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).