The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris, Black Swan, 384 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0552776387
How should we live? Over two thousand years ago Socrates asked this fundamental question in an Athens marketplace of anyone who cared to listen. Since then philosophers have probed its difficulties, producing in the process a rich repository of knowledge and understanding of possible answers.
However, for most people it is not philosophy but religion which has held the field as the source of moral understanding, and religious people often assert that the moral guidance provided by the word of God in such books as the Bible and the Koran is necessary as a basis for understanding our moral sensibility. Harris is one of a group of well-known atheists (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are others) who maintain that there is no rational basis for religion and hence no moral basis for a morality based on religion.
The main purpose of Harris’s book is to demonstrate that science can provide an alternative source of morality to religion. As for philosophy, this, he says, he will largely bypass to make the case for science. Can science succeed where philosophy raises uncertainty and religion relies ultimately on faith? Harris certainly thinks so and claims that neuroscience provides, in principle, an evidenced-based answer to how we should live; in time, he believes it will also increasingly provide answers to particular moral questions, informing moral well-being in much the same way as medical science informs physical well-being.
It’s a big and bold claim, for science is normally seen as dealing only in facts rather than values. Science tells us what the case is; not what should be the case. Among scientists and the general public this has been the common understanding.
Harris’s overall point is that humans are part of the physical universe, made up of a body with a brain. So in the same way as there are discoverable facts about the physical attributes of the universe there are discoverable facts about how we should live. He argues that because we are creatures given to surviving in, and benefiting from, our environment, there are “real facts” which are either in the interest of, or detrimental to, our well-being. These facts make it “objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice”.
As the moral benchmark, well-being encompasses a lot. It includes not merely physical well-being, but also emotional, intellectual, social and, indeed geo-political well-being, as geo-political conflict is one of the biggest threats to our collective future. Against those who argue for some other moral benchmark, such as fairness, or the golden rule of always treating others in the way you would like them to treat you, Harris argues that ultimately these derive their force from the contribution they make to human well-being. Well-being “captures all that we can intelligibly value”. There are of course many ways to experience well-being, as there are many to feel its lack. Harris allows for many “peaks”, and the question of what constitutes well-being is “genuinely open”. At the same time, the question has “a finite range of answers”. And it is the “valleys” of certain practices, in particular those based on religious morality, which he is determined to show are contrary to human well-being, even though religious people may believe otherwise.
Harris’s problem with some faith-based moral beliefs is that they don’t serve well-being based on neurobiology. He cites Taliban beliefs as an example, in particular in terms of the treatment of women that follows from them. He also mentions the Christian belief in the sinfulness of gay and lesbian sexual practice. He finds it extraordinary that people who claim to be moral can have beliefs which “cause tremendous misery”. And he asks, eyeing up a particular kind of liberal thinking: “How have we convinced ourselves that, on the most important questions in human life, all views must count equally?” Where moral beliefs based on faith serve well-being this is only “by accident”. On top of some of its moral beliefs being a source of misery, religion also gets in the way of an honest, fact-based recognition of our place in the world. The opposition of Christian fundamentalists in the US to teaching the facts of evolution in biology is one example. Harris has outlined his criticisms of religion in other works, notably The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004). In The Moral Landscape he summarises these views again and also includes a chapter attacking the views of an influential fellow scientist, a Christian, who attempts to reconcile science with faith.
For Harris, there are two main elements in how we determine morally what is or is not in the interest of our well-being. The first is our natural reaction to stimuli; the second our assessment of consequences. First and foremost, the facts of well-being relate to our reactions to the stimuli of living conditions and behavioural practices. Our reactions are facts of “positive and negative social emotions” where the positive ones are for our well-being and the negative ones are not. To paraphrase his example, a person living in a prosperous, loving family who has all the opportunity he needs for personal and social fulfilment will experience positive emotion, and a person who experiences a life of abject deprivation through brutal oppression will experience negative emotion. These emotional facts are further physically evident in “patterns of activity” in the brain. This is a key point since Harris regards brain reactions as the underlying cause of our states of mind, which includes our moral states. “The assumption that the mind is a product of the brain is integral to almost everything neuroscientists do.” As a physical organ, the brain has evolved to register what we should and should not do if we are to have well-being. Stimuli impact on the brain, causing it to react in particular ways which we experience as our states of mind, including moral states of positive and negative emotion. “Human experience shows every sign of being determined by, and realised in, states of the human brain.” We can know from facts about states of our brain which behavioural stimuli are good for us and which bad. This makes facts about brain states an underlying check and verifier of what is right and wrong for our wellbeing.
Central to Harris’s claim is that brain reactions for well-being are distinguishable from those detrimental to well-being through brain imaging. When, for example, we are stimulated by witnessing or hearing about an act of altruism or co-operation we know this is good for our well-being because it sparks off in the brain an observable pattern of activity related to reward. Conversely, when we experience or witness an act of cruelty or suffering, we can know such acts are bad for well-being because a pattern of activity of processing distress is activated in the brain, and this too can be observed. To take fair and unfair proposals as an example, brain images show that “fairness drives reward-related activity in the brain, while accepting unfair proposals requires the regulation of negative emotion”. This, for him, inextricably links facts about the brain with determining what we should and should not value in our living conditions and behaviours. Also, reward-related activity arising from altruism and co-operation shows that the well-being of the self is bound up with the well-being of others. Self-interest and the common interest are entwined in brain circuitry. It shows why acting for the good of others as well as our own good is an integral element in moral understanding.
The second element in making moral determinations is our rational capacity to calculate the beneficial and adverse consequences for our well-being of conditions and behaviours. He does not reduce morality to behavioural traits and practices that were formed during evolution. He accepts that natural selection has developed in us responses that we now call moral, such as “decrying sexual infidelity, punishing cheaters, valuing cooperation etc.”, and that at one time evolution may have given rise to a need for what are now regarded as “patently unethical behaviours” such as “territorial violence”. But our moral concerns “have flown the perch built by evolution”. While morality is based on instinctive brain responses to stimuli, and the brain is an organism which has evolved by adapting to stimuli through ensuring as far as possible that its well-being needs are met, our brains have developed a capacity for reasoning. As a result we can work out what conditions and practices are in the interest of our well-being. We can reason that certain practices, which people in some cultures may find acceptable, are not ultimately in the interests of their well-being or the well-being of others. He is not, then, claiming that the neuroscience of brain states on its own is an adequate basis for moral judgements about well-being. Cultural practices can, and should be, rationally assessed. And assessment for him means weighing up the impact of the consequences of behaviours and living conditions on well-being.
By bringing in consequences, Harris in effect co-opts to neuroscience a version of the well known moral theory of utilitarianism. For Jeremy Bentham, its founder, we are placed under “the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure”. The wrong thing to do will have the consequence of causing avoidable pain, and the right thing will reduce pain or bring about pleasure, where we take into account our own needs and desires as well as those of other people affected by our actions.
Does Harris’s account, then, succeed in establishing the basis for morality in the neuroscience of brain states along with making rational, consequential assessments? There are difficulties. First, Harris tells us neuroscience is still in its infancy, and that brain processes are complicated. There is a “complex interplay between brain states and environmental stimuli”. And he acknowledges that it is difficult to identify and match up brain patterns of activity arising from “voltage charges” and “chemical interactions” with the positive and negative emotional responses which indicate to us what is good and bad for our wellbeing. The “patterns of activity” are not “one-to-one mapping”. There is complexity and interconnectivity in the workings of the brain. It is “mostly talking to itself”. How, then, can he be so confident that the foundation for moral states in the mind lies in states of the brain as it responds to conditions and behaviours favourable or unfavourable to human well-being? Perhaps in time neurobiology will provide clear evidence of the connection, but the link has yet to be established to an extent that justifies regarding brain patterns as an adequate foundation for our moral states of mind.
Also, why could not some behaviour, for which our brain reveals activity that causes us emotional distress, be good for us? After all, there is the common experience that a certain level of pressure is good in helping to bring out the best in us and realise our potential. Conceivably there are levels of pressure which, if we were to go by the evidence of disturbance they cause in our brain states, we should avoid as contrary to our well-being, and yet allowing ourselves to remain under the pressure could prove ultimately beneficial. One thinks of Nietzsche’s aphorism that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. By bringing in rational calculation, Harris may argue that we can judge whether the consequences of the pressure will be good for us. However, this leaves us with a complex mix of instinctive brain reactions and rational calculation through which we have to distinguish between experiences and actions that are in the interests of our well-being and those that are not. It is hard to envisage how this means of assessment could ever give rise to scientific certainty, especially for the many challenging and difficult moral issues that exist.
Also, the two elements of brain reactions and rational calculation bring Harris up against an old problem within philosophy of reconciling determinism with free will. How can we understand that our behaviour is determined for us by causes while allowing that we also have at least an element of freedom through which we can direct our behaviour? For Harris we don’t have free will because our behaviour is caused by what arises from the brain’s response to stimuli. At the same time, he claims we can still make choices because through our conscious mind we are aware of our intentions, which enables us to choose to act on them or not. In claiming that both a causal factor and freedom are in play Harris adopts a position known as “soft” determinism. This distinguishes determinism from the fatalist view that our behaviour is completely determined and there is nothing we can do to direct our lives. However, how do we know that our conscious intentions and choices are not determined by causes of which we are unaware? As he says himself, it “remains perfectly mysterious” where our intentions come from, and we “do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises”.
At a more general level, there is the problem of how to determine the degree of influence the brain has on the mind and vice versa, for Harris accepts that the brain is malleable under the influence of the mind’s activities. He acknowledges the huge part played by cultural beliefs on our state of mind and, in turn, the effect that these states of mind have on our brain patterns. “Cultural norms influence our thinking and behaviour by altering the structure and function of our brain.” And again: “We are, in every cell, products of nature – but we are born again and again through culture.” If this is the case, if cultural influence affects brain patterns that include how the mind thinks, why should cultures which do not value rational calculation highly as a means of deciding on moral questions become subject to rational calculation for right moral answers? Would not particular cultural practices, especially those which have been passed down through the generations freighted with value and moral certainty, not forge brain activity which produces positive emotion, even though from the perspective of a different culture in which such conditioning did not occur those same practices would produce brain activity indicating them as perverse and harmful? If brain states are at least partly forged by cultural conditioning in a way that influences how the mind thinks, it is hard to see how they can also be any kind of independent or culturally neutral marker for right and wrong well-being practices applicable to all human beings. To argue that we should give precedence to rational calculation of consequences for well-being smacks of cultural bias towards the scientific view which has become more prominent culturally in the West than in other parts of the world. At the very least, the influence of culture on the brain shows it is no wonder cultural moral difference is resistant to persuasion and change.
Also, in the interests of what some people see as their own well-being, or that of others, it is possible for them to frame the understanding of practices that are extremely detrimental to well-being, such as female genital mutilation or torture, in ways in which they do not see such practices as wrong. (Kant saw that once we decide to take our moral bearings from particular acts and their effects, it is impossible to prove to people who find, for whatever reason, terrible acts acceptable, that their perspective is necessarily wrong). From a neurobiology point of view, what, for example, is the pattern of activity in the brain state of a torturer, and his consequent emotional state, where he has been conditioned to find torturing someone acceptable? He may well have adopted some state of mind whereby he rationalises his actions, whether through ideological commitment or expediency or following orders, to reduce, if not remove, patterns of his brain activity that give rise to processing emotional disturbance. It would at least not be a state of mind of unbearable revulsion whereby his brain signal had compelled him to stop.
In a BBC Four documentary (Pol Pot’s Executioner: Welcome to Hell – May 2011), a torturer said that the only way he could have tortured his victims was to regard them as animals, as he was required to do. The practice of dehumanising prisoners by relating to them only as a number was part of this process, as it was in the Nazi death camps. A torturer might be opposed to torturing prisoners but have justifiable fears of being killed and perhaps tortured to death himself if he refuses to do so, which presumably would set up conflicting signals in his brain patterns. But there are those, such as Duche, the notorious Non Pen camp commandant during the Pol Pot regime, who oversaw and implemented the extreme methods. His state of mind must somehow have been able to override a brain state of distress. Harris writes about understanding psychopathic behaviour in terms of brain pathologies. However, there is also Hannah Arendt’s phrase for the Nazi atrocities, “the banality of evil”, and Duche’s ordinariness comes across in the documentary.
That brain states are malleable under the influence of the mind to the extent that they can make possible a state of mind of tolerance, and even of believed justification, for evil acts such as genocide, shows how precarious the brain is as an underlying marker for right and wrong. Rational, consequential thinking is also clearly not compelling in enabling those so minded as to commit such acts to understand that they are wrong from the destructive effect they are having on well-being.
Philosophers have found the theory that bases moral determination on the practical assessment of consequences flawed on a number of grounds. Harris examines some of these, such as the difficulty of accurately foreseeing and weighing up the impact of the consequences of actions, especially over the long term. In this regard, it is ironic to criticise Christian morality for its oppression when it played no small part in developing the values of individual freedom and worth. Even as trenchant a critic of Christian morality as Nietzsche recognised that Christianity’s emphasis on the demands of conscience and free will, as well as its belief in the intrinsic worth of each person in the light of his being created in the image and likeness of God, deepened a sense of individual subjectivity. This led eventually to people becoming more independent and less beholden to, among other things, religious authority. It helped lay the groundwork in particular for the cultural acceptance of the importance of the values of individual autonomy and worth. These were values which Enlightenment philosophers, notably Kant, focused on. He emphasised the human capacities of individual will and reason as the elements in moral determination, where it is a question of whether or not a person can will, without contradiction, the principle implied by his intended action to apply for everyone, including himself; his theory has underpinned the human rights tradition in the modern period. This beneficial outcome, to which centuries of subscribing to Christian morality contributed, reveals how it is impossible to foresee and make accurate judgments about the long term consequences on well-being of cultural forces.
Also, with an ethical approach involving assessment of consequences, it is difficult to know how to balance the relative weight to give to individual and general well-being. The theory is often criticised for providing a rationale for accepting that the end justifies the means when a course of action is judged to provide for the well-being of most people even though the means may be morally questionable, in particular by overriding the value of individual autonomy and privacy. Harris does not address this difficulty specifically, yet it should raise moral alarm bells. He looks forward to the day (coming soon apparently) when neuroscience will have furnished a reliable lie detector, and seems to accept that it could be used in boardrooms or parliaments, for example, as well as in securing evidence to convict suspected criminals. He foresees that in time we will be able to tell in conversation if a person is representing his thoughts honestly. He tells us too, thanks again to neuroscience, that one day it may be possible “to download a person’s private thoughts, memories, and perceptions without distortion”.
He recognises that using such mind-reading technology would transform our culture. But he does not seem to appreciate that it raises major ethical and legal questions. As Aldous Huxley foresaw many years ago and described in his novel Brave New World, and Orwell likewise in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the intrusive use of technology to monitor and control people in the interests of a perceived “better world” is a profound moral issue in which public power encroaches on individual freedom. Using technology in certain ways to access a person’s private thoughts strikes at the heart of our understanding of the meaning of a human person and how we should treat each other on the basis of our humanity. The intrinsic freedom and worth of the individual are major values that have developed over the course of human cultural evolution. The thrust of Harris’s criticism of the unfounded authority of religious morality and its oppressive power over people supports these values. Yet there is clearly a conflict between these values and projected uses of mind-reading technology derived from neuroscience.
Also, in considering the morality of an action, a person’s motivation is an important factor, as it is in assessing it legally, yet a consequential approach to moral determination has difficulty explaining why motivation should have importance compared to the effect consequences have on people’s well-being. Harris acknowledges that a science of morality will require a deeper understanding of motivation.
It is hard, then, to see how Harris’s neurobiological-consequential approach to morality can stand up. On the one hand, nurture in the form of cultural practices contributes to forming brain patterns that signal well-being. And so, to avoid a relativist quagmire, he needs rational, consequential thinking to determine which cultural practices genuinely serve well-being and which don’t. But the influence of this form of thinking can itself be considered a product of culture. Not only have philosophers shown it up as inadequate to account for moral experience, it is in particular only one way of obtaining understanding, and is associated with the Western cultural tradition more so than other traditions. Harris leaves no room for an approach to morality based on intuition, which is more in keeping with the Eastern tradition. (It is also part of the Western tradition, notably through the neglected work of the Irish-born moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson). Harris is clear that, whatever its difficulties, assessing consequences is a major component of determining well-being. He does, however, sound a note of caution: “Our assessment of consequences in the moral domain must proceed as it does in all others: under the shadow of uncertainty, guided by theory, data and honest consideration.”
The main problem with Harris’s neurobiological-consequential approach is that the philosophical questions won’t go away. And, since Harris’s theory is based on facts about well-being implying values, there is a fundamental question in relation to a difference said to exist between facts and values. As far back as the seventeenth century David Hume famously pointed out that facts cannot imply normative, value judgements. “The man murdered his wife” is a statement whose meaning can be verified as a fact. However, “The man should not have murdered his wife” is a value statement whose meaning cannot be verified as a fact. It belongs to a separate category of understanding. From the truth of a factual statement we cannot infer the truth of a value statement. No matter how hard we look, we will never find in an act of murder some factual element which we can identify with wrong. That murder is wrong is a value judgment we make on the basis of the value we place on human life, but we have no verifiable factual evidence for our judgment. Also, while there are of course all sorts of justifiable practical and social reasons for considering murder wrong, there is no evidence either of an inherent logical connection between the fact of a murder and the value judgment that it is wrong.
Early in the twentieth century GE Moore pointed out a problem about moral goodness, which is that it cannot be defined. Unlike physical objects, goodness is not definable by any naturally occurring characteristic. And this would include well-being, even if there are knowable facts about what constitutes well-being and what does not. Moore accepts, of course, that we do associate moral goodness with a number of things, such as pleasure or well-being. However, when we look into that little but all important word “good”, we find no intrinsic characteristic which defines it. Also, even if we could prove that goodness equates with scientific facts about well-being, it is still a valid question to ask why we should therefore live according to those facts. This is known in philosophy as the open question argument. If goodness equals x, it is still an open question why we should do x. It doesn’t follow from knowing that something is morally good that we should actually have to behave in accordance with it.
At one level, Harris would regard the fact/value or is/ought distinction and the problem of defining goodness as academic. It is obvious to someone whose life is a misery that their circumstances should be considered morally bad where the moral benchmark is well-being. In making his case for the connection between facts and values, he mentions that neuroimaging reveals as a fact that the same region of the brain is activated when we are thinking about facts and values, but this is merely circumstantial evidence. His main point, again, is that facts imply values because our emotional responses link us to the kinds of things we are drawn towards and away from, and hence inform us about we should and should not value, and that the emotional responses are underpinned and produced by observable facts to do with our brain states. However, while factual connections between brain patterns and stimuli can show how as an organism we function for our benefit, it is another thing to claim that such facts provide adequate evidence for understanding what we should value. With the development of consciousness comes not merely a capacity to calculate rationally what serves our interests, but openness to the existential strangeness of ourselves in a world with other people that raises a fundamental question of what we should value in how we live.
Harris has a point when he argues that facts imply values, using the activity of science itself as an example. Contrary to popular opinion, science is a value-laden fact. As an approach to understanding the world, it implicitly values the evidence of observation and experiment and rational, including mathematical, calculation. “As far as our understanding of the world is concerned – there are no facts without values.” Arguably, our perspective on any fact reveals a value orientation we have, whether positive or negative or some shade in between. Think of the value response we may have to the fact that the sun is shining, or that it is the time of year again for the Eurovision song contest. Such mundane examples show how thoroughly imbued our lives are in their detail with what we do and don’t value, and hence how important the question becomes of what we should value. How we should live morally good lives involves a lot more than dealing with the big ethical questions such as social justice or abortion. For Iris Murdoch facts have moral colour. Moral colours show in “what we see things as, what we let, or make, ourselves think about”. However, just because facts imply particular values in the way we look upon them, this does not justify giving precedence to the facts of science for our values.
In fairness to Harris, he is not claiming that a science-based approach will be the last word on understanding morality. He accepts that science will not be able to identify all the practices which are conducive to well-being and all those which are not. Nor will it be able to provide the right answer to all moral questions. His claim is the more modest one that, in time, due to the findings of neuroscience, behaviour we consider to be good and bad for us will be “constrained by scientific facts about human well-being based on what we know about the workings of the brain”. On the face of it, it’s an understandable claim. Human beings are, after all, creatures of a physical universe, and the brain is a physical organ, so it’s understandable that the brain would register traces of ways of being in the world it finds conducive to human well-being and register traces which are not. So, notwithstanding the philosophical problems with his fact-based approach, along with the difficulties that still remain in providing clear connections to morality from the evidence of brain states, neurobiology could have some limited role in informing moral well-being.
While Harris strongly criticises religious morality, he understands the appeal of religious stories. The anthropologist Pascal Boyer may be correct, he writes, in saying that what religious stories lack in plausibility they make up for in appealing to the way cognition is structured in order to relate to that which is “memorable, emotionally salient and socially consequential”. Also, as Ernst Cassirer pointed out, man is a symbolic animal. Representing the meaning of existence through symbols and myths has been fundamental to human experience. And, with the development of scientific reasoning, there is no reason per se why this should become less important to the appreciation of a fully human experience. As Hermann Keyserling wrote in The Travel Diary of a Philosopher on observing Hindus at Benares acknowledge in a communal gesture the life-giving power of the sun as it rose, the sun symbolises the creative energy of God in a physical manifestation. And while Keyserling recognised the Hindus are not factually “correct” in their understanding of the sun as compared to the understanding of the physicist or the astronomer, there is nevertheless spiritual truth in the significance.
Harris also accepts that our human experience of being in the world is mysterious, a mysteriousness on which religious belief is based. He accepts, as well, some of the orientations of mind which are part of religious belief, and finds nothing irrational in wanting to seek to value them highly. “Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.” His objection is to the imaginative stories involving belief in the supernatural to explain their significance. But surely if they are among the most valuable experiences we can have – and they are – that must say something about them as a source for values, as a source for understanding why we distinguish certain conditions and behaviours from others, finding one set good and another bad. The experience of awe and oneness especially take us beyond the inert qualities of the factual and the scientifically knowable. They are meta-physical experiences whose source impresses itself from beyond the limitations of the physical, impresses in a way that moves us. This kind of experience can stand as the locus of our moral sensibility, without need of an imaginative religious framework. In the light, then, of the high value of such human experiences as a sense of awe and oneness, it may well be that neuroscience findings are at one, basic end of a moral spectrum which reaches out through the stimuli of the physical universe to a more profound metaphysical source of moral meaning and value at the other end.
Moreover the kind of meaning we appreciate in art can be considered metaphysical. The value of a great painting is evoked in us through a combination of such aesthetic qualities as unity, richness, and brightness or intensity, which cannot be reduced to, or adequately explained by, the its physical elements. Through embodying metaphysical experience, art can stand as a model, and a guide, if a very general one, for impressive and desirable living conditions and standards of conduct. As Iris Murdoch put it in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals:
The art-object, transcendent, clarified, self-contained, alone secure and time-resistant, shedding light upon the miserable human scene, prompting compassion and just judgment, seems like a picture of goodness itself, a sort of semi-sensory image of a spiritual ideal.
In his work of metaphysics The Visible and the Invisible, French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty writes of a movement in which we go out from ourselves through our sensory organs to engage with the rich diversity of the natural world. It’s a movement we are also able to experience distilled in the unity of all things in Being. But he goes on to add that we can have a sense that the movement does not end with an intuition of Being. He suggests, in an admittedly obscure passage, that we may get a sense that the movement is bringing us into the presence of the ground of Being, albeit that the ground must remain hidden from us given our empirical and finite limitations. It is “a movement towards what could not in any event be present to us in the original and whose irremediable absence would thus count among our originating experiences”. For many, it is perhaps the experience of some such movement that leads them to believe in God as the ultimate ground of Being. Of course, it is no proof of God’s existence, and certainly not of the veracity of any religious story. But Harris might agree that it is a further dimension to the most valuable experiences of awe and oneness which humans can have; that it arises naturally from the fact of sense perception; and that we should go along with it for a more in-depth sense of the meaning of well-being as a moral guide.
Manus Charleton lectures in Ethics in the Institute of Technology, Sligo. His book, Ethics for Social Care in Ireland: Philosophy and Practice, was published by Gill & MacMillan in 2007. He has also been published in Irish Pages and Studies.