Thursday, February 03, 2011

The biology of morality

I have already pointed to a TED talk by Sam Harris, and thought I would pass on a few clips from a review of his related book, "The Moral Landscape - How Science Can Determine Human Values." On Harris:
...his dispensation is that “Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.” In applying reason to questions of morality, Harris claims that we can define morality only as it relates to the well-being of conscious organisms and that such well-being is completely measurable using the methods of neurobiology. This suggests to him that any action can be clearly classified as moral (increasing well-being) or immoral (decreasing well-being) without ambiguity. However, it doesn't mean that there is only one answer to a question of morality. He contends that “the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. Nor would it make the difference between being on a peak and being stuck deep in a valley any less clear or consequential.” But Harris firmly disagrees with the moral relativist views that there is no clearly defined morality that cuts across different societies and that therefore all views of morality are equally meritorious. He writes, “Multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance—these are the familiar consequences of separating facts and values on the left.” “My goal,” he states, “is to convince you that human knowledge and human values can no longer be kept apart.”

Harris isn't choosy when it comes to vilifying religions. He notes the willingness of many to ignore genocide or cases of sexual abuse within their churches while taking strong actions against individuals who perform abortions (or refuse to prohibit them). He also draws from history examples of undeniably immoral choices in the name of religion. Harris criticizes scientists for persisting in their faith and for failing to confront head-on a society that he thinks is mired in superstition.

Harris thinks too many scientists have compromised on principles. “Many of our secular critics worry that if we oblige people to choose between reason and faith, they will choose faith and cease to support scientific research.” Even the journal Nature upholds the idea of nonoverlapping magisteria of Gould. Harris complains, “It is one thing to be told that the pope is a peerless champion of reason and that his opposition to embryonic stem-cell research is both morally principled and completely uncontaminated by religious dogmatism; it is quite another to be told this by a Stanford physician who sits on the President's Council on Bioethics.”

One might conclude that although at one time the best way to define and enforce moral behavior was through revealed faith, as science and reason advance, we can chip away at the old edifice and build anew. Stories of a young-Earth creation now look rather untenable, but in the past they might have been the only way to instill awe and teach a new and meaningful moral code. Rather than nonoverlapping magisteria, the domains of science and religion are intermingling all the time. The Moral Landscape may represent a new beach-head in this quest.


  1. Congratulations on your Blog.

    The problem with Harris arises because when he considers moral landscapes, he sees them as single peaks and valleys. In real life, we are constantly having to juggle and choose between two or more conflicting values that impinge on a situation simultaneously, either in terms of lesser evils or incompatible goods. Cultural relativism for instance is simply extending the value 'Please don't dictate to me how to live' in a reciprocal fashion to others in other cultures, on the basis of the golden rule 'treat others as you want to be treated' and placing this value above other important ones such as 'female circumcision is bad'. So we can either 'tell people what to do' and accept that they have the reciprocal right to tell us what to do, or sacrifice that moral judgement to preserve our own freedom of opinion. Sam seems to think that cultural and social dominance is just fine, but tends not be able to see what the landscape looks like from the position of an individual from a culturally non dominant society.

  2. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Edward, if you read the above, Harris is explicitly quoted as saying "...the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery." Not single. Multiple.

  3. Anonymous6:48 AM

    Yes, but as far as I can see he does not seem to consider that these multiple peaks will be mutually incompatible. You can either have peak in security, peak freedom, but not both. Their being real and/or worthy of discovery isn't the same as their relationships between themselves.