Critique of Sam Harris's Moral Landscape: Can Science Tell us What we Ought to do?

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Sam Harris

....The ideological tendencies of scientism seek to scrap traditional philosophically based ethics and produce a whole new ethical system based upon a scientific understanding of human biology. We might call this “biologically based ethics,” or “scientific naturalism,” the official name for the school is “ethical naturalism.”[1] “Bio-ethics” implies the genuine ethical issues that emerge from biologically based intrusion of humanity into the natural processes of living; cloning, artificial insemination and the like. What I call “Ethical naturalism” is an attempt to actually replace the philosophical discipline of ethics with one derived from science.[2] Of course the major issue is that science has no mission to determine how we should live. Ethics is primarily about understanding how we should live, how we treat others, how we decide what actions to take in given situations. These are not scientific questions they are philosophical questions. In their attempt to wipe out all other forms of knowledge the scientism movement seeks to eradicate philosophy wherever it finds it. In this chapter I will argue that applying science to ethics is the fallacy of trying to derive an “ought” form “is.” I also argue that the diversity of ethical theory is not a weakness but strength and one that disproves the wisdom of this urge to reduce ethics to science.

....James Rachels made a famous defense of ethical naturalism in which he expressed the idea that ethics not based upon scientific fact is an oddity:
Ethical naturalism is the idea that ethics can be understood in terms of natural science. One way of making this more specific is to say that moral properties (such as goodness and rightness) are identical with natural properties, that is properties that figure into scientific descriptions or explanations of things. Ethical naturalists also hold that justified moral beliefs are beliefs justified by a particular kind of causal process. Thus C.D. Broad observed that ‘if naturalism be true, ethics is not an autonomous science, it’s a department or an application of one or more of the natural or historical sciences.’ [3]

 One of the major exampels of ethical naturalism is Sam Harris atheist guru, in his book the Moral Landscape.

            The Subtitle to Sam Harris’s book,  Moral Landscape is “how can science determine human values?” So it’s not going to just inform us of our values but “determine” them. Presumably regardless of what we do value, the priests of knowledge, those lucky enough to go to big name universities and major in genetics will determine what we want in the future. Harris begins by observing that he’s talked with thousands of people, most of them well educated, who believe that human values are not based upon truth content, and misery and that well being and misery are so poorly defined we can’t know what they mean.[4] He warns that he’s not trying to give a scientific account of what people do in the name of morality. Nor is he suggesting that science can help us get what we want out of life. “Rather I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want –and therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, such answers may one day fall within reach of maturing science of the mind.” [5] So apparelty it’s not just a matter of understanding what human beings value and want, but of teaching them what they should value and want? Who is to decide this? Science can tell us what’s right then it can make it right in our minds through control so that what we want is what science tells us to want. But of course this is “helping” we who are too feeble to help ourselves, we who are stuck in the religious thinking. He just told us science can’t help us get what we want then he tells us that it will. How can this be? Because he wants to use science to change what we want to what he wants us to want. But of course he masks this in terms of what we should want. Then what does it mean that he includes telling others what they should want? Then falling within reach of the science of the mind? That’s not a hint about control? He wants science to reach beyond the mere ability to explain the physical workings of the world and to become the orbiter of values. Of course that means arbitration of values would be controlled by scientists.
            He goes on treading on the toes of ethicists. He says, “Once we see that a concern for well being (defined as deeply and inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values, we will see that there must be a science of morality.”[6] In light of this quotation is apparent that Harris’s ethics are basically teleological. He’s clearly a consequentialist if not a utilitarian.[7] In other words, it is the end result that makes an action moral, not duty or obligation to act, but how the action turns out. The extent to which it conforms to the desired goal is what makes it moral. The way he works it out is that science will tell us which of the problems is more devastating and which hurts more people that will tell us how to spend our resources. “…would it be better to spend our next billion dollars eradicating racism or malaria?”[8] So he’s already working from an implicit value system that’s based upon an ethical philosophy which has already put in place well being as the end toward which ethical thinking must strive, and the underlying value behind ethical theory, to the exclusion of deontology (duty and obligation) and all other theories. He does this before he has the scientific means to determine the value system. So this is really a shell game. He’s going to give us the means to determine what’s best for us but we have to determine it within a framework he’s already picked out that excludes alternatives. Not that we all wouldn’t agree that we should do “what’s best” but the issue is how we know what’s best. He’s already decided the supreme issue is the outcome in terms of physical comfort and avoidance of physical pain. He doesn’t recognize that this a value that he’s put in place as a philosophical underpinning, so we don’t get a answer to weather or not we embrace that as a value.
            He deals with the issue of the subjective nature of ethics, which is the basis of relativism. He distinguishes between subjective/objective in two senses, practice and principle. He’s opposed to ideals of good, such as Platnoic forms. He’s only speaking in terms of a diminished naturalistic sort of good that comes as a side effect of the way we do things. That’s good in terms of our value system, he assumes we all value outcome as a moral goal. His distinction between experience (practice) and ideal (principle) allows him to say that we can do things better without trying to establish the moral good, but then that’s supposed to give us a moral good.[9] When he brings religious views into it he thinks that ideas of heaven and hell prove that religious views are really based upon pleasure and pain too. They are not really concerned with the good for its own sake but with avoiding hell. [10] In this manner he seems to be attempting to reduce all value systems to his own. One of the major problems with his handling of value systems is the basis for adopting one. It’s obviously simplistic and self serving to just assume everyone is about the same value system I want. It’s also delusion to assume that there are not hidden subtexts in one’s value system.  One of the major problems in determining a value system is in assuming that the “ought” or “one should” aspect of a valuation of actions can be determined by factually ascertaining the nature of things. We see this assumption in Harris’s statement about science as coming to understand what’s going on in the universe. What do we mean by “going on?” There are multiple aspects to what’s going on, how we determine which of those is crucial? What if we decide that what’s going on is going on spiritually? We are not supposed to think that because that’s not what science tells us. Science isn’t going to tell us what’s “going on” in any but a materliasitc framework. So the reductionist view has so truncated reality that it dictates the disappearance of a whole aspect of reality embraced by the vast majority of people to suit the ideological framework put in place by a tiny elite who want us to accept their values as facts. This is the bias we set in place just by reducing the field of ethics to scientific proof.
            There is another troubling aspect to Harris’s take on science and ethics. Brain Earp, Research Associate, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics tells us that Harris tries to subsume ethics under the banner of science.[11] We can see that in the wording of Harris’s argument. In saying that science is about finding “what’s going on the universe” that pretty much subsumes everything that isn’t excluded form existence. Earp talks about a lecture that Harris gave at Oxford, hosted by Richard Dawkins, called ““Who says science has nothing to say about morality?” When prompted by Dawkins interview that he was going up against questions with which moral philosophers had grappled for centuries Harris said: “Well, I actually think that the frontier between science and philosophy actually doesn’t exist… Philosophy is the womb of the sciences. The moment something becomes experimentally tractable, then the sciences bud off from philosophy. And every science has philosophy built into it. So there is no partition in my mind.”[12] If there is no ground between philosophy and science then he’s subsuming ethics under the banner of science and there need be no difficulty. The problem is he’s not content to just allow philosophy to continue doing it’s thing, he wants to take over its ground but then impose his reduction and re-label everything and replace real moral philosophy with ideology (see the C.D. Board quote above). He takes out moral reasoning and replaces it with reduction to numbers. Imposes a surreptitious value system in the guise of “facts,” and replaces duty and obligation with teleological thinking. This view is supposed to carry the assurance of being factual proof of what’s “going on in the universe” yet this just transgresses one of the basic concepts of modern thought. This is a problem sometimes referred to as “Hume’s Fork”[13] but more commonly called ‘the is-ought problem.’
The Is-Ought-Dichotomy
            The “is-ought” problem tells us that we can’t derive what should be just from a description of what is. If we look at what Harris is saying, he’s really not doing that although he wants us to think he is. He thinks it’s possible to do this just by being real accurate with the “is.” But he’s already reduced reality so it wont include transcendent ought. So he’s already hedged his bets against the argument. In reality there is no reason why we should accept that the “ought” is already in place and that it’s already a given that pleasant physical circumstances as outcome are the only valid good available. This has not been established by anything. It’s just an assertion that is put in the position to be a default given that alternatives are ruled out ideologically. There’s nothing about biological facts that establish an “ought.” We might show that religious belief has harmed more people than Polio (perhaps) but if true that still would not tell us why it’s wrong to do so. Harris’s basic answer to this argument is that people who make such criticisms have too narrow a concept of science. “Science simply represents our best effort to understand what’s going on in the universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn.”[14]  That is his answer to the issue of is-ought, basically no answer at all. What difference does it make if it is out best efforts (which I doubt)? Best efforts don’t change is to ought. What difference does it make if we broaden our scope of understanding for science? What he’s really saying is that science is the only true ethics. In saying that, he’s clearing the way to replace real ethical thinking with the reductionist ideology that makes up his understanding of science. All the scientific precision there is can’t turn “is” into “ought”—there is simply no reason why facts by themselves represent what should be. As Philosopher Robert Nozick tells us:
Ethical truths find no place within the contemporary scientific picture of the world. No such truths are established in any scientific theory or tested by any scientific procedure—michrascopes and telescopes reveal no ethical facts. In the guise of a complete picture of the world, science seems to leave no room for any ethical facts. What kind of facts are these, what makes them hold true?[15]
Brain Earp, again tells us:
Example. It’s a fact that rape occurs in nature — among chimpanzees, for instance; and there are some evolutionary arguments to explain its existence in humans and non-humans alike. But this fact tells us exactly nothing about whether it’s OK to rape people. This is because “natural” doesn’t entail “right” (just as “unnatural” doesn’t necessarily mean wrong) — indeed, the correct answer is that it’s not OK, and this is a judgment we make at the interface of moral philosophy and common sense: it’s not an output of science.
The domain of science is to describe nature, and then to explain its descriptions in terms of deeper patterns or laws. Science cannot tell us how to live. It cannot tell us right and wrong. If a system of thought claims to be doing those things, it cannot be science. If a scientist tells you she has some statements about how you ought to behave, they cannot be scientific statements, and the lab-coat is no longer speaking as a scientist. Questions about “How should we live?” — for better or worse — fall outside the purview of “objective” science. We have to sort them out, messily, by ourselves.[16]
If the current state of affairs (what is) is the basis of what should be than political repression and backward understanding of the environment and focus on short term needs only, as well as greed and even cruelty must be what should be. That certainly sums up what is as far as life on earth goes.
            Rachels defends ethical naturalism against the “is-ought” argument and his defense is a bit more involved than Harris’s. He argues that evaluative conclusions can sometimes be drawn from factual premises. His example is if the only difference between doing  A and not doing A is a child will suffer intense prolonged pain, then it’s better not to do A.[17] Wait, this in principle no different than Harris’s answer and it’s based upon the same “trick.” I use the term advisedly because they may not intend to trick, but they are tricking themselves because there is a clearly a value that’s being inserted into the process that is kept unspoken and asserted as though the it’s the only valid conclusion that comes form the nature of the case but it’s clearly loaded at the front before the example is made. The idea that doing is wrong because all other things being equal it would result in the pain of a child assume form the outset that our values are such that paining children is wrong. This is fraught with a host of assumptions: that there is a right and wrong, that children are more innocent than adults, that it’s wrong to harm the innocent, that’s more wrong to harm the innocent than the not so innocent, and so on. Yes, these are values with which we all agree. There is, however, no evidence that they are arrived at logically as a result of some magic transmutation of “is” into “ought.” Rather the “ought” is assumed form the beginning, it is loaded into the example, otherwise why use a child? The basis of those values is ot proved by this example to be logically derived from the nature of the case but could well be derived from fine feelings or a sense of right intuited from the Spirit or any number of things. It’s use as an emotional ploy suggests the flaw in using it, because it suggests a value already built in. He also argues that beliefs are tied to motivations, those stem from behavior and that is based upon “is,” upon the factual nature of the human psyche and other situations that are derived from the nature of the case.[18] Yes it is undeniable that an evocation of ethical duty or obligation must revolve around actual facts rather than mere abstracts or there is no actual ethical concern. That in no way means that the “ought” is derived form the mere facts of the nature of the case apart form the value systems employed to evaluate them.
            Value systems make up the basis of ethical thinking. Intrinsic value is what supplies the reason for action in ethics.[19] Ethics is about what we do, how we live, as a result of examining our actions in relation to our values. We all agree that pleasant outcome; absence of pain is a good thing.[20] Yet we believe for different reasons. The reductionists try to justify it as an outgrowth of survival instinct, the Christian as an expression of God’s love. It matters which way we do it because the decision is ultimately the expression of a value system, that decision will determine how we decide our actions. If we write off human values as merely the opinions of a different set of mammals, if we say “o well marmoset actions are marmoset ethics,” that’s all it is just the way a different set of organisms spins the survival mode, then we might wind up justifying a whole set of dehumanizing actions. If we are led down the garden path by the priests of knowledge and taught to think of these dehumanizing actions as merely a means to an end, we may lose the human values that would enable us to regret such actions. Behind what might seem like split hairs lurk the justifications and rationalizations for destructive and dehumanizing decisions. One could see, for example, rationalizing loss of freedom by an appeal to concrete nature of the outcome and there fleeting transitory nature of the “merely human” value of freedom. The space between is and “ought” must be kept in order not to sanctify what “is.” The danger is too great that deriving “ought” from “is” will produce a way of thinking about “is” that forever links it with “ought.”


  [1]James Rachels, “Naturalism” pdf,  accessed 5/27/13. Originally published in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, Hugh Lafollette, ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, 74-91, 2.
  [2]Ibid. 2
  [4]Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values.” New York: Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2010, 28.
  [5]Ibid. 28 (emphasis his).
  [6]Ibid 28
  [7]One difference in being a utilitarian as opposed to a general consequendtilsit would be that the utilitarian. would be that the utilitarian has the dictum of “greatest good for the greatest number.” Whereas a consequentialist who is not a utilitarian my try to forgo that idea.
  [8]Ibid., 28
  [9]Ibid., 30
  [10]Ibid., 33
  [11]Brain Earp, “Sam Harris is Wrong About Science and Morality,” Practical Ethics, ethics in the news, blog, University of Oxford, Nov. 17, 2011.  accessed 5/21/2013
The Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics  is at Oxford it’s a major think tank that deals with modern concerns of ethics and science.
 [12] Ibid.
 [13]“Hume’s fork” really refers to several things that all fall under the general category of “synthetic and a pripori.” The is-ought dichotomy falls under this rue brick in the sense that it’s a juxtaposition of a practical empirical sate of affairs “the is” vs a an ideal transcendent concept (the ought). The “is/ought” problem originally appears Hume’s  Treatise on Human Nature, book III, part I, section 1.
  [14]Harris, Ibid., 29.
  [15]Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, Mass.: Bellknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1981, 399.
  [16]Earp, Ibid.
  [17]Rachels, Ibid., 4.
  [18]Ibid., 6.
  [19]Robin Attfield, Value, Obligation and Meta-Ethics, Amsterdam, Atlanta, Georgia: Editions Rodopi  B.V. Value Inquiry Book Series,1995, 29

  [20]Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, Mass.: Bellknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1981, 399.


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