Review: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human ValuesThe Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris

Harris says a lot of things that need to be said. Doesn’t mean I always like the way he says it.

The Moral Landscape is a look at morality as a landscape, with peaks and valleys of “well-being”, essentially ‘goodness’, happiness, or fulfilled life. The conceptual premise is that humanity should use science to navigate the landscape, with the goal of moving people to higher moral ground through objective consideration. Through this metaphor Harris advocates a Science of Morality, where values can and should be determined strictly via scientific endeavor, rather than via purportedly causally distinct domains such as religious belief or abstracted philosophy. Harris describes this moral question as an illusory fact-value distinction that can be reduced to fact only, and as such determined scientifically. This is in opposition to David Hume’s well-known “is-ought” distinction, and it seems there’s been plenty of controversy over this type of philosophical supposition ever since. I’m inclined to side with Harris overall, but I can still logically at least entertain some of these philosophical challenges, making it difficult for me to endorse Harris wholeheartedly from the outset.

I find Harris’ vitriolic rejection of competing ideologies off-putting, but I can understand why he would mix invectives into his logical argument if trying to garner support for an inchoate field of inquiry against sometimes even more zealous opponents. The parts of the book I found most interesting were where Harris takes on the gentler logical tone and analyzes contemporary academics in Positive Psychology, a branch of psychology focused on the concept of happiness, primarily through the lens of clinical studies, statistical analysis, and neuro-imaging (i.e. scientifically). I’ve enjoyed a number of the prominent books in this field recently and I was initially surprised when Harris directly contradicts the authors at times throughout the book (e.g. Jonathan Haidt in particular), making a point of exposing problems with certain sociological conclusions. I did not find these to be refutations of these psychologists’ findings, but rather a compelling challenge to rethink conclusions that may be unwarranted.

In total I find it hard to argue against the proposition that science will influence mental states and understanding given the society we are living in today. Modern use of non-invasive technology (e.g. transcranial magnetic stimulation of spirituality) and manipulation of biochemistry provide convincing examples of how physical action is causally linked to belief and states of being, and therefore a science of morality could be used to determine effective action, whatever that may be. That is to say, while a science of morality may be continually revising the ends, hypotheses about what constitutes goodness, as the “is” we discover physically redefines the “ought” we perceive philosophically, we can be sure it will refine the means to further moral understanding. As Harris so forcefully asserts, we do ourselves disservice by objecting to scientific inquiry. Perhaps “ought” is merely the best possible “is” we can envision, and moral science a powerful tool to widen our metaphysical gaze.

(Additional note: Much of the material is a general condemnation of religiosity, and “New Atheism” seems to be the term for Harris’ particular brand of it. To me New Atheism doesn’t really seem to be a different kind of atheism so much as a category to address modern outspoken religious critics like Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.)…

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