Reasonings About Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

The following piece was originally written for The Autarkist.

After reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, I’ve decided to finally articulate some of the praise and criticism that, for some time now, Harris and his work have inspired in me.

The goal of The Moral Landscape is to set the groundwork for the development of a science of morality that is objective and informed by empirical facts, and therefore cross-cultural. The immediate effect of this is an attack on post-modernism, cultural relativism and the political correctness of the men of the crowd that impedes an honest moral discourse. This is important work, and follows up on a key conclusion that Harris expressed some years back in his piece Killing the Buddha:

What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being.

Anyone familiar with Epicurus’ distinction between nature’s guidance and cultural corruption can appreciate that Harris is headed in the right direction. Prior to delving into Harris’ work, I think it is important to present some of the work that has already been done by those that came before us in our tradition along these lines.

Polystratus’ View on Morality 

Epicurean doctrine (in the pen of Polystratus, the third Scholarch of the Athenian Garden) declares war on cultural relativism, makes the case for moral realism and teaches that good and evil are objective realities that can be discerned in the study of nature, but that these are not conventional qualities. Instead, they are dispositional qualities of things.

… fair and foul are relational or dispositional properties. In other words, they are tendencies exhibited by things in relation to other things. A magnet may only attract metal and not cement, but it remains a magnet insofar as it attracts metal. Peanuts can be nourishing or deadly (to some who are allergic), but they’re not inherently deadly: this is a relational property, not a conventional property. Colors and flavors are relational properties: we only see the color of an object when light reflects against it.

Polystratus, in his On Irrational Contempt, even says that not understanding that nature requires us to seek pleasure and avoid pain is at the root of all evil; that this is the quintessential distortion of our moral compass and the reason why hedonism is so important: pleasure and aversion are intrinsic values.

… your inability to distinguish what goal our very nature requires and with what it is by nature satisfied … the non recognition of these is the architect of all evils.

Many scientists argue that we can not go from what is (descriptive science) to what ought to be (which is generally presumed to be the role of morality and ethics), but in our tradition the doctrine that nature has established pleasure as the end is the result of a very simple observation which can be seen even in newborn babies. We observe that living beings naturally shun pain and seek pleasure; ergo pleasure is the end established by nature. Epicurus merely explains how things are, and then proposes the more intelligent, more efficient ways to pursue plesure. The question of ethics, then, becomes not just whether something is intrinsically good or bad (which, to Epicurus and to nature, only pleasure and pain are), but also becomes a matter of efficiency in the pursuit of human happiness and wellbeing. It is from this imperative of efficient pursuit of maximizing long-term happiness that Epicurus derives his “oughts”.

Polystratus argues for an objective, real morality based on our experience of pleasure and pain, which are experienced directly through our natural faculties and not imagined. Notice, also, how the moral faculty requires no logical formulas. The Reasonings on Polystratus’ On Irrational Contempt conclude:

We may forgive these ideologies for their harm by taking into account that they never promised a pleasant life. If we do not set this goal from the onset, how can we expect it as an end result?

When we do not base our views firmly on the study of nature, and when we do not have clear insight into how the good is the pleasant and the bad is the unpleasant in our direct, real and immediate experience, we end up serving ends other than the ends that nature has established for us as natural beings.

Naturalist moral realism is simple: as natural beings we can directly discern, with our faculties, both good and evil.

Harris’ Introduction

Harris begins the book arguing for the development of a moral science: a morality that would be objective. He recognizes the difficulty and complexity of this task. Intellectuals both within the scientific and religious community have argued that science cannot answer ethical questions, that it can only state to us facts about the nature of things and not how we OUGHT to live our lives.

One of the tasks that stands before Harris is to demonstrate via arguments, like Polystratus did, that the relational or dispositional nature of moral qualities (good and evil, fair and foul) are no less objective than their conventional qualities (solid, liquid, hot, cold, etc.); that insofar as they are measurable, observable, they are objective, real, and scientific.

If this is demonstrable, there is therefore no real Christian morality, no real Muslim morality, and these are arbitrary constructs, the fruits of cultural corruption, in the same way that we can not speak of an Islamic alchemy or a Christian theory of gravity.

He practices the materialist technique of the doublet by presenting in lucid description the good life versus the bad life: imagery of a life of misery, hunger and poverty in a war-torn society versus imagery of a life of opulence, luxury, tranquility and satisfaction. This exercise serves to give tangible ideas of what good and evil mean; Harris then says that he has met people who argue that these differences only exist in language. He does not say it–and uses “well-being” instead of long-term pleasure as the end–, but here he is arguing against Platonic, idealist concepts of good and evil, and for hedonism.

The moment one begins thinking about morality in terms of well-being, it becomes remarkably easy to discern a moral hierarchy across human societies.

He later goes on to argue that moral truth can be concretely determined based on the effects of actions (we would add: by their being fair or foul, pleasant or unpleasant).

This is a frequent source of confusion: consequentialism is less a method of answering moral questions than it is a claim about the status of moral truth.

Religion and Dogmatism

Harris is known for arguing against religion, but here he immediately equates religion with dogmatism. It does not appear to occur to him that there are dogmatic secular philosophies, and that not all dogma is wrong or dangerous. If a view is established and based on inequivocal empirical data, it can (and, I would argue, should) safely be asserted dogmatically so that future knowledge can be built upon its foundations. Scientists do this all the time (calling their dogmas theories once they’re no longer hypothetical), and this is a necessity of the long-term enterprise of gathering empirical data. Well, in philosophy, we call these established theories, doctrines and dogmas.

This is one instance where Harris fails at having the stamina that his own self-proclaimed mission calls for, and one of the reasons why for many years now I’ve argued that Harris desperately needs to study Epicurus and that the work that he’s attempting to do has already been done. He says:

Similarly, anyone truly interested in morality—in the principles of behavior that allow people to flourish—should be open to new evidence and new arguments that bear upon questions of happiness and suffering. Clearly, the chief enemy of open conversation is dogmatism in all its forms.Dogmatism is a well-recognized obstacle to scientific reasoning; and yet, because scientists have been reluctant even to imagine that they might have something prescriptive to say about values, dogmatism is still granted remarkable scope on questions of both truth and goodness under the banner of religion.

This is where we disagree. Religion and dogmatism are not one and the same. He later goes on to say.

… given that there are facts-real facts-to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions …

Ergo, moral dogmas can be asserted. Moral truths and moral errors can be called by their proper name. In the first chapter of his book, Harris sets out to prove that there existmoral truths and decries cultural relativism, but commits it when he fails to articulate that, perhaps, scientific morality can be served by assertions no less dogmatic than religions’ assertions. Moral truths are moral dogmas. If we recognize that science can give us certainty, then what’s wrong with being certain and dogmatic of scientific truths?

I agree with Harris that we can and should make cross-cultural moral judgements, but dogmatism is only harmful if it asserts falsehoods as truths; if it labels misery as happiness or vice-versa. Instead, what we are doing here is establishing a firm, empirical foundation for the dogmas we hold to be true. This is the responsible, reasonable thing to do. And insofar as we achieve empirical certainties, we have achieved new dogmas.

Moral Blindness in the Name of Tolerance

Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference. – Sam Harris

Harris argues that the result of post-modern, arbitrary, unrestricted tolerance for all moral systems as long as they’re considered within their cultural framework, no matter how degrading or mutually contradictory, by need culminates in a tolerance for intolerance. We see it, for instance, in how we in the West must allow Muslims to settle and build mosques and preach their faith to new converts, but if a Westerner moves to Arabia, builds churches or temples of non-Muslim religions and preaches Christianity or atheism to new converts, he will likely face death or torture. We also see it in the tax-exemptions enjoyed by churches who discriminate daily, and in many other examples of religious (and, sometimes, non-religious) privilege.

This issue of how arbitrary judgements based on supernatural claims can pass for morality (and can later be shown to be deeply immoral) raises another argument, which Harris brings up later in the book. Just as the majority of people can be wrong about the Earth being flat, about the laws of physics, and about evolution, and are later shown to be wrong: Can the same not be said about treatment of women, prohibition of gay marriage, the Hindu practice of widow-burning, and other demonstrably immoral choices?

Moral Realism and Assigning a Goal to Science

In moral realism (moral claims can be true or false) and consequentialism (rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures.

Some time ago, I attempted to write a piece on what moral guidance Epicureanism can give to science, framing the conversation in terms of the hedonic covenant (science should maximize everyone’s pleasure and minimize everyone’s pain). In the first chapter of his book, Harris illustrates just how science can contribute to morality in three ways:

  1. by finding scientific explanations for immoral and moral human behavior
  2. by discerning and affirming moral truth in scientific terms
  3. by convincing people to abandon immoral behaviors that have been considered moral for reasons of cultural corruption

Most scientists involved in moral issues have delved into the first example, which is the least controversial of the three. The third scientific project constitutes one of the goals of scientific morality, yet it’s incredibly difficult to accomplish without tackling the second mammoth task (Harris’ own task, and Polystratus’). Hence, moral realism becomes a pre-requisite for the third project.

In the first chapter, Harris exemplifies how the second task might be completed by the example of how we may be able to measure the levels of wellbeing in societies of honor, after a man either kills his wife or his wife’s suitor as a result of jealousy versus when a man, in a more civilized society, simply accepts with compassion the event (which, in his example, did not result in disloyalty) and moves on. Measurable levels of happiness and unhappiness can be discerned by neuroscientists in the brains of survivors of abuse or death of loved ones. We know that stress finds expression in the hormone cortisone, and wellbeing in serotonin levels. We know that higher blood pressure and other physical symptoms result from suffering and high stress. These are measurable results of choices and avoidances, and therefore moral choices can be judged by their repercussions.

A Critique of Moral Objectivism

We must accept at least one important challenge to moral objectivism, and insofar as we are able to accept and tackle this challenge, it may be able to serve credibly as a source of moral guidance for future generations.

The charge is that, under the pretensions and, some may say, the arrogance of scientific moral certainty, at some point in the future someone or some group may embrace eugenics programs designed to remove people with sociopathic genes from the gene pool. This may be done via genetic manipulation, via the manipulation of fertility, or via extermination.

Certainly, if we were to fully embrace scientism, the charge would be a legitimate concern. Harris denies the charge of scientism. As long as we operate within the realm of naturalist philosophy and see science merely as a means to nature’s end, I’m not sure that the charge would apply to us, but we must still adress this problem.

In other words, how the insights of scientific morality are applied is of huge importance and carries great responsibility. But this only argues for the view that assigning a noble goal to science and to her insights is a necessity.

If we stick to the Epicurean hedonic covenant, to how hedonic calculus can be applied at the societal level, then the dual role of science is to maximize the wellbeing and to minimize the suffering of all members of society. Any application of this principle must be addressed, when the time comes, within its context.

So long as we lack the power to predict future effects, this issue is not quite the same as the rhetorical question of whether we should go back in time and kill baby Hitler, if we could do that. Scientism is precisely the kind of ideological devise that would attempt to precociously predict baseless conclusions.

The potentially dehumanizing, hellish error implicit in the misapplication of these insights finds expression in much of science fiction, particularly the post-apocalyptic kind. I recently read Ruinland, which depicts a world that has been destroyed by religious warfare where people have entirely lost faith in God, and robotic monsters are carrying out the executions of all humans who lack a gene responsible for empathy.

Like the case of the Deuteronomy law which orders the stoning to death of one’s son if he is an insolent alcoholic, I can easily think of many, more intelligent and compassionate ways to deal with a mutant that lacks empathy, including job training that maximizes the useful skills that he does have and the development of gene therapy. Presumably, by the time we’ve learned to build human-like robots to kill us, we will have also spent money on gene therapy research.

We must recognize that, once we accept moral objectivism, ethical questions of this sort do not necessarily become less complex. But that does not mean that insights gained through legitimate empirical methods are any less valid or useful. The fantasies of an infant are comforting, but once grown, the individual can’t return to them and must deal with hard reality. It is what it is.

The (Irrational) Moral Faculty

Harris dedicates a huge portion of his book to making the case for moral realism, for how science can inform the truth-value of moral claims. The problem, here, is recognizably huge. Harris says that most scientists are skeptical of scientific morality because our moral judgements seem to be emotional acts, not logical formulas or equations. But here, let us first remember a warning posed by Jostein Gaarder in Sophie’s World:

… We cannot use reason as a yardstick for how we ought to act … You know that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews. Would you say that there was something wrong with the Nazis’ reason, or with their emotional life?

… Many of them were exceedingly clear-headed. It is not unusual to find ice-cold calculation behind the most callous decisions. Many of the Nazis were convicted after the war, but they were not convicted for being ‘unreasonable’. They were convicted for being gruesome murderers.

If reliance on logic and reason is not necessarily useful here, then can we discern morals from empirical evidence? Or is there something other, some faculty inbred through natural selection that we must somehow study?

“Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality… The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” –Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787.

This accusation by Thomas Jefferson, an Epicurean, that the moral faculty can be sometimes used best by someone undefiled by academia and that it is distinct from reason, at once argues how philosophy can be useful to everyone and not just the scholars, and yet leaves us confused as to where we can search for this moral faculty within the realm of empirical data.

The most we can say here is that, at least, scientists admit the difficulties of this task, of this responsibility, of articulating morals in scientific language. Because the moral faculty is such a complex matter that requires, at the very least, great advances in neuroscience, it seems more useful to put the moral faculty aside and focus on the true practicalities of moral questions.

The So-Called “Illusion of Free Will”

We are conscious of only a tiny fraction of the information that our brains process in each moment – Sam Harris

Harris argues that the fact that others seem to be frequently more conscious of our own thought processes than we are is an indication of lack of free will. He then argues that the fact that there is some kind of mechanism attached to volition (machines can scan conscious movements in the body milliseconds before they happen) indicates that people lack free will.

Harris at once acknowledges and dismisses the differences between voluntary action and involuntary action, and makes the mistake of non-sequitor by saying:

“Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions.”

Now, in Epicurean therapy there is a recognition of something that we might today call the subconscious or the unconscious. Epicurus believed that certain behaviors and modes of thinking could “become stronger in the soul” through repetition and memorization. He believed that many of our habits have underlying dispositions that cause them, and that it was difficult or impossible to get rid of a habit without challenging the underlyingdisposition(s).

In my book, I use the example of the consumerist who tries to keep up with the Jones because he believes that having a house or car comparable to the neighbors’ will bring him happiness: it is only if and when he challenges these false notions about happiness, that he is free to pursue happiness based on new, true and healthy dispositions (subconscious views). This process of constant self-betterment is, in our tradition, the task of the ethical philosopher.

What this means is that Epicurus never rejected the existence of subconscious impulses for our behavior, and that free will operates within this context. In other words, by living the analysed life and becoming cognizant of our habitual patterns, we are then empowered to change them, if we so choose. We must be careful to question the premise that two views are mutually exclusive: they may both be true.

Is it possible that there will be people who live their lives more consciously than others, and that there will be people who are able to gain a greater level of conscious steering of their own life experience? I would say yes to both possibilities. Is it likely that some people who enjoy greater freedom, will not utilize it for reasons of culture or volition? That is also the case. There are many examples of wasted opportunities, as well as examples of addicts who recover and others who do not recover, for instance. A habit is not a death sentence.

Epicurean therapy pre-supposes a set of mutual expectations between philosophers. We have to trust each other as free moral agents in order to engage in the process of mutual correction. Therapy therefore becomes an opportunity and an incentive to live not just the analysed life, but a more fully conscious life.

It is not always necessary for two truths to be mutually exclusive: just as both tribal and universal tendencies can be moral forces in the world, similarly nature may pull the strings and human volition may interfere in that process. This is not at all unreasonable.

One Epicurean thinker, Cassius Amicus, argues that “it is outrageous that you have to say something that ought to be so clear. No one, least of all Epicurus, ever denied that there are pre-existing conditions and influences that affect our behavior. (Harris) is a smart guy – Why is he arguing against a straw man? Why does he not admit that we have SOME free will in some areas and not others? It is really too obvious to need much argument, and yet he is trying to be absolutist. Why?”

Which raises the possibility that he may not be writing in good will. I raised a similar accusation in the past against another philosopher that Harris bases his views on: Daniel Dennett. In his Prospect Magazine piece Are We Free?, he refers to Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura as a “Stoic masterpiece”. But Lucretius is not a Stoic, nor is his masterpiece a work of Stoicism.

Is it possible that Dennett, who is one of the most prominent philosophers of our generation, didn’t know that Lucretius was one of the great Epicurean thinkers in antiquity, that he was not a Stoic? There is a slim chance that might be the case, but there’s a greater chance that Dennett knew the difference between Epicurean and Stoic views on this matter and preferred to ignore the existence of the Epicurean  school and its teachings altogether. The question of free will is one of the great differences between the two schools, and it’s difficult to believe that a philosopher as immersed in the question of free will as he is was unaware of these distinctions. So the possibility of ill-will and of partiality to a certain set of views must be at least mentioned here.

Let’s look at the practical repercussions for society of free will being an illusion. Harris argues:

While viewing human beings as forces of nature does not prevent us from thinking in terms of moral responsibility, it does call the logic of retribution into question.

In other words, it is true that an instinctive murderer who suffers from a neurological disorder deserves more of our compassion than a murderer who plans and calculates for weeks an assassination and whose brain shows normal activity patterns. This is a valid point, but the logic of retribution may be questioned regardless of these facts. In other words, some of us would argue that the goal of the justice system should be, not retribution, but reform and recovery from sociopathic tendencies with the long-term goal of creating a pleasant life.

In the end the arguments of the determinists, like those of the Epicureans, seem to be calling for research that seeks to find cures instead of finding faults and declaring guilt. We are reminded of Frances Wright’s rhetorical question in A Few Days in Athens:

“When did Epicurus ever look at the vicious with anything other than compassion?”


It’s been said that those who ignore their history, are forced to repeat it. We are at a historical junction where fragments of an obscure scroll written by Polystratus, that were found among the ashes left behind in Herculaneum by the Mount Vesuvius eruption in the year 79 of Common Era, may hold vestiges of a conversation that we believe to be new and emerging. It’s not a new conversation: it’s at least as ancient as the second generation of Epicureans.

The Moral Landscape, in spite of its few imperfections, does a fairly good job of articulating the need for a moral realism. We’re happy that Harris has decided to join us in these ancient conversations.

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Comment by jay H on January 23, 2015 at 7:53pm

Morality is an interesting thing. Most of us are born with moral sense, though it can be modified by culture. Among other things it is not, it cannot be fully logical. It may be easy to argue logically that murder is wrong, that torture is wrong, but not everything resolves so easily.  Most real world actions have multiple layers of cost/benefit with different outcomes depending how you weight the components.

If you can improve people's health by forcing them to eat correctly, how do you weigh the value of freedom vs the value of overall health? Is it right to sacrifice a sick person to keep them from infecting others? The trolley car questions which tug at our inner sense of right and wrong display results which are not necessarily strictly logically optimal (if the only way to stop a runaway trolley full of people is to fatally push a fat man off the platform onto the switch--what do you do?  Kill one person, or let many die?)

Our sense of morality (despite the distortions by religion and culture) is old. It is the set of social cooperation instincts older than our species. But it's far from a coherent system. I liken it to a spam filter on your email. Each time you encounter a new spam, you write a rule to block it. In time, you have a bunch of rules, no logically consistent, some even contradictory, but each one was selected because it did the job at the moment. This is how evolution/selection works. Nature has no vision for the optimal creature, it simply rewards success even if the success is far from optimal.

Jonathan Haidt (the Righteous Mind: why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion) does some excellent discussions of this, including psychological cross cultural research as to how people view things. Certain things in each culture are psychological abhorrent even if the observer cannot articulate a strictly logical reason (for some beastiality falls into that category; for others it's simply the thought of a pedophile looking at a picture of a child). Something triggers deep in our psychology in ways that logic cannot touch.

Suppose you move into an area with deteriorated schools. You have money, do you send your child to a quality private school (where they'll do much better and be safer) or do you support the local public schools? Is it moral to preferentially be concerned for you child (evolution would suggest it is)?  Is altruism an unalloyed good? You're living in an area where medication is not readily available. But, because of connections, you've got vaccines for your family. What's your moral course? There's not solid answer to these questions. There is no scientific answer. But somehow our gut instinct needs to decide.

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