466 of 530 people found the following review helpful
Sam Harris seems to have a knack for staying on the cutting edge of the religious debates. His first book, "The End of Faith," ignited the so-called New Atheist movement. Now after several years and after earning a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA Harris returns igniting a new debate, this time about the moral landscape of our world. People have been arguing back and forth whether there was anything new in the so-called New Atheist movement. But if this book counts as part of that movement then Harris does succeed in bringing something new to the table.
Theists like to remind atheists of the old days, the days of Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre, the so-called robust atheists of the past who didn't think there could be an objective morality for us all. Now with this book there is truly a new atheism, one that affirms an objective morality based in the sciences. And it will be hotly contested by both sides.
In this book Sam Harris admirably attempts to steer between a moral absolutism that has answers to most moral questions and a relativism that has nothing objective to say about them. For him moral facts exist, but relativism is false. For him the answers to moral questions do not come from religion, which can and does produce more harm than good, but from science, which helps us understand what makes for human flourishing. Science should be able to tell us in principle how we ought to live our lives.
Given that our experience is constrained by the laws of the universe, Harris argues there must be scientific answers to the question of how best to move up to the peaks of this moral landscape, toward greater happiness.
According to Harris there can be no such thing as Muslim algebra or Christian neuroscience so also there can be no religion specific morality.
While there are conflicting moral claims that might never be solved, most moral issues are not like this, he argues. For if we could eliminate "war, nuclear proliferation, malaria, chronic hunger, child abuse," etc. this would provide for human flourishing and be morally good for everyone.
He argues that at bottom moral questions are about neurology, biology, psychology, sociology, and economics.
According to Harris: "It seems to me that the only way we are going to build a global civilization based on shared values--allowing us to converge on the same political, economic, and environmental goals--is to admit that questions about right and wrong and good and evil have answers, in the same way the questions about human health do."
I hope his argument succeeds. It should. He argues for it in a masterful way.
69 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2010
In this book, Sam Harris advocates for the relevance of science to moral judgments and moral decisions. Harris defines himself as a consequentialist or utilitarian moral theorist, and within that tradition in moral philosophy, the relevance of science to morality is not so controversial. If you can define "happiness" (or some other condition to be maximized), and you can adopt a definition of "maximized", and you can calculate the contribution of any act to what you've defined as happiness, you've provided at least a rudimentary method for determining the morality of those acts. And scientific research is certainly relevant to that determination, especially if you've defined "happiness" ("well-being" for Harris) in scientifically friendly terms. Harris does so, claiming that "well-being" has to do with the brain states of conscious creatures.
That's a coherent position to take. It's not without controversy or refinement. Figuring out what "maximize" means, for example, is pretty critical to whether or not we value equal distributions of happiness across a population or only the sum total. If only the sum total, then radically unequal distributions are morally superior so long as they sum out higher than more equal ones.
Harris knows about such problems. In fact, he discusses but takes no stand on the average vs. sum question in Chapter 2 of his book. Nor does he offer any sort of detailed guidance on how such a question would be settled scientifically, if he thinks that can be done.
Harris has less to say about debates between consequentialist moral theory and other main strains of thinking about what morality is. As he himself says, he is not going to provide any sort of strict definition for his key term "well-being", referring rather to an analogy to the term "health", in which numerous approaches to what is "healthy" can be mutually consistent without supposing that the term itself thereby becomes radically undetermined or meaningless. I think he's right about that. But it's exactly that indeterminateness that is the root of a great deal of philosophical debate about morality.
Philosophers sometimes distinguish three main branches in the history of moral philosophy. One is consequentialism, Harris' branch. Another is Kantian moral thought, in which it is not the consequences of an action that make it moral or immoral, but rather what Kant calls the "subjective principle of volition" behind the action -- we can call that the "intention" behind the action just for the sake of argument (but Kantians will howl). And the other is Aristotelian moral thought, based on the concept of virtue and the development and exercise of virtue in a life. Harris has little to say about either of those lines of thought, except to say that his notion of "well-being" is elastic enough to encompass whatever other people may mean when they talk about things like "duty" (a core Kantian term), "justice", etc.
Harris thinks, like some other consequentialists, that any validity those other strains of thought have can be captured within the consequentialist framework. After all, as Harris argues, if those things matter, they must matter because they contribute to someone's well-being. Sounds reasonable.
But I think that without more fully addressing those alternative strains of moral thought, Harris doesn't address some pretty central questions. For example, how much does the fact that I am the one causing pain or happiness for others count in my moral decisions as opposed to just anyone causing that same pain or happiness? If I were asked to fire an employee I manage, and I believe the firing to be unjust, should I refuse to do it, even though I know that if I do so, I will be fired for refusing, and the employee will be fired anyway? That's not a made-up case -- among others, that was Elliot Richardson's position, when his boss, Richard Nixon, ordered him to fire Archibald Cox. On one way of thinking about morality, my character (and my virtues) count centrally in the decision. On strict consequentialist grounds, it doesn't, except in so far as we can reconstruct my character in terms of "happiness" or "well-being", detouring around the central question of whether character in itself counts.
There are also more radical strains of thought. One that is particularly relevant to Harris' arguments, is that the moral autonomy of human beings extends to the very definition of well-being itself. Put in terms closer to Harris, what makes us happy is then something we can influence ourselves, by training, or by commitment, or other methods. At times, Harris seems to admit such possibilities (see his discussions in Chapter 2 of the faults in our moral intuitions and the possibility of training ourselves out of them, or his remarks there about how we might alter our moral perceptions with drug treatments). Should we train ourselves to value equality, so that we perceive our own well-being served by equality (with the resulting positive conscious brain states Harris associates with well-being)? Or conversely, should we train ourselves to value extreme distributions, finding satisfaction in the lives of others even if we can't achieve those heights ourselves? If so, then we might be able to increase our collective well-being by simply training ourselves to positively perceive a given state of affairs. Should we do that?
The opponents that Harris aims at are not alternative theories of morality per se, but rather religion and moral relativism. He thinks that many immoral acts and institutions are purportedly justified by religious belief, and he liberally cites the Taliban and Muslim extremism in general as examples. Then he decries modern liberals for shrinking back from moral judgment against those acts and institutions on relativist grounds.
Understood this way, as I said, I don't see that much to object to in Harris' claim that science can contribute to determining the moral value of actions, at least in consequentialist terms.
We could object that his sweep across "religion" makes little room for distinctions among fundamentalist believers and others. That's probably a topic better addressed in reference to his book on "The End of Faith" than this one. Chapters 3 and 4 of this book concentrate on "Belief" and "Religion", but I don't think that any of the claims in those chapters bear directly on unanswered questions relating to consequentialism and its alternatives.
We could also object to Harris' rhetoric -- his style is polemical, not academic. He seems to think that anybody who disagrees with him is an idiot or a fool.
For my part, I just don't think that he has solved the problems of moral philosophy, either the ones within his consequentialist branch or the ones between consequentialism and others strains of thought about what morality is. And I don't think that Harris has shown that those problems can be solved scientifically, if he intended to do so.
467 of 551 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2010
First of all, I must say that I am a Sam Harris fan. I enjoyed his previous two books and really like his writing style, which is lucid, lively and engaging. Unfortunately, while the quality of Harris' prose in "The Moral Landscape" remains excellent, the same cannot be said of the quality of his reasoning.
In "The Moral Landscape", Sam Harris posits that there *are* objective moral values and they can be determined by science. Briefly, his argument is that morality should be defined as the well-being of conscious creatures, and since the question of what acts or situations will promote/undermine well-being is an empirical one, it is a question that science can (in principle) answer. This is an audacious thesis, and as reluctant moral skeptic who is constantly on the lookout for a convincing account of moral objectivity, I was excited to see whether Harris could support his claims.
However, I was sorely disappointed. Harris' argumentative technique consists primarily of making bare assertions or rhetorical statements. For example, he says things like "There is little doubt that well-being must include fairness, compassion, etc" or "It seems clear that whether a certain state of pleasure is 'good' has to do with whether it is conducive to well-being". Anyone familiar with argumentative writing would know that when a writer has to resort to bare claims about how "obvious" or "clear" a proposition is, he really doesn't have any support for that proposition at all.
In a similar vein, Harris rejects Hume's venerable is-ought distinction by insisting, "If this notion of 'ought' means anything we can possibly care about, it must translate into a concern about the actual or potential experience of conscious beings." He then summarily dismisses the views of people who disagree by asserting that they must be wrong, lying or not making sense! This is very poor argumentative technique indeed.
Harris is slightly more persuasive when he draws analogies between morality and science or medicine. He points out that science and medicine also rest on certain unsubstantiated premises - for example, science assumes that empirical evidence can be relied upon for determining truth, while medicine presupposes that "health" means a long life free of diseases. Yet nobody would say that science cannot discover objective facts, or that health cannot be studied scientifically. By the same token, the fact that one cannot prove that morality is about the well-being of conscious entities is not fatal to the scientific study of morality.
However, upon closer scrutiny, one will find that Harris has ducked the issue altogether. The issue is not whether morality can be studied scientifically, once we accept the premise that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures. Rather, the issue is whether science can determine what morality consists of *in the first place*. In other words, the question is not, "Can science tell us how to achieve X, assuming that X is moral/desirable/valuable?" Instead, the question is, "Can science determine *whether* X is moral/desirable/valuable?" While the subtitle of Harris' book suggests that he is addressing the latter question, his book is in fact concerned with the former.
In conclusion, Harris' book lacks logical rigour and fails to accomplish what it set out to achieve. Nevertheless, it is still a well-written, highly readable book that is informative and interesting, especially when it deals with the neuroscientific aspects of belief, free will and morality. In spite of its significant flaws, I would still recommend it to the average layperson who is interested in this subject area.
209 of 258 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2010
Sam Harris has written a simple, yet extraordinarily powerful book about the "science of morality" and it is quite a revelation. He cuts through the cloudy thinking of religion and relativism to get at the heart of the problem: How do we as human beings maximize our well being?
Harris provides no hard and fast answers, he is attempting to lay the foundations here. He is not, like Moses, stumbling off Mt. Sinai with stone tablets emblazoned with the "truth," he is merely sketching out how we might orient ourselves to best tackle the mountain ourselves.
Refreshing and brilliant.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Harris's book, "The Moral Lanscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values", is a response to the religious community's assertion that moral questions are outside the domain of scientific study. In this book, Harris argues that morality is not within the sole purview of religion, but rather, it is a topic that can be objectively studied and best answered through scientific investigation.
Harris begins with the axiom: humans are conscious creatures that value their own well-being, and states that the concept of value has little meaning apart from its association with conscious creatures. From this starting point, he says that if we value human well-being then there are approaches that will lead us closer to maximizing this goal and approaches that will lead us farther away. Moreover, science can investigate and assist us in deciding on an approach that will close the gap toward this goal, and science can identify approaches that will hinder us from our objective.
Despite a few persuasive points in his book, I had many criticisms.
1) The Subtitle:
The subtitle is "How Science Can Determine Human Values". But this subtitle is ambiguous. Is Harris claiming that science can tell us what values we should hold or pursue, as well as why we should hold or pursue them? Or is he stating that science can determine what values humans, in fact, hold and pursue? Traditionally, the former falls within the purview of philosophy and ethics; the latter is a descriptive study of morality and could fall within the purview of science. However, there is little reason to write a book to answer the second question. The answer seems quite obvious. But by purchasing Harris's book, if your primary hope is to answer the first question, you will be greatly disappointed. He does not address this question.
2) Maximizing Human Well-Being
Harris seems to be arguing that if you have a desired goal, then the moral choice is that which brings you closer to that goal. For example, IF we accept Harris's goal - maximizing human well-being - and we wish to attain that goal, THEN science can tell us how to achieve that goal. But this is a far cry from the claim that science can tell us what is moral. We could equally say that if our goal is to murder our neighbor without getting caught, science could help us answer that question too, at least in principle. None of this reveals the power of science to tell us what is, in fact, moral.
3) Separation Between Facts & Values is Illusory
Harris claims that the chasm separating facts and values is illusory. In his own words: "(1) whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures - which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value - must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large; (2) the very idea of `objective' knowledge... 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.); (3) beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears that we have a common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains."
Harris makes these three points to argue that science can study values. If he merely wishes to show that science can descriptively study human values, including how we make decisions or why we make certain moral choices, then his claim is unremarkable. But if he wishes to use these points to assert that science can provide prescriptions on how humans ought to behave, then his points do not support this assertion. The fact is, humans can hold values independent of the facts, as is evident by the superstitious and religious beliefs held by the general populace. Thus, there is a real separation between facts and values, and our ability to sustain this chasm seems unparalleled in the animal kingdom.
4) Speaks in Generalities, Not Specifics:
Harris's book discusses morality in broad terms and generalities. He rarely discusses specific moral issues. His claim would've been more convincing if he could demonstrate how science might answer specific moral questions. He doesn't have to provide an answer, but merely show that an answer is possible through science. For example, how would science answer the abortion question? Much of the argument centers on what is considered "life". Perhaps what should be discussed is "conscious life". Certainly, science could address whether a mass of cells is conscious, and thus, capable of suffering. But then, the issue still comes back to why we should care about a mass of conscious cells (assuming science found it was conscious), since it is still not fully conscious the way a full-term baby is. And even if the mass lacked consciousness, one could argue that the mass is still a potential human being with a very high probability of being born healthy -- not to mention the fact that the development process has already begun. Given this information, is abortion morally right or not? How can science answer this question, even in principle?
What if a person, with a certain type of brain disease, is found in a "vegetative" state and science determines that such an individual is not capable of suffering. Furthermore, let's assume the individual has no family, thus, there's no one to mourn the person's situation. Would it be immoral to rape the individual and then suffocate the person to death? Why (or why not)? How can science answer this question, even in principle? And if well-being is the objective, what if such an act provided the rapist with a sense of well-being? Would his actions become moral since no one is suffering and he gains pleasure from the act?
Or imagine that you are an undercover FBI agent investigating the mafia. The mafia suspects that you may be a "cop", so the godfather asks you to kill another person in front of him, who also happens to be a "cop". If you fail to comply, you will be executed on the spot by three other men with guns pointed at your head; your wife will become a widow & your children will be fatherless. But if you shoot the other agent, you will have vindicated yourself in the eyes of the mafia (and save all the time, effort, & money spent by the FBI investigating the mafia) but risk losing your badge and potentially end up in prison for manslaughter or murder. Alternatively, you could elect to shoot your way out and escape, along with the other agent, but there's no guarantee (not even a high probability) that you will be successful. So what is the moral choice in this situation, and more importantly, how can science help you determine which choice to make or whether you should value one goal over another? These types of issues are not addressed by Harris. Moreover, it's difficult to see how science can make this determination, even in principle.
5) Individual vs. Collective
Harris's book focuses on societal well-being. In fact, he often compares the health of a society with physical health. And while the pursuit of societal well-being is fine (in principle), humans are not motivated by such goals in practice (at least not for long). Our concern is our own individual well-being and the well-being of those that might impact our own well-being. This also means that the desire to maximize our own well-being may often conflict with the desires of others (and society as a whole). So what is the morally correct thing to do in such cases? How can science answer this question, even in principle?
If given the choice between living in a societal quagmire where I am a prince among paupers, I may prefer that society over living in a first-world nation where I am an average citizen. I may not be maximizing human well-being overall, but why should I care since my own well-being may be maximized. Perhaps I may favor keeping my fellow humans in the quagmire to maintain my own status and power. In fact, research has shown that we are less satisified if those immediately around us are better off than us, even if we are better off than most of the world population. How can science demonstrate that my choice is morally wrong, even in principle?
Harris's book implies that science is superior at answering moral questions than religion and is less likely to incorrectly answer the slavery or genocide question (i.e. is slavery or genocide wrong?). But is this necessarily true? What if science found that societies, as a whole, would've been better if slavery was permitted? Or what if Germany would've been better off, as a whole, if the Jews were exterminated? Would slavery and genocide become morally acceptable positions, supported by science? And if not, then why not? Harris never addresses such issues.
The U.S. is responsible for the near extinction of the native American populations. But one could argue that great progress and overall societal benefit was reaped from their "relocation" and extermination. Genocide allowed more "civilized" people to settle the land and secured prosperity for millions of future Americans. Thus, looking back, was it moral to kill and relocate the native Americans? Of course, one could equally argue that society would've been better off had the natives remained alive and continued their way of life. But such an argument would be speculation; how would we know? That experiment is not available to us (and never will be). Yet we do know that the United States would've been a very different place than it is today if the natives still populated this nation. Science seems no better at guarding us from poor moral decisions -- the same decisions ancient religious societies chose for themselves - such as the choice to engage in slavery or genocide.
7) Lacks Originality:
Harris's thesis is not original. He is not the first person to propose an objective morality outside of an academic setting. Richard Carrier presented a comparable view in his book, "Sense and Goodness without God", in which he argues for the Goal Theory of Morality. Novelist & philosopher, Ayn Rand, espoused a similar view during the mid-20th century.
Yet while I think Harris is a better writer than both Carrier and Rand, I don't think he was as rigorous in his application of reason. Thus, while there are persuasive parts in his book, I was hoping that he would've learned from both of these authors and expanded or improved upon their points. He did not.
Unfortunately, Harris' most persuasive argument is an analogy. He compares societal health with physical health. However, analogies are never good argumentative tools by themselves. Analogies can help clarify a point or increase comprehension. Yet analogies are a poor foundation for demonstrating the truth of a proposition.
I agree with Harris's thesis that morality is not the sole province of religion. I also agree that science may be better at providing us with reasons for pursuing a particular decision or a specific action. The best religion can do is assert that if you do or don't do "X" then it's a sin and you'll burn in Hell, as if fear or mental compulsion is a morally acceptable reason for doing anything at all.
However, while science can descriptively study human morality, I don't agree that it can necessarily provide us with prescriptions (unless we share a common goal). And if there's one thing that's clear from human experience, it is that humans have different goals and different conceptions of what constitutes well-being, even conflicting conceptions. While science may do better than religion at providing prescriptions, it is not the well-paved road that Harris makes it out to be.
51 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2010
Although I am a fan of Mr. Harris' prior two books, the subtitle of his latest book made me cringe. I came to it not expecting much and I wasn't disappointed. I noticed by the way that no philosopher endorsed it. At least there wasn't one on the dust jacket. I consider this latest work a philosophically naive attempt to defend hedonic utilitarianism( HU ), which BTW is what our country is founded on. A quick read of the Declaration of Independence confirms this: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' Hmm...apparently Jefferson didn't need neuroscience to write that sentence. If we as a society determine that the goal is to maximize our hedonic utility collectively, then I think science, and in this case neuroscience, can help make our decisions more informed. But the issue is a lot more complicated than that which is why I consider this lastest book naive.
I am sympathetic with his goal of securing the notion that we do not need a belief in god(s) or religion to live healthy, moral and fulfilling lives. I think he overreached himself however. I did not read anything in the book to change my mind that humans impute value. We do not discover it.
The other low starred reviews discuss many of the things I think are wrong with his position, let me just mention a few of my own.
First of all, there is the measurement problem. Utilititarianism has spawned a huge literature in economics none of which he has engaged with regarding measuring a person's utility function. Basically, it is considered impossible. Looking at a bunch of pretty colors in an fMRI machine doesn't help. Do we measure short term happiness or long term happiness. Do we take the average? Does it matter? Maybe short term equals long term. Harris's equivocations amount to not taking a stand. How is science going to determine the optimal ratio of short term pleasure versus long term pleasure? This is an intractable problem in principle. Those decisions require human non-scientific judgement.
What if a person was trained to enjoy humiliation and degradation( it was done in such a fashion that it happened by degrees and all along the process the person always felt pleasure during the process and their brain scans gave all the right pretty colors ). Would it be moral to degrade and humiliate that person even though they sport all the right pretty colors? - this is once again the happy slave.
Secondly, Mr. Harris assumes that there is an isomorphism between the brain states of the population that neuroscientists study and the general population. This means that one can extrapolate from a sample to the rest of the population. This ultimately means that the moral truths learned apply to the average human. Are you average? In so doing, he essentializes humans. He also neglects to discuss how learning plays into determining what behaviors create well-being. We've all had the experience of disliking something when we are young and then later on learning to find an activity pleasurable. Learning is an unpredictable process. One never really knows what might make one happy in the future. That's why it's fun to try new things and have serendipitous experiences. Every choice involves committing one's future self to the consequences of one's decisions in the present.
We can measure happiness he says. I can hear the board of ethicists now, 'Mr. Smith, we've discovered that 99.0% of the people aren't happy if they engage in this behavior, therefore it would be immoral for us to allow you to do it.' Also consider the Happy Slave thought experiment which highlights the distinction between subjective well-being and objective well-being. We all are taught to believe that enslaving another human being is immoral. But imagine for a moment a slave who is content and happy with their enslavement. Any other situation would be intolerable for the person and would decrease their well-being. We back this up with brain scans and find yes indeed this person would experience horrific pain if they were freed. Not allowing the slave to enjoy his well-being is to tell him what to VALUE ( he/she doesn't value primitive freedom ). Harris would respond like Socrates that this person acts out of ignorance and does not perceive their 'true' objective well-being. If they only knew the truth, they would understand that they could be so much happier if they were not a slave. ( Think also of the 'Story of O' here ). Of course, Mr. Harris and his team of fellow neuroscientists are ready to supply those objectively true values/morals...it also causes us so much pain to see you enslaved. Thereofore for our subjective well-being, and your objective well-being, you must be freed even if it doesn't enhance your subjective well-being. But Harris would say, we've solved the hedonic calculus equations. This is moral truth.
So what are we to have then, a board of scientists who determine what the objectively true morals are? He dismisses the fascist implications of his position which are quite real. Many from my generation can remember how individuals wanting to leave the former Soviet Union were categorized as mentally ill by the government and incarcerated in mental hospitals. Why? No sane person would want to leave the 'worker's paradise'? What if science shows that people are happiest in a monogamist male-female relationship where the couple has sex at least once a week. Are we going to promote this as national policy? What about those who are not average and want to remain single or would like to be in a polyamorous group? He would say there are multiple peaks to the moral landscape, ie multiple ways of pursuing well-being that do not make others worse off in a Pareto optimal sense ( he seems unfamiliar with Pareto optimality however ). But multiple peaks seem to me to eviscerate the whole concept of moral truth. Who determines if some behavior is another peak and not a moral valley? Who detects shoddy science? Remember the eugenics movement in the US in the 1920s.
Consider another thought experiment: The allies have just taken Berlin at the end of WW2. A team of soldiers with medics rush into Hitler's bunker. You find him lying on the floor bleeding from a botched suicide attempt. Should you save his life? Why or Why not? I don't see how science would help us make this decision.
Thirdly, following in the venerable tradition of Aristotle, Mr. Harris assumes that morality and well-being are non-separable. However, it is very clear that they are and many philosophers would have a hard time accepting the idea that they are not. Basically separability means that it is logically possible for a person to have a fulfilling happy life without being moral and vice versa. Imagine for a moment a society that determines that acting in pornographic movies is immoral. Yet, you interview a sample of actors and find that they are living fulfilling happy lives and they could not imagine doing anything else. This would be an example of someone behaving immorally yet is happy. So it is logically possible. In my Happy Slave example, even though the slave was worse off morally, this fact alone does not tell us anything about the slave's well-being.
Harris says that people who find happiness while engaging in grossly immoral acts are brain damaged. This would seem reasonable for serial killers, etc, but at what point in the continuum does the person start to be considered brain damaged? This is yet again a decision where human's have to judge using non-science derived values.
In my view, he adds nothing to the debate. The book could have been more informed had he undertaken a closer reading of utility theory in economics. A wider reading in game theory would also been helpful as would a reading in biosemiotics ( ala Jesper Hoffmeyer ). Mr. Harris dismisses culture as if it is unimportant. Only science provides certainty to his mind. So if we want an independent morality that we can force religious people to adopt, then it must come from science. I don't agree. Humans have made moral progress without resorting to 'science' so-called. This is the whole enlightenment tradition. Humans create culture like beavers build dams. It is not mere culture, it the source and background of all meaningful signification. Most of our moral progress is from learning what doesn't work to enhance well-being. It is a fragile knowledge that depends on culture and not science. For example, women's rights depend on culture not science. If we find that a woman's brain turns the right colors in an fMRI machine when they have full reproductive rights, this does not tell us that they should have those rights. Only people VALUING those rights make them secure. The Liberal Arts are more vital today than ever. I would rather have a comparative literature or history graduate determining our society's moral truth any day over a neuroscientist.
I also found his folksy conservative morality off-putting at times. Apparently the pair-bond male-female monogamous family is the paradigmatic family structure. Quoting from his shallow reading of Evolutionary Psychology, apparently we evolved to have women seek out high status males who strut and show off to win over females and provide them with resources. How very right wing Christian of him. However, there is a lot of evidence that this is a cultural adaptation subsequent to the agricultural revolution approx. 10,000 years ago...mere culture again.
No humans do not find or discover values just as we don't find or discover meaning. Humans create meaning and values. That's what we do. We can't hide behind science when we make decisions. It's called moral responsibility( Of course I mean moral responsibility in a metaphorical sense. Its similar to saying the sun rises or falls when we know the earth rotates. In a naturalistic world without miracles, everything is causally determined which means moral responsibility is an impossibility...modus tollens ).
Ultimately what was the point of writing a book just to say what Mill said 100 years ago? Maximize individual autonomy and exercise your autonomy without causing harm to others. We don't need neuroscience to tell us that this can enhance well-being.
I wanted to add this assessment by noted philosopher and specialist in Neuroscience and Neurophilosphy Patricia Churchland. She was interviewed by Julian Baggini for The Philosopher Magazine 2Q 2012:
"Sam Harris has this vision that once
neuroscience is much more developed then
neuroscientists will be able to tell us what things
are right or wrong, or at least what things are
conducive to well-being and not. But even if you
cast it in that way, that's pretty optimistic - or
pessimistic, depending on your point of view.
Different people even within a culture, even
within a family, have different views about what
constitutes their own well-being. Some people
like to live out in the bush like hermits and dig
in the ground and shoot deer for resources, and
other people can't countenance a life that isn't in
the city, in the mix of cultural wonderfulness. So
people have fundamentally different ideas about
what constitutes well-being.
I think Sam is just a child when it comes to
addressing morality. I think he hasn't got a clue.
And I think part of the reason that he kind of
ran amuck on all this is that, as you and I well
know, trashing religion is like shooting fish in a
barrel. If Chris Hitchens can just sort of slap it
off in an afternoon then any moderately sensible
person can do the same. He wrote that book in
a very clear way although there were lots of very
disturbing things in it. I think he thought that,
heck, it's not that hard to figure these things out.
Morality: how hard can that be? Religion was
dead easy. And it's just many orders of magnitude
88 of 119 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition
[Below are some excerpts from a fuller review, currently in press in Skeptic magazine] Let me first begin by making clear that there is much about which Harris and I agree. We are both moral realists, i.e. we believe that moral questions do have non-arbitrary answers, though our realism is, as will be clear in a moment, of a very different nature. We both agree that religion has absolutely nothing to do with morality, though I don't think of it as "the root of all evil" either, to use Richard Dawkins' phrase, which Harris seems to endorse with glee throughout this (and his previous) book. Lastly, as an obvious corollary of our moral realism, both Harris and I think that moral relativism is a silly notion, and that it is in fact downright pernicious in its effects on individuals and society.
Here is where the two of us disagree: I do not think that science amounts to the sum total of rational inquiry (a position often referred to as scientism), which he seems to (implicitly) assume. I do think that science should inform the specifics of our ethical discussions, and hence is in an important sense pertinent to ethics, but I maintain that ethical questions are inherently philosophical in nature, not scientific. This is a problem, I think, because ignoring this distinction does a disservice to both science and philosophy. Finally, as a corollary of my rejection of scientism above, I do think that there are significant differences between science and philosophy, even though of course the demarcation line between the two is far from being sharp. Indeed, I think that a combination of these two disciplines -- which used to be called "scientia" (knowledge in the broadest possible sense) -- is our best hope for a more rational and compassionate humanity.
Harris undermines his own project in two footnotes tucked at the end of his book. In the second note to the Introduction, he acknowledges that he "do[es] not intend to make a hard distinction between `science' and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss `facts.'" But wait a minute! If that is the case, if we can define "science" as any type of rational-empirical inquiry into "facts" (the scare quotes are his) then we are talking about something that is not at all what most readers are likely to understand when they pick up a book with a subtitle that says "How Science Can Determine Human Values" (the italics are mine). One can reasonably smell a bait and switch here. Second, in the first footnote to chapter 1, Harris says: "Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy ... I am convinced that every appearance of terms like `metaethics,' `deontology,' ... directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe." That's it? The whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is dismissed because Sam Harris finds it boring? Is that a fact or a value judgment, I wonder?
Harris' insistence on neurobiology becomes at times positively creepy, as in the section where he seems to relish the prospect of a neuro-scanning technology that will be able to tell us if anyone is lying, opening the prospect of a world where government (and corporations) will be able to enforce no-lie zones upon us. He writes: "Thereafter, civilized men and women might share a common presumption: that whenever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored. ... Many of us might no more feel deprived of the freedom to lie during a job interview or at a press conference than we currently feel deprived of the freedom to remove our pants in the supermarket." If these sentences do not conjure the specter of a really, really scary Big Brother in your mind, I suggest you get your own brain scanned for signs of sociopathology (or watch a good episode of Babylon 5).
In the end, I did not learn much about either science or ethics from reading Harris' book (though I am very clear on the fact that he really, really dislikes Francis Collins, the new director of the NIH). But at the same time I just happened to be reading Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? If you wish to understand ethics, do yourself a favor, and read Sandel instead, your time and money will be much better spent.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2014
Having read Sam Harris' publications on atheism, which I liked a lot, I expected to read a scientific book on moral psychology (like "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt, one of my favorites). But my disappointment and frustration with Sam Harris grew with every page I read. It is annoying, arrogant and, above all, bad science.
His project can be summed up in a few words:
As medecine is to health, moral values are to human well-being. As there are doctors who tell us how to live if we want to stay healthy, there are, or more precisely: there should be moral experts who could look at the moral landscape and see which values are conducive or well-being, and which are detrimental (= the peaks and valleys of the landscape).
Harris claims that the following three steps should be distinguished:
1. We can explain why people tend to follow certain pattern of thoughts and behaviour in the name of morality (that's basically what Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Roy Baumeister and other social psychologists are doing)
2. We can think more clearly about the nature of moral truth and determine which pattern of thoughts and behaviour we should follow in the name of morality (that's the point where Harris parts company with Haidt, Greene et al.)
3. We can convince people who are committed to silly and harmful pattern of thought and behaviour to break these commitments and to live better lives (that's the punch line of Harris' project, to make this world a better place).
I would like to add another point: (4) These people we are trying to convince will point out to us that we are totally misguided and that we should repent and change our values and behaviours.
Harris' project of "moralistic engineering" is bound to be a failure because it's based on sloppy thinking. Everything is muddled in this theory: Truth, values, usefulness. A sentence like "Smoking increases the risk of lung-cancer" has a completely different logical structure than a sentence like "Children should honor their parents and support them in their dotage". The last sentence does not express something that can be verified, it expresses a desire: "X should be Y". All science can do is to look in which cultures parents are honored by their children, and science can even try to find out if this practice of intergenerational cohesion has good or bad consequences for the society as a whole. But even the most useful practice does not establish a value!
My main objection to his project is: Harris simply does not know what moral values are, how they originate and how they function. He actually critizises social psychologists like Jon Haidt who just do research on these issues. Harris' approach is strictly top-down: Values are features of a society and they could be implemented and manipulated according to the latest research, much like doctors are able to tell us what to eat and what to avoid (by the way: doctors' advice tend to change quite often...). If science finds out that members of an "honor culture" are less happy that members of a modern society that treat matters of honor lighty, than these scientists should go to, say, Albania or rural Turkey and tell those people: Look, your values are clearly detrimental to your well-being. You should adopt our values and you'll be all better off! That's nonsense.
Let's do the following thought experiment: If science found out that, beyond any reasonable doubt, the happiest people in the USA are uneducated, God-fearing inhabitants of small-town America, would Prof. Harris burn his books, start praying and move to Hillbillytown, Kentucky? Of course not.
He would find dozens of flaws in the research, he would point out that correlation does not equal causation. Why? Because his values and his way of life are constitutive of his identity, and of the life of his family and friends. Nobody changes his or her values just because some egghead comes along with some sheets of statistics "proving" that my values are sub-optimal.
If scientists in America are unable to convince the majority of their compatriots of the fact (!) of evolution, how will they convince farmers in India or Marocco of the "fact" that Hindu or Muslim values are detrimental to their own well-being? Even if (and that's a big if!) Harris's science was right, even if (again a BIG "if"!) one could measure well-being objectively and find stable correlations with values, like we do with smoking and lung-cancer, even in this very unlikely case there would be no way to implement these findings.
Values originated bottom-up, and they can only be changed bottom-up, and that's a long and tortuous road to be travelled. We all agree that the mutilation of gentitals of little girls in Egypt and Sudan is a crime, that it should stop as soon as possible. But this cannot be done by switching off the underlying detrimental values and replacing them by more enlighted values. The change has to come from within the society, bottom up, over many generations. The last decade in Iraq is a good example what happens when an enlighted power, coming from outside, tries to implement top-down a change of values and way of life in a "retarded" society.
To sum it up: This book certainly does not contribute to our understanding of how societies function, neither does it contribute to making this world a better place. It's a typical product right from the ivory tower, and it's a bad product into the bargain. If only the theory was good there could be some practical value in it too. But since the basic theory is already flawed, there is nothing to be learned for our daily lives.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Overview and Main Thesis
In this book, Harris proposes that science can establish a universal moral ethics based on objective facts about human well-being. He maintains that religion and philosophy have failed to construct any comprehensive system of ethics. In the process, he dismisses cultural relativism and rejects free will with relatively little argumentation.
Well-being. But why does Harris select well-being as the ultimate good? He doesn't really tell us. If he is suggesting that his choice of well-being is based on science, he certainly doesn't explain how. Even Harris admits that "Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health" (p. 37). If science can't say why we should value something as measurable as health, it is likely that science can't tell us why we should value anything else as good.
People differ greatly in what brings them happiness and what constitutes their personal well-being. The desire to maximize one's own well-being may often conflict with the desires of others and with society as a whole. What is the morally correct thing to do in such cases? How can science answer this question, even in principle?
Neuroscience. Harris maintains that neuroscience of the mind can provide the basis for an objective, universal ethics. Again, how science can do this is not at all clear. Neuroscience can only identify or explain neural processes in the brain and their relationship to corresponding psychological or behavioral phenomena. But neurophysiological mechanisms are not labeled in terms of moral value. Brain states don't tell us if our pleasure or feeling of well-being is about something good or something evil.
Harris tells us that psychopaths have abnormal brains, which can be modified (healed?) by using scientific methods (presumably drugs, electrical or magnetic stimulation, surgery, etc.). Such a program is reminiscent of Big Brother utopias and would most likely be impractical. It also raises serious ethical questions.
fMRI. Harris seems to believe that imaging techniques such as fMRI are the best way to study brain function. From his own work, he concludes that the human brain does not distinguish between scientific facts and moral facts or values. This implies that humans themselves also can't make such distinctions. Harris views this finding as a major foundation underlying his scientific morality project. But is this conclusion justified? After all, fMRI is a relatively crude and indirect measure of brain function, with low temporal and spatial resolution. As a neuroscientist, I certainly expect more sensitive techniques to reveal differences in how the perception of facts and values is encoded by the brain.
Facts and Values. Most people can indeed differentiate between objective facts and value judgments - in the words of 18th century philosopher David Hume, individuals can distinguish between what is (fact) and what ought to be (value), but cannot derive the latter from the former. In general, a fact can be verified by the agreement of independent observers using empirical methods; agreement and confidence in the validity of a fact typically increase with the number of observers. In contrast, value is a judgment about the virtue or morality associated with a fact; agreement over value often decreases with greater numbers of observers, especially if they are raised in culturally diverse societies.
Of course, values and facts may not be entirely independent entities. Values and personal viewpoints can influence what individuals accept as fact and also determine how they interpret or describe the nature of a fact. And yet, humans can -- and often do -- hold values that are independent of objective facts, as is evident by the superstitions and religious beliefs found in various cultures. In short, people can usually differentiate between facts and values - and if humans can do that, so can their brains.
Uncertainty. But humans often can't decide which of several choices is more or less moral. In that case, their brains can't be expected to do so either. Thus, studying brain function will not automatically reveal what choice, among many, is the most ethical.
Behavioral Studies. I think psychological and behavioral studies can provide just as much, if not more, information about human morality than difficult brain studies. After all, it is behavior, not neurophysiological process, which is used as the essential criterion for good or evil deeds. For example, utilitarianism teaches that the morality of any action is based entirely on the consequences of that action for all those affected by the behavior. Unless an action occurs, there is nothing to be judged as moral or immoral. Hence, imaging of brain structures without reference to behavior does not tell us much about ethics.
Science and its derivative technology have advanced at an astounding rate over the last century, and have provided us with untold benefits in medicine, transportation, space exploration, communication, computation, and so on. Yet, science and technology have also given us devastating nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, and other instruments of war that threaten to annihilate the human species. If science can lead directly to a moral philosophy that serves the common good, why did scientists agree to build those weapons of mass destruction in the first place? Can science tell us if the devastation caused by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was morally justified? Can science tell us if the American wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were examples of ethical international behavior? l think not.
In my opinion, science can tell us many facts about what is in the brain, but it can't tell us what ought to be in the brain -- or in brain-dependent behavior. Therefore, I think a universal morality based on science is not likely to be established now or in the future.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 2013
I am sympathetic to Harris' attempt at framing morality on scientific grounds, and so I was biased in his favor prior to reading this book, however, though I enjoyed his thoughts and agree with his efforts, I certainly expected more.
My summary of his main thesis, which I agree with, is that morality should be based on maximizing the well-being of conscious agents. He, admittedly, ambiguously defines well-being as those brain-states that are synonymous with flourishing or what the Greeks called Eudaimonia. The details of these brain-states are open questions left to be answered by scientists, but he stresses that even if such questions are not answered in practice does not mean they are unanswerable in theory and thus we can climb our way towards peaks of well-being on a landscape of experience, and morality should guide us towards maximizing those peaks.
Many of Harris' critics reiterate David Hume's is/ought distinction as the last word on this issue, and though Harris does attack this line of thinking, I don't think he completely remedies their concerns. The crux of this issue is why we should adhere to the assumption that well-being ought to be maximized. He comes awfully close to a rebuttal many times throughout the book, but never completes the argument. He more than successfully argues why science can and should inform our morality in achieving these states of well-being, but does not address the fundamental issue of why we should do those things in the first place. Yes, our brains evolved to include our innate moral intuitions as a result of surviving in close social contact with others, but unless you make the claim that evolution has a point or direction (which I doubt, but am also sympathetic towards [EDIT: I've become less skeptical of this view since]) then what we consider well-being is an arbitrarily evolved brain state of an arbitrarily evolved organism. It matters to us as we sit here today as already evolved primates bumbling about, of course, but if we were to restart the whole process of life, the universe, and everything, why would it be moral to have organisms experiencing well-being at all rather than nothing? Alternatively, what if a certain subset of humans, if able, decided to relocate to another planet and modify their brains so that everyone was a psychopath and masochism and ruthless survival was the cultural norm--what argument is there to stop them from doing that? You might argue that this is an unstable social state and they would quickly go extinct or else revert back to some sort of cooperation and morality similar to our own evolved morals, but that is a much stronger metaphysical claim, that our morality and brain-states are baked into the structure of the universe. Robert Wright takes this perspective in his latest books Nonzero and The Evolution of God, but I somehow doubt Harris agrees with him.
If we forgive Sam Harris for failing to deliver on the promise of revolutionizing the is/ought dichotomy, we can still appreciate the book as contributing an important mode of thinking within morality by extrapolating on the concept of a moral landscape, that morality is more of an optimization problem instead of a black and white codification of things one ought to do or not do. This is not necessarily groundbreaking, but it is useful and important.