full response

Against a Moral Landscape



0 - (Intro) preparing the ground

Like Dr. Harris, I started as an undergraduate in philosophy and have since moved--- in my case via molecular biology--- into neuroscience at the graduate level. I believe that human thought and behavior arise from activity within the brain, which itself is an emergent property of evolutionary processes.  

Since brain activity can be observed and measured it is open to scientific investigation, which in turn offers the potential to understand and adjust our thoughts and behaviors.  In this way science may deliver tools to improve our lives, in part by discovering which beliefs and behaviors are most likely to get us what we want, and conversely those which will not.

To the degree that single behaviors may be judged regarding their ability to achieve defined goals, it follows that codified belief systems effecting our behavior can be analyzed as well. That is to say a particular system may be found more or less useful, based on the sets of behaviors promoted by the system and their relationship to defined goals.  These belief systems may be religious or secular.  They may be codified as moral rules, or advanced as more neutral sounding guidelines such as "instructions to employees of MegaCorp".

If it matters, I also agree with Dr Harris that certain belief systems are more conducive to peaceful coexistence, and others to violent conflict.  Given that I despise violence and ignorance I consider militant, fundamentalist wings of all belief systems pretty repulsive.

With so much common ground between us, it might be surprising how quickly Harris and I parted ways as he attempted to launch his vision for a moral system based in science and reason.  While I intend to rain damaging blows on the system Harris advocates in his book The Moral Landscape, my goal is not simply to do damage.  The idea is to initiate a dialogue capable of generating a more accurate, scientific conception of morality, by identifying and removing key errors within his theory.

In addition to religious moral systems, Harris directs many of his arguments against philosophical opponents such as moral relativists, skeptics, and nihilists.  This is because he is setting up a position of moral realism--- meaning that moral values really exist--- and more importantly that moral systems are not equal, or locally valid, and so may be compared as being morally more "right" and "wrong".  For convenience I will lump relativists, skeptics, and nihilists under the single term antimoralist, except where it is useful to identify his exact target.  In standard philosophical jargon it might be more accurate to use the term moral antirealist, but that could suggest something broader in scope to people not into philosophy and I want to avoid confusion.  For the purposes of this response, the term antimoralist refers to those who for whatever reason maintain that moral systems cannot be used to judge other moral systems in some objectively true sense, with some adherents going still further to doubt the existence of moral values and so the validity of moral judgment entirely.


1 - Hume and the antimoralists (mostly the "is/ought" problem)

Hume's famous maxim that one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is', has enjoyed lasting popularity (some would argue) due to its logical and empirical merits.  Harris claims to have dealt with the "is/ought" problem, but in his book the maxim was largely discussed in conjunction with antimoralist positions, especially the strong forms.  He also includes a quote by Dr Daniel Dennett (who I always enjoy and usually agree with) that appears to suggest Hume did not provide an answer where "oughts" come from, and that Hume may have considered using facts about human behavior in constructing moral beliefs a form of naturalistic fallacy [p196#13].  

I do not claim to be an expert on Hume, but this struck me as incorrect so I went back to source material; A Treatise of Human Nature (THN), and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (ECPM).  From what I can tell, Hume is nothing close to an antimoralist, being particularly clear about this in ECPM where he takes a satirical jab at those claiming the non-reality of moral judgments. 
"Those who have denied the reality of moral distinctions, may be ranked among the disingenuous disputants; nor is it conceivable, that any human creature could ever seriously believe, that all characters and actions were alike entitled to the affection and regard of everyone. The difference, which nature has placed between one man and another, is so wide, and this difference is still so much farther widened, by education, example, and habit, that, where the opposite extremes come at once under our apprehension, there is no scepticism so scrupulous, and scarce any assurance so determined, as absolutely to deny all distinction between them. Let a man's insensibility be ever so great, he must often be touched with the images of Right and Wrong; and let his prejudices be ever so obstinate, he must observe, that others are susceptible of like impressions. The only way, therefore, of converting an antagonist of this kind, is to leave him to himself. For, finding that nobody keeps up the controversy with him, it is probable he will, at last, of himself, from mere weariness, come over to the side of common sense and reason."
While it is true that antimoralists can help themselves to Hume's maxim, the "is/ought" problem does not inherently result in or advocate an antimoralist position. More problematic for me, I don't understand how (if used properly by an antimoralist) Hume's maxim results in the claims that Harris attacks. It is possible that Harris addressed actual positions taken by people claiming to be antimoralist and using Hume's maxim to get there.  Unfortunately, Harris either did not encounter, or anticipate, people forming moral positions based on the implications of the "is/ought" problem described by Hume. Consequently, Harris spent his time attacking a position on morality that I am not familiar with, nor interested in defending.

In this section I will sketch out 1) what I take to be the meaning and implication of the "is/ought" problem, 2) Hume's position regarding moral judgment, and 3) how antimoralists would use his maxim to support their position.  People are free to double check my read of Hume, and let me know if I am wrong.  Of course, that would not change the fact that the positions and arguments I provide here were not addressed by Harris.  

Since this topic is sort of a side issue, you can jump to a handy summary I provide at the end. If the summarized points are not clear, or you feel they are in error, you can come back and read through the entire section to find my line of reasoning.  


Let me start with Hume's claim (stated more formally) that one cannot arrive at normative claims based solely on descriptive statements. While this concept may be dealt with logically, Hume takes a largely empirical approach, with slight nods to its logical underpinnings.  Basically he observes that most people think their moral positions are based on facts and logic alone, but fail to recognize the hidden, non-rational premises within their arguments that are required to make them work (logically).  Further, no matter how reasonable and fact laden a moral argument is, it will never work (in a practical sense) if others do not share a common interest in the basis of the argument.  In short, logic and evidence alone are not sufficient to produce a normative statement that one "ought" to do something, at least not in a way that would effect another's actions. A motivating factor is necessary. 

I'm not going to discuss Hume's empirical observations further than this, because the concept is a bit easier to handle by breaking it down logically.  Stated simply: a normative claim (ought) cannot logically emerge from a descriptive statements of fact (is), no matter how many facts you chain together, because oughts involve a conditional.  Amongst all the "is-ing" there must be an "if/then" conditional in there somewhere, which when satisfied generates the "ought". 

The following is a very simple example involving a crucial, though not necessarily moral, ought. There is a fact that the human body consists mostly of water which is required for continued life, and yet another that the human body loses water at given rates under certain conditions, and still another that humans can replenish this supply by oral intake.  It may even be added that most humans get a refreshed feeling when they chug down a cool glass of water on a hot day.  These facts by themselves, or added together, do not logically generate a conclusion that anyone "ought" to drink water.  This comes instead from a conditional, such as;  IF a human does not want to die of dehydration, or feel thirsty, THEN (given the noted facts above) that human "ought" to drink some water. To the extent that any human has such desires (thereby satisfying the IFs mentioned) the ought claim becomes a real outcome of the facts.  However, for someone who does not care about whether they live, or is indifferent to thirst, there is no amount of arranging those facts to convince them that an ought exists. 

Thus it is the existence of desires, or internal motivations (what Hume might call our "moral senses") that deliver the primary justification for normative statements by fulfilling the criteria of an if/then conditional which delivers the ought.

I did not see a challenge to this basic logical argument, which largely underlies Hume's empirical arguments,.  If Harris wants to legitimately claim he has overcome the is/ought problem he will have to come up with a clear statement of facts that lead to an ought, without a conditional.  


The main point where this maxim impacts Harris, is in his claim that science can determine what people should value.  Science is generally regarded as a descriptive exercise. producing facts about the world, or at least models that arguably represent facts about the world.  Of course, if one holds a specific value, science can be used to generate best actions to satisfy that desire.  Through this ability science can in some sense generate useful secondary values, like due to a consistent thirst and interest in staying healthy, scientists would likely determine that you ought to value easy access to clean water.  However, it is not so clear that science can determine what your primary values "ought" to be.  It can't tell you to feel thirst, or to feel that continued life or health is important.

In one passage discussing the nature of "ought", Harris states "If this notion of "ought" means anything we can possibly care about…"[p38].  At this point Hume would likely smile in satisfaction.  Yes, that was his point.  Not discover by reason, care about.  Hume was not a moral nihilist.  He was abundantly clear on this point.  First we care, then we apply reason.  We wish and pretend that moral judgment is an exercise in reason, like it grants some sort of credit to our judgments, but it is the caring, emotional side of our thoughts which provides the necessary motive for moral judgement. For all animals, including humans before we learned verbal communication, decisions effecting behavior must be driven by sensations, not higher order reason.  Indeed, the rise of language may not have changed anything, except granting an ability to obfuscate and deny the fact that we feel first, and rationalize later.  

Here is the irony….  The maxim does not rule ought scientific, or empirical determinations of what humans "do" value.  This includes primary, secondary, or tertiary desires.  The maxim is very short and Hume spends a much larger portion of his writing in the ECPM trying to figure out what primary desires underlie human moral judgments.  Ironically, some of Hume's work on morality reads very close to Harris's attempts to show that a concern for "well-being" lies at the bottom of people's moral judgements, no matter how diverse their external value systems appear.  For example, Harris argues that a religious person's wanting to do good, because otherwise he will go to hell, collapses logically into a concern about some rather long-term, post-corporeal well-being. In this way, Harris's position translates pretty easily into Hume's conception of morality, with well-being as our primary concern or "moral sense".  Of course Hume does not use the term well-being himself, he argues for a nearly identical value commonly called "utility".  
"In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view; and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind."
"Upon the whole, then, it seems undeniable, THAT nothing can bestow more merit on any human creature than the sentiment of benevolence in an eminent degree; and THAT a PART, at least, of its merit arises from its tendency to promote the interests of our species, and bestow happiness on human society. "
… and here Hume shows how some common values collapse into utility…
"… public utility is the SOLE origin of justice, and… reflections on the beneficial consequences of this virtue are the SOLE foundation of its merit…"
So for me, it was a bit odd to see Harris trying to repudiate Hume, rather than embrace both the maxim and the moral sense Hume argued about.  If Harris rejected the notion that reason and evidence can determine what we should care about, and instead argued that reason and evidence are perhaps the best tools to obtain what we happen to care about (itself established without conscious reason), Harris would find an ally in Hume and the maxim becomes at worst a non-issue.  To be honest, Harris seems very close to making that subtle change at times, but he never makes a full commitment.  Perhaps this is due to his zeal regarding science and reason.  Apparently Harris, like most people, wants to find justification for his moral conclusions in reason, when they really don't need it, and arguably can't get it.  Ultimately, I think such a switch could be easy and useful for Harris to make.


That brings us to Harris's responses to the antimoralists. First Harris states that antimoralists believe values cannot be based in facts about the world, and must be justified by other oughts [p38].  This is patently untrue, assuming of course that these antimoralists are using the maxim correctly, as an ought is the result of a conditional that requires only a desire (aka value) to satisfy the initial conditional.  Values are taken to be internal motivations, and as such are directly related to facts about the world: our emotional states.  

The argument being made by the antimoralist then (in contrast to Hume, or someone like Harris) is that there is no necessary, universal, objectively true concern underlying all human action such that a single value statement or system could be considered valid and binding for all humans.  

Moral relativists, for example, might argue that primary values cannot reduce to just one single concern, such as utility or well-being, and/or that they may be shaped into very diverse forms by our developmental environment, particularly our culture.  In that case, moral claims would only have common moral meaning, and so validity or force, across members of the specific culture which set our primary values, but not necessarily across other cultures.  And if that is true, then there is no objectively "right" primary value by which to judge other systems, as human values emerge organically and may contain more than one value across the species.

We can explore this idea using Harris's own example of caring for children.  

In a world shaped purely by evolutionary processes, why should there be any objective reality binding all humans that we "ought" to be kind to children?  One look around the world as it exists reveals species that do not treat their children with care (abandoning young), and some that pose overt threats to their lives (eating or killing them).  And few species which actively care for their young extend that care as a blanket concept to all young from their species. Yet all the existing species above may do just fine "well-being" wise.  While arguably not maximal, they certainly aren't headed for the worst possible existence.  Since it is not a rule for all animals, the question is raised why it must be the case for humans, even those concerned with well-being?

It is a matter of fact that we tend to care for our young, and most of us feel we ought to care for them.  However it is not because we rationally decided we ought to do it (that it is a logically necessity based on facts about the world), after which the feelings came. It is the exact opposite. There may be logical reasons that paternal feelings emerged in human communities over time, but it is only that feeling that drives moral interest, not reason.  And despite the emergence of rational inquiry such feelings are not manifest in all humans or defined the same way across human communities. 

While discussing how "caring for children" emerges from a concern for well-being, Harris veers into a strange example of how the Abrahamic god commanded people not to treat children well, yet modern Christians and Jews disagree with these kinds of commandments.  Harris suggests this proves that human moral reasoning based in well-being (i.e. care for children) trumps commands by God [p38].  Being an atheist I am unsure why he is positing the existence of a God, or his commands, as some external reality that people could choose to accept or reject.  I realize that when these "commandments" arrived, people believed in the existence of gods, but it was a group of humans that made up what was said, right?  People pre-date gods. If so, and well-being is an innate basis for morality, why did they place these supposedly destructive "oughts" in the mouth of their god in the first place?  

It seems to me Harris has invented a problem for his own theory.  Either people do not base morals on well-being, or treating children well is not a necessary outcome of moral reasoning based on well-being.  Harris cannot really help himself to an argument that they had reasoned incorrectly about well-being, as this group of people did pretty well for themselves by most criteria, and only recently began rejecting such strict guidelines.  For the antimoralist this case merely provides further evidence that primary values can change, or the concept of what is demanded by a primary value can change, as the desires of the people change.  


The arguments above should be enough to show that 1) neither Hume nor antimoralists require oughts be justified by other oughts (they are justified by desires), and 2) both are capable of believing that values are based in facts about the world (namely the fact of our desires). This inherently short-circuits Harris's many criticisms based on his assumption that antimoralists use a metaphysical concept of "ought", including his reductio suggesting they must logically doubt scientific claims as well as moral ones.  

From this perspective, a concluding statement by Harris seems ironic [p204#22].
"We can therefore let this metaphysical notion of "ought" fall away, and we will be left with a scientific picture of cause and effect.  To the degree that it is in our power to produce the worst possible misery for everyone in this universe, we can say that if we don't want [that], we shouldn't do X."
I view Hume's maxim as logical and if not completely scientific (given when it was written), then at least a reasonably empirical picture of cause and effect regarding moral judgment.  We have desires which cause us to seek out ways to fulfill them. That is not metaphysics. Antimoralists using his maxim agree about an emotional source for moral judgment and human behavior but question (in contrast to Hume) the extent, commonality, and so necessity of any particular desire or sense regarding outcomes of behavior.  That too, is not metaphysics.

In contrast, what Harris describes does not appear to intersect with science at all, much less advocate something non-metaphysical.  Even if it were logically possible for someone to produce the worst possible misery for everyone in the universe (which I doubt) it is safe to say that no one actually could have such power, nor could it be estimated in some scientific manner. The implications of special relativity alone would negate such concepts outright.  

Therefore if Harris's ethical system is really linked "to the degree" someone actually has such a power, well then that theory has no practical basis for anyone living in this universe whatsoever.  And if it is about a purely hypothetical thought experiment (using a fictional universe in which such things are possible and the only people being harmed are residents of your own brain), surely personal bias would render the method inherently unscientific.

At one point Harris asks [p64], 
"… what would happen if we... merely spoke about "well-being." What would our world be like if we ceased to worry about "right" and "wrong," or "good" and "evil," and simply acted so as to maximize well-being, our own and that of others?"  
I think the book and his system would have faired better if he had pursued this line of reasoning, instead of choosing to get bogged down in moralizing.


The point of Hume's "is/ought" problem is that emotions (aka desires, passions, or moral "senses") offer the only justification for moral claims (the "oughts"). Careful reasoning regarding external facts  (without reference to some internal desire) is not sufficient.  This does not mean there are no moral beliefs, or that one is free to believe in anything at all.  If the real world consists of fixed relationships between objects and events, then these relationships inherently define what is necessary or possible to attain in the world. This in turn defines what we can do in response to our desires. As it happens, the world in its broadest sense will define the nature of the desires we experience.

Because of this, Hume and the antimoralists do not require a metaphysical concept of "ought" (or some elaborate chain of oughts) for moral justification. They can base moral justification on facts about the world, namely the existence of mental states which we call desires. The difference between Hume and the antimoralists is that they reject his generalized conception of a singular, primary moral "sense" common to humans.  Without a common desire as reference point, the validity of moral claims are potentially limited to groups or individuals.

To the extent Harris confines himself to arguing that well-being happens to be an innate sense or desire within conscious creatures, or describing how we can fulfill that desire, Hume's "is/ought" distinction does not pose a problem. The problem begins when he argues that science (or rational argument) can be used to determine what humans "ought" to value/desire.  Desires can't be reasoned into existence, you have them or you don't.


2 - the science of morality                            

Early on, Harris sets out and defends three, distinct scientific projects regarding morality [note: all quotes and cited arguments in this chapter from p49-53]
"…there are at least three projects that we should not confuse: 1. We can explain why people tend to follow certain patterns of thought and behavior (many of them demonstrably silly and harmful) in the name of "morality." 2. We can think more clearly about the nature of moral truth and determine which patterns of thought and behavior we should follow in the name of "morality." 3. We can convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behavior in the name of "morality" to break those commitments and to live better lives.  These are distinct and independently worthy endeavors."
Harris states that some scientists believe the first project is the only legitimate relationship between science and morality, and admittedly I tend to side with them.  The other two projects fall more easily (to my mind anyway) into the categories of philosophy or politics.  But that is not important enough for me to spend time arguing the case.  

What I am going to deal with in this chapter is Harris's bold claim that the first project is all but irrelevant to the other two. 

This is due, he claims, to a difference in the way the term "morality" is used between the first two projects, which creates a practical distinction. Namely the first project describes how morality came to exist and/or how it functions, while the second offers an explanation of how morality can be used to promote well-being. It seems a bit of a circular move to use his own definition of morality to create the distinction.  After all, those working on the first project may discover facts about morality that make his definition (underlying project two) inaccurate/wrong, his concept unrealistic to achieve, or his recommendations not in keeping with what humans (including Harris) actually need to do to meet certain goals.  But we can leave that problem to the side as well, in order to concentrate on the claim itself.

Harris offers an example of how irrelevant scientific descriptions of morality can be to the second project's goals of determining moral truth and promoting well-being.
"[Describing his jealousy after finding out a guy flirted with his wife.]  No evolutionary psychologist would find it difficult to account for my response to this situation - and almost all psychologists who study "morality" would confine their attention to this set of facts: my inner ape had swung into view, and any thoughts I might entertain about "moral truth" would be linguistic effluvium masking far more zoological concerns.  I am the product of an evolutionary history in which every male of the species has had to guard against squandering his resources on another man's offspring.  Had we scanned my brain and correlated my subjective feelings with change in my neurophysiology, the scientific description of these events would be nearly complete.  So ends project 1."
That quote seems to show how unrealistic Harris's endeavor is at this stage.  Evolutionary psychology is at best in its infancy, and some might argue still several days post conception.  Some apes may very well have the relationship to sexuality that Harris just described, but the fact is we are not just "apes".   Bonobos have very different sexual practices than the "ape" behavior Harris cites as the source of his inherited jealousy.  And If I remember right we are closer to the bonobos evolutionarily and so genetically (by sharing a recent common ancestor) compared to other apes.  Promiscuity is the norm for bonobos, and when their "inner ape" swings into view it does not generate fights and jealousy, but a release of tension through sexual activity. There is no 'worry' about squandering resources. In fact, there is added strength for the community when females have offspring from different fathers. If bonobos are closer to us evolutionarily, wouldn't it be the case that this is our natural, inherited inclination regarding sex, including acts of so-called 'infidelity'?  

That's the problem with such hand-waving efforts thrown at the first project. Harris appears quick to accept what he already believes, rather than looking deeper into the issue.  And realistically, he wouldn't have had to look far to find some troubling counterexamples with his working assumption. In stark contrast to the inner ape worrying about squandering resources, certain human cultures have allowed promiscuity (including that of mating partners), or at least serial monogamy with its common spin-off practice: adoption (which is by definition spending one's resources on someone else's child).  Even in the most puritanical societies humans can be found engaging in group sex, polyandry, prostitution, or just plain partner-swapping. 

Is sexual jealousy inherited from more distant ancestors, as Harris assumes, and bonobo-like behavior limited to those freed by recent, convergent genetic mutations?  Or could jealousy emerge from our frustrated 'inner bonobo', caged by the recently imposed (false) beliefs of an ascetic cult regarding 'beneficial and natural' monogamy? 

While Harris may consider such questions (answerable by project one) unimportant to his goal, his next statement reveals the shortcomings of divorcing the first and second projects.
"But there are many different ways for an ape to respond to the fact that other apes find his wife desirable…. [examples of honor-killings, blood feuds, and murdering his wife]… However my own mind shows some precarious traces of civilization, one being that I view the emotion of jealousy with suspicion... Well, I still find his behavior objectionable - because I cannot sympathize with his efforts to break up a marriage, and I know that I would not behave as he did - but I sympathize with everything else he must have felt, because I also happen to think that my wife is beautiful, and I know what it's like to be a single ape in the jungle."
Perhaps it is not civilization, but the nagging voice of his ancestry which causes his suspicion towards jealousy.  Here Harris empathizes with the sexual emotions the other guy felt, but reaffirms his commitment to the relatively recent (in evolutionary terms) cultural artifice of monogamous marriage and objections based on how another person's less restrictive sexual practices might impact that arguably artificial state.  

Harris is right that there are many ways to respond to this situation, but if one mistakes one's reactions based on cultural artifacts as being normal and inherent to the species, the range of potential reactions becomes needlessly limited.  I believe that is the point of the first project.  We need to know how we got to where we are, to know what we are and what is possible to achieve in the future, not to mention how we can achieve it.  While Harris might theoretically understand options offered by a less restricted view of sexuality than his own, he would likely perceive such options as harder and more unlikely to achieve, not to mention less conducive to well-being, as long as his concept of human sexuality is bound to an incorrect comparison with some species of barbaric ape whose activities happen to parallel the results of his so-called civilized culture.

After the above quote, Harris goes on to harangue more sexually repressed cultures that also embrace jealous feelings as "natural", but go further in their "objections" to condone violence against those whose promiscuity enflames such emotions.  Intriguingly, he offers the possibility that these cultures can get a moral thumbs up for their beliefs, if they prove to him (or some scientific body capable of judging such things) that their violent actions in response to sexual jealousy allow for the same level of flourishing as his self-appointed "civilized" choices. But this magnanimous offer merely begs the question.

What he seems to have missed in challenging his more violent brethren is the question of how his actions measure up to those less repressed than himself, to whom jealousy is not viewed as a natural reaction. Does he, like those who engage in honor killings, have to prove to still more-civilized councils that his actions provide equal flourishing compared to their promiscuous practices?  Or is it they who are mistaken in their lack of jealousy, and so have to prove to him (or like minded judges) that their obviously damaging (to marriage, and so flourishing) licentious behavior can produce equal well-being? Which group is the 'right' judge of such things?  

Similarly, Harris raises the question of completely prohibited (aka taboo) sexual relationships, arguing that if the public's moral imperative to prohibit such relationships "… rests on a flawed sense of how we can maximize our well-being, such people may simply be wrong about morality."  Would Harris or his readers be neutral to whether that included polygamy, prostitution, or pedophilia?  They are of course equally offensive to the communities he is lambasting, as is the single (though safely growing in popularity) relationship to which he actually refers. Will Harris take as broad a view of other prohibited sexual relationships, and demand an investigation into whether the popular assessment of how they impact flourishing might rest on flawed assumptions?  Or would he, like most people of any dominant culture, assume that his basic assumptions are correct, at best requesting that all these other taboo groups 'prove' their lack of harm to his community?  

Most important for the point of this chapter, if a body of scientists were approached to answer such questions, or review such appeals, regardless of topic, which project would they have to be working on or at least be well versed in?  Wouldn't it have to be the first project?  Otherwise from what criteria can they judge the appeal, except from the already assumed position taken in starting the second project? 

Eventually, Harris seems to prove my point while championing his moral theory.
"What will it mean for us to acquire a deep, consistent, and fully scientific understanding of the human mind?  While many of the details remain unclear, the challenge is for us to begin speaking sensibly about right and wrong, and good and evil, given what we already know about our world. "
Those last eight words are crucial.  We cannot possibly claim to have accurate knowledge about our world without a very robust understanding provided by the first project.  Unless Harris is saying it is a worthwhile venture, and scientifically legitimate, using whatever we happen to think we know about our world at the moment?  If that is true why bother touting potential advances from neuroscience that could effect our concept of morality?

In dissociating the first project from the others, it feels like Harris has intentionally jumped the gun in order to claim scientific legitimacy for his moral judgments today.



3 - moral landscaping


Dr. Harris wants to establish a new conception of morality, which he describes as a moral landscape [p7].
"Throughout this book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call "the moral landscape"- a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.  Different ways of thinking and behaving... will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing.   I'm not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for humans beings to live.  Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent.  However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery.  Nor would it make the difference between being on a peak and being stuck deep in a valley any less clear or consequential."
The overall concept of mapping efforts to potential outcomes seems straightforward.  The fact that there may be many legitimate means to the same end, would be represented by peaks on the map.  The degree to which an effort would not meet or get maximal results toward that end would be represented by lower "values", creating dips and valleys.  

My problem is not with this overall concept, which is intriguing, but in how it is executed.  This involves two separate issues.  

The first is the idea that only one outcome or goal can or should be used to evaluate moral questions.  This kind of mapping could be used for all sorts of "moral" goals such as honesty, justice, individual freedom, loyalty, survival of the species, pleasure, etc.  Harris would likely argue that the plethora of resulting landscapes would basically average out to one relating to well-being, but I don't agree that such things can be averaged to a single set of mapping coordinates.  I think the nature of human diversity, and much of moral conflict, involves giving different weights to each moral category before the averaging is done.  Thus a map of well-being based on efforts would look very different to a person who feels individual freedom is much more important than say justice, or survival of the species.  However, I will leave this to be dealt with in a section addressing well-being as a moral value.

Assuming the validity of well-being for sake of argument, my second issue (and subject of this chapter) is how unscientific the moral landscape appears as a tool of moral judgment, at least as described by Harris.  This was after all Harris's main claim regarding his proposed system; science can determine moral values.  

In trying to build the foundation of the map, he starts out simply enough [p15].
"For my argument about the moral landscape to hold, I think one need only grant two points: (1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states about the world."
I agree with these points completely, though I will dispute in another section the idea that everyone would hold the same opinion of who is living a better life.  In any case, all evaluations of better lives would resolve as Harris describes, to non-arbitrary facts about brains and the world in which they exist.

He then tries to set up a clear distinction between how lives may or may not flourish, using an example of an ultimate bad life and ultimate good life. Of course I'm not sure how marriage got snuck into Harris's "objective" model of the good life, given how many people are quite happy living single, and how many marriages (no matter how joyously they are entered) end in bitterness and pain.  Indeed by the end of many people's lives marriage would likely constitute both a peak and a valley.  But let's not get bogged down in details, such as the fact that you cannot possibly describe an ultimate bad or happy life with any accuracy that would suit everyone, or that both cases tend to reduce to whether people feel horrible or great rather than that they are "flourishing".  

In this section I will take Harris's example of the Good and Bad life as it is.  Regarding these, he states [p16]…
"… if you admit that these lives are different, and that one is surely better than the other, but you believe these differences have no lawful relationship to human behavior, societal conditions, or states of the brain (premise 2), then you will also fail to see the point of my argument."
Fair enough, I do admit they are different and would have a lawful relationship as suggested by point two.  Safely assuming his audience will agree, Harris shifts the conversation toward how this hypothetical example can be applied to judging human activity [p17].
"Imagine someone who spends all his energy trying to move as many people as possible toward the Bad Life, while another person is equally committed to undoing this damage and moving people in the opposite direction: Is it conceivable that you or anyone you know could overlook the differences between these two projects?... If, for instance, one's goal were to place a whole population securely in the Good Life, wouldn't there be more and less effective ways of doing this?  How would forcing boys to rape and murder their female relatives fit into the picture?"
This is where I begin shifting in my chair.  I can imagine anyone trying to do just about anything, especially if it is stated vaguely enough.  But the move from that to suggesting one person could alter the course of a whole population toward either the Bad life or Good, is not so easy.  Frankly, I don't know how a single person would be able to do that.  He asks for us to consider more or less effective ways to achieve it?  Name one way at all, I ask, that does not involve others agreeing with and moving toward the same goal.  And while I might agree that forcing boys to rape and murder is not likely to push people into the good life, without a mind control ray I'm not certain such a thing is possible at the level of a whole population without their consent.  The hypothetical begins to drown out whatever plausible scientific measurements are possible to an individual person's actions.

And it gets worse [p30]…
"I am certainly not claiming that certain actions are independent of the experience of conscious beings… or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong.  I am simply saying that, given that there are facts- real facts- to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery or and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice."
Somewhere Harris moved from a practical point regarding the relationship between facts and living a relatively better life, to moral judgment being based on totally hypothetical conditions such as "worst possible misery" and "greatest possible well-being."  He even admits that we may not be able to generate any factual answers regarding these end points!  This undercuts the whole concept of the moral landscape being a scientific view of moral values.  In theory, maybe.  But how could this possibly be put into practice?  Involving so much vagary and non-answerable questions, it ends being science.  In a sense Harris is reduced to talking about a metaphorical landscape that somehow retains power despite defying accurate chart-making.

And unfortunately it looks familiar.  Greatest possible flourishing and worst possible misery.  Harris may have great disdain for religion, but it looks suspiciously like he just tried to introduce images of heaven and hell into science as moral data points.  Indeed, Harris even makes them sound like end states which can be reached, and last an eternity.  Can anyone achieve either situation for long in this world, no matter the intent or means?  If not, what does that mean for the landscape as a tool for making a moral judgment?  It would require a rather unscientific extrapolation from a single action and its immediate consequence to potential long term effects on arguably mythical planes of human experience. 

This sort of dovetails with my problems regarding well-being as a value.  Things like honesty or justice can be applied to a single action, but well-being cannot refer to a single time-limited action and its corresponding result can it?  How can science possibly evaluate such longterm repercussions of individual acts?  But I guess Harris has already stated it may not be able to.


Despite claiming early on that [p2]…
"… human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain.  Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it.  A more detailed understanding of these truths will force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical."
… he appears to waffle when confronted with the reality of the task [p3]…
"I am not suggesting that we are guaranteed to resolve every moral controversy through science.  Differences of opinion will remain- but opinions will be increasingly constrained by facts." 
… before jumping to a very strange conclusion [p3]…
"And it is important to realize that our inability to answer a question says nothing about whether the question itself has an answer… Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally?  Of course not.  In the same way the fact that we may not be able to resolve specific moral dilemmas does not suggest that all competing responses to them are equally valid.  In my experience, mistaking no answers in practice for no answers in principle is a great source of moral confusion."
Wait. What?  Perhaps I am wrong but he seems to be saying that we will be forced to draw clear distinctions due to scientific truths, except that maybe we won't be able to get the truths, but that shouldn't matter because in theory we could have… so let's draw clear distinctions based on what we think we will find and call them scientific anyway. 

I recognize the pungent odor of that argument.  Yes it is true that our inability to answer a question does not mean there is no answer at all.  But our inability to answer does prevent potential answers from being considered scientific findings.  In my experience, mistaking the existence of answers in principle for an ability to claim "scientific concept" in practice is a great source of intellectual confusion.  After all, we just finished making that point with the intelligent design (ID) crowd.  

I mean there really are answers in principle to whether certain biological phenomena can emerge from evolutionary processes, or if universal constants were fine-tuned to generate humans.   That fact does not legitimate claims that "science" may have found some molecular mechanism that fit the criteria, or that there is a controversy within the scientific community regarding biological evolution.  Neither did it make fine-tuning a scientific determination, or part of scientific discourse.

And of course this holds for Harris's moral theory.  While I am not claiming Harris or anyone else has to respect all opinions equally, the reality is that if the question cannot be answered in practice, that the relevant data cannot be collected, then their rejection of any opinion is not based in science.


What's worse, a permanent fog seems built into the landscape, regardless if we can collect data to start mapping.

Let's assume for a moment that some group of scientists decide to accept Harris's proposition and generate a well-being landscape map.  Are the peaks supposed to represent immediate results of an action, and if not then over what period of time?  Clearly Harris sets out that it should refer to effecting everyone's well-being, but then it must involve some sort of long term view as the effects will have to ripple through everyone over the course of weeks, months, maybe years.  Setting such parameters are extremely important in science as they will effect the results.  Who gets to set them and based on what objective criteria? Let's say the time parameter is chosen, it is still not clear to me how the map is interpreted by the scientists.  While we might know what achieves maximum well-being, within the time parameter selected, is anything less than maximum considered "bad"?  Or is it simply gradations of good?

In one passage, Harris appears to say that only actions producing the lowest points are morally "wrong", and should be avoided, everything else being considered good [p39-40].
 "I am arguing that, in the moral sphere, it is safe to begin with the premise that it is good to avoid behaving in such a way as to produce the worst possible misery for everyone… I am saying that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being.  This is all we need to speak about "moral truth" in the context of science.  Once we admit that the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing--- whatever these states amount to for each particular being in the end--- are different and dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality."
In another, he states that it is irrelevant whether or not scientists can generate accurate scales for the map as we will be able to recognize behaviors that do not maximize well being anyway [p42].  
 "The fact that it could be difficult or impossible to know exactly how to maximize human well-being does not mean that there are no right or wrong ways to do this--- nor does it mean that we cannot exclude certain answers as obviously bad… [using autonomy vs common good as example]… The fact that it might be difficult to decide exactly how to balance individual rights against collective interests, or that there might be a thousand equivalent ways of doing this, does not mean that there aren't objectively terrible ways of doing this.  The difficulty of getting precise answers to certain moral questions does not mean that we must hesitate to condemn the morality of the Taliban--- not just personally, but from the point of view of science.  The moment we admit that we know anything about human well-being scientifically, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures can be absolutely wrong about it."
By basic rules of logic the Taliban cannot generate the worst possible misery for everyone, at the very least the most hardcore members will be happy, so now the criteria for bad must be anything that is clearly less than maximizing good.  To be clear I am in complete agreement the Taliban are not maximizing well-being (at least from my perspective), unless by chance they are right about the after-life in which case I'd argue that God isn't much into the whole well-being thing.  But this conclusion presents a problem of consistency.  Although we may have ideas of designating polar axes, what are the functional criteria for labeling a point along the vertical axis as good or bad?  Maximization of either end?  Not maximizing either end?  Harris does not seem to have an answer.

And here's the thing, I think we do know something about the scientific method, and the moment we admit this we must admit that certain individuals or cultures can be absolutely wrong in how they practice it.  Dr Harris and anyone following his methodology, as described in his book, is wrong about science as it applies to moral judgment.  You cannot advance a theory of measuring morality (or anything else) using a map relating cause and effect, then state scientists may not be able to set accurate scales for the effects, as well as leaving units of measure undefined, and expect that it should be call scientific (even in a broad sense of the word).  Anyone wishing to condemn the Taliban can do so personally, but it is wishful thinking to use Harris's half-baked premise to do so and call it a scientific conclusion.  

Where I come from that kind of analysis is called guesstimation.


If this moral landscape concept is a valid line of scientific investigation, Harris needs to actually work on it, regardless of the outcomes.  He needs to put in the time to set parameters and units of measurement, and show how he can generate some sort of map relating actions with outcomes.  Then and only then, can he start applying it to situations and discussing what results he is getting.  The fact that while he is announcing this idea, he undercuts its potential construction in practice, and then basically jumps to saying we don't have to actually complete it because some answers would be obvious anyway (which patently begs the question), suggests an emotional rather than scientific endeavor.  

Indeed, Harris's heated arguments raise the question why anyone would need to legitimate their condemnation of the Taliban using science? Isn't the whole point of condemnation that it is something personal? Isn't that enough?

Unfortunately, the odor returns.  As mentioned already, ID theorists suggested a possible line of scientific investigation, while at the same time arguing it doesn't matter if they have all the data yet or not, or if they could ever get it, declaring the important thing is they could just claim the principle and so right there and then (based on the obviousness of the future conclusions) enjoy the cache of science for their personal feelings about the world.  

It didn't work for them and it shouldn't work for Harris.

I mean I get it.  The ID crowd wanted to see science supporting their god.  Harris wants to see science supporting his good.  

They were both mistaken and I wish I saw more people who originally condemned the intelligent design movement being consistent and so condemning Harris's similar (though unintentional) attempts to confuse the public about what constitutes proper scientific methods and conclusions. Being an actual scientist, I hope Harris will take this less belligerently and politically than the IDiots did, admit his overreach and re-engage the issue from a proper scientific approach.  That is of course assuming he is interested in this method, if it is divorced from an ability to make conclusions while in development.

Since I found it intriguing, I will assume he is interested, and continue pounding on its weak points. 


4 - the value of well-being 


Dr Harris argues that well-being is the main concern of all conscious creatures, unless they are in some way defective in their thinking.  And since that is our main concern, it is only logical that moral judgments (good, bad, right wrong) are reduced to assessments regarding that value. This claim sounds good, and many concerns do collapse into what many would probably agree is well-being.  But its vague 'sounds good' quality does not rest well with me, if I am concerned with a scientific understanding of what people value or the quality used to make moral judgments.  I want to see something more concrete, precise.  

Harris admits that well-being "resists precise definition", but believes that it is indispensable, comparing it to the idea of "physical health" which is arguably fluid [p11-12].  That comparison might work if we were discussing colloquial expressions, but it feels like he missed a crucial point since we are supposed to be discussing scientific assessments.  When we go to the doctor, our "health" is not measured.  It is true that we may not "feel good" and we tell the doctor we "feel sick".  And maybe in the future a person would feel "unhealthy" for not being able to run as fast as others with enhanced abilities.  But once that vague concept is established, the doctor begins to ask increasingly more specific questions and makes increasingly more accurate tests to pinpoint what the actual problem is.  The distinction between a viral infection, a bacterial infection, an autoimmune disorder, and indeed the location of the problem is vital and not captured by some vague quantum value of "health".  The same is true when determining potential treatment, "more health" does not a prescription make. Put simply, the ambiguous term health (even if limited) is neither informative nor required for medical practice

All scientific medical assessments are confined to specific components of physical form or function that are defined, and stand despite variable interpretations of health.

I think the same relationship must hold true for our sense of "well-being."  If I asked a friend how things were going with their life and they said "not so good", I'd start asking increasingly more specific questions to figure out what was wrong and so how to fix the situation.  And if that friend said that his ex-girlfriend was "evil", a statement that she negatively affected his "well-being" would not be a satisfactory explanation. "Well-being" to me is more an amalgam of many different interests, too generalized to decide what has gone right or wrong, and what the next logical action should be.  It would have to be picked apart into its components.  

This chapter will examine what well-being might be, if it can reduce to other concerns, and if scientific assessments are possible (or useful) using such a vague and singular value.


Early on Harris wants to disconnect well-being from pleasure, aka feeling good [p28]. 
"If we define good" as that which supports well-being… the regress initiated by Moore's "open question argument" really does stop. While… it is reasonable to wonder whether maximizing pleasure in any given instance is "good", it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is "good.""
I don't see that as being true.  How can maximizing pleasure not be "good?"  The only possible reply is to somehow decouple short-term and long-term pleasure, or personal versus societal pleasure.  Like it may be quite pleasurable to drink a fifth of whisky and snort a line of coke this evening, but that won't be "good" for you.  Or it may feel great to capture and torture random people in the street, but that won't be a very "good" thing to do.  If you keep in mind overall pleasure, in time and across members of society then it would seem like pleasure would be synonymous with "good."  And if you aren't allowed to do that, then wouldn't the same problem plague well-being?  Intriguingly, Harris then tries to collapse pleasure into well-being.
"It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is "good," is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being."
Again, it may be semantics, but that does not seem as clear as Harris claims.  When we say we want to maximize well-being, aren't we saying that we want to maximize all the different ways we can enjoy life?  The statement above only reads true to me if we artificially restrict pleasure to a specific kind of pleasure, namely direct and physical (perhaps best referred to as 'sensual pleasure'). If something obstructs a "deeper form of well being", wouldn't that mean it is somehow depriving a person of some form of pleasure?  If not, how are they recognizing the loss of well-being?

This question is especially raised by something Harris says later [p28].
"… I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want--- and, therefore what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible."
If the "best lives possible" does not mean having the greatest satisfaction from their lives, then I am not clear what criteria is being used.  What form of well-being can we care about, or view as making our lives better, that does not entail a form of pleasure?  Or how about his description of well-being as it connects to his vision of a moral landscape [p40]?
"Grounding our values in a continuum of conscious states- one that has the worst possible misery for everyone at its depths and differing degrees of well-being at all other points- seems like the only legitimate context in which to conceive of values and moral norms."
Worst possible misery is the depth.  That is a description regarding a state of pleasure, namely its exact opposite.  Why didn't he follow this with a more consistent "differing degrees of enjoyment or pleasure" rather than "well-being"?  The closest Harris gets to creating a hard line divide between well-being and pleasure is by discussing the possible impact future discoveries in neuroscience could have on our lives [p96].
"The problem with using strict hedonic measure of the "good" grows more obvious once we consider some of the promises and perils of a maturing neuroscience.  If, for instance, we can one day manipulate the brain so as to render specific behaviors and states of mind more pleasurable than they now are, it seems relevant to wonder whether such refinements would be "good."... One can't appeal to pleasure as the measure of goodness in such cases, because pleasure is what we would be choosing to reassign."
I can only agree with this statement if by strict hedonic he means sensual pleasure, with no conception of overall pleasure.  Think of this another way.  If enhancing the pleasure we get from a specific behavior or state of mind cannot be thought of as "good", how would it be determined except for the fact that the increase of one pleasure, interfered with another form, ultimately reducing the overall pleasure we are receiving from life?  To say, well it reduced our well-being, my next question would have to be how, and that would inevitably end--- to my mind--- with a loss of something from which we take pleasure.


Returning to my initial point, pleasure (like health) can be broken down into different forms or components.  We can then talk about singular issues, or the totality as we judge it by an averaging of the components.  Like I'm pretty healthy, yeah my elbow acts up when I play tennis but that's no big problem: I'm healthy.  Or things are pretty fun these days, sure I can't go out as much since I got married, but it has its perks: I'm enjoying myself.  Morality to me seems to relate to pleasure, more than some intangible well-being, but either way it has to be diagnosed or treated, just like health, at a more specific level.  For example, we could ask if it was the an action's violation of individual liberty, or national security, or group loyalty that was morally problematic for you?  

Without specificity, moral judgement is as impotent as a doctor restricted to asking if you feel sick.  

I don't know if Harris would necessarily disagree as he recognized the legitimacy of components such as autonomy, justice, etc to an assessment of well-being [p38-9].  Where we would likely disagree (and it would seem that we must) is that if these values are able to be broken down into components that can be assessed individually, whether the concept of a single moral landscape is viable.  He describes multiple peaks but I think differences in weighting distinct components inherently means we will have different landscapes without a way to judge which is more "right" than the other. Also, whether we come to use Harris's term well-being, over other terms such as pleasure or utility, given that it must involve different components, the concept of "maximization" becomes a problem.  I don't see how that can be measured or achieved with any common meaning.  

To analyze this, let's return to the analogy of health.  I gave an example of where compartmentalization of health does not interfere with a general assessment (tennis elbow does not reduce one's overall perception that one is heathy), but that is not always the case.  For a lifelong, avid tennis player the loss of that capacity could very well seem to overwhelm overall quality of life.  But it can get even deeper than bringing down the general quality.  For some, perhaps most, there are elements of our health that are complete game changers.  That is to say a specific aspect of our health is not just more important than other components, it is a necessary condition for any concept of feeling healthy.  Gross disfigurement, the permanent loss of a single sense perception, or the loss of one's sexual function can be completely devastating, even if there is no physical pain associated with the problem.  Of course some have lived just fine with these conditions since birth, or come to accept them after an accident, or with age.  But for those that find their circumstance intolerable, it does not seem like there is an argument to be had that they are wrong.  They can be consoled, or offered ways to diminish those feelings (an alteration that Harris questioned earlier) but that is giving them an alternative way to view something, not an objectively more correct way of viewing things.  At least it cannot be argued as such without some extensive circularity.

Some interesting cases from neuroscience point up how differently people can view the very same component of health.  For many, the loss of a limb has a strong impact on their assessment of health.  They become 'disabled.'  But there are others (albeit not many) who feel that the very existence of a limb (including an entire arm or leg), is itself interfering with their health. It is not that it causes overt physical pain.  Rather, for these people the limb just does not belong. Even if they can move it normally it is somehow alien and getting in the way of their normal function.  It is a sensation of course, and related to a difference in perception based on some relatively unusual, some might argue disordered, wiring within the brain regarding how to perceive their body.  

What can be done for these people?  Most will not understand such feelings and view these people as having wrong ideas about the state of their health, that they do not need treatment, beyond perhaps identifying the 'wiring issue' as the actual source of the problem and that it needs to be fixed.  This would mean counseling, drug therapy, or maybe in years to come a form of cell therapy to reorganize the networks involved.  Yet it is a fact that some of these people manage to convince doctors to remove the limbs, or out of desperation do it themselves.  The result is basically a unanimous feeling of relief and a return to normal health.  They do not feel disabled, but rather finally enabled.

Which is objectively more true with regard to their health, and which more objectively true regarding the best treatment?  We can of course come to understand the exact neurological mechanisms which result in the experiences they are having, but other than arguing that everyone must have the same neural networks related to that aspect of body perception, it seems to me that either concept or treatment are valid.  It is the network or the limb that are dominating perceptions of health, and it is the removal of the unusual networking or unusually experienced limb which could bring equal relief.  To argue that removing the limb is so disabling that it is ridiculous to amputate, would of course be contrary to the very counsel we give to people who have lost limbs due to accidents, or will have to lose them to increase other components of their health.

This shows that: 1) a single component of health (the existence of a limb) can be more important than any generic concept of health, and 2) people can view that same component of health in completely opposite (yet valid) ways.  Sometimes a single issue, interest, or form of pleasure is held as necessary, and overriding, compared to all others.  These special interests differ between people and it is not clear there is some generalized aspect that can be maximized, in a way that would satisfy the expectations of all those who are dependent on the particulars.


I think this is even more common with respect to moral issues, and we can use Harris's own example [p203#19]…
"In fact, I think that morality will be on firmer ground than any other branch of science in the end, since scientific knowledge is only valuable because it contributes to our well-being… It is clear that well-being must take precedence over knowledge, because we can easily imagine situations in which it would be better not to know the truth, or when false knowledge would be desirable."
I can agree that if we take some generalized well-being to be the most important goal, then there will be situations where it would be better not to know something, or to actually hold a belief that is patently false about the world.  But rather than making his point, I think this demonstrates how inaccurate "well-being" is as a moral category for humans, and useless when it comes time to determine its "maximization."

Humans do not think about values in global generalities, except when they are thinking sloppily.  Rather they are balancing a mass of different values, sometimes inherently contradictory, and some overriding to all others.  In opposition to the statement above, I do value knowledge as more important than well-being. I suppose I should be clear that I am not saying I must know absolutely everything and so will open all doors to peek inside, even in neighborhoods I'm guaranteed to get my face blown off.  I do match curiosity with some sense of caution.  However, I do hold accuracy of knowledge as more important than some generalized well-being.

It has been argued by others that a belief in gods or an afterlife can provide benefits to those who are suffering, or dying, as well as those close to that person.  But even if belief in god's miraculous mercy and healing were proven to have measurable effects in improving happiness, or extending health and life, does Harris really believe that we "ought" to embrace religious beliefs over scientific knowledge or skepticism regarding gods and the afterlife?  If such evidence existed, then scientifically speaking holding such beliefs would increase (if not maximize) any plausible concept of well-being.  I wouldn't care.  Extended health or life is not of interest to me, if it means losing a rational, empirical description of the world as it is. What's more I thought Harris has said as much for himself during debates with theists (or was it Dr Dawkins?). Here is where an interest in the maximization of a singular component is held greater than improving the general lot of well-being.

Harris might argue that embracing religion would have other deleterious effects outside that small area of improvement, thereby reducing overall well-being, which would make mandating faith less important than holding on to scientific knowledge.  But that would assume we have to embrace all religions, with all of their tenets.  People are clearly able to hold conflicting concepts about the world, compartmentalizing them as needed.  It is possible for a person to believe in the science of evolutionary processes, while maintaining a devout, nonmilitant faith in a supernatural world of gods, heavens, angels, and even a weak form of creationism.  If we discover that holding faith in such a fairy world leads to real world benefits across the board, am I really morally wrong not to get on board with that practice, to view it as a bit errant, and argue against it?

With eyes wide open to the effects on my well-being, and overall pleasure, almost everything collapses for me on the basis of this one component.  I happen to hold knowledge, some might say curiosity, as a prime value.  It is distinguishable for me from other values, and many others are contingent on the maximization of this singular value.  There are others who do not value this as highly as say a sense of community, loyalty, justice, etc.  Harris may very well value well-being as greater than knowledge.  Regarding total amounts of knowledge I might agree, but in accuracy I do not.  It is not clear to me that Harris can argue one is more morally correct, than another, without engaging in circular reasoning.

If Harris attempts to deflect this criticism by arguing that two completely contradictory value systems (with respect to maximizing a singular component of well-being) can somehow maximize general well-being equally, then his concept of well-being becomes so amorphous I would not know what he means.  Worse still, it would be so vague in its application I do not see how it avoids reducing to the very relativism he attacks so passionately.


Then there is the issue of time, which I've mentioned earlier.  How can there be a single, morally correct view as to when to judge the impact on our well-being?  That seems completely contextual, and not definitive.  A person may very well worry about how they treat others and others treat them, with respect to well-being in their immediate lives.  But the idea that something they do now may ripple down through time and have much greater consequences for others they will never know, may be hard to incorporate, especially when they are then expected to curb their own behavior and so enjoyment of life.  

Lets take global warming as an example.  When scientists describe ways individuals can change their daily routine to help prevent negative outcomes from this process, it may start to make sense because they are given a broader picture.  They can assess effects not just to themselves, but to the community.  Great.  But many people will find the inconveniences they'd face now, trying to lower their impact on the environment, a very real lowering of well-being in the short term.  This is argued to prevent an even greater lowering in the longterm if they do not adjust now.  Well why should people care if they, according to available timelines, will never live to see the lowered values?  Out of concern for younger people, or future generations?  Where does the moral duty for maximizing the well-being of others, across spaces of time you will not exist, come from?  How far in the future will you have to consider?  How much short term reduction in well-being is allowed, to maximize the long-term well-being of others you will never know?

Given enough time, this problem becomes very real (for his theory).  

Harris argues very strongly for women's rights, sexual equality.  On the short term assessment that may be relevant.  From a broader scope it might not.  The idea that both sexes must contribute the same services to a society, or that equal access would somehow increase productivity of that society, is not scientific.  We can see differences in functions, based on sex, throughout nature.  It is not inherently deleterious to a species at all.  It may even be a mark of increased specialization for the species.  Is there something inherently "wrong" with that? It may be agreed that many, perhaps most women in the short term will suffer from a lack of equality, but perhaps to the group or to all of humanity it results in a raising of well-being. Eventually such cultures might through a process of selection "domesticate" the sexes, with each having no interest in activities outside of their proscribed spheres.  There would be deviations of course, and those particular individuals would suffer, but not the majority. In short, like those limiting their own lives to prevent the effects of global warming for others, the women of today would simply be taking one for the team.  

Even explicitly painful and violent activities towards women, such as the worst forms of circumcision (requiring cutting a woman open with a knife for each sexual encounter), would not necessarily effect well-being if we step back far enough such that short-term losses in well-being get drowned out for the greater good.  There are species which are dependent on equally violent assaults for their reproductive activities.  Never mind the insects where partners become post-coital snacks, or animals where the female must be overpowered.  Bed bugs require the males to stab females with knife-like penises, doing very real internal damage.  Some snails also inflict real damage during their passionate sexual encounters, firing barbed "arrows" into their partners.  They even have a natural method of restocking their "quiver."  It may be beneficial, but it is not mandatory.  So what then, if human women undergo this kind of damage?  How should it be calculated into the overall well-being of humans over the longterm?    

I realize Harris can counter with the point that human women are not the same as females of other species.  They have a greater level of consciousness, and so might have an idea of what could be, or should be for themselves or their sex.  Agreed.  But if there is a difference in what one gender expects as the fate for the other gender, what is the objective way to measure such things?  Again, given time, whatever inequalities or equalities we desire based on sexual identity can become part of what it is to be human, and accepted by the majority of humans.  


Alternatively, given enough scientific knowledge we could skip long term domestication, and directly engineer humans so that they feel perfectly fine in their expected social roles, or with specified physical features. As violent as circumcision is, for men or women, in the future we could design humans with more streamlined genitalia.  Would that be wrong in any moral sense?  How?  

Well what about if we make sure females are engineered not to have clitorises, or the ability to orgasm?  This thinking can work both ways of course.  What about weeding or programming out infidelity, especially easy for men, making them wholly unable to become erect outside a single, lifelong mating partner?  Sound good?  Well theoretically it could be.  Does it become a morally valuable goal if it is measured to maximize human well-being once established?  

Certainly homosexuality could be "cured", not by prayer or wishful thinking, but if it is produced by physical brain states then presumably by scientific methods.  For example we could adjust subunits of the hypothalamus, if not after maturity then during gestation or development.  That would only effect about 10% of the population.  Afterward no one would feel they were missing anything, and everyone would be united in a general uneasiness at the idea of two guys kissing, or worse. That would be easier than trying to reprogram 90% of the population to enjoy it, or whatever % the bigots make up not to care.  

Then there is pedophilia. Is it easier/better to treat the adults not to feel attracted, the children to enjoy it, or everyone not to care one way or the other?

Hmmmm. On second thought, perhaps sexual activity is best left out of our species altogether.  Once artificial conception and external gestation is possible and easy, there would be no need for all the problems associated with sexual desires!  We could engineer away our sexual interests, and no one would be hurt because de facto no one would care.

Or, would a lot of people cringe at that idea and say I don't care how much well-being is maximized, even if this is proven to be true, I happen to value this component of my life above potential well-being? I feel it is important to my conception of humanity, and there is no moral imperative to change that based on the positive outcomes of its removal.  

To be fair, Harris does address this sort of question [p84]…
"And would our ability to alter our moral sense undercut the case I am making for moral realism: What if, for instance, I could rewire my brain so that eating ice cream was not only extremely pleasurable, but also felt like the most important thing I could do?  Despite the ready availability of ice cream, it seems that my new disposition, would present certain challenges to self-actualization... What if we could program entire species to hate fairness, to admire cheating, to love cruelty, to despise compassion, etc. Would this be morally good?... Is this really a world of equivalent and genuine well-being, where concepts of "well-being" is susceptible to ongoing examination and refinements in our world? If so, so be it."
In short, if an engineered populace of the future can show it is maximizing well being, then the sky is the limit regardless of the resultant practices.

But doesn't that position also advocate the slower forms of reprogramming, beyond direct physical manipulation of cells and genes?  If not, why not? In fact, hasn't this kind of extensive value reprogramming already happened?  Don't we call it different cultural view points? What is the practical difference between someone born and raised in a different culture, environmentally conditioned (and so epigenetically determined) to embrace different values, and someone born to a species designed (and so genetically pre-determined) to hold different values?

It would seem that as long as scientific methods can produce genetically altered species of humans, Harris is comfortable with relativism.


5 - the problem of diversity (and the future of unity)


In staking out the scope of his ambitions, Harris reveals a critical divide between our positions [p7]…
"Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals.  A science of human flourishing may seem a long way off, but to achieve it, we must first acknowledge that the intellectual terrain actually exists."
In short, peace and human well-being require humans to embrace a single moral outlook (in this case his). Further [p179]…
"If moral truths transcend the contingencies of culture, human beings should eventually converge in their moral judgments.  I am painfully aware, however… one of the few "moral" judgments guaranteed to unite the better part of humanity is that homosexuality is an abomination. And yet I can detect moral progress even while believing that most people are profoundly confused about good and evil."
So once again the concept is a united moral outlook.  Only here Harris admits he is the outlier and expects the mountain to move to him. 

If truths transcend culture, and should end in union, then why exactly are the minority who practice something the vast majority find objectionable the ones in the right and not have to change? What truth is it that they hold?  Even on the balance of maximizing well-being I don't see how that gets argued.  I mean if moral improvement can be had by the majority changing not to care about something they feel intensely about, then that would go for everything.  Isn't there a sense (if we are talking about maximizing well-being) that inherent minorities should have to take the moral hit and deny themselves some activities to improve overall well-being, particularly by aiding this convergence? His reasoning here is not clear to me.


Harris then approaches my neck of the woods [p190-191]…
"Many people also believe that nothing much depends on whether we find a universal foundation for morality.  It seems to me, however, that in order to fulfill our deepest interests in this life, both personally and collectively, we must first admit that some interests are more defensible than others.  Indeed, some interests are so compelling that they need no defense at all."
This is what I would call "the good delusion."  The idea that not only is a universal morality possible, that it is a requirement for personal and collective fulfillment.  This idea of converging unity seems as realistic as claiming that humans should all be moving toward one single best language, or one single best company to work at, or one single best [Fill in the blank here].  

One short walk down a busy city street should dispel this concept.  Or perhaps read through a world history book?  The nature of human life has been continual diversification.  There are temporary moments of unified will imposed on others by force of arms, or social sanction, but this too disintegrates in time.  Crumbling from the inside.  

There may indeed be shared interests that make fulfillment of our diverse desires easier, but I don't necessarily consider them moral truths.  

If Harris's idea of moral unity is true, then why hasn't it emerged by now?  Where is the natural convergence he describes as required by moral truth.  Harris has an answer [p36]…
"Everyone has an intuitive physics, but much of our intuitive physics is wrong… Only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe.  I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive "morality." but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being).  And only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being."
So what people feel is true about morality, is not necessarily true, despite the fact that there is a universal truth to which we should be converging? It is something that will take reason and research to uncover because our "built in" moral senses are not capable of detecting it, or depicting it accurately?

Well, I agree with his sentiment that much of our intuitive morality is wrong, and the first error humans make is believing that moral feelings extend beyond the boundaries of their own brain.  When we say something is good or bad, what we are really saying is that we like it or we don't.  That is the feeling we are experiencing.  Yet the feeling is so strong it seems "true" about the world.  It amazes us when someone we like does not feel the same thing.  How could they not?  Despite repeated experiences of people disagreeing with our moral judgments, many refuse to admit the obvious and instead turn on the others with a claim that they are wrong.  Somehow others should be feeling what we feel.  Not 'should' in the sense that we would like them to, but that they "ought" to, or must.

The second error, following quickly from the first, is that there is a single moral outlook that is possible for everyone to adopt.  It seems intuitive that if everyone simply followed one moral code lots of the messiness of personal interactions would end.  The problem is that life has never in any sense been about producing a particular state of affairs, much less one that is clean and problem free.

Harris talks about so-called moral experts having an understanding of human and animal well-being.  What examples will they be using to create their model of a uniform moral system?  Will they sample individuals from homogenous or heterogeneous populations?  It would seem like the first thing any moral expert would realize is there is a hell of a lot of heterogeneity out there.  That fact has to be accounted for, beyond using the rather circular argument that there is a single true morality and the reason for the diversity is everyone else is viewing it wrong (a view often expressed by so called religious experts regarding god).  


Harris argues that despite outward differences, the key to this universal similarity is in our genes... [p190]…
"Worries… [about the possible diversity of finding happiness, including those not involving being "good"]… seem to ignore some very obvious facts about human beings: we have all evolved from common ancestors and are, therefore, far more similar than we are different; brains and primary human emotions clearly transcend culture, and they are unquestionably influenced by states of the world (as anyone has ever stubbed his toe can attest). No one, to my knowledge, believes that there is so much variance in the requisites of human well-being as to make the above concerns plausible."
Let's unpack this one carefully.  I certainly agree that all humans evolved from common ancestors, and as such will have some innately similar ways of experiencing the world, and resulting urges regarding how to react to those experiences.  Although it is not true that everyone will experience a stubbed toe the same way (there are people without functional pain reception) it is safe to say that most of us will.  There are some commonalities.

The problem is this… evolution.  We are evolved and continue to evolve.  Differences emerge with each generation.  One of our ancestors happened to pick up an additional difference which allows this conversation to take place.  Soon we began to communicate and remember in more complex ways and so transmit knowledge across generations.  This is not totally unique to humans, but the level of complexity and abstraction of ideas transmitted is.

What's more these transmitted ideas can also evolve.  Instead of the slow pace set by sexual reproduction, our ideas enjoy a Lamarckian quality.  They can be shaped into something new by our experiences with the world, and we can transmit these newer ideas to others.  This allows for much greater diversity at a faster pace, and is why we don't have to wait for long periods of geographical separation to see differences.  Within the same city there are many different approaches to life emerging and being tested out.  Even things that seem to work well, do not get faithful transmission to the next generation as they will test things they are told and alter rules for their own purposes.  

Therefore, rather than a convergence, the nature of human life (beyond limited spatial-temporal groupings) must be divergence.  We have two separate forces in the natural world that push each individual onto a new path to be explored.  The first is genetic, influenced by different environments.  The second force is neural (our advanced capacity to experience and model the world around us), influenced by ongoing interactions with our environment and the other minds we find there. 

An argument may be made that the interaction of these forces are moving toward some 'better' moral foundation, but I have not seen any evidence for that in human history.  For example the elimination of slavery at one time, does not mean it is gone forever, as we have seen it come and go just like the practice of genocide.  Even what we tend to consider moral improvements such as appreciation of knowledge and individual freedom, have come and gone and come and gone.

This waxing and waning of different interests doesn't just take place over generations, but also within individuals over a number of years.  Some cultural environments are more fluid than others, but that has not made them more progressive given sufficient time.  It is as if the one thing that is common to humanity is a desire for change, even if we finally get what we originally wanted.  


I think a significant difference between Harris and myself is that he seems to view the world as if it is malfunctioning, while I see it doing exactly what it has always done and likely will do into the long distant future.  

His perspective tends to raise the question 'what is the universal belief underlying humanity that will finally get this thing organized?' My perspective tends to raise the question 'what are the various interests underlying our observed diversity, and do these reveal mechanisms to alleviate violence and suffering from our inherent conflicts?'

My viewpoint does not preclude greater organization, or admitting when some group is not acting in the best way to obtain its goals.  Harris is perfectly right in pointing out that not every system can be the best to achieve all desired goals.  I just don't see how that collapses into a universal truth that binds anyone to a common conception of what makes up a life worth living, even on something as flexible as a landscape model.

And this is where I return to my point about different interests from the previous chapter.  Some individuals and cultures will come to feel (it is not something that must emerge from reason) that loyalty to the group, security of their society, or continuity of their traditions is more important than individual liberty, justice, knowledge, or sensual pleasure.  They set their perspective for moral judgment beyond the individual and short-term outcomes. People like me on the other hand tend to cherish individual freedom, justice, knowledge, and sensual pleasure at the expense of those other values. My perspective for moral judgment resides almost firmly with the individual with emphasis on short or long term outcomes depending on the subject. 

It seems patently obvious that we cannot generate the same moral landscape on something as generalized as well being.  That is because we give different weights to so many factors that would make it up. One person may require the maximization of a certain component, that stands in direct conflict with my requirement of maximizing its opposing value. Can there be an objective set of standards to judge the "right" weight to give to each component? How does this get decided on?  

Does it need to be?

Why couldn't we use this landscape concept, in a manner similar to Dr Jonathon Haidt's moral categories, in order to understand what our differences are, or how they arise, rather than try to deliver a normative claim?  Wouldn't that result in less rather than greater moral confusion?  I would understand who is engaging with the world in the same way I am, and those who are opposed (and why).  We might even find points of connection and so potential dialogue that we would not have expected.  

And if there is no point of common ground, I don't have to waste time worrying how to phrase the magic word "good" to get them to my side.


6 - the evils of tolerance (antimoralists and multiculturalists)


I have a list of quotes from Harris's book criticizing, though usually just insulting, relativism and multiculturalism.  Rather than addressing each, as I have been doing in different sections, I want to answer the general criticisms underlying them all.  Harris expresses repeated concern with: 1) moral relativism as it is employed in science (particularly anthropology), 2) moral relativism as it is held by normal people in their everyday lives, and 3) multiculturalism as it is gaining force in civil society and government.  The picture Harris paints is that all of these involve, lead to, or empower a general moral bankruptcy and lack of compassion for real suffering in this world.  This in turn emboldens the terrorists and misogynist acid throwers who, apparently, are looking for signs of weakness to continue their reign of error.

Unfortunately this painting by Harris is a caricature at best.


Lets start with moral relativism in science.  Harris claims that we are in a process of recovering from its use in social research.  This is a bit awkward for him to claim, while lauding moral progress as indicated by gains in civil rights for homosexuals and women.  It was a moral absolutist position taken in earlier social research which greatly retarded our understanding of human sexual behavior, and left gays, women who liked sex, and masturbators as subjects of condemnation (or in need of treatment) rather than legitimate scientific study.  And it was the adoption of moral relativistic approaches which revealed the errors in our previous 'scientific understanding' regarding those subjects. It is that change in perspective which allowed things like homosexuality to be pulled off the official list of psychological disorders.  

But let's get this straight, social researchers were never instructed to adopt moral relativism as a personal belief, or (even more absurd) to view all cultures as equal in all aspects of everything.  Moral relativism, in the scientific sense, is a tool used to help study cultures in an objective way, including our own.  Practicing moral neutrality serves two functions; greater access and better observations.  

In the case of foreign cultures or domestic subcultures it has the practical value of allowing greater access to communities and their practices that an outsider would rarely get a chance to observe.  Most people do not enjoy having someone coming into their homes and neighborhoods to watch what they do.  This is still more true if such outsiders look and act differently.  So what happens if these strangers arrive judging and/or telling the subjects of their research what to do rather than just observing?  Well, imagine what you would do if someone asked to come to your home only to begin criticizing what you were doing.  Would you end up giving them any valuable data?

Perhaps more important, and regardless of the community, it helps a scientist obtain more accurate observations and so analysis of their subjects.  By stepping back and not overlaying one's own moral system on what is happening (as opposed to viewing all cultures as equally wonderful like Harris suggests this works) important details are less likely to be missed, and their functions for the community understood.

Here's a joke… an animal rights activist went to study the feeding habits of lions in Africa. After two years the student had no data, except to report that all the lions under observation died of starvation.  Left unreported was that the moral-absolutist student kept "saving" the "innocent animals" the lions were about to eat.

Think that's absurd?  In real life, scientists observing the behavior of animals in the field failed to adopt a moral relativist approach and so left unreported sexual activity that they felt was demeaning to the animal they loved to study, or attempted to pass it off as somehow mistaken behavior or supportive of the behavior they wanted the animal to engage in. 

It gets better.  Astronomers failed to take a morally relativist approach and so refused to accept data that the earth is not the center of the universe, or that the motion of planets were not in perfect circles.  More recently biologists refused to believe in evolutionary processes, or at least the implication that that has anything to do with the single species homo sapiens.

If we can do that with animals and planets, imagine what misinformation we can get when studying human behavior through blinders set by the assumption of our own moral standards.  I've already mentioned the past mistakes which lead to the mandatory "treatment" of women, gays, and masturbators.  Do I need to get into the history of medical sterilization based on the work of scientists supporting eugenics?  Let me tell you it's a gas.  

If Harris wants people to go into communities and study them with all the benefits of an active moral realist position, I have news for him: they already exist.  They are called missionaries.  

It is a false argument that moral neutrality in social research would result in a scientist being unable to distinguish for example that Yanomamo tribesman are more violent than Amish communities or that their frequent violent conflicts might have a negative effect on certain aspects of life for the Yanomamo.  Or still more bizarre, is his notion that results of such research methodology would de facto legitimize any and all behaviors.  Offering an accurate explanation is not synonymous with offering a defense or advocacy.  

It is true that particular scientists can lose their objectivity and come to embrace any and/or all other cultures as equally wonderful in all aspects of life, or just plain better than ours.  But it is bad reasoning to use scientists who fail to do their job properly in order to  criticize a useful methodological tool for scientific research.


Outside of science, moral relativism is not an approach, it is a philosophical position. 

Like all of the antimoralist positions, it is largely opposed to moral realism and absolutist moral systems. While I am not exactly a moral relativist, I would likely fall into some grey area within the antimoralist spectrum as I generally fall counter to moral realism.  One of the reasons I don't like the term moral realism, is that I tend to find theories emanating from that camp as being wholly unrealistic with regard to actual human morality.  It seems to me that only moral theorists who address human morality as it actually exists (involving the empirical fact of moral diversity) should be considered realists.  I'm sort of reminded of Dennett's take on magic (as an analogy for consciousness).  What is real magic? The kind of stuff that real, living magicians don't do.  What is fake magic?  The kind of stuff that real, living magicians actually do.  Same goes for moral truths.  What is moral realism (according to its common usage)?  A belief regarding preferences and behaviors that no real humans actually practice (but ought to).  What is moral anti-realism?  A belief regarding preferences and behaviors as real humans actually practice them.

Thankfully Harris went a long way toward injecting what I consider realism into his theory.  Although it was not emphasized enough, he clearly stated that he was not talking about values that are somehow an a priori, intrinsic constant of the world.  He was not (trying) to use a metaphysical notion of goodness, but rather to redefine such terms to make them contingent on the nature of humans practicing morality (in a world where laws of cause and effect exist).  And he does not ignore the fact of moral diversity, with potentially many different paths to flourishing.  While he does try to establish a moral system around a single primary value, which I feel is in error, I did appreciate the fact that it generated a terrain and general guidelines, rather than singular outcomes and strict rules (for the most part).

Let me continue my appreciation in that Harris offered some valid criticism, or at least facts that need to be dealt with, for many moral relativists.  The fact that different moral systems may be viable, and moral claims only locally valid, does not mean that all systems can be equally efficient at obtaining all possible goals.  It is possible for a system to be failing its adherents (in one way or another) in their attempt to get something they want.  

To champion any culture as it happens to be right now, ignores the fact that change has been a part of that system from the beginning, even if it has remained relatively consistent over long periods of time.  Adherents may come to invent new rules, or adopt rules from others they encounter, when they see a better way to get something they want.  Likewise, cultures will change as new generations come to face novel situations, or desire things, prior generations had not.

It is also possible that moral systems may promote behaviors that end up generating greater conflict with other cultures.  Moral relativists sometimes fail to account for the fact that societies are not like remote villages separated by large jungles, with infrequent contact.  On their own, sure moral claims are not only locally valid, they are relatively unchallenged.  But as part and parcel of acknowledging diversity in human morality, conflict between humans based on that diversity must be acknowledged.  

Once two cultures encounter each other, they are faced with the choice of 1) isolating themselves from each other (to preserve the local validity of their claims), 2) creating a new system they can share (by inventing or adopting claims to grow the "locality" where they are valid), or 3) fighting to eliminate the other system and impose their own.  Every culture is going to be biased in which of those three choices they will prefer.  That has a real world consequence.  While I cannot say there is a universally "right" answer to which approach should be taken, it is clear that each culture will have to do something to promote their particular bias, or the choice will be made for them.  That requires being candid about biases the culture they are dealing with happens to have.

Just as an explanation regarding cultural practices does not constitute defense or advocacy of those practices by scientists, in moral practice an understanding you are going to have to do something to preserve your preferred cultural beliefs (in some cases by effecting another culture's current moral system) is not synonymous with condemnation of another culture.

That said, I reject Harris's caricature of moral relativism and other antimoralist positions as being inherently incapable of addressing/accepting these points. 

I also reject Harris's suggestion that antimoralist positions promote lack of compassion for the suffering of others simply by viewing moral systems as unable to judge other systems.  Harris seems to have mistaken understanding the logical and empirical limits of moral validity, with lacking any personal preference.  His confusion was shown in abundance with this rolling tirade [p45-46]…
"While human beings have different moral codes, each competing view presumes its own universality.  This seems to be true even of moral relativism… To demand that the proud denizens of an ancient culture conform to our view of gender equality would be culturally imperialistic and philosophically naive."
Regardless of moral theory, one culture demanding that another change their ways is pretty much the definition of cultural imperialism.  The difference here is that absolutists would think that such activity is a good thing, as long as they are the imperialists of course, while relativists are free to like the specific action or not.  Some relativists may prefer to see their specific culture expand so as to enjoy the benefits they get out of it, even while admitting those benefits are not necessarily valued by all humans or that they should be.  

Philosophical naivete on the other hand, is an objective assessment regarding not the demand itself, but the specific moral justification used to support the demand.  If a culture said they had the right to make the demand because their concept of morality was so super-great that logically speaking everyone must join or die, yeah that would be pretty naive. Or perhaps more to the point, if denizens of the demanding culture believed that by simply saying "X is good", they could generate a force for change in the other culture, that would also be naive.

One fact antimoralists are clear about is that their suddenly saying the words "bad" or "evil" (as Harris demands they must) won't prevent someone throwing acid in the face of a little girl on her way to school.  What's more, they understand that there are many other things they could say or do that would have greater real world effects than using magic words.  You don't have to believe something is objectively bad, or talk that way, to want or get a person to stop doing something.  
"Moral relativism, however tends to be self-contradictory.  Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework--- but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. "
Here Harris mistakes a philosophical position about the nature of morality itself, for moral judgments emerging from a specific moral philosophy.  Relativists are not making a moral claim that moral truths "must" be relative to specific cultural frameworks.  They are observing that that is how moral truth claims appear to function, and that there are logical reasons some moral truth claims will not find validity for adherents of different systems.  There is no contradiction.
"In practice, relativism almost always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward as simply one relative preference among others deemed equally valid.  Rather, tolerance is held to be more in line with the (universal) truth about morality than intolerance is."
Here Harris appears to confuse personal and largely political opinions of relativists with the tenets of relativism.  Tolerance has grown as a practical and moral virtue in most western European civilizations.  Given that Harris is discussing relativists that happen to come from these same cultures, it is not surprising or contradictory to see them making statements in favor of tolerance.  The point of moral relativism is that moral claims have local validity, and here they are speaking to the locals.  They don't have to say or mean that tolerance is a greater universal moral truth than intolerance.  They simply have to say tolerance for us is a virtue, or perhaps that it is a useful practice to obtain other things we happen to value in life.
"Given how deeply disposed we are to make universal moral claims, I think one can reasonably doubt whether any consistent moral relativist has ever existed."
People are deeply disposed to making claims about the existence of God and the after-life, that doesn't make such claims about the universe true.  That a relativist will feel that something is "wrong" or might use such a word, is not in conflict with moral relativism.  It is true that if a relativist wields that "wrong" as if it is a universal truth that others outside their culture "ought" to feel, because of its truth, then that would be an inconsistent moral relativist.  It seems to me however that most relativists have come to understand the nature of their moral feelings, like any transcendent feelings athiests may have had about intelligent forces guiding the world, and so limit the scope of their statements accordingly.

Frankly, Harris's argument is equivalent to theists saying there are no atheists in fox-holes. Maybe that is true.  Who cares?  That is irrelevant to the question if atheism or moral relativism is true about the world.
"Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of Western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism. This is, I think, the only charitable thing to be said about it."
This insulting attempt to hand-wave away a valid philosophical position as the emotional baggage of a long guilt trip is pretty shabby work.  Here's the thing, maybe Harris has a valid point that values like tolerance are an emotional response in members of western societies to prior atrocities caused by our intolerance.  And maybe many western moral relativists, by virtue of being from western societies, have picked up that value.  But that does not mean that tolerance emerged from or is demanded by the philosophical position of moral relativism.  

A moral relativist (and any other antimoralist) can pick up a weapon and defend their personal belief system, or advance it if it is felt that it is in the best interests of their particular society.  The relativist just doesn't make the intellectual error that this is advancing some universal truth, or that if their society happens to lose the fight that a categorically true "evil" has won.  It is enough to say, hey I want this, and I don't want that.  


Of course to Harris, the supposed failings of a singular relativist pale in comparison to the adoption of "tolerance" and "multiculturalism" by societies or governments.  His tirade above ends with an attempt to link philosophical relativism to public controversies [p45-46]…
"The categorical distinction between facts and values has opened a sinkhole beneath secular liberalism--- leading to moral relativism and masochistic depths of political correctness.  Think of the champions of "tolerance" who reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing security concerns, or the Danish cartoonists for their "controversy," and you will understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no foundation for human values."
It is interesting that Harris trots out examples of people (real or imagined) that clearly fail to hold a consistent relativist position as if they are the standard bearers for relativism.  How does someone who maintains that there are no universal moral truths, come to side with the Islamic radicals against Salman Rushdie or the Danish cartoonists?  There is no logical reason for relativism to slide into blanket moral accommodation of the least tolerant ethical systems.  And even more strange, to defend such intolerance using the label of tolerance. 

That seems at best moral cowardice, which is not a philosophical position.  At worst it seems a near-Orwellian misuse of language in a cynically calculated effort to appeal to the people who would most be offended by their actual motives. You know like the "Clean Air Act" might have nothing to do with cleaning up the air, but using that title gets people siding with it emotionally (to make assumptions about what must be in it), because if they ever checked the details they might say 'hey wait a second'.

By definition, only moral absolutists or those opposed to tolerance or multiculturalism could argue for strict rules regarding political correctness, particularly to the extent that individual beliefs or rights must bend to the will of others, because it is the right thing to do.  

Other than Harris's claims that real people have said such things, I would like to see him give their actual arguments, and show that they in fact are internally consistent to moral relativism or advocacy of tolerance.  If they are not, then his quibble is not with either camp, but rather people failing (intentionally or not) to practice their stated philosophical position.

It should be pointed out that tolerance and multiculturalism are also practical policies, sometimes set into legal frameworks, that are not necessarily generated from moral theory.  Intolerance, often arising from the existence of conflicting moral systems, generally leads to violent conflict.  This leads to fights that have to end one way or the other, even if it closes in a draw with the physical line at which each side retires from battle becoming a geographical border between adherents of those systems.  There is a practical, not moral, point at which people tire of conflict and begin to question the utility of continuing the fight.  Thus begins a practice of tolerance.

Some might recognize that the different groups, since they are tolerating the other's existence anyway, might as well work together on practical matters where there are no areas of conflict.  Some find that in the freedom and abundance provided by lack of conflict, their level of existence improves, even if it also means their moral enemies enjoy the same benefits.  In setting rules to perpetuate that condition of growth, by legally constraining physical conflict between moral enemies, the practice of multiculturalism is born.  This is enhanced wherever the exchange of goods and services offered by opposing groups, perhaps filling gaps or delivering novel pleasures, become a routine part of daily life (expectations) and so create a functional bond between the groups.  

A relativist may be personally indifferent or opposed to the moral virtues of tolerance or multiculturalism.  There is no philosophical requirement to maintain either.  However, that same relativist might understand their practical necessity or the potential benefits derived from writing laws from that perspective.  At the very least they, especially if they are in the minority, wouldn't have to fight for their life day after day.

Arguably it is a growth in practical tolerance and multiculturalism that has risen among Western nations.  The degree of bloodshed and human suffering caused by rank tribalism for whatever type of group (religious, political, economic, etc) became exhaustive.  In some nations the best form of preserving a practical state of tolerance and functional multiculturalism has been to protect the rights of individuals, basically the smallest possible cultural unit. 

Forgetting moral theory, any member of a nation where individual civil rights lie at the core of their legal system, can and should be able to identify cultural practices that are at practical odds with those legal structures, if not their intended goals.  An antimoralist of any stripe should have no problem understanding that someone demanding the death of another person, over what they believe, or write, is not going to cut it as a respectable or desirable citizen within most modern western nations.  That is because those actions are incompatible, not morally, but practically.  They are not consistent with the civil bargain we have made to diminish physical conflict, by promoting (and expecting) a specific level of tolerance between members of opposing moral communities, and so functional multiculturalism within our borders.

I can't believe that anyone would consider themselves advancing tolerance, or multiculturalism in any practical sense, by supporting demands for the death of writers and cartoonists (which breaks the peace we tenuously constructed using our system of individual civil rights). And if anyone made such a claim (that they are advocating multiculturalism), I don't know how they managed to find support for their claims among intellectuals such as Dr Harris. But still more confusing, is why these intellectuals feel that our practical pursuit of peaceful coexistence is furthered by rejecting (or in some way opposing) the concepts of tolerance and multiculturalism, rather than the individuals who have clearly co-opted the terms to support intolerance and cultural supremacy?

While my exact shade of antimoralism has yet to be defined, I am a firm supporter and champion of practical (and legally promoted) tolerance and multiculturalism, at the very least within the borders I find myself living.  I don't recognize the bizarre, neo-Orwellian creatures or positions Dr Harris describes.  Instead of attacking their professed position, why doesn't he simply point out that their actions  of surreal political correctness do not result in either product: tolerance or multiculturalism?  


Of course my perspective changes slightly once we are talking about people outside the nation(s) within which I live.  Not that others should be allowed to do whatever they want to my fellow citizens, but suddenly I do lose the right to start making legal claims about what they should do amongst themselves.

In advocating a universal moral trump card, Harris not only wishes to deny other moral absolutists the ability to judge members of his tribe, he hypocritically maintains that he can judge (and call for practical action against) members of other cultures and nations. He goes on and on about the religious ignorance, the homophobia, and the misogyny (most particularly the rapists and acid throwers) within other nations.  And he derides the moral relativist for lacking sympathy for those suffering within those cultures.

I've already discussed why he is wrong about moral relativists on this point, so what I want to do here is turn the tables and point out how is own system appears to generate much less sympathy for others, except for perhaps a selection of sainted victims.  This is because his cause must have practical consequences that would effect a much larger group of people in a much more dramatic fashion.  Unless he believes that by everyone saying the words "bad" and "evil" these people will stop what they are doing, he must understand that violence of some kind will be required to impose his moral theory, if not its demands, on these different cultures.  The members of those societies will likely be just as incensed with his demands they change, as he is when they make demands of us.  And in this case it is their legal territory.  The battles were literally fought to stand stills in and around them.

How many people would be hurt allowing different cultures to continue their practices, until they themselves decide to change them?  How many people would be hurt if we decide to force them to change their practices, over their current desires?

As a practical matter, is it not less damaging to allow a culture to make its own mistakes (even if painful for many within it), than to attempt coerced 're-education'?

The sight of women blinded and disfigured for whatever reason, is pretty abhorrent to me.  Okay, but how many people have we butchered just trying to get at members of a specific organization that happen to be within the same country?  How much worse would it have to be to micromanage a much greater majority regarding such practices? Maybe this is where people are supposed to take the long view, dreaming of how much well being will be floating around after the dust settles, with those standing in the way of his idea of flourishing either rotted in their graves, or silent due to the superior firepower his moral system happens to enjoy.  

Frankly, Dr Harris can get as many people as he likes riled up about the customs of different cultures outside the nation in which he is a citizen.  The question I have (and which makes me uninterested in getting so riled up) is what comes next?  What is his solution?  A moral landscape map?  A few terse words?  What?

There have been many attempts throughout history to dismiss relativists, or those advocating tolerance and multiculturalism, in order to impose the 'one true universal moral system' set to unite everyone.  And not one has been able to make headway without graphic, physical domination and very real human suffering.  I guess it could also be pointed out that all such efforts have eventually crashed on the rocky reality of moral diversity, and the change inherent to humans and animals alike.  But these attempts did not come to an end before many more people died and suffered than would have due to the problem the "cure" was originally going to solve.

Perhaps this is what many people, particularly liberals in western nations, are aware of and consider to a greater extent, than those dreaming of some mystical union of all human beings under some common moral sentiment.  While idealists see the end goal, the pragmatists see the path required to get there.

If, as Harris suggests, the only reason these benighted cultures are not gone, is that they have simply not yet destroyed themselves, what is there for me to fear in them?  Why must I oppose them in any practical sense?  Why not tend to my nation, my culture, and actions committed purportedly in my name, and let them crumble to the point that they want something different for themselves?


7 - the idea of moral experts


It is not clear who Dr Harris believes will take on (or be handed) the mantle of moral expert.  Nor is it clear what mechanisms will be used to identify persons ready for such distinction.  As was shown earlier, Harris does not appear to require they study how moral beliefs emerged among homo sapiens, or how they function.  Yet (devoid of such knowledge) there is supposed to be a science which can allow select persons to determine what others must want out of life.  They will be able to say what the best life is for someone else, in an objectively true sense.

His working analogy seems to be to doctors, and yet doctors must understand how the human body functions, and generally how parts have come to work as they do.  Clearly, determining the best course of treatment for an illness will not be devoid of a scientific understanding of what makes up the body. Unless the doctor is a quack, or a witchdoctor.  If that is true for experts regarding physical health, how can Harris maintain that the same would or should not apply to experts regarding psychological health?


Harris states [p191]…
"For nearly a century, the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion--- that great engine of ignorance and bigotry--- a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom. "
That is true, just as scientists have wisely allowed faith-based religion a nearly uncontested claim to being the only experts on the afterlife, and gods.  There is nothing in such bold claims for science, no ability to measure or test or explain, and so no point in putting up a challenge. 

This is not to say that people must go to religion to find meaning or justifications for moral decisions.  It is simply a fact that the only people capable of telling anyone what is absolutely good and evil, and so what one must do in an objective sense, with no appeal to their own own sentiments, reasons, and desires, are those with the hubris to claim they actually know the person(s) who built the universe.

Humans wishing to figure out what they "ought" to do, and not trusting the unusual claims emanating from people in temples, will have to work things out through reason, and careful deliberation regarding their inner desires.  They can talk to those around them about how their actions would impact them, practically and emotionally.  This would arguably go a lot further than wondering how it would impact their relationship with an otherwise absent deity.  Reasoned and empirical in nature it might be, but not science.

What scientists can do, is study humans as they exist, and attempt to describe how they have come to adopt moral codes and the methods they use to implement them.  They might be able to explain which codes work best for what particular end (that I agree with) but what are the true "good" ends for all humans is (I would argue) beyond the reach of science. Of course, knowledge regarding the nature and mechanisms of human morality can inform people's moral decisions by allowing them to view sources of desires and expectations, and even perhaps potential outcomes.  This is why I do not find Harris' landscape concept wholly absurd.

Yet Harris routinely rejects the findings of scientists working in this area, when their dispassionate and objective study does not leave room for moralizing or moral action [p27].  
"Many people believe that something in the last few centuries of intellectual progress prevents us from speaking in terms of "moral truth" and, therefore, from making cross-cultural moral judgments--- or moral judgments at all… Many of these people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose in any case.  They think we can combat human evil all the while knowing that our notions of "good" and "evil" are completely unwarranted.  It is always amusing when the same people hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don't think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the "contextual" legitimacy of the burqa, or of female genital mutilation, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that moral relativism does nothing to diminish a person's commitment to making the world a better place."
As I said in an earlier chapter, accurate description is not defense.  A doctor or scientist describing how the course of a disease will progress, explaining why it makes sense given the set of mechanisms within which it functions, is not defending the existence of the disease or the suffering the human body may experience while their body heals itself in response.  With the example Harris gave, it sounds like the scholar explained how certain practices fit within a specific culture.  Do they not fit within that culture in that way?  Is that not how it's adherents view and or practice it?  That would seem to be the only legitimate criticism Harris ought to be making as a scientist.

Instead he is more concerned whether this person's ability to articulate an understanding of how it works impacts some commitment or other to making the world a better place.  Perhaps this scholar feels that obtaining such an understanding does contribute to making the world a better place, I don't know.  But I am not clear how this explanation indicated they were not committed to such a goal.  Would this have been better shown, if the person ranted at how sick the practice seemed, concluding "… and so who gives a shit why it is done?"

Perhaps by demystifying such practices, and understanding the role it might have in a particular society, someone can approach it more realistically.  Is the practice something that is so threatening and gratuitous that it calls for immediate efforts involving a potential for violent conflict, including perhaps with the very people we intend to help?  Or is it something that while odious to an observer outside the culture, it is not overtly threatening and so falls further down the list of things that need to be addressed?

For those that find a practice so odious something must be done, perhaps such an analysis would allow for more practical and less culturally insulting methods to get the practice changed, thereby increasing the chance that it might.


Along these same lines [p65]…
"Does forcing women and girls to wear burqas make a net positive contribution to human well-being?... I would bet my life that the answer to each of these questions is "no."... And yet, as we have seen, most scientists have been trained to think that such judgments are mere expressions of cultural bias- and thus, unscientific in principle.  Very few of us seem willing to admit that such simple, moral truths increasingly fall within the scope of our scientific worldview."
The first point (which ought to be obvious) is that statements such as "I would bet my life…" are in fact unscientific, particularly when based on no set of measurements or studies, and that is regardless of whether the statement stems from cultural bias or not.  That is the problem Harris keeps running into.  He says there must be something science can say on a moral subject, if it were to investigate morals, and then makes a personal declaration as if it were a credible conclusion.  This is clearly not part of normal scientific discourse.

It is quite clear that the sun goes around the earth.  I mean just look at it.  I would bet my life the answer to that question is yes. To many in earlier times that reasoning seemed obvious, and credible.  However it took many people a lot of work digging into the details, and not going by gut instinct, to figure out what was really going on.  It took the will to test the idea, to create conditions such that their "obvious" hypothesis could be tested, aka falsified.  The people that had the will to do this were doing what we call science.

Harris does not discuss how falsification is to be done by his experts, either for the method of creating a moral landscape or for any judgment that it would deliver.  That would not be so strange at this early stage in his theory, except that he is already trotting out what he claims to be obvious outcomes.  Such uninformed and untested judgments are patently unscientific.  If he wants to put research regarding values on par with research into facts (such as physics), then he is missing a very key element in the scientific process.  

The second point is to raise the question begged by his hand-waving dismissal; is it not possible that such a judgment is in fact an expression of cultural bias?  After all he is a member of a culture, and that can produce bias.  I'm not a fan of burqas myself but I'm not sure how a question of fashion, even if enforced, makes a net positive or negative to overall human well-being.  This practice, even where enforced, may have nothing to do with overall human well-being anyway, but the perceived improvement among a specific population.  The idea of cultural identity, and preservation of it, holds some importance to humans.  The burqa is arguably a case in point, for limited sections of the human population.  While it may simply be a tool to burden females within those cultures, isn't it also possible that it may play another role (like wearing uniforms in the military or school colors at a gaming event)?   
Merging the two points above, wouldn't it be important as a scientist to test the possibility their "obvious" moral judgment might be an expression of cultural bias, if nothing other than to challenge their own theory? Let me try...

Some people, even women, claim that burqas do offer something else.  In fact women outside the countries where it is enforced, choose to wear it, and state what it means for them.  That it is positive for them.  That would seem to be strong counter-evidence, falsifying his theory.

I agree with Harris, that a scientist would be making a big mistake if they dismissed claims by suicide bombers that they really believe in paradise. But then doesn't Harris make the same mistake if he dismisses the positive claims, regarding purpose and experience, made by those involved in the practice of wearing burqas? If not, what am I supposed to make of their statements, as alien as they might sound to me?  Should I be concerned that accepting their claims creates an argument that burqas are for everyone?  No, and I might agree it would start getting negative for human well-being, at least for some time, if it were suddenly enforced over everyone under draconian penalties.  But that isn't what is happening, is it?

Of course I expect Harris' question is more concerned with the part about "forcing women" than "wearing burqas".  He might agree with burqas being fine for some, as long as it is by their choosing.

That is where we head back to understanding contextual legitimacy, in this case of force: legal or social.  Clearly I don't believe that all women want to be dressed that way, and those that don't are probably not happy with the rule, legal or social, which imposes it on them.  But that is true with just about any rule. Does Harris deny the legitimacy of social and legal sanctions in total?  If not, then why stop at burqas when discussing clothes?  Some people find clothing, beyond required physical protection, offensive and onerous.  

Does Harris believe that the legal and social rules forcing people to cover their bodies (particularly genital areas) in most cultures are net negatives for human beings?  How in any consistent fashion can he believe what he does about the burqa and not hold that true for clothes in general… if not because of cultural bias? That covering the head and face is objectively a few centimeters of cloth too far?  Or that it is just enforced on one sex (so if it was enforced on both, and so more people made unhappy, it would not be an issue)?  

Regardless what he feels about the net contribution of mores and laws regarding clothing in western nations, it is likely he could explain why these expectations exist in his society, what function they serve.  At the very least I'd expect him to discuss this in practical terms of trying to raise his kids within a specific environment he'd feel comfortable with. Could moral experts from more permissive (i.e, less prudish about the body) cultures just as easily dismiss his claims and explanations as the product of his lack of scientific moral credibility?  Should their feeling that wearing clothes must create a net negative for human flourishing be granted "obvious" merit?


What about more personally invasive customs like circumcision, where infliction of physical damage and pain without consent are inherent to the practice?   

Harris cites another author on that very subject [p45-46]…
"If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished… But when millions of people do this, instead the enormity being millions-fold, suddenly it becomes "culture," and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western "moral thinkers," including feminists." (quote from Donald Symons, presumably capturing the "problem" of multiculturalism)  
The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that unlike a psychopath butchering little girls, cultures practicing circumcision do not intend harm. The graphic analogy Dr Harris endorses to link the two morally only works when focusing on particularly gruesome results, which for circumcision is the by-product of people acting on beliefs regarding beneficial sexual traits (arguably factual error) without access to modern medical care (circumstance). The difference in intent is clear, as people from those cultures have sought access to medicine that could remove the “septic blade” and tortured “screaming girl” from the vividly painted scenario. While the practice would then become a form of surgery (generally equivalent to male circumcision) some people want to avoid any improvement and so normalization of the practice by blocking access to medical care at home and abroad. Yet these actions inherently extend the suffering and potential deaths the practitioners are trying to avoid.  How does that fit on the moral landscape?  As described, Dr Harris’s moral theory would seem to require all groups be treated as roughly morally equivalent (they all lead to harm of little girls), regardless of the vast differences in intent. 

What this suggests is that by basing moral judgment on outcomes Harris has eliminated the ability of his so-called moral experts to distinguish mistakes (factual errors) from intended consequences (commonly considered a criterion of moral error). That seems a major misfire on an initial test.

But let's take a case where there is no factual error involved.  A good example is male circumcision.  Most people are shocked at the concept of female circumcision, yet turn a blind eye to this procedure being done on males. That would seem to apply to Symons (if judged by the limits of that single quote) even though it may be be conducted just as routinely with septic blades in the same societies to which he refers.  Of course this is likely because he understands his own culture, where the ritual genital mutilation of boys is commonplace and so he would not see it as unusual or unhealthy.  

As it happens, many women in the US are openly insulting about males who are not circumcised, and sometimes demand it be done on their own sons even when the father is not so keen on the idea.  This is without any religious or moral pretext, and certainly no valid medical pretext.  It has become a purely social and aesthetic decision.  No factual error there. Similar reasons underlie the rise in labioplasty (an "accepted" form of female genital mutilation) by the same group.  This shows that even some of the most "abhorrent" practices humans choose to inflict on each other around the world, do not require moral or religious compulsion, or brute male domination.  Humans can and do function on the basis of other intentions or expectations.  And as long as the practice is homegrown, to the majority it will seem neither alien, frightening, or malevolent.  It becomes, as Symons says so dismissively, merely culture to them.

Following from that idea, there is an obvious false equivalency set within Symon's scaled up depiction.  It is not simply millions of maniacs doing something horrible to some other set of millions of people.  It most certainly is a cultural practice when the people are doing it to themselves, and those they love most. Regardless of justification, to members of those societies engaged in the genital mutilation of their own children, it is not viewed as inflicting damage.  Rather it is understood as physically correcting a functional problem, removing a deformity, or perhaps even enhancing beauty. Ultimately it allows their child to fit in with those around them, which is a very strong underlying desire among most humans. 

If this is true, aren't such practices (even where involving pain and lack of consent) legitimate uses of social or legal force?  If not, why not (especially if one accepts male circumcision)?  How is the desire for physical conformity of the individual to societal standards extrapolated by the moral expert in an objective fashion that can potentially be falsified, so as to discuss effects on overall human well-being?

From evidence provided for his own judgments, it appears that the only tests necessary for science-based moral experts to draw conclusions are graphic anecdotal descriptions capable of confirming the working hypotheses (the desired judgment) with findings peer-reviewed by the choir.


8 - ill-logic

Harris often hammers away at the example of men throwing acid in the faces of girls defying traditional customs.  His running theme is that moral relativism would somehow shield the actions of these men. And in any case it would reduce human compassion for the scarred girls, leading to inaction.

Before anything else, I want to point out that using such emotional appeals is neither scientific nor proper logic. The question of whether girls would be at increased risk of acid attack, or people less caring about it, would not make the theory of moral absolutism or relativism any more or less true.  Indeed, that something unpleasant might happen if any scientific theory or philosophical position were accepted does not in itself negate the validity of the theory.  Harris seems to understand that point when it comes to atheism and theories regarding lack of free will, yet acts as if this is a problem for moral theorists. 

But that error is not the point of this section…

The men in question have chosen to throw acid in the faces of those that defy tradition.  Is that really wrong, the worst case scenario, according to a landscape map of moral action?  Clearly the girls do not enjoy it, and may have reduced capacity for life afterward.  But the scales are greater than the individual, correct?  Does maintenance of social order count at all on the map?  Couldn't people with the absolutist values they happen to hold use Harris's map to argue for their own solution?

To them the source of human happiness and growth may be based in tight social order, including strict divisions of labor (which happens to exclude women from positions requiring education).  Such tight social order has arguably held many of them together through countless foreign invasions and internal disputes over long centuries.  In that case the action of the girl (in defying the social order) could itself constitute a harm to others, a negative on the landscape.  After all, weakness through undermining the central authority of the family and of those in power, could create an existential threat.  Everyone could actually be killed as a result.  This situation would then become analogous to how the military has extremely tight and some could say draconian ways to deal with those who buck the chain of command, because it opens holes in their functioning structure which could get them all killed.

This argument is not without merit, as Harris's map seems to become more flexible in the face of violence [p199#12]…
"There may be circumstances in which the very survival of a community requires that certain of these principles be violated.  But this doesn't mean that they aren't generally conducive to human well-being."
So to them, the actions of the girls are infractions that need to be dealt with, which may mean lifting of certain humane principles.  Is acid the best solution?  I don't even know if that is what they believe.  They are likely angry, feel threatened, and act to punish infractions quickly and harshly with what they have available… including acid.  The question then becomes was it effective? Did the punishment correct the issue of discipline?  Did it in fact raise the overall safety or growth, at least within that environment, and of the people within that community?   

If it was shown that it did, would that mean it was morally right? Would Harris then defend the activity?

Let's say that some scientists using his map, did all the calculations and found that (to their own surprise) brutal punishment of those defying community expectations actually did raise morale overall, and allowed for greater growth and flourishing of humans.  Obviously this would not be true for the individuals punished, but for community as a whole.  Would that count as a falsification of his theory, or would Harris consistently maintain that such evidence means brutal corporal punishment is morally good, including violence toward little girls just trying to go to school? And stranger still, would not carrying out such punishment be somehow morally bad?

"[Responding to a statement committing anthropologists to relativism at the end of WW2]... 1947? Please note that this was the best the social scientists in the United States could do with the crematoria Auschwitz still smoking." [p205#28]
Maybe it deserves repeating in the face of smoking crematoria, that emotional appeals are rhetorical devices and neither scientific nor philosophical tools.  Suppose they had announced that anthropologists were maintaining a secular, which is to say agnostic, stance on the existence of deities.  Religious advocates could have used the same sad appeal.  You mean to say in the face of smoking crematoria that there is no cosmic justice for the perpetrators and victims? In science, an uncomfortable truth is still a truth.

As it is, the Holocaust presents more problems for Harris than his opponents.

By all accounts the Nazis were not moral relativists.  They were absolutists pursuing the same agenda as Harris, even if not in the fine details.  They believed that there was an objective single good life that we were all moving toward.  And it should have gone without saying that they stood firmly against tolerance and multiculturalism, in addition to moral relativism.  

Did moral relativists or social scientists advocating its use in anthropology support the Nazis?  Or did they rise in opposition to the moral absolutists of the time who were backing the Nazis, or Nazi-like human race improvement schemes?  It would not surprise me if moral relativists could be found explaining how Nazi moral codes functioned within German society, and the mechanisms that were used to enforce them.  However it would surprise me to find an argument from a self-proclaimed moral relativist, or someone writing from that perspective, which somehow supported Nazism and the ethnic cleansing they were employing as "good".

Harris seems to try to have it every way with moral relativists, on one page they are defending any and every culture as worthy of respect and preservation, and the next they are throwing up their hands and surrendering other cultures to whoever decides to take over the joint.  Which is it?  Or perhaps it is none of the above?

In any case, how would Harris' moral landscape treat the Nazis?  Well that is easy to say in hindsight… they lost.  But let's move back in time to when they were rising to power.  Their concept was a movement to expand human flourishing and well-being.  And in their early stages they did in fact turn around problems within Germany.  I want to see the calculations and resulting map Harris' proposed system would have for them without the advantage of hindsight.

And even with hindsight lets consider their final solution to the world's problems.  What if they had won WW2 and managed to take over Europe and Russia, wiping out Jews, gays, Poles, Roma, and the infirm?  Ignoring all of the suffering during the great purge, wouldn't the remaining people be free to flourish and experience greater well-being?  Since they would have murdered minorities, how does the moral calculus work?  Isn't it only who comes after that counts?  Wouldn't it be a net positive?  If not, why not?

As it is whatever maps we create now will only be taking into consideration the interests of those who exist at the moment and perhaps their descendants.  We in the US are beneficiaries of a two century mass ethnic cleansing across North America, almost the equal of Nazi germany, with continued practical internment of the indigenous population.  Ironically, even modern Jews are beneficiaries of their own successful ethnic cleansing of other people, leaving no one behind, during the formation of ancient Israel.  What have the victors done in all these cases?  Whitewash the past as necessary for the good that resulted, and only concern themselves with the calculus of suffering from that point on.  

Isn't that how Harris' map would have handled a Nazi win?  And for those that viewed the Nazi scheme as correct for the human race at the time, wouldn't Harris's landscape concept have been equally supportive of them?  If not, why not? 

I don't see how the Nazis would have found an ally in philosophical or practical moral relativism, as compared to a realist doctrine based on a supposed scientific concept that we are all moving toward some single, best way to live.  And it even raises the question, if we are supposed to be moving to one single best culture, isn't it plausible to argue we are also heading for one single best race?  Certainly in principle there would be an identifiable criteria for most healthy, fit, and beautiful human being.  Doesn't that mean there is an imperative to reach those criteria, just as much as the criteria of moral truth?


Given the rising popularity of anti-science sentiments,  it is a legitimate question how the practice of science fares on the landscape map.  While the potential benefits of science are staggering, so are the potential dangers.  Despite many great discoveries and inventions, has science maximized human well-being?  Dr Harris's own concerns speak volumes.  His deepest worries appear to center on the existential threats science has made possible, and increasingly likely for humankind.  Without science we would not be facing radical climate change, nor apocalyptic weaponry, nor overpopulation.  While science may be employed to find solutions to these problems, that does not erase the fact that science is the reason they exist in the first place.

Any defense of science based on its proper or intended uses, are undercut by Harris's own arguments against the Burqa where secondary cultural effects and potential abuses by others outweigh the intended use as described by many practitioners.

This is perhaps the final punchline in the series of reductios that emerge from his moral system.  Science itself seems a moral evil, having clearly not maximized well-being, and containing no inherent mechanism to ensure it could.


9 - taste of his own medicine

Given how often humans abandon "well founded" moral principles once their own habits fall into question, I think it is safe to say that there are no consistent moral realists.  Some of Dr Harris's past actions and writings seem to conflict with his stance on maximizing well-being.  If forced to choose between one or the other, which would win out?  Will the demands of his moral system prove too bitter to swallow, or will Dr Harris enjoy the taste of his own medicine?


In the Moral Landscape Dr Harris defends his often vitriolic attacks on religion (and arguably those who are religious) by claiming[p174-5]…
"We are merely guilty of assuming that our fellow homo sapiens possess the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument, satire, and ridicule on the subject of religion- just as they respond to these discursive pressures on all other subjects. Of course, we could be wrong.  But let's admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbors as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be completely mistaken about the nature of reality."
What Harris appears to be guilty of is ignoring the banal reality that not all communities of homo sapiens (regardless of intelligence and maturity) respond to satire and ridicule with the same ease he ascribes to himself.  He also seems to ignore that people can be just as stiff on all other subjects as they are with respect to religion, particularly when it is delivered in insulting language.  It's not that they are children, they just have different expectations of how subjects, and opponents, are handled during serious discussion.  If one wants to have a useful discussion  with people from other cultures, perhaps the best course is to understand and work within their limits regarding satire and ridicule, rather than your own.

Personally I find it laughable that Harris lumps ridicule in with rational argument.  Satire maybe, but not ridicule, and even then satire has no place in true scientific discourse. Ironically, Harris has had a hard time dealing with satire and ridicule from some of his prior allies (Myers, Dennett, Churchland) once they began using it while criticizing his beliefs. Perhaps in time he will understand from the receiving end that intelligence and emotional maturity are not necessarily signified by an ability to accept insults from others, but rather not to use it during rational discourse oneself.  

While I would never claim that censoring speech is the morally right thing to do, given his emphasis on maximizing well-being (which in a social species is dependent on clear communication), it would seem he ought to.  Unless he can show how satire and ridicule is absolutely necessary for maximizing well-being?  


But this slip is not as bad as his bizarre tendency (not in Moral Landscape, but throughout many articles and speeches) to describe militant Islamic fundamentalism as "true Islam", lambasting (and in the process undercutting) efforts by moderate believers to reign in both fundamentalism and militancy.  Every time I hear Harris taking such a position, I am stunned.  If he believes (as an atheist) that holy scripture is man made and open to a variety of interpretations, what is he doing talking about "true Islam" at all?  

When people cite pretty moderate Koranic verses, Harris (with a straight face) discusses how important Islamic scholars cite supplementary material as being equally important, with quotes from those texts allowing for greater militancy.  How on earth does that particular interpretation count as more "true" than any other group's interpretations which downplay such material?  Even if we assume the Koran is filled with verses that support militancy, how would that make those selecting the more moderate interpretation (even if cherry-picking) less "true" as believers?  It is all storytelling, with inherently conflicting verses that allows for such editing!

This is like having some radical movement of hardcore Star Trek fans coming to believe that while role-playing Klingons they must act out real violence.  Then another group comes in and says no you don't have to do that, you can just have fun and not worry about killing or torturing real people.  Would Harris be right to side with the people advocating violence, claiming that they are being the "true" Klingons, based on the claims of some "important" commentary by self-professed "#1 fans"? 

Seriously... it is all fiction, being created as it goes, so there is no true anything.  

Consequently there is no legitimate reason for anyone (particularly someone committed to human well-being) to take a position defending/advocating the side practicing violence as more "true".  It might be "original", or "highly popular after the rise of certain sects", but "true" islam?  And even if it was arguably a "true" version of Islam in the past, it is not the "true" Islam practiced today.  Religions have constantly splintered then renewed themselves for new eras, so why should Islam be an exception?  Harris praises the peaceful tendencies of the Amish, but if he were around at their formation it seems he would have supported their persecutors, deriding the Amish for not following the "true" Christian faith.

If Harris meant what he said in the quote above about moral truths, and moderate Islam is at least closer to allowing for human flourishing than militant fundamentalist interpretations, why is he not advocating that as "true" or at least "truer" Islam?  Not only would that be more consistent given the specific example of comparing moral views A and B above, but it would actualize more human flourishing than his championing the most militant interpretations of a text he happens to believe is false anyway.

Of course that would undercut his ability to use the caricature of the violent fanatic to criticize Islam as a whole. Perhaps Harris should consult his landscape map to figure out if championing militants in order to more conveniently bash a religion actually produces a greater level of well-being, compared to championing the moderates of a religious group who are trying to end militancy. That is even if (though I'd argue it isn't even necessary) he feels he might have to lie about the pacific nature of a certain bit of fan fiction.

I would think that the conclusion on this particular moral question would be more obvious than any other example he cites in his book.


  1. Excellent analysis and critique, with which I largely agree.

    I would like to point out that the 'conditional' you refer to above (otherwise known as 'hypothetical imperative') is still not sufficient in order to derive an "ought".

    Specifically, the conditional: "if you don't want to die of thirst, you ought to drink water" is not sufficient to derive the conclusion "you ought to drink water".

    You need an additional premise along the lines of "You ought to do whatever it takes to fulfill your desires". Thus, you must begin with an ought in order to derive an ought.



    1. Hi YF, I'm glad you liked it. I appreciate feedback and that was a good catch. That specific conditional could probably be written a few ways, with different sets of hidden premises (including yours). I was trying to be as brief as possible in that section, and so just used the most explicit logical statements that would link facts A to B. I would be one to argue that by the nature of desires we don't need to have an "ought" telling us that we must do what it takes to fulfill them. That is inherent in the concept of a desire, as that means we already have a will to get something and so no extremal demands are necessary. So I guess I'd tweak your premise as "(Since) you will do whatever it takes to fulfill your desires". I hope that distinction makes sense. In any case, your point has merit and it was worth pointing out. Thanks!