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The Science of Right and Wrong

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Charles Ommanney/Getty Images
Sam Harris, right, with the evangelical pastor Rick Warren at a group discussion on religion and faith at Warren’s Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California, March 2007

1.

Once upon a time popular science was the attempt to explain the achievements of scientists to a broad audience. This was a noble endeavor that performed a useful function. How else was the public to learn what physicists, chemists, or biologists had accomplished? Recently, however, a new genre of popular science has appeared, one that shifts the tense from past to future. These new books focus on the great things that science will achieve, and allegedly soon. Thus, before the human genome was sequenced, we were treated to talk about how the project was destined to change our view of humanity. (One hears considerably less about this now, after the fact.) The latest entry in this new genre of popular science is Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.

Harris was trained as a neuroscientist and received his doctoral degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2009. He is best known as the author of two previous books. In 2004, he published The End of Faith, a fierce attack on organized religion. The book, which propelled Harris from near obscurity to near stardom—he has appeared on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The O’Reilly Factor—is one of the canonical works of the New Atheist movement, along with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006). Harris seemed mostly to play the part of polemicist in the movement. He possesses a sharp wit and an even sharper pen, and his attacks on mainstream religion had a scorched-earth intensity. In 2006, Harris followed this up with Letter to a Christian Nation, an uncompromising response to his Christian critics.

In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Harris shifts his sights somewhat. He is now concerned with the sorry state of moral thinking among both religious and secular people in the West. While the former are convinced that moral truths are handed down from on high, the latter are perpetually muddled, frequently believing that morals are relative, the product of arbitrary tradition and social conditioning. Harris hopes to sweep aside both kinds of confusion, convincing his readers that objective moral truths exist and that we possess a (properly secular) means for discovering them.

It may not come as a surprise that Harris thinks these required means are scientific. Science, he insists, will someday show us the way to the good life. Harris’s claims are both bold and, as expected from his previous writings, plainly put: “I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” Indeed, as the subtitle of his book promises, he will show “how science can determine human values.” Though Harris concedes that the science required for this task, particularly neurobiology, remains in its infancy, the requisite developments, he suggests, may be on the horizon. We must all face up to the fact that “science will gradually encompass life’s deepest questions.”

It’s clear that Harris’s mission in The Moral Landscape is loosely connected to his earlier one. Religion has, for millennia, been thought the primary source of morality. But if, as Harris believes, religion is both flawed and wicked, an alternative is needed. Science can provide it.

Harris is aware that such large claims will invite charges of naive scientism, but he is unfazed. In particular, he is well aware that a long intellectual tradition insists that anything resembling a science of morality is impossible: science trades in facts and ethics trades in values and, according to the tradition, facts can never justify values. So Harris’s project will require him to do battle with some deep, and widely shared, views.

The result of all this is not particularly pretty. Part of the problem is that the book suffers from an awkward structure. While the first half of The Moral Landscape is concerned with the possibility of a science of morality, the second half features long chapters on the neurobiology of belief and the delusions of religion (including a lengthy attack on Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian). Harris ties these chapters only loosely to his main thesis. It turns out that some of this later material is more or less imported from Harris’s earlier scientific publications or from Op-Ed pieces or online essays that he’s written. None of this makes for a particularly coherent presentation and the book seems, in places, aimless. By the end, one worries that Harris has lost focus on the ostensible point of his book: that a science of morality is possible.

2.

Harris’s story begins where it must, with the notion of a divide between fact and value. This divide was first emphasized by David Hume in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). Hume noted that arguments often proceed in the usual way—with a string of statements about facts (“a sibling is a close relative”)—only to end with a conclusion about values (“one ought to be nice to one’s siblings”). This kind of leap seemed to him “altogether inconceivable.” How can statements about facts ever lead to, much less justify, statements about values? Hume’s is/ought distinction suggests that they cannot.1 G.E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica (1903), elaborated on this problem. According to Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy,” it is a mistake to try to analyze an ethical statement by defining “good” in a way that points to any natural property, e.g., pleasure. One can, after all, always step back and reasonably ask whether pleasure is actually good.

To many, then, the world of facts (described by science) and the world of values (described by ethics) must remain distinct. Any hope of a science of morality must, consequently, be abandoned as not only hubristic but nonsensical. As Harris emphasizes, the taboo against the idea of a scientific morality is widely accepted in smart circles, including smart scientific circles. Indeed we scientists, and especially biologists, are taught early to steer clear of anything that resembles the naturalistic fallacy: never confuse your scientific facts with ethical norms.

Harris will have none of this. He makes at least three big claims in The Moral Landscape. The first is that he believes that the is/ought problem is a nonproblem. Indeed the divide between facts and values is, he says, largely illusory. Harris offers several reasons for this conclusion but he seems fond of two. Neuroimaging studies of the human brain at work reveal that the same regions of our brains are active when people judge the truth or falsity of both factual statements (“Spain is a country”) and ethical statements (“Murder is wrong”). In particular, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies, performed by Harris and colleagues as part of his doctoral research, reveal that blood flow to certain regions of the brain increase during such judgments: believing the truth of factual and ethical statements involves increased blood flow to the medial prefrontal cortex, for instance, while disbelieving factual and ethical statements involves increased blood flow to the left inferior frontal gyrus, among other regions. (Uncertainty about the truth or falsity of such statements involves increased blood flow to yet other regions of the brain.) In the face of such neurological findings, it is hard, Harris says, to sustain the view that a divide separates facts and values.

Harris also emphasizes that the pursuit of science itself rests upon the acceptance of certain values:

Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, scientific validity is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; rather, scientific validity is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality.

And:

The very idea of “objective” knowledge (i.e., knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.).

Given all this, how can one possibly drive a wedge between facts and values? Harris concludes that one cannot: “The split between facts and values—and, therefore, between science and morality—is an illusion.” Contrary to received wisdom, then, nothing would seem to stand in the way of a science of morality.

Harris’s second big claim is that he has identified the correct conception of the good. It is the well-being of conscious creatures. Indeed Harris suggests that any other conception of the good either is equivalent to this one or is nonsense: “Concern for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values.” After all, every notion of the good ever offered concerns a putatively conscious creature (either our present selves or, in some religious traditions, our future spiritual selves in an afterlife) and it’s hard to see how concern for a conscious creature could involve anything but concern for its well-being. A science of morality must, then, be concerned with what contributes to well-being: a “prosperous civil society,” for instance, or an atmosphere of “beneficence, trust, creativity,” and the pursuit of “wholesome pleasures.” (Harris also concludes that those, like serial murderers, who would champion some perversely eccentric conception of the good are so far outside the conversation that they needn’t be refuted, only ignored.)

Harris further suggests that this notion of the good is associated with a “moral landscape.” This landscape is a hypothetical

space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving—different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.—will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing.

Harris acknowledges that the moral landscape might have multiple peaks—there might well be several or perhaps many ways in which people can maximize their well-being—but there are still facts of the matter here. Some “ways of thinking and behaving” are objectively better than others.

And this leads to Harris’s third main claim. Given that the moral landscape reflects a world of facts, it can be studied by science. Science can map the topography of the landscape and help us to traverse it, efficiently ascending peaks of well-being. Harris acknowledges that we have no guarantee that science can, in all cases, uncover the relevant objective facts about morality. But this doesn’t change the fact that these objective facts exist. (As he says, there is a difference between “answers in principle” and “answers in practice.”)

Harris notes that a science of morality might deliver some surprises—our moral intuitions may sometimes err about what actually increases human well-being—but it might also confirm some traditional views:

There is every reason to expect that kindness, compassion, fairness, and other classically “good” traits will be vindicated neuroscientifically—which is to say that we will only discover further reasons to believe that they are good for us, in that they generally enhance our lives.
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    This is the most widely, though not universally, accepted interpretation of Hume. In any case, it’s the view of Hume that Harris endorses: “The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how we ought to behave (morality).” 

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