Traditionally, science is understood as having limited authority on ethical questions. While scientific knowledge is useful for understanding the world better – including in ways that change our moral thinking – the idea that you can have a scientific answer to a moral question is usually rejected. That position is itself rejected by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values. Harris argues that we can use science to develop an objective sense of what is good for human beings and what is not, and that we can judge various practices using that scale. The book sharply and effectively criticizes both religious perspectives on the nature of the world and moral relativism. Indeed, the author’s principle project seems to be the development of a non-religious alternative to relativism, based around cognitive science. For the most part, his argument strikes me as a convincing one. That, in turn, has some important implications for political debates.

Harris’ book is a complex one that makes many different arguments and points. Often, he is able to illustrate his logic through clear examples, though some of them feel a bit cliched. He could also have devoted more attention to criticizing intuitive moral reasoning within western societies. He manages some elegant and convincing rebuttals, such as his response to the scapegoat problem on page 79 of the hardcover edition.

One key element of Harris’ argument is the view that it is the conscious life of animals that matters, when it comes to the basis of ethics: “[Q]uestions about values – about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose – are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures”. He argues this point convincingly, and suggests that we can build from that claim and from factual understanding of cognitive science to robust ethical judgements. Harris pays relatively little attention to non-human animals, but that is clearly an area into which such thinking can be extended, when it comes to questions like factory farming or veganism. Harris says that: “The only thing wrong with injustice is that it is, on same level, actually or potentially bad for people”. A richer ethical theory might incorporate the interests of other conscious organisms in some way.

Some of Harris’ concerns do seem a bit exaggerated. For instance, when he walks about the danger of “the societies of Europe” being “refashion[ed]” into “a new Caliphate”. He also has a bit too much faith in the power of brain scans as they now exist. Being able to track which parts of the brain receive more blood flow than others is useful, but doesn’t necessarily allow us to develop nuanced pictures of complex ideas and thought processes. As such, his argument that since functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of people thinking about mathematical equations resemble those of people considering ethical propositions, we should consider that evidence that the two are similar things.

Ultimately, the argument made in The Moral Landscape is utilitarian. We can come to know the basics of what makes up a good human life, and we should arrange states and global society so that people can experience them (and so that they avoid experiencing the worst things, like slavery and total personal insecurity). He makes the important point that we cannot expect to know all the consequences of particular choices, but we can nonetheless reach firm conclusions about important problems. Societies that provide education for women are better than societies that keep them in ignorance. That claim can be justified, according to Harris, by carefully examining the mental lives of people living in both kinds of society.

In particular, Harris highlights how societies that are based upon secular ethics consistently do better in measurable ways than those which are most explicitly modeled on religious ethics. “Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands”, Harris explains, “which are consistently the most atheistic societies on earth – consistently rate better tan religious nations on measures like like expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, and charity to poorer nations, etc”. He attributes the claim to P. Zuckerman’s 2008 book Society Without God.

Harris’ purpose is not a dispassionate one, focused on description. He says clearly that: “[c]hanging people’s ethical commitments… is the most important task facing humanity in the twenty-first century”. I am not sure if I quite agree. You can argue that people need to change the fundamental basis of their ethical views in order to deal with a world of 6.7 billion people. Alternatively, you can see the problem as the disconnect between the choices people make and the ethical views they already possess. If people could directly see the consequences of their choices, I think their existing ethical systems would often drive them to behave otherwise. It is because the consequences are mostly hidden – largely imposed on people in other places, and in the future – that people often make choices that are so oblivious to the harm they are forcing upon other conscious creatures. Harris argues that “one of the great tasks of civilization is to create cultural mechanisms that protect us from the moment-to-moment failures of our ethical intuitions”. I think that is especially true when it comes to economics, public policy, and the environment.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

. March 30, 2011 at 8:47 pm

The pace is brisk thanks to Mr Ferguson’s technique of weaving contrasts between the West and the rest. These include the riotous and merciless competition for spices between European merchant-explorers, next to the static perfection and, ultimately, the stagnation of the Forbidden City in imperial China; the more-or-less free inquiry of Thomas Hooke and Isaac Newton in 17th-century England versus the demolition of Takiyuddin’s “blasphemous” observatory in 16th-century Istanbul; the respect for private property among the pioneering middle-class of north America, contrasted with the misery of an underclass south of the equator that had little hope of wealth except by rising up against its abusive landlords.

Mr Ferguson is almost gleeful when he argues that the consumer society, butt of the bien pensant left, was the cog in the industrial machine that communism overlooked. “Capitalists”, he writes, “understood what Marx missed: that workers were also consumers. It therefore made no sense to try to grind their wages down to subsistence levels.” By contrast, although Soviet Russia could produce fighter jets and H-bombs, its jeans were rubbish.

. April 23, 2011 at 5:44 pm

So the most convincing explanations for India’s nutritional failures probably lie elsewhere. Women are the most important influences upon their children’s health—and the status of women in India is notoriously low. Brides are deemed to join their husband’s family on marriage and are often treated as unpaid skivvies. “The mothers aren’t allowed to look after themselves,” says Mrs Khan. “Their job is simply to have healthy babies.” But if mothers are unhealthy, their children frequently are, too.

India is also riven by caste and tribal divisions. It is no coincidence that states with the most dalits (former untouchables) or tribes (such as Bihar and Orissa) have higher malnutrition rates than those, like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, with fewer of these excluded groups. So-called scheduled castes and tribes are more likely than other Indians to suffer the ills of poor diet.

But that cannot be the whole story. Astonishingly, a third of the wealthiest 20% of Indian children are malnourished, too, and they are neither poor nor excluded. Bad practice plays some part—notably a reluctance to breastfeed babies. There may also be an element of choice. Long ago, a study in Maharashtra showed that people spend only two-thirds of their extra income on food—and this is true whether they are middle-income or dirt-poor. That may seem perverse. But a mobile phone may be more useful to the poor than better food, since the phone may generate income during the next harvest failure, and good food will not.

. May 5, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Afghanistan worst place to be a mother, study finds

Maternal mortality high, women’s life expectancy low

Afghanistan is the worst place in the world to be a mother and Norway is the best, an annual report released Tuesday said.

“Afghanistan has the highest lifetime risk of maternal mortality and the lowest female life expectancy in the world,” putting it at the bottom of the Mothers’ Index, which has been compiled for the past 12 years by the non-profit group Save the Children.

In Afghanistan and the nine other countries at the bottom of the index, an average of one in six children dies before age five and one in three suffers from malnutrition, the report says.

Nearly half the population in the worst countries to raise children lacks access to clean water, and only four girls for every five boys are enrolled in primary school.

. July 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm

“The difference between a defensible moral position and an atavistic gut feeling is that with the former we can give reasons why our conviction is valid. We can explain why torture and murder and rape are wrong, or why we should avoid discrimination and injustice. On the other hand, no good reasons can ve produced to show why homosexuality should be suppressed or why the races should be segregated. And the good reasons for a moral position are not pulled out of thin air: they always have to do with what makes people better off or worse off, and they are grounded in the logic that we have to treat other people in the way that we demand they treat us.”

Pinker, Steven. “The Blank Slate.” p.274-5 (paperback)

Milan September 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm

This graphic (from this article) seems relevant to the discussion:

. September 3, 2013 at 11:48 am

“Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.”

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