREATURES Harris would protest. But as we can see, that’s undefined, and as such, will remain out of any practical reach.

Neuroscience is hailed as the elixir to our moral woes by determining those bangin’ good states and bummer down zones. Harris loosely draws on cognitive neuroscience and its use of technologies such as fMRI (flows blood to certain regions of the brain in real time) to illustrate when and how these states come about. Curiously, he also claims that it is not too far from becoming a reliable lie-detector which should be used in courts – less curious when you realise he’s going to re-hash it into another 30 page book called Lying. Anyway, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of contemporary neuroscience would know that these claims are so far off. The claims that blood to a certain region of the brain could be extrapolated to “well-being” or someone lying is intellectually-absurd.


Harris’ Brave New World

Yeah I know – it’s annoying when people throw insults that something is Orwellian simply to de-legitimise it. But in Harris’ case, his divisive use of language, ethnic superiority and regular historical revisionism suggests that his Moral Landscape is one we’d not like to live in. Take for instance his claim that we should place fMRI lie detectors into not only court rooms, but all public places where he deems truth a necessity. I don’t want to overstate his claim, so here are his words:

…[Harris envisages] a time when every courtroom or boardroom will have the requisite technology discreetly concealed behind its wood panelling. Thereafter, civilized men and women might share a common presumption: that wherever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored…Just as we’ve come to expect that certain public spaces will be free of nudity, sex, loud swearing, and cigarette smoke – and now think nothing of the behavioural constraints imposed upon us whenever we leave the privacy of our homes – we may come to expect that certain places and occasions will require scrupulous truth-telling.

It’s not too much of a leap to consider the grave breaches of cognitive liberties this might result in. You are guilty not simply for what you do, but what you think (all on fairly wonky technology). [4]


Everything & Nothing

In essence, TML makes a broad theory with very little explanatory or functional power. Harris goes to great length to have his theory tested on its principled argument. While I think we’ve dismantled most of that already, it’s worth noting that a dysfunctional moral theory serves us no real purpose. If you can’t use TML to resolve questions around abortion, euthanasia, the trolley scenario, the types of education in school, welfare and so on, then we may as well engage in a dialogical and non-principled conversation on the things that we can agree. The point being that we don’t need The Moral Landscape because it merely contributes self-justifying accounts for your existing beliefs. Harris doesn’t draw a large readership in spite of the simplicity of his arguments, it’s the reason for it.


[1] While there are many possibilities, it appears as if Harris is drawing on Ayn Rand’s Objectivist moral philosophy here which places consciousness at the center.

[2] Blatantly utilitarian, the most obvious advocate being Jeremy Bentham.

[3] He needs to give a heads up to the main man Aristotle (eudaimonia) for The Good and Bad Life, but to my recollection he doesn’t.

[4] Martell has written about some potential consequences with respect to evidence and rights of defendants.

Martell, D. (2009). Neuroscience and the Law: Practical Differences and Philosophical Constraints. Behavioral Sciences and the Law 27(2), 123


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4 replies »

  1. Rant much? Ok, well here’s one in return:

    Just because, you fail to understand that a scientific morality IS rooted by evolutionary theory (both drift and selection), doesn’t mean you can claim fallacies where none exist. Admittedly Sam Harris doesn’t spend enough time on this aspect of his argument as I feel is necessary so I’ll elaborate for you.

    “[…] why should we value the well-being of conscious creatures for a reason other than it enhances the well-being of conscious creatures. The key point here is that the claim is not a scientific one.”

    Perhaps it is because of your lack of training in (or commitment to) scientific philosophy that you do not understand. Yes, your straw man restatement is unscientific. But the argument isnt “good = good”, so who cares. It is that, using an evolutionary framework, the moral landscape is rooted by both individual and group biocultural fitness. Simply put, the “reason other” that you ignore is: oblivion. Systems that do not struggle for fitness on a moral landscape (much in the same way some genetic systems fall off adaptive peaks in the biological fitness landscape (Sewall Wright, etc) into valleys where their enactors are harmed, physically and emotionally. There they cannot competitively spread their moral systems. The benefit of a TML theory is that it points to this phenomenon as a warning, encouraging the development of new perspective in hypothesis driven social science that will point to failing elements of our moral system. It is what we have been doing (despite the backwards belief systems and ideologies of our past) in modern science. Truly, such a perspective can do things like PROVE that ethnic slavery and inequality for women are empirically BAD ideas. And yes it can (but hasn’t yet) answered the moral dilemmas you pointed out – in large part because intellectually absurd arguments like this one keep telling people they make no sense and cant know anything… that each moral system, each decision is ultimately a toss up? Sad that you’re talking yourself out of a job.

    Besides, pal. If you argue your morality isnt scientifically derived (by observation and testing throughout your development), how could it ever be defensible? How could you ever be worthy of respect?

  2. Hey CmaC,

    Thanks for taking the time to read the piece as well as giving the comment – good to see someone has engaged with the topic. I like that you’ve added the evolutionary component to the mix as well, because like you note, Harris doesn’t make this part of his argument. Before going on, it is really important to note that this was a review of Harris’ book and central – not a claim that there can be no claim to objectively good moral standards.

    Like I said earlier, I really like the introduction of evolutionary principles and methodology (although it can be shaky given the retrospective inferential reasoning often employed) into the study of morality. I’m not across Sewall Wright, but I have long been a fan of the work by Frans de Waal on primatology and its link to human values. Although in his work (and another contemporary Patricia Churchland) they restrict what they are doing to an explanatory rather than normative framework – which is obviously more of what I’m arguing.

    I still think the evolutionary framework fails to establish objective measures for morality. It does nothing to prevent adaptive biocultural developments occuring in a way that most would suggest is morally abased. In the video link above you can see Harris get pretty knotted up on this point – he knows that his theory could perfectly operate to perform inhumane acts on minority groups for the betterment of the large collective. He eventually falls back on “rationality” which as I said he leaves unexplained, but more importantly it suggests that we don’t need his ethical framework (if the really hard questions we can just rationally figure out).

    I get what you mean about it being able to perfectly explain the enslavement of women, children and so forth – depending on how apply the values (individual/group/what constitutes well-being in application to these things) you can pretty conclusively say that its a no-no. But I don’t agree at all with you regarding the inevitability of it explaining those more difficult questions. You genuinely haven’t put up a reasonable argument in favour of that. The issues around definition (“well-being”), the ascription of mathematical value (as I assume Harris would need to employ in order to have a methodologically sound scientific argument) to each outcome (on the individual and society as a whole – he also fails to properly deal with the tension between these two points in his book) just completely undermine the thesis. Its genuinely unscientific to claim an end like that without any perceivable methodology or proper clarification of terms. Nobody would give you a second look. Like I said, by giving us the example (slavery etc), he has not really taken us more than a footstep away from a “principled” argument – that’s the realm of philosophy, not science.

    And please don’t bracket me as unscientific – the reason I critique Harris’ claim is in defense of science. The use of “intellectually-absurd” is a joke I assume (hope), but really just the same tactics I refer to in the paper above. As it currently stands I’m completing my honours in Law and Neuroscience/Psychology, looking at how evolutionary theory, complex adaptive systems (which could be linked to your biocultural account in some respects), and cognitive neuroscience come up with a new concept of the “self”. From a more scientific understanding of the self, we can look to how that interacts with the “legal subject” (the person-at-law) – so I’m very pro-sciency (my commitment is strong comrade!), and also an atheist. I’m also well-employed, and I doubt this blog has much bearing on whether that continues/changes.

    Regardless, cheers for the comment – respond if you think I’ve missed anything here. I hope you keep reading my blogs so we can have lively debate!


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