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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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It’s also important to see what Harris is not up to in The Moral Landscape. He is not attempting to provide an evolutionary account of the origins of human morality. Our moral sense may or may not reflect much about our evolutionary history as a species. The logic of natural selection might or might not, for example, account for the tendency of human beings to act altruistically to close genetic relatives, as many proponents of evolutionary psychology suggest. But a science of morality in Harris’s sense is possible in either case. Nor does Harris’s natural science of morality absurdly suggest that whatever is natural is good. Lots of things are both perfectly natural and perfectly awful (say, malaria). Finally, Harris is not merely claiming that science “can help us get what we want out of life.” Rather, he is claiming that science can help us to see “what we should do and should want.”

Harris acknowledges that, for many, the idea of scientists in the morality business is unsettling, if not downright creepy. Who can possibly find appealing the image of a sect of experts, attired in white lab coats, instructing us in what we “should do and should want”? Harris’s response is, in effect, to buck up. It’s true, he says, that the science of morality will likely yield a class of moral experts. Just as some people know more about quantum mechanics than others, why shouldn’t we expect some people to know more about morality than others? This, apparently, is another of those objective facts about the world that we must face up to. In any case, Harris seems untroubled by it.

3.

Although The Moral Landscape is provocative and parts of it, particularly the neurobiology, are intriguing, Harris’s three main claims seem to me dubious.

First, his reasons for finding the fact/value distinction illusory leave a bit to be desired. Harris’s use of neuroimaging studies here is far from compelling. While the data themselves are certainly interesting—indeed, Harris’s original scientific publications are fascinating—his interpretation of them in The Moral Landscape is extravagant. It seems odd to try to assess the relationship between two ideas or judgments by analyzing whether the same brain regions are active when each is represented in the human mind. Surely such an assessment requires one to analyze the ideas or judgments themselves. If the same brain regions are active when people mentally perform addition and multiplication, would Harris conclude that the addition/multiplication distinction is illusory?

And putting aside this worry, there’s a more prosaic one. Whole-brain neuroimaging studies have only limited sensitivity, as Harris acknowledges. So it seems a tad incautious to conclude that, because the same approximate regions of the brain light up when judging factual and ethical propositions, the purported divide between them is suspicious.2

Indeed Harris softens his language as he turns to the details of his empirical results:

If, from the point of view of the brain, believing “the sun is a star” is importantly similar to believing “cruelty is wrong,” how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?

But of course no one ever said that factual and ethical judgments aren’t “similar” or have “nothing in common.” They’re obviously similar and have much in common. Both are judgments, both are believed by human minds and not by rocks, and so on. The relevant claim is that facts and values are not the same and that statements about facts cannot justify statements about values. It’s hard to see how Harris’s data address this issue.

Similarly, Harris’s attempt to blur the fact/value distinction by insisting that science results from valuing certain things (like evidence) seems confused. Science results from many things but that doesn’t diminish the difference between scientific facts and those things. Science, for example, results from the ability to manipulate the world. But are we to conclude that scientific facts are the same as the ability to manipulate the world? Something has gone wrong here. In any case, it’s odd to see Harris invest so much in the (apparently) postmodernist claim that science rests on values and therefore the fact/value distinction is illusory. If this were really true, it would lead in a number of eminently silly directions that Harris would be the first to denounce.

Harris’s second main claim—that the only intelligible morality involves the maximization of well-being—can certainly be challenged. His view of morality is a species of utilitarianism and plenty of people have raised plenty of questions about utilitarianism—for example, the late Bernard Williams in some of his most telling writings. And Harris doesn’t seem to take seriously the fact that different peoples at different times have had different visions of morality. When Trotsky said, “We Bolsheviks do not accept the bourgeois theory of ‘the sanctity of human life,’” was he endorsing Harris’s “beneficence, trust, creativity,” and “wholesome pleasures,” all enjoyed in a “prosperous civil society”?

But there’s a more important point. Harris’s view that morality concerns the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures doesn’t follow from science. What experiment or body of scientific theory yielded such a conclusion? Clearly, none. Harris’s view of the good is undeniably appealing but it has nothing whatever to do with science. It is, as he later concedes, a philosophical position. (Near the close of The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that we can’t always draw a sharp line between science and philosophy. But it’s unclear how this is supposed to help his case. If there’s no clear line between science and philosophy, why are we supposed to get so excited about a science of morality? After all, no one ever said there couldn’t be a philosophy of morality.)

Where, then, does actual science enter into Harris’s science of morality? This takes us to his third main claim and, unfortunately, the answer is somewhat unclear. Harris spends considerable time talking about neurobiology, particularly the functional neurobiology of belief. But throughout The Moral Landscape, he mostly enlists science in the cause of revealing how to enhance human well-being. He emphasizes, for example, that certain economic arrangements are objectively more conducive to human flourishing than are others, so presumably economics can help. He also provides an example of how the science of morality could deal with a particular problem, homelessness:

There are an estimated 90,000 people living on the streets of Los Angeles. Why are they homeless? How many of these people are mentally ill? How many are addicted to drugs or alcohol? How many have simply fallen through the cracks in our economy? Such questions have answers…. Are there policies we could adopt that would make it easy for every person in the United States to help alleviate the problem of homelessness in their own communities? Is there some brilliant idea that no one has thought of that would make people want to alleviate the problem of homelessness more than they want to watch television or play video games?…Such questions open onto a world of facts….

Indeed they do. But this vision of the role of science is wholly uncontroversial. Of course science can help us reach some end once we’ve decided what that end is. That’s why we have medicine, engineering, economics, and all the other applied sciences in the first place. But this has nothing to do with blurring the is/ought distinction or overcoming traditional qualms about a science of morality. If you’ve decided that the ultimate value is living a long life (“one ought to live as long as possible”), medical science can help (“you ought to exercise”). But medical science can’t show that the ultimate value is living a long life. Much of The Moral Landscape is an extended exercise in confusing these two senses of ought.3

Despite Harris’s bravado about “how science can determine human values,” The Moral Landscape delivers nothing of the kind.

4.

I suspect that part of the problem with The Moral Landscape is that Harris may mistake his target. It seems clear that what really angers and animates him is moral relativism, not those who question the possibility of a scientific morality. The Moral Landscape is filled with impassioned, and generally persuasive, denunciations of politically correct academics who espouse the relativity of morals. My favorite example:

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 making the world a better place.

Unfortunately Harris tends, in his more polemical moments, to confuse matters and it’s easy to leave his book with the impression that those who reject a scientific morality flirt dangerously with moral relativism. But this needn’t be. One can be skeptical of a science of morality and abstain from relativism. Here’s the proof: religious people have no interest in scientific morality but no one’s ever accused them of moral relativism. Or, looking in a secular direction, some have suggested that moral truths have an a priori status, rather like mathematical truths. If so, morality would have no need of empirical justification; indeed morals would have a stronger claim to truth than would empirical facts. This is about as far from mushy moral relativism as one can get.

It’s also important to see that one can have doubts about Harris’s particular attempted scientific morality without closing the door entirely on some sort of naturalized ethics, one, that is, that’s tied to the world of physical and biological nature. I, for one, have no particular problem with the notion that our evolutionary history played some part in shaping our moral sense, though reason and culture play conspicuous parts too. We are animals, not angels, and it would be bizarre if natural selection had nothing whatever to do with the emergence of our moral intuitions. But we are also rational and culture-creating animals and it would be equally bizarre if these forces played no part in shaping our moral norms.4 The point is that it’s one thing to say that Harris fails to plausibly solve the is/ought problem, another to say that it can’t be solved.

In the end, it’s odd that one can share so many of Harris’s views and yet find his project largely unsuccessful. I certainly share his vision of the well-being of conscious creatures as a sensible end for ethics. And I agree that science can and should help us to attain this end. And I certainly agree that religion has no monopoly on morals. The problem—and it’s one that Harris never faces up to—is that one can agree with all these things and yet not think that morality should be “considered an undeveloped branch of science.”

  1. 1

    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).” 

  2. 2

    For a clear, though necessarily technical, presentation of Harris’s findings, see S. Harris, S.A. Sheth, and M.S. Cohen, “Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief, and Uncertainty,” Annals of Neurology, Vol. 63 (2008), pp. 141–147. 

  3. 3

    The point was made with characteristic clarity by the late amateur mathematician and scientist Martin Gardner: “Descriptive ethics tells us only what is, not what ought to be. Ought here means the justification of an ultimate goal, not what should be done to reach an agreed-upon goal.” See The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), p. 90. 

  4. 4

    For one attempt to navigate these difficult waters, see Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (Oxford University Press, 1983). 

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