I have frequently said that science can only provide data to inform our decisions but can’t tell us what we “should” do; that it can determine facts but not values. I stand corrected. A persuasive new book by Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape,  has convinced me that science can and should determine what is moral. In fact, it is a more reliable guide than any other option.

The Moral Landscape

Several recent books have looked at morality from a scientific viewpoint. Animals have been shown to exercise altruism and to appreciate fairness. Human cooperation has been shown to offer a survival advantage to individuals and groups. Game theory has demonstrated the success of the tit-for-tat strategy. In The Science of Good and Evil,  Michael Shermer argues that evolution has produced in us a moral sense that is not a reflection of some “absolute” morality but that constitutes a worthy human project that transcends individuals. He posits a pyramid of morality that becomes more advanced as it is applied to larger in-groups, from self to family to community to all living creatures. He amends the Golden Rule to specify that we should treat others not as we want to be treated but as others want to be treated. 

Harris goes much further. With a background in both philosophy and neuroscience, he is qualified to do so. He points out that questions about values — about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose — are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. He says we know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. He shows that it’s as senseless to claim morality is relative as to claim it is absolute. Morality cannot be understood as some Platonic ideal; it cannot be understood as whatever the preferred deity of one’s society has commanded; it cannot be dismissed as meaningless and varying with culture. Cultural relativism is stupid: we should never accept slavery or female genital mutilation as moral even in the societies that practice them believing they are moral. It is immoral and irrational to accept such practices out of political correctness and unwillingness to offend.

Harris has honed in on what we all believe, no matter what we might say we believe. He defines an action as moral if it increases the well-being of humans and other conscious beings, and immoral if it decreases well-being. We all accept that a good life is preferable to a life of suffering and that things like kindness to children are desirable. We all accept the Golden Rule: it’s not that we accept it because religion so dictates, it’s that religions have adopted it because we all know that it is valid. 

Religion has long claimed that morality is its province, but this is clearly untenable. Different religions have different standards, religious commandments have encouraged immoral behaviors, non-religious societies are as moral as religious ones. Guidelines are inconsistent: the Catholic church excommunicates women who try to become priests, but fails to excommunicate priests who rape little boys. Religious morality also values human well-being, but with a difference. Most religions give priority to well-being in some imagined life after death. This often leads to unnecessary suffering in this, the only life we can be sure of.

Just as people are often wrong about science (i.e. rejecting evolution) people are often wrong about what is moral, but Harris sees signs of progress.  Slavery is now universally condemned. Racism has diminished. But some societies mistreat women and deny them education, and our fear of offending the beliefs of others has prevented us from improving the lot of humanity by fighting certain clearly immoral practices. If morality can be established as a science, it will facilitate rational progress. 

Science can have a great deal to say about morals. It can examine whether making women wear a burqa improves the well-being of a society. It can test whether corporal punishment has the beneficial results envisioned by those who prefer not to “spare the rod.” It can test whether abstinence-only education achieves its stated goal of reducing pre-marital sex. It can try to measure well-being. Well-being will be difficult to quantify, but not impossible. The environment and the individual’s response to it can be objectively studied. The important thing is to be willing to look at these issues and to try to evaluate moral questions through rational inquiry. It is no longer acceptable to claim that slavery would become moral if a society chose to practice it or to claim that homosexuality is an absolute evil.

It would be easy to reject Harris’ ideas as simplistic and impractical or to mistake hedonistic “happiness” for true well-being. If you think he is wrong, I would urge you to read the book to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of what he is actually saying. 

Harris sees the moral landscape as one with valleys of suffering and peaks of well-being. He accepts that there can be different peaks with similar magnitudes, so there need not be one single prescription for all societies.   

He sets us three ambitious projects:

  1. To 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. To 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. To convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behavior in the name of “morality” to break these commitments and to live better lives.

These may be phenomenally difficult, especially the third, but they are indisputably worthy goals to aim for. There must be something to know about meaning, morality and values in principle, if not always in practice. And Harris believes that merely admitting this will transform the way we think about happiness and the public good.

This is one of those books that can stretch the reader’s mind to new dimensions. Even the eminent Richard Dawkins was altered by reading it. He says, 

I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. Moral philosophers, too, will find their world exhilaratingly turned upside down, as they discover a need to learn some neuroscience. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.