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Moral landscape – how do humans flourish?

December 2, 2013

We continue our steady walk through Sam Harris’ highly thought provoking The Moral Landscape.

After outlining his moral landscape of well-being he concedes that it’s too early to have a full understanding of how human beings flourish (though a piecemeal account is emerging). He then illustrates how this landscape may potentially work on page 9 where he uses the example of the connection between childhood experience, emotional bonding and a person’s ability to form healthy relationships later in life.

Harris outlines some recent scientific discoveries concerning the relationship between parental care and the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin. He shows that children raised in traditional homes (and presumably have a better care) have higher levels of oxytocin and vasopressin than children raised by the state (and presumably have lower levels of nurturing). This supports Harris’ thesis that in some way the brain can be the clearest ‘objective’ measure of human values. i.e. science can guide us certain pathways to ‘human flourishing’ because it can measure changes in the brains.

Harris concludes this section by suggesting that human knowledge and human values can no longer be kept apart (p.10). He is proposing that epistemology becomes ‘morality’. He hasn’t fully developed his thesis here, but it’s unclear how he can fully bridge this gap. A key problem he faces in attempting to bridge this gap can be illustrated by Harris’ own illustration of childhood neglect and hormone levels in the brain.

It is very clear that science has demonstrated that certain types of nurturing will lead to differing levels of oxytocin and vasopressin. But it is still unclear from a simply scientific view what should be valued and hence it’s ambiguous what should be done. Hence it’s difficult to see how measurement can be conflated into meaning.

1. Should we value the hormones themselves? Given that we have measured this problem via assessing hormone levels, could the problem be solved with a hormone supplement? In this view the ethical and moral issues dissolve because the measurement provides meaning and hence we can just ‘boost’ the measurement factor.

2. Should we therefore not value orphanages. It’s unclear how this result helps us understand orphanages and state care. Harris’ landscape could still view them via some form of retrieval ethic i.e. orphanage is better than dying on the streets. But the problem comes in that because orphanages lead to lower ‘flourishing’ we shouldn’t value them as highly.

3. How should we provide better care for children? Assuming that we should provide better nurturing for children it’s still ambiguous how we should do this. Should certain styles of parenting be legislated? Would parenting freedom be abolished to maximise human flourishing? Again, it’s unclear how measurement can provide meaning here.

Harris proposes that things are valued because they produce higher hormone levels (a proxy for wellbeing). Harris has certainly made measurement ultimate (he has conflated meaning and measurement). One effect of this is that values become instrumental and may appear reductionist. Yet as I’ve outlined this conception has certain problems in determining exactly what to now value.

I’m keen to hear reactions to my thoughts here about what Harris has proposed. Have I been fair? Are my reservations unnecessarily pessimistic?

  1. Rob, I hesitate to respond to this because I haven’t read the Sam Harris book. But your positioning of his arguments looks a little straw-man-ish. I suspect his main argument is simply that if we are to find a reasonable basis for objective and optimal human well-being, then the only reasonable way to find that is to start by attempting to measure some of the things that characterise well-being (and hence also the things that characterise suffering).
    You seem to have leapt to a conclusion that Harris is suggesting that the solution to childhood neglect could involve hormone supplements, and furthermore that he “values orphanages less highly” (than traditional home care). Does he actually state this?
    It seems that Harris’ position is simply that science can actually give us the means to measure human well-being. It might be a tricky challenge, but how else would you propose we understand it and thence develop a consistent basis for morality? (Hint: divine revelation certainly hasn’t worked.)

    • Paul, Sorry it’s taken so long to respond to this but had a number of crises etc to overcome. I think you misunderstand my point. I never suggested that Harris suggests that we should inject people with hormones, what I was trying to illustrate was the difference between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. i.e. because we can measure the hormones here doesn’t automatically explain what we ought to then do. Sure, I agree, Harris may help us measure some level of human well-being but that doesn’t then help us prescribe what we ought to do. i.e. the is/ought chasm remains.

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