Moral landscape – how do humans flourish?
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?