Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape
Sam Harris is in the UK this week talking about his new book, The Moral Landscape, about how the fact-value distinction has led us astray. Harris argues that far from being outside the purview of science, moral questions are properly scientific questions. Moral questions are, Harris argues, questions about our personal and social welfare, the avoidance of suffering and the promotion of flourishing, happy, productive lives. These questions have real answers which can in the broad sense be determined by science: will this policy solve social problems? will this act cause distress to that person? will this drug cause me long term harm? These are moral and scientific questions and the line is not as distinct as many like to think.
He is interviewed this week by Humanist Philosopher and British Humanist Association Distinguished Supporter Julian Baggini in The Independent and the book is reviewed by Simon Blackburn, another Humanist Philosophers member and also a Vice President of the BHA.
Baggini uses his interview opportunity to put some criticisms to Harris. The Moral Landscape is unusual in that arguably it pits scientists directly against moral philosophers, arguing that much of what philosophers have done for morality is only to cause confusion, whereas science can now come along and clean up the mess. But are things really so clear cut?
[Baggini] But it’s puzzling how science could tell us, for example, how to prioritise between rights of free speech and privacy?
[Harris] There are probably some trade-offs where there isn’t an important difference. So privileging free speech to some degree and privileging privacy to another degree leads you to different circumstances, but perhaps they are not importantly different. If you and I and everyone affected by those changes could live out both lives, and have our brains scanned all the while, and have every marker of our inner lives analysed, we would come out saying they were a little different, but we don’t know which we like better. That is an intelligible prospect and that is why the moral landscape has many peaks and valleys that are different but equivalent in terms of well-being.
Isn’t well-being too ill-defined to be scientifically tractable? Take the classic thought experiment of whether a person who lives a normal life with ups and downs is better or worse off than someone who takes a happiness pill. There doesn’t seem to be a factual answer as to what’s better, discoverable by examining fMRI scans, for instance.
I think we can have a rational discussion about how much we want our states of consciousness, our emotional lives, to track the reality of our lives. We definitely want it to track it for the most part because otherwise, if we’re just taking this perfect narcotic each day, it’s not a sustainable situation. You’re just lying on the couch in bliss, but your relationships have dissolved, you’ve lost your job, and your children have starved to death. It’s materially unsustainable if nothing else. But your love for the people in your life, which you value and which is major component of well-being – your connections to others, your ability to function in the world – all of this is predicated on your states of consciousness tracking the actual reality of your life in the world.
Full interview: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-moral-formula-how-facts-inform-our-ethics-2265991.html
Simon Blackburn’s review of the book’s argument, reflecting the view taken of Harris’s argument by many philosophers, insists that there are questions of principle and priority and value which are not reducible to empirical facts.
[Harris's] idea is that with sufficient knowledge, and generous help from neuroscience, we can learn to gauge “wellbeing” and then it is just a technical question of how to maximise it. Not only religion, but moral philosophy with its dilemmas and conflicts, is unnecessary, now that we can observe and calculate. On the dust-jacket, Richard Dawkins enthusiastically endorses the same triumphalist line.
It is one thing to say that behaving well requires knowledge. It clearly does, and the more we know about the world the better (and worse) we can behave in it. But it is quite another thing to think of “science” as taking over the entire domain of morality, and that there is a reason that it cannot do so. While it is one thing to know the empirical facts, it is another to select and prioritise and campaign and sacrifice to promote some and diminish others.
… Striving to maximise the sum of human wellbeing is making oneself a servant of the world, and it cannot be science that tells me to do that, nor how to solve the conflict, which was central, for instance, to the utilitarian thinking of Henry Sidgwick. Harris considers none of all this, and thereby joins the prodigious ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just an instance of their doing it very badly.
Full article: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2011/03/blackburn-ethics-without-god-secularism-religion-sam-harris/
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]Sam Harris interviewed and reviewed by humanist philosophers,