What if Value were just Fact about brain-states?

The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris, is the latest assault by the "new atheists" on their favourite targets. But does it offer anything beyond classical utilitarianism?

What would our values be if we lived in a society structured according to a universal and scientifically-guided moral code? Sam Harris does not exactly answer this question in his new book The Moral Landscape, but argues that science (and only science) can uncover moral truths. Science regularly raises awkward moral questions, but the claim that it can solve some of them is surprising and radical.

Harris— neuroscientist, philosopher and New Atheist—says the Moral Landscape is a response to  critics of his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith – religious conservatives who look to God for moral guidance. It is also a criticism of the moral relativism of secular liberals, who “tend to imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist”. Harris believes that both are wrong: there are right and wrong answers to moral questions and that these should be discovered through scientific investigation.  Universal moral truths exist, and as they become apparent our diverse beliefs will converge to form a universal morality.

Hume’s distinction between facts and values - “no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us about how we ought to behave (morality),” - is really an illusion, Harris says. Morality is ultimately about ensuring the wellbeing of conscious creatures – this is a statement of what morality demonstrably, empirically is according to Harris, not what it ought to be. There is no gap for him that allows the insertion of the problematic Humean distinction. Not only are moral ends empirically given, wellbeing is something that can be measured empirically. “Human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain,” Harris says. “The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values”.     

From a set of scientific facts we should, in theory, be able to calculate which moral values lead to greater or lesser wellbeing. Things that are morally right and good enhance wellbeing; things that are wrong and bad diminish it. Morality becomes a scientific formula with parameters that can be optimized to achieve maximum societal wellbeing.

Translating morality into a scientific equation can be problematic, however. Harris' vision shares many similarities with a utilitarian approach, replacing pleasure with wellbeing. But even if we gloss over the fact/value problem and accept a basically utilitarian framework, there will still always be a tension between individual wellbeing and the collective wellbeing of a society. If morality is about the wellbeing of conscious creatures, what is the moral status of individuals who are in a vegetative state, under general anesthesia, or simply sleeping? If a drug existed that could pharmacologically enhance feelings of wellbeing in the brain, would it be our moral duty to make this drug widely available?  Are the sources of wellbeing consistent across cultures? Does it enhance wellbeing to view wellbeing as the end of humanity, or might Harris be, in some practical sense, self-defeating? Harris acknowledges some of these problems, but does little to engage with the philosophical debate surrounding these isuses.

A “moral landscape” arises from this equation because there could be many ways of achieving wellbeing – peaks on the moral landscape. Harris concedes that there could be equivalent but different approaches to maximizing wellbeing. It is possible to imagine that science could map this moral landscape, determining which human behaviours and values lead to the greatest wellbeing or suffering. It is not obvious, however, that science is uniquely equipped to advocate which of these peaks a society should strive to reach, but Harris clearly sees this role for scientists: “we can convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behaviour in the name of “morality” to break these commitments and to live better lives”. Fine - but there is a political and public process implicit to all of this whose surface Harris does not scratch.

This empirically-determined moral landscape would be quite different from the set of moral intuitions that we have inherited through human evolution. “We must continually remind ourselves that there is a difference between what is natural and what is actually good for us… Evolution may have selected for territorial violence, rape, and other patently unethical behaviours as strategies to propagate one’s genes – but our collective wellbeing clearly depends on our opposing such normal tendencies”.

Harris is persuasive in arguing that we should not trust these intuitions for moral guidance. He points to studies – including some of his own – that show that the brain uses a number of mental shortcuts, cognitive biases that can lead to illogical or flawed decisions to more complex moral dilemmas. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt's research has shown that rather than reasoning through a moral problem, we tend to make up our minds first, and justify our decisions later. When logical inconsistencies are pointed out, we are very resistant to modifying our initial judgement, and a “moral dumbfounding” occurs instead.

Emotion, social and cultural factors influence our judgement. Our concern for human suffering, for example, is heightened when it is focused on a single individual, but diminishes, rather than grows, as the scale and breadth of suffering increases. We are happy to sacrifice one person to save another dozen when it involves pushing a button remotely, but not not if we are required to directly participate in the person's death.

The medial prefrontal cortex is implicated in the mental processing of belief and morality. This brain region is active in deliberate and rational thinking, but also in emotion, reward and self-relevance. Our moral intuitions are, Harris says, neurologically inseparable from emotion.

Cognitive processing in the medial prefrontal cortex does not differentiate between fact and value statements either, which Harris says confirms that no distinction between the two exists. This claim is somewhat undermined, however, by his many examples of the flawed and irrational nature of the brain: what are these if not cases where the fact of moral intuition runs counter to the values that we have?

Where our intuition fails, Harris is clear that we should not rely on religion for moral guidance. “Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.” Religion is certainly no better at promoting human wellbeing, and he lists the religious practices that contribute to human suffering: corporal punishment, female genital mutilation, jihad, the wearing of burqas, banning contraception and gay marriage, among others. He is critical of scientists who believe that science and religion are compatible, can coexist, or who try to reconcile their faith with science.

So what would a scientific moral code look like? Harris is careful to distinguish between what can be known in principle from what can be known in practice. Wellbeing is a growing field of research, however, one which is increasingly influencing social policy, and his discussion of what we could expect to learn about human wellbeing in practice – the possibilities and limitations – is too brief. Cooperation, altruism, emotional bonding and a sense of control over one's life enhance wellbeing, he says. Poverty, loneliness and emotional neglect diminish it.  

We forget that scientific facts are so often counterintuitive – quantum physics, organic chemistry and genetics, for example, describe very different perspectives of the universe than the one we perceive and experience ourselves – and there is no reason to suspect that wellbeing research would be an exception. One wonders how Harris would respond to new findings that contradict his assumptions about what constitutes the good life. What is inspiring about The Moral Landscape is his conviction that we can transcend our fallible moral intuitions, and adopt new values informed by science and rational thought. But, as Harris has himself acknowledged, this is uphill work: human beings are inherently reluctant to change their beliefs.  


About the author

Rachael Panizzo is a biologist and a volunteer author at BioNews the charity and publication whose aim is to provide balanced and timely  comment on genetics, assisted conception, embryo/stem cell research and related areas.