Moral Landscape – the moral landscape
This is the next post in a detailed (but valuable) exploration of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. On page 7, Sam Harris comes to describing this ‘moral landscape’. Harris describes it as,
‘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.’ (p.7)
This is a vivid description of morality.It helpfully illustrates many of the ethical decisions that we are faced with. There are clear peaks and valleys – clear areas of moral clarity. Yet the conception of the ‘landscape’ helps us recognise that there can be a lot of grey – areas of moral ambiguity.
Harris then describes different ways of negotiating this moral landscape. He acknowledges that ‘different ways of thinking and behaving … will translate into different movements across this landscape, and therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing’. This leads Harris to concede that to some questions there may indeed be ‘multiple answers, each more or less equivalent’.
The multiple answers to moral questions does raise potential problems for Harris’ ‘landscape’ conception. It’s true that there is a difference between healthy food and poison as Harris outlines and mapping this observation on the landscape would involve a respective peak and troughs. Yet a question emerges, how then would this moral landscape view of ‘values’ view the comparative health benefits of two relatively healthy foods – goji berries or sultanas? Is Harris’ moral landscape suggesting that one is right and another wrong?
I don’t think it is. The moral landscape conception actually removes all sense of ultimate right and wrong. The moral landscape would show both the comparative health benefits of goji berries and sultanas with peaks. Yet the goji berry ‘peak’ will be higher, hence the concept of a ‘landscape’. However both sultanas and goji berries will be peaks compared with the poison, which would be a valley. Hence this illustrates that in Harris’ ‘morality’ concepts such as ‘good and evil’ disappear. He’s already hinted at this on page 4. These concepts disappear because the moral landscape reveals that consuming one form of food is not ‘right’, merely better. Similarly poison is not ‘wrong’, they are much much worse.
This is an important point and I’m sure that we’ll consider this further.
On page 8 Harris outlines further issues about drawing and negotiating the moral landscape. He says that ‘movement across the moral landscape can be analyzed on many levels-ranging from biochemistry to economics’
This is very true and highlights a crucial problem in the conception of the ‘moral landscape’. How do you draw it? What are the axes we use to measure? What scale do we use? How is this scale determined? These are crucial questions that must be answered for the moral landscape to have any universal applicability.
Harris advocates the primacy of the human brain and asserts that movement across the moral landscape will necessarily depend upon ‘states and capacities of the human brain’. Hence he asserts the primacy of neuroscience and sciences of the mind’ in determining the framework of the moral landscape.
Yet I’m not quite sure Harris has justified his point here. Even if we do acknowledge that neurosciences and sciences of the human mind help us understand human experience. It is another step again to assert that this must be the prime determinant of moral reality. This seems unnecessarily reductionist and entirely individualistic. Why not use economics (as Harris has suggested) as the base to measure the moral landscape? There would be times when the findings from ‘economics’ would conflict with basic human experience – e.g. taxation, where I involuntary surrender income (and suffer negative human experience) for the ‘greater good’.
I’m not suggesting that states and capacities of the brain are not important, but I’m unconvinced that this must be the prime determinant of morality.