A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Setting Us Free: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris


I just finished this book and highly recommend it. It took me a long time to read, because, as with most of my nonfiction reading, I read just a little at a time whenever my mental energy was adequate. (I got into a nice rhythm of reading it while eating my morning snack at work. 🙂 ) It can be a bit cerebral at times, but it’s really important stuff! I have been telling all my friends about it, so I will tell you too.

(Note: Readers who are committed to a religious worldview, such as a firm belief that human morals are mandated by God, may find this post unuseful and/or offensive; so if that’s you, please feel free to move on with your day. But if you are open to more secular views of reality, by all means, please keep reading!)

The book’s full title is The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Yes, you read that right: this is a book about how science can actually address morals.

There’s been a long tradition of scientists stepping back from issues of morality and saying, “Oh, our domain ends here; we can’t speak to what you should do with our scientific findings. We can only describe, not prescribe.” But Sam Harris is here to bust that old, limited mindset and explain how science can absolutely have something to tell us about values.

His argument (which I’ll get to in a moment) is really very simple; he lays it out in the beginning of the introduction and then spends the rest of the book exploring possible counter-arguments and defending his position. My favorite part was the Afterword (but maybe that’s just because it’s freshest in my mind!), which he wrote a couple years after the book’s initial release. In it he responds to actual criticisms he received; and in my view, this effort leads him to express still-deeper insights (which, again, I’ll tell you about shortly) than those in the main part of the book. It’s the power of dialogue.

Here’s the nutshell of his argument, as expressed on the first page of his introduction; I will add bold-face to the innermost core of the argument:

“No one expects science to tell us how we ought to think and behave…I will argue, however, that questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture—just as facts about physical and mental health do.”

In other words, to quote him again in the Afterword, “the value of wellbeing—specifically the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone” is something so basic, so obvious, so universal, that we can presuppose it as a value—something that is “good”—in the same way we value health. No one questions whether we really ought to care about our physical health; in the same way, there’s no serious footing from which anyone can argue that we shouldn’t care about our general wellbeing. It’s a value we all share—in different ways and to different extents, yes—but it’s inherent or a priori to the project of living.

So if general human wellbeing is something we should value (and who can argue that it’s not?), then this means that science can have something to say about values. That’s my wording; here’s his, in a further explanation of his argument:

“Once we see that a concern for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values, we will see that there must be a science of morality, whether or not we ever succeed in developing it: because the well-being of conscious creatures depends upon how the universe is, altogether…As we come to understand how human beings can best collaborate and thrive in this world, science can help us find a path leading away from the lowest depths of misery and toward the heights of happiness for the greatest number of people. Of course, there will be practical impediments to evaluating the consequences of certain actions, and different paths through life may be morally equivalent (i.e., there may be many peaks on the moral landscape), but I am arguing that there are no obstacles, in principle, to our speaking about moral truth.”

I think this is wonderful. With one graceful swoop, he defeats deontology (morals come from God/our duty is to follow some certain prescribed system of ethics), severe utilitarianism (only what brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people is permitted), relativism (there is no objective “good” and “bad”; every culture has their own values), relativism with an anthropological bent (our values come from evolution, and there’s nothing else we can do about them), and a host of other flawed ethical systems; and in their place he provides a superbly sensible philosophy: well-being is something objective that we value, and from that starting point we can explore and discuss the objective “good/right”s and “bad/wrong”s of what things promote our well-being and what things don’t.

Just because we don’t know the answers to difficult moral dilemmas doesn’t mean there aren’t answers or that all opinions are equally valid:

“How much should humanity in the twenty-first century value compassion, for instance? And how should this value be balanced against other competing priorities, like bureaucratic efficiency? These are hard questions—but a completed science of human flourishing would tell us exactly how and to what degree compassion conduces to the well-being of individuals and societies. Will we ever have a completed science of human flourishing? Probably not. Does this mean that there isn’t a right way to maintain compassion while seeking bureaucratic efficacy (or several right ways)? Does the extraordinary complexity of human life prevent us from seeing, at a glance, that certain societies have got the balance between compassion and efficiency entirely wrong? No. (See: Germany, Nazi.)”

When it comes to our individual choices, he says (this is my favorite passage from the book, and I’ve quoted the first part for you before):

“We cannot perfectly measure or reconcile the competing needs of billions of creatures. We often cannot effectively prioritize our own competing needs. What we can do is try, within practical limits, to follow a path that seems likely to maximize both our own well-being and the well-being of others. This is what it means to live wisely and ethically. As we will see, we have already begun to discover which regions of the brain allow us to do this. A fuller understanding of what moral life entails, however, would require a science of morality.”

There’s something particular about this mindset that really appealed to me as I read the book, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until the Afterword. Remember how I said that the book’s Afterword, in which Harris responds to actual criticisms of his argument, produces even richer insights than those that he’d already expressed in the main book? Well, here’s the one I was waiting for without knowing it. A writer named Russell Blackford had criticized Harris’s argument for not addressing the issue of selfishness and not providing enough ground for any moral “shoulds” and “oughts,” such as “All people ought to conduct themselves in such a way as to promote the greater good.” Among other lesser points, here is how Harris responds:

“This notion of ‘should,’ with its focus on the burden of persuasion, introduces a false standard for moral truth…Why must we frame the matter this way? A world in which global health is maximized would be an objective reality…[but we] can live so as to allow for a maximally healthy world, or we can fail to do so….There is still an objective reality to which our beliefs about human health can correspond. Questions of ‘should’ are not the right lens through which to see this.”

I wish he would bring it out a little clearer, but I think there’s something incredibly valuable in what he’s saying there. What it amounts to is this: if we subscribe to his science-of-wellbeing philosophy, we don’t need to get all worked up about blaming and shaming ourselves and each other about what we should and shouldn’t do. There’s no need to, because there is an undeniable, objective, testable, scientific reality about things that lead to our individual and collective well-being and things that do not. The weight of scientific evidence, or even just a scientific approach and the possibility of future evidence, grounds our thinking and lets that shaming energy just drain away.

For example, look at the different types of energy behind these two statements: “You should care about other people’s well-being and not only your own!” and “You can and will do whatever you want, but the reality is, other people’s well-being does have an impact on your own—so therefore, it should matter to you, at least to some extent.” It’s impassioned persuasion versus calm reason. It’s the difference between trying to persuade people to exercise or recycle or get their pets neutered, with the backing of scientific evidence for why these are good things that promote our well-being, and trying to persuade people that they should (to use Harris’s example) not buy their daughter a birthday present when that money could be donated to help many suffering little girls in a developing country. In the latter case, there’s an underlying attitude of shame and judgment—because what else do such statements have to power them?—while in the other, the underlying mindset is calm reasoning and a scientific stance of openness to exploring what we can learn about how different actions we take can help maximize or hinder general well-being. To return to the example, when it comes to encouraging more people to help the needy through giving, it’s a matter of spreading awareness, opening discussion, and facing practical barriers with resourceful attention, not a matter of trying to combat apathy with unrealistic, simplistic, and/or shame-filled rhetoric and effusive pleas for pity (which often have the opposite of the desired effect).

So, freed from both moral shame and wishy-washy relativistic attitudes, I am gratefully on board with Harris and ready to go: let’s get started exploring the moral landscape, to seek, discuss, and learn how we can best maximize overall well-being for ourselves, the whole world, and—if I may add—animals too!

I would say these cats' well-being is pretty high, wouldn't you?

I would say these cats’ well-being is pretty high, wouldn’t you?


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This entry was posted on February 25, 2016 by in Cat Photos, Discoveries from Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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