Monday, May 16, 2011

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris -- thoughts on Chapter 1

For an excellent introduction to this book and some of the reaction, first check out the wikipedia page for The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

      Sam Harris takes on all of academic philosophy in The Moral Landscape.  He claims that we can eventually have a developed science of the good life.  He starts innocently enough, rejecting the fact/value distinction, but then he goes in an unusual direction.  Rather than using this to undermine the legitimacy of scientific claims to truth by assaulting them as "value laden", he says that moral claims can have the same status as most scientific ones.  All we have to do is not obsess over typical is/ought dichotomy arguments.

     He wants to think of "well-being"(the fundamental value in Harris's scheme) the same way we think about "health": if we can do medicine without constantly arguing over philosophical arcana about health why can't we develop a scientific approach to well-being without being way-laid by such arguments? He sees no reason. Harris admits that ultimately starting with "well-being" as a fundamental value is not scientific in itself, but I agree with him that this is not some knockout blow to the project. 

     Harris believes that, using ever-increasing knowledge of the brain, we can determine which societies are better for it.    Some social organizations have to be associated with "better" brain states.  To say that all brain states are created equal is just not a position Harris takes seriously, and neither do I.  Look, do you really think the Taliban's morals generate brain states corresponding to as much well-being as the morals of the liberal western democracies? Really? Come on, really?!

     Once he has a foot in the door, that is, once we accept that some notion of "well-being" is a reasonable basis for social morality, he can begin considering a more scientific approach.  He thus considers a landscape model: some social arrangements represent being in moral valleys and others near or at peaks.  And I'm just now finished with chapter 1.

     As you can imagine, this book has been met with a huge amount of vitriol from academic philosophers, especially because doesn't have answers to questions like, "why should I, today, care about collective well-being rather than only my own?"  J.S. Mill famously glosses over this issue.  There are, I think, ultimately, no good answers to these questions, but such philosophical paradoxes shouldn't stop us from trying to think in terms of well-being anyway.  Here is what Harris says in the first footnote for Chapter 1:

          "Many critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy.       First, ...I did not arrive at my position ... by reading the work of  moral philosophers ... Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics", "deontology", " noncognitivism", "antirealism", "emotivism", etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. (Harris, pg. 183, Nookbook)

By the way, in order to get a real sense of his sophistication, you should have a long look at the footnotes.  Here he addresses a number of issues that indicate he has thought this through more thoroughly than indicated in the text itself. For example, a little later in his chapter 1 footnotes he references Hilary Putnam:

          "Philosopher Hilary Putnam has argued that facts and values are "entangled."  Scientificjudgments presuppose "epistemic values" -- coherence, simplicity, beauty, parsimony, etc.Putnam has pointed out ... that all the arguments against the existence of  moral truth could  be applied to scientific truth without any change."(Harris pg. 189 Nookbook)

     Look, there are foundational/self-referential style paradoxes at the foundations of virtually every intellectual pursuit, and yet we have advanced mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, etc... But rather than using such problems to deflate science, he uses it to suggest a science of morality -- maybe a glass half full thing.   If we define ethics as trying to increase something like happiness and reduce suffering(man this sounds like the Dalai Lama!), then there is no reason not to use science to help us do this.

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