Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Primer.
I’ve read this book a long time ago, since then my perspective has changed, and after some interactions with friends on Facebook in which it was brought up again, I decided to give it another read. I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about it, if I had any major criticisms, but I know I do want to catalogue some notes, some account of what it is Harris is saying in his book, for my notes, and to refer to later on.
It might be best to start with Harris’ main thesis, which he states:
I will argue, however, that questions about values – about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose – are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture – just as facts about physical and mental health do. (Harris, 2010, pp. 1-2
To Harris human well-being depends on “events in the world and on states of the human brain.” (p. 2), and although he doesn’t anticipate a complete understanding of all the complexities and nuances of moral problems, he does propose that his theory will force people to deal with moral reasoning constrained to the (scientific) facts. Morality and values will become a discussion about facts of the brain, about how thoughts and intentions arise, and what those mental states will mean in terms of behavior; terms like “good” and “evil” will be exhausted by the science governing the analysis of these states. As the man himself states: “I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” (p.4) Harris makes his motivations clear, in that at least in part he is looking to solve the problem of relativism, that is specifically moral relativism from the secular left and the “scriptural literalism” of the conservative right, he wants an objective morality that is not based on supernaturalism.
The Moral Landscape
Throughout the book Harris discusses several terms, which we might now like to turn to and define, for the sake of clarity, firstly, the Moral Landscape:
Throughout this book I shall make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape” – a 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. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. (Harris, 2010, p. 7)
Harris anticipates that some may find this term vague, but he argues there are analogies we can use, that of food, in that there is no one food that is right to eat, yet there is an objective difference between food and poison.
Peaks and Valleys
Although we covered this briefly above, let’s draw out some more detail on these terms:
Even if there is a thousand ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive – and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of well-being and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. (Harris, 2010, p. 41
Harris’ theory is aiming, in consequentialist fashion (a topic for another blog) to map out a formula to provide a way to find the most amount of happiness for the most number of people, and although he admits there will be “practical impediments” to finding that route there will be moral equivalencies on such, and in turn many peaks on his moral landscape. That is a point that needs special attention, Harris seemingly respects that different cultures and people might have different ways to reach a moral peak, to feel fulfilled in life, but the unifying factor is the moral theory he is proposing; you feeling you have different values, may also be a way to a peak on the moral landscape (it would of course need to be evaluated). The grounding of a science of morality in conscious states, with “the worst possible misery for everyone at its depths and differing degrees of well-being at all other points – seems like the only legitimate context in which to conceive of values and moral norms.” (p. 41)
Another term we might like to look at is that of “well-being” a term that Harris admits is difficult to define, but through analogy Harris explores how we might use it: that is, in reference to physical health. To Harris physical health is a term that is indispensable, yet is constantly open to revision (think of what might have been considered healthy in the dark ages, compared to now) similarly so too is well-being. Although there might be ‘valleys’ and ‘peaks’ on the moral landscape, we must define that which is good as integral to well-being. It might be reasonable to ask from here why this is so, and what specifically composes this ‘good’ Harris speaks of. Harris thinks, that when we ask, for example if pleasure is good (or should be maximized), we are really asking if it is conducive to some deeper form of well-being, and although some may question whether it makes sense to maximize pleasure in any given sense, it makes no sense to ask if maximizing well-being is thus. This admits that there are answers to the question of well-being, even if we aren’t sure what they are, but most importantly, it ties “notions of goodness to the experience of sentient beings.” (p. 12)
Harris anticipates and respects the objection that some may not accept that values or morality have anything to do with well-being, or rather that some may possess some skewed form of well-being that is hostile to the well-being of others, he states this objection is at the heart of many peoples doubts about moral truth. To this objection Harris states that consensus, that is in moral or scientific discourse does not hold that every opinion is valid, that for some reason people who do not accept our moral goals make the act of looking for such incapable. To further draw this point out Harris looks at Biblical Creationists in science, now, they may claim to be using science, but as Harris states “real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term.” (p. 34) Similarly those concerned with moral discourse whose moral principles cause tremendous suffering, nothing predisposes us to simply saying these people have distorted values. Going further Harris asks if people would attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death?” (p. 36) Harris thinks that although someone is allowed to raise such an objection as this, it doesn’t mean we need to take it seriously. Harris admits we all possess intuitive moral reasoning, but much of this is wrong, and only genuine moral experts will posses a “deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.” (p. 36)
Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.