The moral landscape: how science can determine human values
[ bookreviews ]
"What about Art, and the Suicide Bomber?"
Sam Harris argues in his latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, that "questions about meaning, morality, and life's larger purpose are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures." Harris says decisions about fundamental values will "translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering."
Sounds like a lot to cover in 200 or so pages, but Harris builds a firm foundation for further work on the subject of empirical knowledge and its collective impact on the future of life on the planet. One key to Harris's argument is that humane values - like the value of human and animal compassion, and scientific facts, like the fact that cancer in France is the same as cancer in India - are rooted in one or more of the empirical sciences and, therefore, these are facts that transcend cultural imperatives.
If "compassion" enters the domain of science in the same way "oncology" does, Harris concludes, there will be right and wrong answers about the relative enhancement of "well-being" in any existential context.
This opens an array of social, cultural, religious, legal, and behavioral critiques usually viewed as outside the realm of science, and traditionally narrowed to anthropological and sociological inquiry. But Harris, a PhD in neuroscience, says "human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on the states of the human brain."
We humans are born with an arsenal of innate and remarkable evolutionary tools with which to navigate whatever circumstances one might encounter in his or her existential world. If we are beaten as children, for example, we adapt differently than we might were we not so abused. Science can demonstrate the negative psychological result as well as the social impact of beating children, so we can readily determine, Harris says, beating children is bad behavior and, presumably, take action to eliminate such abuse in schools. Nonetheless, as Harris points out, some 20 US States currently permit corporal punishment in public schools.
Human beings also possess the innate capacity for language and whatever else the language DNA string carries embedded within it into the future. We know we are innately and universally capable of ethical decision-making. How language and ethical decision-making are shaped largely depends on the cultural context within which the child develops. So Harris argues, science can evaluate the efficacy of any culture and its impact on human and animal "well being." The big step implicit in this line of reasoning is how to politically shift culture toward the direction of maximizing "well being."
Experiments have demonstrated some 98 per cent of people globally will go to extremes to avoid harming another human being, or to protect the innocent from harm. No authority need teach us this "moral" decision-making capacity; we are born with the ability to reason morally. But how does a conservative Islamic culture, for example, change its attitude toward women? We also know through science that humans share a reflexive compassion for other life forms with non-human species. Humans and other mammals will reflexively move to protect a child, for example.
Harris, who is also a trained philosopher, builds his case for an ethical critique of society, culture, and religion based on empirical science as opposed to any special bifurcation of thought, as biologist Stephen J Gould famously termed, the "overlapping magisteria," a separation of knowledge, rendering onto science that which is empirical and onto religion whatever is "religious." French thinker Gilles Deleuze, however, expands the idea of rational inquiry into three rational platforms: science, philosophy, and art. Harris's reasoning can be expanded into the realm of art or "poiesis", for example, if art is viewed as the exercise and discovery of the innately humane through the process of making and receiving art and its influence on the human brain. But Harris, like many scientists exploring neurological roots of humanity, has nothing to say about art and its ability to expand human consciousness.
The contemporary resistance (even among scientists) to a scientific approach to social critique or modification dates to early reactions against Darwinism in the mid-19th century as well as through the last century. One slight example: I strongly disagree with Harris's position on the efficacy of torture, which could easily become an unethical and immoral tangent resulting directly from his thesis. If the state can extract useful information through torture, why not? By Harris's own argument, it would require a "special" mind set conditioned and trained to apply torture to another human being. This opens the door to science-based fascism, doesn't it?
(Tortured victims have reported the sheer difficulty and horror they face at simply determining exactly what information the torturer wants them to provide. Harris says he's aware of this, but his argument concerns the "underlying ethical dilemma" which is a completely artificial academic construct with no status in reality. The point is this entire line of "thinking" questions the logical premise of The Moral Landscape.) 
Another difficulty with Harris for me is his repeated generalization about human behavior based purely on religious belief. His most appealing argument is opposing the treatment of women in Islamic cultures based on religious dogma; but then he simplistically includes the higher rate of suicide bombers emerging in occupied communities in the same context. Harris attributes the motivation of bombers to a belief in reward in some afterlife, directly related to the Koran. This is a simplistic conclusion, in my view, that overlooks the military efficiency, psychology and hero-worship of the "martyr" mind set. The concept of the "martyr for the faith" has been a motivating factor in all dominant cultural religions in history.
These comments have little direct bearing on Harris's argument in The Moral Landscape, however, and Harris is onto something. He has opened a valuable discussion, important to the future development of culture and government as well philosophy and neuroscience. Indeed, a scientific foundation - in a broad and inclusive sense - appears fundamental to any critique and advancement of cultural mores.