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Moral Landscape – the central thesis

November 8, 2013

I’m continuing my journey through the Moral Landscape and I managed to get past the first 2 paragraphs (after the last post). Sam Harris writes quite well and I’m pleased that he gets to his central thesis very early.

At the bottom of page 1 he argues that ‘questions about values-about meaning, morality and life’s larger purpose – are really questions about the well being of conscious creatures’. This appears to be Harris’ central thesis and his definition of morality. To be honest, there is nothing terribly novel about this definition. Utilitarian ethicists have been arguing this definition of morality for centuries.

Harris then expands and claims that ‘values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientific understood’. He suggests that these ‘facts’ transcend culture. He appears to be claiming that these ‘facts’ are in fact objective.

Important to Harris’ main thesis is the role of the brain in apprehending these ‘facts’. He claims that differences in culture ‘must depend upon the organization of the human brain’ (p.2). Hence the brain becomes foundational, ‘In principle, we can account for the ways in which culture defines us within the context of neuroscience and psychology.’

Hence the ‘simple’ premise of the book is that ‘human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain’. Harris does concede that he may not be able to resolve every moral controversy through science, but importantly he doesn’t let this stop his thesis as he claims that we shouldn’t mistake ‘no answers in practice for no answers in principle’ (p.3). Essentially he’s saying that because we can’t necessarily resolve every question we shouldn’t assume that no answer actually exists.

So that’s it. The main thesis: ‘human well-being (the determiner of morality) depends on events in the world and on states in the human brain’. I’m eagerly awaiting how Harris will seek to defend and justify this statement throughout the rest of the book as at present there are (in my view) a number of formidable challenges) and I have some comments.

1. His account of ethics does appear somewhat reductionistic i.e. all morality relates to the brain. I’m trying to figure out what this mean, for it appears that philosophically he’s some form of idealist, a materialist idealist (objective idealist??) Perhaps someone with more philosophical training can help here?

2. Harris hasn’t explained or justified yet, why this is the account of morality to be preferred above all other models. Apparently he’ll do this later, but this is a key objection. It’s also not clear how he can justify this definition scientifically.

3. A further (in my view highly significant) problems remains in terms of definition and measurement – i.e. what actually constitutes well-being and how do you measure it? This is a perennial problem with all utilitarian ethical frameworks and I’m looking forward to seeing how he resolves this (and justifies it scientifically).

4. Finally, there is an important difference between ‘describing’ and ‘prescribing’. Harris has touched on this, yet at this stage I’m struggling to see how observing that well-being functions with respect to the brain, and then prescribing what we must therefore do. This does relate to several of the above points regarding justifying this morality and then measuring it. This is the crucial distinction which will be an issue we will undoubtedly return.

One Comment
  1. I read this book a couple of years ago. I’ll reserve comments until you finish but I look forward to hear what you think. I am in full support of the book and have not yet heard a solid argument against it yet. I’ll keep my eye out for your later posts on this.

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