Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

In one of the most memorable examples in The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris reflects on his own thoughts after his wife told him that another man had openly flirted with her in the gym, even though she had said she was a happily married woman. Sam Harris imagines how men in certain cultures would have reacted to this information. The first thing a man should do if he want to keep his pride is to beat the rivaling male, perhaps kill him too. In some cases it would also have been culturally appropriate to punish the wife for.... well I don’t know... sub consciously tempting the man to approach her? In extreme cases it would have been appropriate to also kill the wife, just to emphasise the way in which your property is not to be meddled with!

Sam Harris admits that he initially did feel hostility towards the other male (something which I think men world wide will sympathise with). He felt that his behavior was wrong. However, having been brought up in a western society he did not follow through on these feelings. He realized that killing the other person would not lead to positive outcomes for anybody, and he realized that it was certainly not his wife’s fault. In addition, he also thinks that his wife is attractive and can understand that another man finds her attractive too.

The main thesis of Sam Harris book is that just like statements about the world can be right or wrong (for example, it is wrong to say earth is flat), moral statements can also be right or wrong. What makes an act/policy/moral guideline right or wrong? Well according to Harris this is determined by the degree to which it increases/decreased the well being of humans. For those who remember their philosophy, this is in essence a utilitarian argument. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that there are no categorical imperatives (as Kant said). Whether something is good or evil depends on the consequences. Thus it can be good to lie if it prevents sadness in a lot of people. To calculate the effect of a certain act on the well being of the rest of the world is of course more or less impossible. For example, frequent lying can ruin relationships leading to divorce, leading to depressions etc etc...

Harris acknowledges that there is large gray area where it is hard to say if a certain action or moral guideline aids general well being or not. This does not mean however, that anything goes. However, some acts, such as killing another man and your wife because of minor flirtation is really unlikely to lead to greater well being. It is comparable to arguing that the earth I'd merely 6000 years old - not entirely impossible but really really unlikely.

Simply put, some moral guidelines or cultural norms are more conducive towards human well being than others.

Still many people (perhaps mainly academics living comfortable lives), would argue that cultural norms are merely cultural and that we should not criticize other cultures for holding certain values, because values are subjective etc. However, even among cultural relativists there are few people who argue this way when discussing terrible acts. Can people who consider themselves to be cultural relativists abstain from judgement and condemnation when they hear about say Josef Fritzl or the genocide in Rwanda. Would they be indifferent to whether their children were raised in Josef Fritzl's basement, or in a Tutsi family experiencing mutilation from Hutu militia. Are these alternatives merely an interesting cultural alternative? What sane parent would not prefer their child to grow up in a western society with individual rights and a police force that protects their citizens?

Can we not say that the genocide in Rwanda was wrong? Can we not deplore the ethical code of the catholic church when they excommunicate a doctor for performing an abortion on a girl raped by her father and pregnant with twins, while not excommunicating a single Nazi? If we can it follows that we can say something about which norms are good and bad.


stevei said...

If you're interested in a criticism of Harris, search on amazon.com for "Mining The Moral Landscape: Why Science Does Not (and cannot) Determine Human Values."

Eclecticity said...

Thoughtful post.

I think the foundation of western civilization is rooted in the Judeo-Christian traditions. When you look carefully at the 10 Commandments, for example, I think you can make the case for most our laws, ethics and political-economic systems in the Western world.

Jack said...

For an interesting constructive criticism see http://philosopher.io/Science-Religion-Ontology-Epistemology

rasmussenanders said...

Thanks for the comments.

I think that one can make a valid argument claiming that science cannot determine moral values. There has to be an arbitrary starting point specifying what we want to achieve, however, if we have reached such a point I think that we can use science from then on.

Harris such state is in essence a utilitarian goal - the greatest possible well being in as many individuals as possible. If this is what we want to attain (and I think it should be), then acts that help us toward this point are moral and those that pulls us away are not good.

I agree with Eclecticity that our culture is rooted in judeo-christians traditions. Sometime these traditions are good and sometimes bad. Why not keep the good ones and get rid of the bad?

Timothy Takemoto said...

It works when you look at extremes like "Josef Fritzl's basement, or in a Tutsi family experiencing mutilation from Hutu militia". But therefore should children be given rights, and which ones? How about a right to see both parents? This is not a right in Japan, where post-divorce, children are brought up by one or other parent. How about a right to porn?

Furthermore, most of the well being research uses self-reports, despite the fact that it is well know that Westerners have a strong tendency to over-report all positive self descriptions. I have not got to the end of the book yet but I think that the biggest problem is that "well being" and perhaps can't in principle be measured.

Finally "well-being" sounds very fair, as a suitably general goal but are we sure that it should not be "well-becoming?" Can human thriving be measured in states, or in transitions? I have met people that claim that human's seek positive changes in states not steady states. My father says "happiness is not stuff-able-on-top-wise." Someone else in terms of Newtons laws of motion, where well-becoming (he used "happiness") was compared to acceleration which does not occur in steady states. This man even recommended marriage and children as a way of introducing ups and downs into ones life, since while bringing an equal amount of suffering, it at least results in a reduced incidence of steady states, and on the rebound, more happiness. Another friend (who is disabled) believes that happiness is related to expectations - the smaller they are the smaller changes in state result in greater increases in happiness - and I am not sure that expectations will ever be found in the brain.

All the same, I guess if it were found that humans strive after well-becoming then future governments could ensure that their citizens get the right kind of roller coaster ride, and modifies our expectations according to the sort of ride it can provide. I think that governments do already do this to an extent.

But I think that it may be very complicated.
Derrida's "Differance," and iterability of the sign. Not sure what he means but I get the feeling he is onto something.
The way in which, as Sam Harris points out in Free Will, that Libert's neuropsychology shows we are predicting things in the past.
The way in which self-caused things seem to occur sooner
The way in which sensations take time to reach consciousness so we somehow manage to push them back in time to occur when they did even though there was in fact a lag.
(The last two I found on a neuroscience website by looking up libert)
And the way in which Kanzi, the bonobo that evolved speech in the lab, started speaking in speech acts which predicted his own behaviour to himself.
The way in which sex always seems to involve repetition, even in ladybirds.

I think that the ideal roller coaster ride may be impossible to plan, ever, so Sam's attempts are barren.

Sam Harris is a bit too common sense.

rasmussenanders said...

Thanks for the comment Timothy,

I think that you are partially right and partially, I think you may be overinterpreting Sam Harris arguments.

Well being is indeed a difficult concept to grasp and it is extremely difficult to get a detailed understanding of the factors that make someone happier. There is also bound to be individual differences which makes it harder still. I also agree that happiness probably involves some form of roller coaster ride.

Still, I do think that Sam Harris acknowledges all these limitations. He compares it to the way that there are often areas in science where we don't are not really sure about certain relationships. However, there are usually areas where there is little doubt as well. I think the same goes for well being. Certain things or policies to bring about greater well being in general, and some types of societies are associated with reduced well being. We can use these examples to determine which policies are good and bad, and as our knowledge grows we may be able to say more about what policies produce happy people.