The Moral Landscape – A Four Part Review (Part 3)

More thoughts on Sam Harris’s insightful new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 2011. I am reading it with two friends.

Would you like to join us?  It would be great to have your comments as well. As we read, we are each identifying key ideas we agree with, and statements where we disagree.

Chapter 2 follows:

The Moral Landscape, Chapter 2 – Good and Evil

Agreements (and my rewording/additions in italics):

Harris is an Ethical Naturalist. Some ethical statements are true, and derive from real physical aspects of the universe. Harris is also a Utilitarian. Striving to maximize the overall good, create the greatest good for the greatest number. Harris is also a Consequentialist. The consequences of one’s conduct, actual or potential, are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus Harris (and many of us) can self-describe our morality as Naturalist Utilitarian Consequentialist. Now doesn’t make you feel better? 🙂

Religious believers who seek to justify thoughts or behaviors based on consequences which do not or cannot occur in our natural world can easily be immoral.  

We may have theistic beliefs, but those beliefs should always be consistent with and constrained by natural-world consequences, potential and actual. Supernatural consequentialism, to the extent that it conflicts with natural-world consequences, can easily become immoral. It gives us the wrong priorities, or causes us to lose sight of the real consequences that matter, in favor of imagined consequences that are both untestable and wrong. Examples: Christian theism that sometimes devalues science and natural and social progress in the physical world, or which diverts or constrains our feeble and finite cognitive resources to fundamentalist thought or behavior, or to converting others to nonadaptive beliefs. Islamic theism that sometimes legitimates religious violence, etc.

The moment we accept there are right and wrong answers on questions of well being and progress, we accept there are many who are wrong about their answers. It is often difficult to determine the net long-term moral consequences of an event, a problem philosopher Dan Dennett calls the Three Mile Island Effect. We do our best anyway.

We value total well being and progress over the average well being or progress of all. We may sacrifice ourselves to improve total well being or progress, ideally both.

In some domains, as in our valuing of family and subgroups, or of monogamy (or other limitations on polygamy) over open relationships, we want a bias toward the well being or progress of the subgroup.  In other areas we want equality of treatment, opportunity, and access, or a lack of bias, as much as is practical. Whether we want bias or not depends on the total consequences, for well being and progress, of the value preference.

Calculations of fairness drive reward related activity in the brain, according to neuroimaging and behavioral economics. Our brain is a fairness computing and emoting machine.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Act always in a manner that you hope is consistent with universal law.

Jonathan Haidt: We make moral judgments intuitively and emotionally. Our reasoning is usually post hoc (constructed after the fact), and has limited ability to change our intuitive-emotional judgments. Amen.

Genuine altruism, benefiting others without reciprocation, includes altruistic punishment, the sacrifice of self to punish norm violators, with personal harm incurred in the process.

Altruistic punishment is both a powerful and a dangerous concept. If we were individually more courageous, more willing to sacrifice ourselves to punish norm violators (for example more of the 90% willing to go to jail to thwart or block unfair actions by powerful corporations, the ultrawealthy, the government, and other members of the top 10%), we could have much better society, but if this were done poorly, we could also easily have a much more violent and complexity-poorer society. The morality of a contemplated altruistic punishment strategy depends on the consequences to society. This in turn depends on the context, intelligence and proportionality of the behavior. As with Democracy, which could not flourish as a beneficial form of governance until societies had literacy and mass communications, mass scale altruistic punishment (sacrifice of individual freedoms, wealth, etc. in order to punish the transgressions of much more powerful groups) may only become a generally net positive development once we have cybertwins guiding our democratic activities post 2020, intelligently channeling us into more effective mass activism, such as sitdowns, strikes, boycotts, purchases of true competitors products, strategies that will bring negative consequences and shame to the 10%, and other forms of civil disobedience. There are some great scenarios and stories to be written here!

Consciousness expands choice, so it is an evolutionary good. The more consciousness we have, the more proactive choices we have as to how to decide a thought or behavior (logic, emotion, random chemical oscillators, coin flips, horoscope, etc.) That is what free will is. Freedom is conscious awareness of and increased control over cognitive choice. Like consciousness, it is variable and transient, but freedom is no illusion!


Pat Churchland: “No one knows how to compare the headache of 5 million against the broken legs of two.”

Disagree. We make economic estimates for these all the time. Actuarial science, insurance, risk mgmt are big industries, in fact, and increasingly quantitative.

Paul Slovic, in Psychic Numbing, has shown we are more distressed by violence to single individuals than to large populations. We grow numb as numbers rise.

Harris finds this illogical, but it seems quite logical for those who believe their ability to influence or control environmental outcomes decreases as the number of actors rise. We steadily lose hope and empathy as numbers rise, and this seems a reasonable way to view the world. We pick fights that we think we can win. As long as our hope and empathy remain strong in systems of smaller numbers, we can continue to move the system forward. 

Derek Parfit’s “Repugnant Conclusion” for using total well-being as your standard of value: hundreds of billions of barely surviving can be preferable to 7 billion happy. Average well being can prevent even worse problems.

But if we value well being and progress together, the “logic problem” of Parfit’s model falls away. Total well being and progress are what seem most useful to care about, not average (we also care about the distribution of the total, or the social divide, a topic you haven’t mentioned). There are also inescapable real-world tradeoffs between these values. More of us choosing individually to sacrifice in certain ways can often get us total progress faster, and we can be sold on and willing to test such strategies.

Loss aversion (cognitive bias). We are more averse to real losses than real forsaken gains. So we preserve the status quo more than risk.

Harris questions the value of this, but to me this also sounds like prudence, a strategy likely to be generally adaptive. Part of our psychology is seems to be set up to seek progress, and part to appreciate what we have (think of Type A and Type B personalities). In my own head, when I have a forsaken gain, I remind myself of how lucky I am, and take stock of what I do have. When I have a real loss, however, it’s clearly a regression.  

“We cannot give a rational explanation of why it is worse to lose something than not to gain it.”

Yes we can, or at least I think we can. Loss sets us up to see a regressive pattern, and imagine further regression. Not gaining pushes us to value what we have, and imagine stasis, a more preferable fate. 

“Can the disparity between our desires to satisfy our own desires (eat well) and to end the suffering of others (global starvation) be morally justfied? Of course not.”

Disagree. There is always a judgment of efficacy. We estimate our efficacy. We can do little to end global suffering, and much to increase our and friends pleasure.We all personally know abusers who don’t quit when we try to alleviate the conditions of the abused. Many social games occur inside systems so broken (education, government, unions) they are “no win.” This is similar to Psychic Numbing. It is adaptive to focus on the well being we know we can achieve and progress we can make — starting with ourselves and our loved ones.

“We are now poised to consciously engineer our further evolution, thus escaping evolutionary dynamics.”

Not so. Respectfully, this kind of language is I believe unaware of the limits of reason, which is one form of memetic evolution. We can’t escape evolutionary processes, no matter our level of development, if we live in an evolutionary developmental universe.

“Free will cannot be squared with our growing understanding of the physical world.”

Disagree. The will of all living organisms seems to be on a continuum of constraint. There are degrees of freedom, and the more conscious the organism, the more its will is free to follow the dictates of rationality, emotion, intuition, random chemical oscillators (see Martin Heisenberg’s work), or any other strategy it can see, chosen with some measure of proactivity, vs. reactive and unconscious thought or behavior. That sliver of thought or behavior that is conscious in any organism, at any moment in time, has some degree of choice to follow a range of decision rules available to its awareness. Less conscious and unconscious animals simply have far fewer of those choices.

“It seems clear that retribution rests upon a cognitive illusion of free will, and is thus also a moral illusion.”

Disagree. Conscious will is much freeer/more voluntary/choice rich, and to the extent a crime is more conscious, it is more immoral, and should be punished (and rehabilitated where possible) as such, whenever the social consequences would be better than no punishment (and rehabilitation). The utility of socially agreed and broadcast punishments for various crimes, the act of retribution/punishment for a committed crime, and rehabilitation, are all morally meaningful with more conscious, choice-capable human beings, and they are less morally meaningful (socially consequential) with psychopaths, mentally ill, substance-addicted, children, etc. In the latter cases we need other methods to deter crime than punishment or the threat of punishment, such as increased social transparency to identify and rehabilitate or monitor individuals who have less free will/choice/consciousness than the norm. 

Thoughts? Comments? Let me know, thanks.

The Moral Landscape – A Four Part Review (Part 2)

More thoughts on Sam Harris’s very insightful new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 2011. I am reading it with two friends.

Would you like to join us?  It would be great to have your comments as well. As we read, we are each identifying key statements we agree with, and statements where we disagree.

Chapter 1 follows:

The Moral Landscape, Chapter 1 – Moral Truth

Agreements (and my rewording/additions in italics):

Many moral truths have answers in principle, but their answers in practice may be much less than we would like, at present. Still we make progress in describing those answers, using science and evidence.

“The Catholic church is as misguided speaking about the moral peril of contraception as it would be speaking about the physics of the afterlife.”

I agree the Catholic church is misguided in extending its ancient framework to such modern issues as contraception, and we should challenge its views with evidence and argument from our own moral frames. But there may also be good health reasons for minimizing contraception and for reasonable levels of abstinence, the data aren’t clear. Even though they have many illogical and harmful features of their beliefs, including the focus on family growth without a concomitant focus on planetary sustainability, in many other, and older, areas of the human heart, Catholicism still has wisdom to impart. 

“The Taliban’s religious beliefs have created an environment that is hostile to human flourishing.”

Yes, but we can “divide and conquer,” or channel their extremism, rather than fight it head on. The Taliban deserve an ability to create their own semiautonomous states, as long as their local security doesn’t include military, they remain under national and international surveillance, and they allow free emigration and immigration by those in the state. Denying them this autonomy, as we do in our ignorance and assumed moral superiority, we unnecessarily create enemies. They deserve the freedom to conduct their own social experiments. Let them pour all their energies into that, rather than into insurgencies.

Science can resolve many questions about morality and human values, even as our understanding of well being and progress continues to develop.

Tolerance and social acceptance of moral states that we would not choose is not necessarily a greater moral value than intolerance. They both must be weighed for effect.

Whether you expect a net positive or negative improvement in well being or progress, and ideally both, should guide whether we tolerate or fight against a moral precept we don’t agree with, and how hard. Just as ethics are situational (dependent on environmental complexity and context), our ethics of conflict are situational.

While science in practice can be biased, racist, sexist, imperialist, etc, science as a method remains our most powerful, and uniquely privileged way of knowing.

We have three tasks: 1. To explain moral evolutionary variety, 2. To seek moral development (universality), 3. To convince others to improve their moral evolution and development.


“The burqua is not contextually legitimate in those countries that have it.”

Disagree. The burqua is a level of violence against women, and reduction of their freedoms, that is currently acceptable in some cultures. It won’t be in the future in those cultures, but it is today. We are free to not trade or to trade conditionally with those countries, to use argument and persuasion with them, and to infect them with inevitably increasing knowledge and digital connectivity. As we change their context, we will change the contextual legitimacy. We are also free to help those women who don’t want to wear the burqua to find clever ways to resist it, and to emigrate to those clearly more developed countries that don’t require it.

“Most educated, secular people believe there is no such thing as moral truth.”

I think most people believe moral truth exists, but they’d also agree it’s hard to get at, presently.

“I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value.”

Disagree. I think of consciousness as the white foam at the top of the powerful wave of connection-driven cognition, and the spike trains between those connections, that is the dominant process in our brains. Consciousness is not the action potentials, it is the fleeting synchronization of those potentials. We have consciousness only for minutes in a typical day. It is the connections and the action potentials that drive most of our thinking. Consciousness creates a narrative, and does post-hoc rationalizing of cognitive behavior. It is the icing on the cake of our mental complexity. Making a statement like you have made shows how easily “reason” misguides us. I don’t think you understand consciousness yet, or have integrated cognition sufficiently into your theory of well being, or into a theory of progress that I also think moral creatures must have. Buzsaki’s Rhythms of the Brian, 2006, is an excellent place to start. You will be much more impressed with cognition, and much less with consciousness, once you read this book.

“The concept of well being captures all that we can intelligibly value.”

Not so. Intelligent beings also value universal complexity and progress. Progress often happens in spite of us, and we may sacrifice our own well-being to advance progress, when we see a good reason to do so. Both Maslow and Victor Frankl talk of self-transcendence as an even higher developmental state than self-actualization, and sometimes it is.

“Morals, and science are not relative to the time and place in which they appear.”

Strongly disagree. They are both complexity dependent. Religion was our best science a millennium ago. Situational ethics are real. For example, wearing concealed guns in Colombia in the 1990’s, or in the US in the 1800’s Wild West, was morally justifiable. Today, unless it is a less-lethal weapon (eg, rubber bullets, Taser) it isn’t morally justifiable to wear a gun in most developed countries. It just adds too much unnecessary, unjustifiable violence to the environment. Required burquas are still justifiable in a few countries today, but in a generation, they’ll be history, victims of social development. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was justifiable as an interim measure, but in a society with gay marriages it is unjustifiable, etc.

“Everyone has an intuitive morality, but like our intuitive physics, it is usually wrong.”

Strongly disagree. In the former, not the latter, we have deep evolutionary experience. Don’t discount it!

“The Danish cartoonists [who created images of Mohammed] should not be blamed for the controversy they caused.”

Disagree. What they did was considered pornographic, to Muslims today. It is very similar if not equivalent to showing Jesus doing something pornographic in Christian societies. Social standards for pornography inevitably loosen over time, and should be regularly tested by freedom seekers, but if something remains pornographic, rules must be followed or there are consequences. Pornography is a minor moral transgression (crime), but it remains a transgression.

E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse: “Our belief in morality is merely an adaptation to further our reproductive ends.”

Not so! It is also developmental, uncovering universal rules. (I think Harris agrees with this as well, though he doesn’t state it developmentally).

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