Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

The Moral Landscape is an intelligent and well-researched work that engages the reader to question if notions of fact and value are really that different, but this landscape is not without its pitfalls.

On November 1st there is a book group meeting to discuss The Moral Landscape so I shall review the book in a way that makes it easier to examine different ideas and themes by presenting a list of the main positives (peaks) and negatives (valleys) about the book.
1) Conscious well-being – Harris argues that this is the only thing one should and could care about. All notions of happiness and suffering are contained within the phrase “well-being” and we want more of the positive than the negative. It is “conscious” because that is all we experience. It is true that subconscious events affect us, but that really means that they have an effect on our conscious well-being. Although I’m not 100% convinced, there does seem to be a lot of truth to this and this is likely what we care about most often.
2) The Moral Landscape has peaks and valleys - Harris tackles head on the fact that some ways of living are better than others and we can investigate these discrepancies further to better understand ourselves and better ways to live. This message may seem obvious to some and challenging to others, hopefully more people will admit to the former.
3) Fact & Value – Many think these must be different because not everyone agrees on moral issues. Harris rightly points out that we rarely use mass consensus to determine other issues (look to polls about scientific or any other type of knowledge), but we can all admit that some ways are better than others (…so he argues). Restated, it is important to draw parallels to other areas of knowledge and ignorance and how such discrepancies don’t force people to abandon notions of objective X.
4) Clarity – Harris is quite clear about what he is arguing, what he means and what he doesn’t mean, and provides responses to anticipated criticism. While this is how all books should be, not all authors seem to agree or can write that way.
5) Interesting – For those who like philosophy and science, there are many interesting things in The Moral Landscape. Aside from the main content, one reads about different selves, (the illusion of) the illusion of free will, psychopathy, recent findings in neuroscience and various tidbits (mainly from psychology) along the way.
6) Thought-provoking – Harris forces the reader to clarify their own positions in relation to his argument. If you disagree, you should be prepared to say why.

1) Disagree? Dismissed – Harris wants you to agree with him about his notion of well-being, and if you don’t, then he says your opinion doesn’t count. Additionally, if you disagree it is about conscious well-being, then your opinion doesn’t count. Further, if you disagree that extreme horror isn’t worse than tranquil delight, then your opinion doesn’t count. I am sympathetic to many of these points, but not to the degree that I can fully support his stance. (See below)
2) Arguing Extremes (Straw man; Slippery slope fallacies)
Throughout the book I was continually disappointed by Harris’ reliance upon an extreme example to try to prove a point. It was if he had a strategy of “One, Two, Extreme” and wasn’t afraid to use it. He begins by describing an issue, then providing some analysis which almost makes you agree with him, and then instead of further analysis he provides you with some extreme situation or example that you can’t disagree with.
The example I made up below isn’t quite the same, but it gives the right idea (Three is real content):
One: Different cultures have different practices.
Two: Some people think all these different practices are equally valid.
Three: If you agree with point two you are crazy because then you validate things like this: “Generose Namburho [is] a 40-year-old former nurse [who lives in the Congo]. Namburho is a stocky, self-assured woman who led us down a mud path, using a crutch to replace her missing right leg. An extremist Hutu militia invaded Namburho’s home a few years ago, killed her husband, raped her and then hacked off her leg with a knife. Then the soldiers cooked the flesh from her leg and forced her children at gunpoint to eat it. When her beloved oldest son refused, they shot him in front of her.”
Surely you don’t think children should be forced to eat their mother’s leg, do you?!
I think such argumentative structures are counterproductive because they do not address the all important middle case (and typically raise emotions which do not help with reasoning).
3) Science can’t really determine human values(?) The subtitle of the book is “How Science Can Determine Human Values” so one is given to thinking that most of our moral questions will be answered. The problem is that so far there are only general answers. Harris wisely admits that there can be equivalent peaks on the moral landscape, where there are alternate ways of achieving a similar good, but, problematically, there is little way to figure out which path to take. Additionally, Harris states that quite often there might only be answers in principle, not in practice. Harris believes this is an important point, and it is, but not to the degree he ascribes. To say that whatever is the most reasonable way to calculate collective well-being will be the most reasonable way to do it, is both true and unhelpful. True, it does follow from other premises about the nature of what we value and our notions of well-being, but because of the complexity of moral systems (i.e., us), how are we going to do this? Harris readily admits that it may be impossible for science to figure these things out. So then what is so new here? Near the end of the book (p. 183) Harris says we don’t need science to tell us many of the things we already know about having better lives. Cruelty and being tortured are bad; nearly all agree. What we all (probably) wanted is more detail on the gray areas, but there isn't much to be found in this book on such important issues. Knowing what is wrong and knowing what is right are different things (i.e., it is easier to point out how not to live than to say how to do so). Additionally, near the end (p. 189) he uses the phrasing “the claim that science could have something important to say about human values…” and that is far more modest than science determining them. This is exactly why the Is/Ought distinction is so important.
Harris seems to be saying that science cannot determine specific moral actions in practice. If that is true, then there isn’t much to disagree with. This particular topic probably warrants the most discussion (and has also received it thus far - see responses to his TED talk).
Perhaps the subtitle should have been "Science could, perhaps theoretically, determine human values, but not what we should value, unless you agree with my other arguments."
Granted the length makes it a poor subtitle, but something less misleading could have been picked.
4) Disagreement is met with condescension – While it is understandable that moral issues are of grave concern, I do not think that people should be denigrated (at least in public) for holding different (modest) views. Someone might disagree with you because they are informed and disagree, not because they are confused or stupid. All too often Harris sees his opposition as intellectual bankrupt or baffled (when they might be neither). Harris says Mooney is confused because he wants there to be accommodation and 'spiritual atheism' but Harris doesn't criticize Dan Dennett for wanting to reclaim the word spiritual (Dennett was a key reviewer of the book). Perhaps it is an issue of who his intended audience is.
5) Interesting, but lacking coherence. The content of the Moral Landscape was indeed interesting, but most of the bits after the first few chapters didn’t seem to flow as well, nor was a strong case made to tie the content back to the overall thesis. I think Harris could have filled things in a bit more. For example, how does our lack of free will impinge upon our ability to even recognize a moral landscape?

After all that, I guess you'll know if you should read it or not. I think it was worthwhile but I can't say I'll recommend this to many who are not already in the science/skepticism/atheist world.


Blogger Tito Tinajero said...

How did you respond to his totalitarian tendencies? In the last chapter he makes the case that we human's are bad at making our own well-being. Combined with his call for a select group of moral scientists, logically, then, the conclusion must be this elite moral scientists rule. Also, what to make of his example of being parents not being all that good for our well being.

8:01 PM  
Blogger That which is called Darren said...

First off, that has to be the quickest anyone has commented on something I have written. :)
I did think it was odd that he kept saying we can figure things out and then indicated we are terrible at figuring things out. Then again, we know that last part due to science, so that sort of validates his point. The notion that only moral experts really know is an interesting one, but it certainly seems problematic in a public setting. Who's an expert? Who should be trusted?
Alternatively, one could make a parallel to modern democracies where it probably would be better for people to know more about how government works, politics and history and such to make decisions, but they have the freedom to vote nonetheless. Perhaps it will be the same with morality? He wasn't too clear.
As for being a parent, that is a tricky one. I'd have to look into the data sets. Sure enough people often say that their kids are the best thing in the world, but they also tend to complain about them a lot.
Thanks for commenting.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Maryann Spikes said...

The is-ought fallacy is a real fallacy, and is why knowledge is justified, true belief. In order to be knowledge, a belief must both be justified by the evidence, and true by correspondence. If we consider justified a belief that only corresponds, we commit the is-ought fallacy. If we consider a belief true merely due to evidence in favor of it, we commit the ought-is fallacy. Related to moral truth--if a justified (answering the question of Ethics--"How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?") moral standard doesn't describe anything in reality, to consider it "true" commits the ought-is fallacy. If we take something from reality and call it moral truth, neglecting to consider whether it is justified (answering the question of Ethics), we commit the is-ought fallacy. In order for there to be moral truth, it must both correspond to (a) real being, and it must be justified (answering the question of Ethics). Its correspondence is not its justification (is=/=ought), and its justification is not its correspondence (ought=/=is).


12:49 AM  

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