Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

The Moral LandscapeFor all the controversy it has inspired, Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape has a very simple premise: science can and should provide a framework by which moral and immoral actions, laws and social norms are judged. He begins by asking his reader to conceive of two alternate worlds or cultures: one in which human well-being is maximized – a “peak” in the moral lanscape – and another in which it is minimized – a “valley.” The best possible scenario might include a world where food is plentiful, opportunities for education and advancement abound, life expectancy is high, infant mortality is low or non-existant, etc. By contrast, the worst possible scenario might entail a world where death, disease and privation were rampant; rape, murder and theft were condoned; infant mortality rates staggeringly high; life expectancies low, etc. Most people can admit of a difference between these two worlds and express a preference for one over the other; Harris argues that the differences in these two worlds and their discrete impacts on human well-being can be understood objectively. The main obstacle to this premise are those groups who believe in the existence of objective morality but who argue that it is derived from religion, not science, and those people who cannot admit of an objective basis for morality. Harris’ book exposes the idiosyncrasies of both groups while laying the foundations for a middle path, one that has gone unexplored for too long.

Harris begins by attacking moral and cultural relativism, and by so doing earns my eternal approbation. The relativist strain of thinking has spread like a disease through Western academia, and goes something like this: to argue for an objective basis for morality – to say, for example, that forcing women to wear a burqa or ritualistically mutilating the genitals of infant children is immoral – is to impose on other cultures a Western system of values, a kind of imperialist morality that must be resisted. It is difficult to convey to the general public just how ingrained this stupidity is, but Harris provides a suitable example: in a debate with a prominent Western academic whose credentials include being one of the thirteen people appointed by President Obama to his Presidential Commission for Bioethical Issues, Harris made the fairly benign point that the Taliban were an example of a people whose beliefs and values were not conducive to human well-being. His opponent would not concede the point, so he simplified the scenario, asking her to envision a society in which every third child is ritualistically blinded; surely, Sam argued, such a society would be “needlessly diminishing human well-being?” No, said his opponent, and, if they were doing it for religious reasons, we could never condemn the practice. Another example is provided by Judith Butler, a prominent feminist academic whose crimes against the English language have garnered her a deserved notoriety. She was offered a medal in recognition of her pro-gay rights work by a German advocacy group, and chose to decline the award on the grounds that that same group had been critical of the anti-gay policies of many Muslim countries.

Harris quotes the anthropologist Donald Symons, one of the few voices in his profession who find this kowtowing to political correctness absurd:

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, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified 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.

It is obvious to anyone not inured to such double-think that mooring our moral and ethical principles to concepts of culture and group identity is a recipe for impotence, even justification, in the face of atrocious human behavior. It also falls victim to its own poor logic, as Harris delights in pointing out:

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. 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. The contradiction here is unsurprising. 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.

One of his more cogent arguments pertaining to the application of science to morality has to do with the metaphor of human health. Like morality, it is something of an umbrella term, encompassing various different disciplines and subjectivities: a young man who cannot run for a mile might consider himself unhealthy; an elderly man who can walk to the store might consider himself healthy. And yet nobody looks at the infant mortality rates of a third world country, or the prevalence of disease, and suggests that perhaps the denizens of that country “place different values on health than we do,” or that any attempt to improve their medical care would constitute an imperialist takeover by Western notions of health. Facts about morality, like those about health, transcend culture.

In an afterword included with the latest publication, Harris takes the time to address many of the concerns and criticisms he received, most of them public. This was, by far, the most disheartening section to read. The book seems to have engendered a response largely unequal to the care and attention to detail that went into the writing of it, as several prominent scientists attacked the book for arguments that were plainly not included in it, or used criticisms that were explicitly addressed within the book. Deepak Chopra, a pseudoscientist peddling his own brand of faith-based morality, was particularly obnoxious, as his reply seems to clearly demonstrate he did not read the book but the pre-release Q&A pamphlet used to advertise it.

Ultimately, the book’s message is that science can provide the framework by which we analyze the well-being of people in differing societies, giving us not only the means but the onus to pass judgment on how well any one society is objectively treating its citizens, and how it could be improved. This should be of special concern to readers who are uncomfortable with the idea of authoritative religious figures like the Pope happily condemning condoms in an Africa suffering from epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases, or with secularist “free thinkers,” many of whom wield immense political power, defending the Taliban’s treatment of women and children. Such people have too long gone unchallenged, and with this book Harris carves an attractive alternative.