“The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”

“The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”

by Ian Kluge

In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Sam Harris endeavors to demonstrate that science is sufficient to build a system of ethics and values both for individuals and societies.

His ultimate goal is actually two-fold. He wants to establish science as the only rational and self-sufficient basis of ethics and he wants to eliminate religion and ‘supernaturalism’ from all ethical discourse. In doing so, he takes six radical steps.

  1. He rejects the distinction between facts and values.1
  2. Next, he asserts that “questions about values . . . are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures”2 and that “Values . . . translate into facts which can be scientifically understood.”3
  3. He professes “moral realism”4—the position that there are definitive right and wrong answers to ethical questions, at least in principle.
  4. He advocates consequentialism as the only viable moral theory5 .
  5. On the basis of neuroscience, he rejects free will6 as commonly understood both in the past and present.
  6. Finally, he posits an irreconcilable “clash between faith and reason.”7 Of course, he also promotes one-sided views about the disastrous personal and social impact of religion, but this is secondary to his main goal of replacing religion with science as the foundation of ethical thought and action.

Harris’ argument is highly problematic, often unclear, and flawed in conception and explanation. Much of the problem lies in the oversimplification of the subject matter and the issues involved, and the failure to think them through carefully.  For example, the relationship of facts to values is not as straightforward as he presents it; nor is consequentialism—his preferred ethical system—nor his theory of values. Furthermore, his attempt to use science and especially neuroscience as a way of deciding what is or is not ethical is confused. As we shall observe, this oversimplified and confused thinking leads Harris into severe difficulties that collapse his argument.

Sam Harris

Let us begin by examining Harris’ claim that “science can determine human values”. Superficially, the answer seems clear enough: if “values  . . . translate into facts which can be scientifically understood”8 then we only need to know the scientific facts of a case in order to know what we should do. In this strong interpretation of Harris’ position, science alone is sufficient to give us moral directions.

This is untenable. There are countless moral quandaries no amount of scientific information can solve, not even in principle. Here are a few examples. Is it ethical to torture a terrorist who has vital information that could save thousands? Should I cheat on my spouse? Was it moral to bomb German civilians (killing 650,000 to 1 million) during WW II? Is plea-bargaining just? Is it immoral to perform vivisection on unanesthetized humans or animals? We can all think of countless examples in which scientific facts are incapable of telling us what we should do, i.e. what is moral. Science is helpless here, because these are not scientific questions and, therefore, have no scientific answers, i.e. answers based on the criteria of the scientific method: quantification, physicality, objectivity, repeatability, and falsifiability. Even the neuroscience and brain scans on which Harris relies so heavily are useless in these cases. How could a brain-scan show our deep sense of well-being in vivisecting unanesthetized cats is morally good or bad?  As noted above, the kind of knowledge and knowing that characterizes science is different from the kind of knowledge and knowing that is required for ethical decision making.

Oddly enough, Harris shows his own confusion when he admits, “Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health.”9 If science cannot tell us why we should value something as scientifically measurable as health, it is clear that science cannot tell us why we should value anything as a “good”. In short, science cannot give us moral guidance. The reason why is clear: the imperative mode—what we should do, what we must do to be moral—is an intrinsic part of ethics, and science does not function in the imperative mode except in a secondary sense. Once we have decided that a certain goal is ethically good, science can sometimes prescribe better or worse ways to attain it. However, science cannot tell us whether our initial choice itself is ethically good, i.e. is imperative for us.

Unfortunately for Harris and the new atheists, that initial choice is exactly the crux of the debate about ethics and science. If science cannot give us moral guidance about our initial choices, the main argument of The Moral Landscape fails.

An example will clarify the point. If I decide to murder my best friend, science cannot demonstrate that my initial choice of murder is morally evil. What experiment could even begin to show that murdering a friend is wrong i.e. something I am obligated not to do? What can science tell me about the intrinsic value of honesty, loyalty, respect for life and appreciation of person? However, science can tell me that my choice of chemical X is poor and that compound Y is better. To give a less extreme example: science cannot tell me if it is morally good to give a food bank. It can show me the advantages to the users, but it cannot show why I should care about those impoverished users—that is, why it is imperative that I do so. Here, too, neuroscience and brain scans are utterly useless in making the initial moral decision.

Harris’ confused thinking also dogs his argument that facts and values “can no longer be kept apart.”10 This causes two problems for him. The first is a basic self-contradiction. Historically, facts and values have not always been kept apart. The whole natural law tradition that dominated Western civilization and especially Christian philosophy until Hume in the 18th century was based on the premise that natural facts could prescribe what behaviors were moral or immoral, i.e. natural or unnatural. For example, homosexuality was deemed unnatural and, therefore, immoral because, among other things, the divinely ordained natural requirements of reproduction and facts of anatomy directed us away from such behaviors. Given Harris’ antipathy for religion, it is self-contradictory for him to advocate a view that has been a foundation-stone of religious thought for millennia. By his own standards, and notwithstanding his anti-religious rhetoric, religion has, in this area at least, done something positive that he wants to imitate.

The second problem traps Harris on the horns of a dilemma. It has been a staple of Western philosophy since Hume that facts cannot provide values. We can never go from an “is” to an “ought.” Because something is the case does not necessarily mean it ought to be the case. For example, because children often bully other children does not mean they ought to. Facts by themselves are not imperatives.

But can they be? Certainly, and here Harris is correct as far as he goes. The problem is, he does not go far enough. Facts can provide imperatives if and only if they are placed into a context in which a framework of meaning is already pre-established, in which a prior standard of good already exists. And this is exactly what religion does. Natural law holds that the universe is created by God Whose work is intrinsically good, and that each thing has an essence which has its appropriate ways of acting. Natural law refers to the actions appropriate to each kind of essence. For example, it is a fact that scorpions poison other creatures and doing so is the appropriate expression of their essence, i.e. it is good in itself although bad in relationship to man.11 With humankind the situation is more complex because humans have free will (pace, Harris) and can choose to behave in ways that are not appropriate to their essence. It is a fact, for example, that humans eat and doing so is good. However, it is also a fact that humans overeat but this is not a moral good, because it violates our essence as a “rational soul.”12 Immoderate eating is a fact but it is not a moral good.

In these examples, we observe how facts give rise to values—but only if the facts are placed in a meaningful religious context in which the standard of good is pre-established and if the good is guaranteed by God, Whose authority transforms a fact into an imperative, a should.

However, this will not work with the strictly empirical, scientific framework Harris advocates. Who is there to translate or sublimate any fact into an imperative, an obligation, a should? If we try to do this individually or by social consensus we will end with countless clashes of opinion and the moral relativism which Harris seeks to overcome with his “moral realism.”13 If we try to claim that somehow values are intrinsic to the empirical facts, we open the door to supernaturalism. Such a claim implies that the scientifically established facts have aspects that cannot be shown scientifically, e.g. by means of quantification, empirical observation, repeatability and falsifiability. In other words, the values somehow attached to the empirical facts exist beyond natural observation and verification. This is not far removed from Platonic idealism, and theism, in which God also has non-empirical existence. This leaves Harris with a choice he seeks to avoid: he can embrace moral relativism or he can embrace supernaturalism—but on the basis of his own argument, he must accept one or the other.

Harris attempts to escape this dilemma by asserting that “questions about values . . . are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures”14 and that “[v]alues . . . translate into facts which can de scientifically understood.”15 In other words, if we scientifically study the behavioral and other consequences of a value or imperative that has been acted upon, we can observe and verify objectively which values are better or more conducive to well-being. In that case “good [is] that which supports well-being.”16 As Harris admits “[d]efining goodness in this way does not resolve all questions of value”17 but it does make clear for us that values are “the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being.”18 In this way he hopes to establish a standard of value that is immanent within the phenomenal world and does not need any supernatural agency or reference to decide what is right or wrong.

Even Harris knows this is highly problematic, admitting that this approach “leaves the question of what constitutes well-being genuinely open.”19 But if that is the case, then Harris’ project in The Moral Landscape fails: if science cannot provide a definitive concept of well-being, how are we to judge the consequences of an action? How can science be used as a guide to identify the moral good we are obligated to seek in both ends and means? How are we to know if the value and associated action are good? Clearly a theory of ethics that fails on these points is not a very useful theory of ethics—if it is a theory of ethics at all.

Furthermore, if science cannot exclude other definitions of well-being, then at the very least Harris re-opens the door to the moral relativism he detests, i.e. conflicting definitions of well-being without any decisive criteria for arbitrating among them. Aristotle or Marx? Stoicism or Sartrean existentialism? There is no way of choosing. Even more appalling from a new atheist viewpoint, is that religious concepts of well-being of man as a natural and spiritual being may re-enter the debate. After all, since there are no decisive criteria for arbitration and exclusion, on what rational basis can we bar them?

Similar to the lack of a decisive criterion for judgment among concepts of well-being, is the problem of not having a criterion to decide whether Harris’ scientific definition of “well-being” is itself ethical. The moral goodness of this standard is simply asserted as a prior criterion of judgment. But why should we accept this? What imperative is there to do so? Sanctioned by way of what authority? Harris leaves us no more than a bare assertion. By contrast, the Bahá’í Writings, for example, base the approval of well-being on man’s existence as an image of God, and the appropriateness of honoring our Creator by honoring His highest creation. Although this answer, too, may be subject to questions, unlike Harris’ consequentialism, it solves the basic problems of all ethical systems regarding what we should do, why we should do it and by whose sanction or authority it is done.

Harris’ reliance on neuroscience and brain scans is  insufficient because, in ethics, they key question is ‘Are these things right, good, appropriate?’ not ‘Do they feel good?’ He is in danger of conflating ethics with comfort. “If it feels good, do it” is a dangerous moral guide.

As Kant already understood in The Critique of Practical Reason, a purely immanent and phenomenal ethics cannot work. God, even if we cannot prove His ontological existence, must at least be postulated. We need at least a postulated theism to provide a context or framework that makes value judgments possible by telling us what we should do and why and by lending these answers authority. At this point, it is clear that scientific understanding alone cannot tell us whether the value or its factual results are moral or not. No amount of quantifiable, repeatable, experimentally verifiable and falsifiable data can tell what we should or should not do and why. Harris’s attempt to  construct a purely immanent and phenomenal ethics is unsuccessful.

One of Harris’ major goals is to avoid moral relativism by a position known as “moral realism.”20 According to this position, there are definitive and demonstrable rights and wrongs. By virtue of the universality of humankind’s physical and psychological makeup, these rights and wrongs are valid at all times and across all cultures.21 For example, female circumcision is bad for well-being and therefore immoral no matter when or where it is practiced. So-called explanations and justifications based on culture are irrelevant since—like individuals—cultures and societies can go awry, i.e. depart from well-being and the good. On the other hand, education in all its aspects is morally good because it enhances well-being. Human brains feel and do better when actualizing their potentials. Here again, Harris finds himself in agreement with many if not all religions which also espouse “moral realism.” The Bahá’í Faith, for example, holds that certain basic ethical principles are universal in virtually all faiths and cultures and form the basis for a unified world religion.

The problem with Harris’ version of moral realism is not that it is wrong but that it cannot be based on a view restricting itself to the phenomenal world of scientific knowledge.

By now it is evident that Harris’ suggestion of judging the morality of a value or act by the degree well-being it creates is an ethical theory known as consequentialism,22 the belief that “the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures.”23 Moral acts are those leading to the experience of well-being. Our experience of well-being in ethical issues is important because “[w]ithout potential consequences at the level of experience—happiness, suffering, joy, despair etc.—all talk of value is empty.”24

We have already seen some of the problems inherent in consequentialism, e.g. how are we to decide that the joy we feel—maybe by boiling lobsters alive—is moral? In other words, by itself, our experience is no guide as to what we should or should not do. This does not mean our experience is irrelevant in ethical considerations, it only means that our experience is insufficient to decide the morality of immorality of a value or act. And that is one of the downfalls of Harris’ consequentialism: it cannot do what he needs it to do—give us criteria for deciding which consequences determine right action. Large numbers of people—not just psychopaths—experience a measurable sense of well-being doing destructive and self-destructive things. Think of dog, cock, bull or hockey fighting. Consider the gladiator combats of Rome or the WWE, in which destruction and/or injury are part of mass entertainment.

Because consequentialism is incomplete, it needs to augmented by something else, by some external ethical standard. That, of course, requires us to reflect on the advantages of other ethical systems such as Kant’s, and to reconsider the role of religion. However, in trying to reject religion, Harris faces a new problem: by the standards of the experience of well-being, there is no sure way to exclude religion because given his commitment to science, he has no way of actually knowing how great a sense of well-being was produced by religion in the past or present. Since religion continues to thrive despite its supposedly irrational nature, we can logically conclude that many find it provides an experience of well-being—and is, therefore a “good” by Harris’ own standards. Here, again, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Harris has not really thought out his position very carefully.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of The Moral Landscape is Harris’ rejection of free will.25 On the basis of neuroscience he claims that “[we] seem to be an agent acting of []our own free will”26 but in truth we are not, because we—our conscious selves—are not in control of our brain processes. Thus, we “cannot know what [we] will next think or do until a thought or intention arises.”27 Our conscious self only becomes aware of what our inner brain processes have already decided without being able to influence them. Any ‘influence’ is just a brain-state of which we will become aware later. We cannot even say that—somehow—our conscious selves can affect the next decision because our conscious intentions are also brain-states capable of interacting with other brain-states. There are at least three reasons for our impotence in this regard: we have no way of knowing when these ‘decisions’ are being made by processes unknown to us; we can never know how decisive our conscious intervention is or even if our ‘interventions’ are being used at all. They may be off-set by other brain-states for all we know.

The philosophical name for Harris’ position is ‘epiphenomenalism’ which maintains that conscious states are by-products of physical brain processes over which the conscious “I” has no influence. According to Harris, “each of us is like a phenomenological glockenspiel played by an unseen hand”28 of which we are wholly ignorant and over which we, therefore, have no control. At most, “[t]he phrase ‘free will’ describes what it feels like to be identified with the content of each thought as it arises in consciousness.”29

This view has one obvious consequence: it comes perilously close to a computer model of human nature in which persons or personalities are reduced to a series of brain-states just as the output of a computer is no more than a series of CPU-states the results of which flash on the ‘screen of consciousness.’ (To argue that we can influence the CPU-states by manipulating icons on the screen is problematic because it assumes there is an operator external to the computer, just as in religion there is an operator, called the soul or mind, external to the body. Harris wants us to avoid the dualism of brain/computer and the soul/mind operator.) We cannot discuss all the difficulties inherent in the computer model of human nature, but suffice it for now that it is self-defeating to argue for the value of human persons and personalities on the basis of such a reductionism. This undermines the new atheist goal of wanting a world with greater respect for persons.

Given Harris’ epiphenomenalism it is difficult to see how a meaningful concept of free will—and the attendant concepts of choice and responsibility—could survive to become the basis of any kind of ethical theory, consequentialist or otherwise: How can our choices be morally good or bad if our conscious selves cannot really make them?

Furthermore, in what sense can we be held responsible for decisions made before we even became aware of them, and consequently, what is the point of setting criteria for distinguishing the good we should do from the evil which we should not? If we cannot control our brain-states, how can we consciously choose to follow or not follow these criteria?

What is painfully clear is that Harris’ attempt to re-build ethics on a purely scientific foundation leads to the destruction of the very idea of ethics itself—a result that should warn us about the intrinsic shortcomings and dangers in the new atheists’ uncritical faith in science’s ability to solve all human problems. Undermining the very possibility of ethics and by extension, the concept of legal responsibility is certainly not in the interests of humankind.

At some level, Harris seems aware of this problem because he tries to salvage the situation by telling us our “decisions, intentions, goals willpower etc. are causal states of the brain leading to specific behaviors.”30 By this he means that as brain-states our intentions, for example, matter—but this is in flat contradiction to his earlier statement that we “cannot know what [we] will next think or do until a thought or intention arises.”31 Therefore, any intention we are conscious of forming has already been formed by unknown brain states.32 In that case, what influence does the conscious “I” with which we identify ourselves have over the formation of the intention?

Moreover, if this “I” has no influence, how can it be our intention, and consequently, how can there be free will? Furthermore, if the intention is not really ours (I’m not guilty—my brain did it!) how can we speak of moral responsibility—which must be consciously and personally ours—if the concept of responsibility is to mean anything? That is why in law courts the ability to consciously form intent is such a crucial issue in establishing responsibility. Here again, we see that if personal responsibility is undermined or eliminated, the very possibility of ethics and law slips away—and  that is exactly what has happened to Harris in The Moral Landscape. The potential results of his position are disastrous for both individuals and societies.

Finally, Harris posits an irreconcilable “clash between faith and reason”33 and argues that it is imperative for reason to triumph for the well-being of humankind. What he means, of course, is that he wishes for the triumph of his preferred concept of reason as defined by the scientific method and limited to empirical data immanent to the phenomenal world. However, as the foregoing review has shown, in ethics at least, this triumph would lead to severe difficulties, not the least of which is the destruction of ethics itself.

Let us take a few moments to evaluate his claim that reason and faith inherently clash. The historical record is not nearly as one-sided as new atheist accounts would have us believe. Against such examples as Bruno, Galileo and others, we have the work such great philosophers as Aquinas, Scotus, Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Nagarjuna, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, and Whitehead to name only some of the most stellar examples. Their intellectual ideas and/or traditions are still flourishing today. Anyone who has actually read these authors—and not merely read about them—will realize how closely faith and painstaking logical reasoning work together in the analysis not just of (and from) scripture, but of all kinds of ideas in ontology and metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of man, philosophical psychology, logic and reasoning, and social philosophy. It is improbable that anyone can actually read them without realizing there is no ground for thinking that faith necessarily and intrinsically excludes reason. When such exclusions happen, they are the result of humans erecting artificial barriers between them, a practice that leads to poor results whether it be faith excluding reason or reason excluding faith. Besides, as we have seen above, excluding religion or faith is more difficult than it would appear, even when we philosophize from a strictly immanent point of view.

This is not to say there are no branches of some religions that diminish reason and make unreflective belief in the experience of salvation their supreme goal, but these are parts of the entire phenomenon of religion and do not represent the whole. The Bahá’í Faith, for example, defines faith as being “first, conscious knowledge and second the practice of good deeds.”34 In other words it is possible that religions can be informed by a reflective rather than a pre-reflective concept of faith. In the Western Christian tradition that is exactly what such thinkers as Aquinas, Scotus, and Leibniz do, i.e. they practice reflective faith. Bahá’ís are told to do no less in the doctrine of the independent investigation of truth. It appears, therefore, that Harris’ insistence on the antipathy between faith and reason is based on a very selective reading of humankind’s religious history.

What, then, are we to conclude about The Moral Landscape? In my view, it is important for one major reason: it shows that when the new atheist ideology is focused one area—in this case, ethics—its arguments are neither intellectually powerful nor, at least in this book, carefully thought through. In ethics, the strictly scientific approach reveals its severe, often logically insurmountable shortcomings even in this rather cursory review. If the new atheists want to present an intellectually persuasive case for abandoning religious-based ethics, they are going to have to do better than Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.

============== citations ============

1 Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, p. 10, 14, 144.; 2 Harris, p. 1 ; 3 Harris, p. 1. ; 4 Harris, p. 2. ; 5 Harris, p. 62.; 6 Harris, p. 102. ; 7 Harris, p. 158; 8 Harris, p. 1. ; 9 Harris, p. 36; original emphasis; 10 Harris, p. 10.; 11 Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 263. ; 12 Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 208. ;  Harris, p. 62. ; 14 Harris, p. 1 ;  Harris, p. 1. ; 16 Harris, p. 12. 17 Harris, p. 12. ; 18 Harris, p. 12. ; 19 Harris, p. 12. 20 Harris, p. 2. ; 21 Donald Brown, Human Universals. ; 22 Harris, p. 62. ; 23 Harris, p. 62.; 24 Harris, p. 62. ; 25 Harris, p. 102. ; 26 Harris, p. 102; emphasis added. Also, p. 103, 105.  ; 27 Harris, p. 103; 28 Harris, p. 104. ; 29 Harris, p. 105; 30 Harris, p. 105. ; 31 Harris, p. 103; emphasis added. ; 32 Harris, p. 106. ; 33 Harris, p. 158. ; 34 Bahá’í World Faith, p. 383.

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11 thoughts on ““The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”

  1. “I’m not guilty—my brain did it!” Surely this is the ultimate in buck-passing and I appreciate your treatment of the issues Harris’ reasoning raises when he posits that we are merely the product of our brain-states.

    What complications of ethical and legal definitions would arise if we adopt this scientific “fact”? I think it also requires us to consider how this blurs the line between science as a process for discovery and scientism as a belief system.

    Is this not the flip-side of taking a work of scripture—the book of Genesis say—as a scientific treatise? in other words, isn’t Harris conflating science with belief?

  2. Thanks Ian Kluge for saving me the time. I’m no brilliant philosopher but I can tell right away that this guy’s premise is severly flawed. “Science” has been used to justify the enslaving of black men and the mass execution of Jews. That fact alone disqualifies it as a benchmark for “values”. While religion also has been used by twisted men throughout the ages to support their own greedy ambitions, the evil conditions resulting from man’s distortions of revealed knowledge have eventually been corrected by a return to religious principle. It appears to me that evil mis-applications of science have also been thwarted first by a retun to religious principle, not by a revision in the text books.
    I heard once of a man who walked backwards like a drum major before the marching band. He could clearly see everything he had already bumped into but nothing he was about to. “Watch out for that” he’d yell. Harris reminds me of that guy. He thinks he’s leading the parade, but the others can actually see the road ahead. Eventually, he’ll miss a turn and drop out of sight.

  3. Harris’ most basic problem is his inability to realize that he covertly pre-supposes the values he wants to extract from science, i.e. he assumes what he seeks to prove. Science can tell us a great deal about the best way to achieve certain results but it cannot tell us (a) whether the results are worth achieving and (b) whether we are obligated to achieve those results. The engineers who designed the gas chambers at Auschwitz did so with the best scientific knowledge available; unfortunately science could not tell them whether or not such chambers should have been built in the first place. Science – no matter how advanced – could not tell them of about their moral obligations.

    Interestingly enough, Harris also uses an atheist version of the ‘god-of-the-gaps- argument, on this case a ‘no-god-of -the-gaps.’ He says that even if today science cannot tell us all the moral details, science, especially neuroscience will be able to do so in the future. But he never explains how any activity meeting the criteria of science, e.g. quantifiability etc, could give us such information even in principle. It would be nice to see even a suggestion for one scientific experiment to show why I should. i.e. why I am obligated to call an ambulance for an injured neighbor. How would we study moral obligation without reducing it to financial or legal liability – which is something altogether different?

  4. This from a respondent on Facebook named Helge Moulding.

    Helge writes: Moral behavior is mostly the Golden Rule, right? I don’t know where people get this Brave New World stuff from.

    There are two ways to look at morals: received rules, and derived rules. We already know where received rules get us: nowhere. That leaves derived rules, which means we need to rely on science and reason. There’s nothing else.

    And she referred us to her review of “Wilson’s book “Consilience.” http://hmoulding.bravehost.com/bookrv60.html

  5. I read Helge’s review of EO Wilson’s book. There’s one comment that I found intriguing. She notes that Wilson opines that there are externally imposed laws and derived laws and that “any of the external laws are in fact deeply flawed, based as they are on tribalism and superstitions.”

    But, unless one believes in a God, these “external” laws, too, are derived from human nature, are they not? In other words, if there is no God, then all rules are derived rules. All rules come from us.

    If there is a God, then the question is: why would His laws be based on tribalism and superstition which are facets of human nature?

  6. On a broader note: The most important ethical consideration in science is service. To the extent that science is dedicated – to the needs of the age we live in and centers its deliberations on its exigencies and requirements – (‘Abdu’l-Baha) with urgency and zeal then it is ethical. When it fails to do so either by commission or omission then I submit that it is un-ethical. This does not constitute an endorsement of applied science over basic science, only a recognition that the direction taken by science is a reflection of the subset of individuals who practice it. From them come the ethics (or lack thereof) which infuse it. Therefore, awareness of the needs (i.e. the extent of disease, malnutrition, poverty, violence, environmental degradation, ignorance, etc.) and the urgency(vs. apathy), strategic planning(vs. mismanagement), cooperation(vs. competition) and purity of motive (vs. greed) in addressing those needs is at the core of the ethics in science. All other questions (i.e. whether or not to splice a segment of horse DNA with that of a mouse) will fall into context.

    1. Some other ethical considerations that scientists talk about in addition to service are a dedication to truth, honesty (how can you correctly evaluate things if you are not honest?), perseverance, and sharing of what has been learned.

      Is service the most important? I would point to a diversity of activities that occur in science with service one of them, and of course I’m endorsing a widely-held view.

      For example, without scientists single-mindedly focusing on getting good results – and these people are often narrow-minded in their interests to the point of being asocial – what service would be possible. So, I would conclude that there are a diversity of ethical consideration, service being one of them.

      But, if you are offering an overall assessment on whether science is a good activity for humanity, then whether or not it is of service to humanity might be a metric.

  7. Attention religious people, you are programmed to disagree with what Sam Harris writes about. Take a moment to debate whether your religious biases are inhibiting your ability to read this book with an open mind. Surely you won’t be interested in whether this book may improve your understanding of the mind if you do not allow it. Unfortunately, it may take serious patience for you to read without hearing your own voices and opinions.

    Not a single person that has criticized this book has the ability to scientifically prove Sam wrong.

    Accept that you aren’t educated in neuroscience, and that you may benefit from learning more about it. Accept that Sam wants a peaceful, educated world.

    There must be some good in this book.

    1. Happier, I took more than a moment to debate my programming when I was about 19 and confused by the conflicting doctrines of the churches I’d been raised in and their basic conflict with the actual teachings of Christ that I could read by just picking up a Bible. I was programmed by my clergy to consider Christianity (meaning what they taught, not what Christ taught) the only way to know God. As I looked at the full spectrum of religious experience that my advisors denied had validity, I also considered the atheist viewpoint.

      To be frank, atheism is a philosophy I have considered and abandoned. It makes no sense to me for reasons that I’ve explored in some depth elsewhere on this website.

      Your comment is, besides being content-free, condescending and even insulting. You assume that because we are religious people we are programmed. You don’t ask us to consider the possibility that we are programmed, you simply state that we are. That strikes me as a rather dogmatic position. Perhaps you might consider why you hold it.

      Meanwhile, might you speak to some of the points that Ian raises in his review?

  8. Dear Happier Than God,

    My disappointment with your response is that it does not contain any specific points where you think I (the reviewer) or others are wrong and why. You seem content to characterize us in a certain stereo-typed way i.e. that for some reason we are incapable of reading what Harris says. That’s just a plain, old-fashioned ad hominem error of logic and proves absolutely nothing about anything. It’s a waste of time.

    You say that no person who has read and criticized The Moral Landscape “has the ability to scientifically prove Sam wrong.” Well, why don’t you point to a specific instance in my review or what others have said, and then we’ll see? I always enjoy a good debate because it’s an opportunity for me to learn.

    The problem with The Moral Landscape is that most of the time, Harris is not speaking as a neuro-scientist but as a philosopher reaching certain conclusions about ethics and meta-ethics regarding individuals and societies. Philosophy is one of his weak spots. In fact, the neuro-science is there only to support his philosophical conclusions which are the main point of his book. There is no logical reason why his philosophical conclusions are unchallengeable.

    The fact is that Harris’ conclusions do not necessarily and logically follow from his scientific premises . (THen there are his blatant self-contradictions.) It is possible to draw other philosophical conclusions from Harris’s philosophical interpretations of his data.

    There is nothing illegitimate in criticizing Harriss interpretation of his data. For example, in Free Will, his understanding of Libet’s experiment is readily questionable. Moreover, I remind you that the whole notion of identifying brain and mind is also one of on-going debate. It is easy to see you support the identity theory but that does not mean that there are no other viewpoints.

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