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Moral Miscarriage and the Violence of Relativism: A Review of Sam Harris’s ‘The Moral Landscape’

2010 October 19

In the face of some truly fascinating science and the natural deductions of logic, many people still believe that we derive our morality from religion and not the other way around.  Granted evolution (which may not be granted to some) and the trajectory of Homo sapiens toward our current standing as the most complex and social creatures in the history of life on earth, one must assume that to be so successful at socializing as we are we would have developed some moral sense along the way.  This has been attested in a profusion of recent science which has not been limited to the study of human beings.  Indeed, one can trace ‘moral’ behavior with remarkable clarity in chimpanzees, monkeys, even mice and dogs.

Even without this extraordinary research it should be clear from glancing at any holy book that we do not and cannot derive our morality from religion.  Thank goodness we don’t take our morality from the Old Testament or we’d surely be even more rampant with sexism, homophobia, racism and genocide than we currently are.  It is also a relief that we don’t take our morality from the Qur’an, otherwise the west might look a great deal like Saudi Arabia.  It should also be a comfort that we don’t subscribe to the Iron Age morality of Jesus of Nazareth or else many of us would be eyeless and handless and, based on the doctrine of ‘casting the first stone’, our prisons would be rather empty when they should be rather full.  All of our exceptions to these outdated tomes should be indicative of some other moral foundation at work, clearly derived from somewhere other than the books with which we take issue.  It seems there is presently no scientific doubt that our morals, my fellow apes, are in our selves.

How then do we create any functioning sense of moral objectivity if in fact there is no objective moral groundwork?  Quite easily, it turns out.  While you’re glancing at your holy books looking for evidence of moral mischief, do note the times you take exception to some pseudo-moral utterance or other and this should give some idea.  We have been evolutionarily fitted with a basic moral sense, otherwise we should all be quite dead by now.

This evolutionarily inherited moral sense has certainly been expanded over generations from its more primitive roots.  Upon the basic framework of cooperative thinking and concern for inter-species well-being has grown a complex moral structure to accommodate rapid societal advances well beyond the basic social graces for which evolution had initially equipped us.  However, to say that morality as we know it is a purely human construct and not, in fact, the product of divine creation, is not to dismiss it as futile or inconsequential.  In fact, to call it futile begins to allow for moral relativism, a dangerous threat to true morality that runs surprisingly rampant in many arenas of contemporary moral theory.

Moral relativism is based upon the mistaken notion that without divine origins morality has no basis of objectivity and thusly all human action is permissible as long as it is touted by any maniacal lunatic as ‘moral’.  This idea puzzlingly troubles many otherwise intelligent people (politicians and prominent scientists among them).  They honestly have difficulty condemning acts of child rape, genital mutilation, compulsory burqa-wearing, bride-burning and other atrocities based on what they see as generous concessions to ‘cultural differences’, when in fact the ‘differences’ are, I’m sorry to say, demonstrations of outright moral inferiority.

In Sam Harris’s new book, The Moral Landscape, he propounds the idea that science can, in fact, weigh in on issues of morality and can thusly work toward the creation of an effective moral objectivity.  While Harris freely denounces the idea that there is any form of external morality (such as that of divine origin), he claims that our own subjective, human morality can be just as authoritative.  His goals are clear: to move society toward a collective morality, converged upon by all of its members.  Thankfully, Harris readily admits that this may never happen (it won’t), but he sets it as a target upon which we should fix our aim.  By this model, he believes, we might be able to consult science for help on difficult moral questions.  What it comes down to, Harris writes, is that science constantly and effectively deals with issues of human well-being and that morality, naturally, is after just this same end.

Harris's rendering of the moral landscape

The moral landscape is Harris’s notion of a vast geography of peaks and valleys corresponding to moral issues.  The peaks represent the heights of human well-being, the valleys represent total moral, emotional and social devastation.  The moral landscape thusly creates a mountainous range of alternative moral choices that lead to peaks in human well-being – though there is objectivity in this model, he says, there are obviously many ways to achieve a functioning and healthy moral society.  This is demonstrated by the vast number of peaks in the landscape.  Critics of Harris’s model have used this idea to destroy the possibility of moral objectivity altogether, saying that if there isn’t one correct moral path the fact should represent a fundamental flaw is Harris’s logic, but Harris is quick to dismiss this.  In this way, he likens science’s ability to investigate morality to its ability to investigate nutrition.

To see that multiple answers to moral questions need not pose a problem for us, consider how we currently think about food: no one would argue that there must be one right food to eat.  And yet there is still an objective difference between healthy food and poison.

However, Harris is unclear about what this moral science would actually look like.  Certainly, as he also admits, a science of morality is beyond our current scientific capabilities, but Harris seems to have no foresight at all into what the practical model of this science would be.  He does cite a doctoral study of his own which sheds a bit of light on the inability of the human brain to distinguish between facts and values in regard to questions of belief: “[…] from the point of view of the brain, believing ‘the sun is a star’ is importantly similar to believing ‘cruelty is wrong’ […].”  This and other related findings draw a parallel between factual truth (the sun is a star) and seemingly more slippery truths about moral values (cruelty is wrong), which, for Harris, indicates a similar objectivity of truth.  Now, how does Harris account for the possibility of human well-being in societal models he would deem morally unequipped?  In a recent TED talk about the moral landscape, Harris addressed this very issue in regard to the burqa, a full-body veil worn by Muslim women on threat of torture or death in compliance with a Qur’anic charge to female modesty.

I’m not talking about voluntary wearing of a veil – women should be able to wear whatever they want as far as I’m concerned – but what does ‘voluntary’ mean in a community where when a girl gets raped, her father’s first impulse, rather often, is to murder her out of shame?  Just let that fact detonate in your brain for a minute.  Your daughter gets raped and what you want to do is kill her.  What are the chances that represents a peak of human flourishing?

Zero, indeed. Surely the moral landscape has no business catering to psychopaths who enjoy the rape and brutal torture of children, or to men who, unsatisfied with their new wife’s inability to pay her dowry, douse her in kerosene, light a match and burn her to death, as is presently done in India, Pakistan and an alarming number of other countries.  These are clearly not alternatives to human thriving; they are demonstrations of moral deficiency of an intolerable kind.  But what about more subtle examples?  The aforementioned examples need no scientific contradiction to be deemed unsuitable to human well-being; they need only reason and carefully-aimed intolerance.  However, when morality becomes more complex, when we would need this science of which Harris writes and speaks (such as when confronting questions about the fallout of a potential military invasion, or the consequences of using weapons of mass destruction to end an otherwise catastrophic and endless war), this is precisely where that science would fail us.

While Harris’s model of a more objective morality is practicable in extreme and obvious cases where liberal justification simply perpetuates unnecessary suffering in the name of ‘tolerance’, it becomes a bit less helpful in more intricate cases.  When judging, for instance, whether there was sufficient moral groundwork for the United States’ invasion of Iraq, the potential consequences would have been too complex, detailed and manifold for any science to gauge accurately.  There are, in cases like this, too many variables and effects on both the individual and collective scale to render any kind of scientific analysis useful.  Thusly, we would be and are reduced to the age-old (and vastly important) traditions of debate and discourse to settle more difficult moral questions.

When one admits, as Harris rightfully does, that there is no external moral objectivity, one is left with the subjectivity of the human mind.  This is not as great a concession as it sounds.  Harris is right to trust our understanding of human well-being in regard to moral issues.  Harris, again, on the burqa:

Who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture are wrong to force their wives and daughters to live in cloth bags?  Who are we to say even that they’re wrong to beat them with lengths of steel cable or throw battery acid in their faces if they decline the privilege of being smothered in this way?  Okay.  Who are we not to say this?  Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well-being that we have to be non-judgmental about a practice like this?

However, well-being is a delicate concept.  While extreme examples such as the forced wearing of a burqa or religious commandments to child abuse in schools are (or should be) easy to discredit, when moral issues get truly complex one must remember that science is only as good as humans can make it, and our ability to predict the fallout of human well-being based on the outcome of knotted moral dilemmas seems to me impossible to perfect.  Certainly, our understanding of how our minds work can and will grow, and this will no doubt inform our responses to moral issues, but the most effective point that Harris seems to be making is that, whether or not we will be able to approach them in practical reality, there are answers to difficult moral questions and we should approach the consideration of these questions with this knowledge.

One must also consider, as Harris does, the possibility of conflict between collective well-being and individual well-being.  How to reconcile these discrepancies in cases of war casualties, etc.?  Here, Harris dismisses concern with generalities, which, while quite true, no further help us in specific practical instances of dilemma:

If we are not perfectly able to reconcile the tension between personal and collective well-being, there is still no reason to think that they are generally in conflict.  Most boats will surely rise with the same tide.

He goes on to cite examples of general societal pursuits that would knowingly increase well-being on both individual and collective scales:

We would all be better off in a world where we devoted fewer of our resources to preparing to kill one another.  Finding clean sources of energy, cures for disease, improvements in agriculture, and new ways to facilitate human cooperation are general goals that are obviously worth striving for.

In a practical sense, Harris is after much less than he sounds like he is.  While the ability to consult science in times of moral impasse seems an attractive goal to him, he is aware of the difficulty of this pursuit: “Whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point”, he concludes.  Instead, he settles his aim upon those who doubt the ability to extend moral truth throughout discrepant cultures.

Currently, most scientists believe that answers to questions of human value will fall perpetually beyond our reach – not because human subjectivity is too difficult to study, or the brain too complex, but because there is no intellectual justification for speaking about right and wrong, or good and evil, across cultures.

It is precisely his concessions to the difficulty of human subjectivity and the complexities of the brain that I would echo.  However, though these difficulties are surely of great consequence to potential scientific study, as Harris indicates, merely opening oneself to the idea that there are, in some sense, moral truths, also opens the possibility of scientific investigation and thus the possibility of discussing moral issues more freely.

Moral relativism that lends justification to abhorrent practices in the name of liberalism is itself a demonstration of moral ineptitude.  In this fashion, relativism admits of either of complete moral insanity or cowardice, and neither can be stood for.  “Whether morality becomes a proper branch of science” truly is beside the point.  The point is that many intelligent people are unwilling to stand against injustice because of some feeble appeal to tolerance, a distinctly overrated virtue.  If one can look at, for example, the detestable treatment of women under Taliban rule and find only a morality parallel to our own, that person has a supreme and certifiable moral disability, as no doubt the members of the Taliban also do.  Essentially, Harris writes, he is looking only for a confession:

Whether or not we ever understand meaning, morality, and values in practice, I have attempted to show that there must be something to know about them in principle.  And I am convinced that merely admitting this will transform the way we think about human happiness and the public good.

While the science Harris mentions never manifests beyond the abstract, he and I both maintain that it is vitally important to recognize the existence of a true discrepancy between moral and immoral actions.  There do exist better and worse ways to generate human well-being and the sooner we admit to this, the sooner we might progress toward a more collective moral consciousness that is intolerant of blatant atrocity, unjustifiable violence sanctioned by ancient superstition and the miscarriage of moral relativism.  Neglecting this admission will only perpetuate shameful, egregious violence and disgraceful inaction against such cruelty.  If the latter qualifies as ‘tolerance’ then we should be suspect of the word.

One Response
  1. January 23, 2011

    I appreciated your review.

    You commented that “When one admits, as Harris rightfully does, that there is no external moral objectivity, one is left with the subjectivity of the human mind.” The interesting thing here is that Harris’s thesis and book subtitle is that moral facts are objective and available for scientific investigation. It’s a curious point of tension that must chew at neuroscientists and Zen masters all day long: how can the human mind study itself and yet claim to be objective?

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