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).

The Moral Landscape – A Four Part Review (Part 1)

Two friends and I recently committed to reading Sam Harris’s very insightful new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 2011.

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

As I am an evolutionary developmentalist, one who thinks our universe is engaged in mostly unpredictable and divergent evolutionary processes, but at the same time, a few predictable and convergent developmental processes, it will be an interesting read. Most scholars, Harris included, advocate the standard evolutionary theory, which mostly ignores concepts of long-range developmental change, either in life on Earth or in the universe as a system.  Yet we see many apparently irresistible trends in economic and cultural development in our societies as they complexify (for example, increasing personal rights and freedoms, increasing evidence-basedness, etc.), and a multi-billion-year record of accelerating complexification in our universe. We are also faced with the possibility of a coming technological singularity, perhaps even this century, and we can think of such events in both evolutionary and developmental terms. So our disagreements should be interesting.

The book has six parts: an introduction and five chapters. As I read, I will post my agreements and disagreements with each part below.  The first part follows:

The Moral Landscape – Introduction

Agreements (and my rewording/additions in italics):

There is an arrow of moral development. Some social practices are inherently more moral than others, and can be agreed and measured as so.

There is also moral evolution. At any time, a number of ongoing moral experiments are being run, which aren’t measurably better than each other, just different.

Questions about values, meaning, morality, and purpose can be researched scientifically, and some agreement can be reached by evidence-seeking people today in each of these areas.

As data and science advance, moral opinions, particularly in developmental areas, will be increasingly constrained by facts.

Yet experiments and uncertainties will also always remain. They are central to evolutionary process.

How a person perceives the gulf between facts and values influences their opinion on almost every issue of social importance.

We must know our values, look for facts, build bridges with reason, know the limitations of reason, and have tolerance with ambiguity.

Stephen J Gould’s concept of science and religion as non-overlapping domains is false.

It is a temporary political compromise, much like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Challenge it. 

Both science and religion speak to values, in very different ways, and so are often in conflict.

We can imagine a hypothetical space called the moral landscape, whose peaks correspond to well being or progress, and whose valleys to suffering or regress.

There are usually exceptions to every moral rule. Yet these exceptions do not take away the objective rightness of the rule. Example: Kindness is usually more conducive to well-being than cruelty.

David Hume was wrong when he said no description of the world can tell us how to behave.

What Hume missed was that our morals need to be in harmony with individual or universal progress, and ideally both. The better we understand the way humans and the universe typically evolve and develop, the better our thoughts and behaviors can aid and align with universal progress.

The concept of well being, and progress, is like concept of physical health. It defies precise description yet is indispensable, and can be approached scientifically.

A scientific account of human values is not the same as an evolutionary account. Evolution has much contingency and happenstance in it.

But a scientific account of values could be fully described as an evolutionary developmental account, if we live in an evo devo universe.

Different opinions have differing value. We may try to equally value all opinions, but some we value more (expertise), and others (novices, psychopaths) we discount.

Just as there are objective differences in the health of primitive and modern societies, there are objective differences in their well being and progress.

There is a lot of valuable, desirable evolutionary diversity between various modern societies. But there are harmful and undesirable developmental differences too. For example, anonymous and toxic cities, plutocracies, autocracies. There are clear examples of better and worse developed and developing societies.

It is possible to believe and to value the wrong things. Both beliefs and values are amenable to reason and evidence to some degree.

We must occasionally experience some pain, harm, or unpleasantness, to avoid greater pain, harm, or unpleasantness at a later date.

Religious or ideological dogmatism, not listening to reason or evidence to revise ones beliefs and values, is a chief enemy of well being and progress.


“There is no such thing as a Christian or Muslim morality.”

Strongly disagree. There are today many flavors of moral experiment, and also ever more over time.

“Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.”

Not so. This ignores the way our intuition guides our faith. Even the athiest has faith in their unbelief. Faith is critical where evidence does not yet tread, yet should also not be overused.

“How human beings should live in 21st century has many competing answers, and most are surely wrong.”

Disagree. Diversity is “right” for its own sake, and much, often most, is either adaptive, or pre-adaptive experimentation. There is no one right answer with any evolutionary experimentation, only with that very small subset of evolutionary experiment that turns out to be development.

“Science and religion, being antithetical ways of viewing reality, will never come to terms.”

Disagree. Religion will become far subtler and reform, but will always remain. I believe AI’s will have their own religion. I also believe it will be far subtler and more evidence constrained than ours. We should seek to be neither theists nor athiests but agnostics. To gently challenge the certainty of others theisms and athiesms, and to move them into possibilianismTheism and athiesm will always remain, but we can help all who have extremes of belief and nonbelief to become more evidence constrained. 

“Our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.”

Disagree. Memetic evolution and development are still evolution and development. Ignore them at your peril.

“The survival of memes is not dependent on their conferring some benefit on their hosts.”

Strongly disagree. Memes are both evolutionary and developmental. Memetic progress, both evolutionary diversity and developmental advance, seems to be occurring in many systems, via multi-level selection. We can observe memetic evolution and development at the individual, group, species, and planet levels, at least.

“Conflicts between religion and science, because they are zero sum, will only get more explicit.”

Disagree. As social wealth grows, there will be opportunity for increasing memetic insulation of disagreeing groups (some of which will be harmful and less adaptive to the insulated group). I think you underestimate both the coming magnitude and the effect of accelerating wealth. I expect a lot more diversity of belief among subcultures, but at the same time, more reform and more evidenced-based agreement among all of them. 

Your thoughts?

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