Sam Harris on The Moral Landscape (TED talk of the week)

Well, it finally happened.

In multiple posts in the past I have defended Sam Harris and his efforts towards a scientific morality. I have done this even though I have never seen him speak or read a word of his books. My reason for defending him is simple. I don’t defend him because I believe everyone has a right to an opinion (even though in most matters, I do). I don’t defend him because he and I are in agreement on morality (I doubt we are, although we likely share some positions).

I defend him because I believe that no area of discussion, topic of interest, or intellectual problem should be a priori labeled a non-scientific matter. I say let science try and see what it adds to this already very complex discussion. Sure, others have tried in the past to root morality in science and reason and failed, but our understanding of human biology and neuroscience, in particular, has grown (and will continue to grow) immensely. There are new methods and they have provided us with deeper understanding. While I am skeptical that these studies will be as fruitful as Harris is, I believe his ideas are worthwhile, are worthy of consideration, and have merit.

So what finally happened? I finally saw him speak or read a word of his books (TED talk link here)! AND… my position hasn’t changed. In fact, if anything, my defense of his work will get even stronger. This should not be registered as a full endorsement. I think it may be most instructive to view Harris’ ideas on scientific morality in both a weak and strong form.

The weak form is what is prevalent during the majority of his talk and the strong form comes out in the questions at the end. In the weak form, Harris argues against moral relativism and states that there are moral positions that we can consider as wrong. Furthermore, he notes that it is plausible that there will be multiple positions that objectively could be considered valid. Thus, there is a moral landscape of views, some of which are wrong and some of which are right. His basis for evaluating these uses reason and empiric investigation.

He spent most of his time on which positions could be assigned as wrong and very little time on how to evaluate which ones are right. But, that’s the way of science. We disprove hypotheses but we don’t prove them. The strongest thing we can say is that there is abundant evidence that strongly supports a theory. In this weak form of Harris’ scientific morality, there is nothing that I disagree with on face value. That does not mean I am fully endorsing the argument, but I am willing and excited to read more of his work. This weak form contrasts with the strong form of his argument in which I think he is too optimistic regarding the explanatory power of neuroscience. In the talk, it felt like he slipped up a bit here but I can’t be sure. It’s possible he’s not going to reduce it all to physics and chemistry, but non-reductionists like me have to be skeptical until we see the whole matter play out.

What most concerns and upsets theists about Harris and the other New Atheists when it comes to discussions of morality, I would gather, is that they believe he is taking the power of what goes in morality from them and transferring ownership of it to atheistic scientists… and they don’t trust that the moral rules that will result will be ones they agree or are familiar with or ones that jive with their religious beliefs. It’s possible to be upset because one thinks he is wrong, but that’s not what I’m observing. It seems like theists are more convinced that science simply should not ask questions about morality.

I share the aforementioned concern, as it is one thing for me to say that Harris has a right to these matters and yet another to say he and other scientific elite get to determine the rules of the game. Nevertheless, I won’t let fear interrupt the discussion and I, perhaps naively, believe that Harris and I would probably agree on what positions constitute peaks in the moral landscape.

So, I say let the discussion continue. I, for one, am looking forward to it. Are you?

About these ads

About justintopp

Biology professor/mentor who loves sports, laughter, science & religion/theology (especially mind, evolution, soul, and what it means to be human), and most of all, his bride and baby girl.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Mind, Morality, reason, Sam Harris. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Sam Harris on The Moral Landscape (TED talk of the week)

  1. John says:

    Very fine remarks. Take a look at the essay by Dallas Willard, “The Spirit of Galileo”. I read him as saying that we must be able to apply the same spirit of research and investigation to morality and religion that Galileo applied to falling objects.

  2. justintopp says:

    Thanks much, John. I’ll check out that link too…

  3. dopderbeck says:

    No, the trouble isn’t about the locus of power over defining morality. The trouble is that folks like Harris can’t offer any reasons for going from “is” to “ought” (even assuming they accurately describe the “is,” which is rather dubious given the complexities involved).

    Let’s say that evolutionary psychology / neuroscience could empirically establish that most people feel happier when they cooperate with each other (at least to some degree and at some times), and that there are plausible theories for how this tendency developed (group selection theories of altruism and so-on). So what? Does this mean that people “ought” to cooperate with each other? Does it suggest that “altruism” is a “moral” principle?

    No, it doesn’t, because it’s equally true that (at least) a minority of people feel happier when they act with hostility towards others. In fact, a very small number of people feel very happy when they are able to dominate and exploit others. And there are plausible theories for how these tendencies developed as well. Indeed, we can observe both altruistic and hostile behaviors, and gradients of behaviors in between, in our closest contemporary relatives, such as chimps and bonobos.

    More directly, we can observe all ranges of such behaviors throughout human history. Certainly the millions upon millions of victims of the two most recent world wars can testify to that sad truth.

    So what in the empirical natural sciences can say that the Hitlers of history “ought” to be stopped, much less that a petty con man “ought” not to steal a little old lady’s money, and even much less that a father “ought” to affirm his children’s talents … and so on? Absolutely, completely, nothing.

    What folks like Harris will say is that it is “better” for the majority of people to feel good about cooperating than for a small minority to feel good about dominating. But a term like “better” simply isn’t an empirical observation about the natural world. It is, rather, a qualitative judgment that sneaks in other non-empirical values. In fact, why is it in any way “bad” that most people should not feel good at all? Why would it be “bad” if human beings destroyed themselves and went extinct? Evolution can’t answer such questions because by definition “evolution” is merely a description of what happens, not a teleological value judgment about what “ought” to happen.

    Now, if Harris et al. merely want to say that evolutionary biology, sociobiology, neurobiology, etc. can offer empirical insights that could help inform moral philosophy, that would be a different story. Knowing about the deep dynamics of human cooperation, for example, might help us think more carefully about how to encourage, say, creative solutions to neighborhood violence. But the determination that “neighborhood violence” “ought” to be curbed is an a prior judgment that transcends the narrow confines of empirical science. (BTW, commenter John: Dallas Willard most certainly would not agree at all with Harris!!).

    And so, to circle back: Harris’ notion of “scientific” ethics is quite literally nonsense — a basic category mistake. It does reflect, I think, a power grab by the likes of Harris, but the problem isn’t so much in where the power lies as it is in whether there is any coherent theory of morality on offer.

  4. justintopp says:


    Did you watch the talk? I’m curious. I know you and many others vehemently disagree, but did you watch it?

    • dopderbeck says:

      Fair enough. I had not. I had heard him give a similar pitch in a radio interview and have read some of his work (though not much of it to be honest).

      Having now gone and watched the video, I’m more convinced than ever that he is not someone to be taken seriously, apart from his inexplicable cultural influence.

      There are numerous howlers in the video:

      — the claim that “facts” and “values” historically had been thought separate. Actually, historically speaking the distinction between “facts” and “values” is a modern invention, which crystallizes with Kant. There has never been any such distinction in Christian thought (at least not prior to the 19th Century). Has this guy read people such as Aquinas, or Aristotle, or Plato? They certainly thought moral “knowledge” was real “knowledge,” and they related their arguments to empirical observations (although they didn’t reduce them to empirical observations). In this respect, his central thesis is nothing new it all. It just betrays an ignorance of that which has gone before.

      — the claim that “religious” / Christian ethical thought has always been only about “conscious” beings. In fact, Jewish and Christian ethical thought have always been first about God, and then about _all_ of creation, with morally accountable beings (humans and angels) at the summit but with ethical norms implicating all other beings and things in creation.

      — the reductionistic claim that “the suicide bomber’s personality … is the product of his brain” — a claim that reduces concepts such as will and intentionality to “brain,” eliding any notion of agency or downward causation. Though this is a popular claim among some (not all) of the New Atheists, and I know you seem somewhat partial to it, it’s a philosophical and not a “scientific” claim, and philosophically speaking it is hotly contested (frankly, philosophically speaking, it’s gobbledygook).

      — he continually uses terms like “wellbeing” and “flourish” without defining them, in a way that seems to assume that certain emotional states are “good” for people to experience. Presumably one of these is a state of peacefulness, since he flashes a picture of a Buddha. But this is a colossal error because what is meant by “flourish” and what constitutes “the good” are precisely the questions an ethical theory needs to answer. So I go back to my original comment: why should society act to prevent a despot from increasing his pleasurable feelings by exploiting other people? This is necessarily a meta (“beyond”)-physical question, to which a physicalist such as Harris simply cannot offer any answer. He does try to answer it, of course, by referring to utilitarian ideas of welfare maximization — but that already assumes a meta-physical posture that “the good” inheres in the most possible people feeling the most possible pleasure.

      — His brief discussion of corporal punishment is fascinating. I’m fairly certain, as an initial matter, that his data on this are simply wrong — there are not hundreds of thousands of children even in the Red states of the U.S. legally receiving blistering welts from their public school teachers. But setting that aside, the broader assumption is that suffering and pain, for any reason, are always “bad.” Here he again betrays a meta-physical assumption: that there is no reality beyond this physical existence with respect to which some amount of suffering and pain in this physical existence might promote a greater good. But of course, this is one of the key questions that most religious systems — including Christianity and even including Buddhism — strongly contest.

      As Christians, we confess that suffering can be redemptive — the central symbol of our faith is the cross. This doesn’t mean we think suffering is “good” in itself. But we do think that somehow even what we experience as broken in this life is used for our good, that we receive life precisely in death. This is one of the centrally powerful aspects of the basic Christian narrative: our suffering is not meaningless, and we can even endure it with joy, because of the “joy set before us.” I don’t think a utilitarian such as Harris can find anyway to redeem or make any sort of sense of suffering. In any event, although “science” can and should help us alleviate unnecessary suffering, it cannot of itself offer reasons why suffering _ought_ to be alleviated or endured, and it cannot offer _hope_ that the suffering of the world is more than meaningless noise.

      — his discussion of women’s rights is simply bizarre given the gist of his argument about morality and neurobiology. It is entirely based on whether a woman “voluntarily” chooses to wear the veil, etc. But of course, if “the suicide bomber’s personality … is a product of his brain,” then so is the personality of the Burqa-wearing woman. So what is the point of asking whether her wearing of the Burqa is “voluntary?” This is incoherent. All he is really doing in this section is arguing for the universality of liberal democratic values. Now, I happen to agree with him that liberal democratic values are important and that the generally applicable civil law should protect women from religious communities who choose to dissent by, say, not wearing the Burqa.

      But I acknowledge that this implicates a huge range of meta-physical presuppositions about human freedom, autonomy, and other values not finally subject to “scientific” adjudication. And so the problem of women who are abused for not wearing the Burqa is not one of “religion vs. science” — it is one of competing meta-physical value judgments.

      Even more bizarre was his commentary on girlie magazines. “Is this the optimal environment in which to raise our children,” he asks. Well, who’s to say? If the women who pose get paid, and the guys who peek get off, isn’t there a welfare maximization going on there? But on the other hand, if this is about the inherent _dignity_ of women’s bodies and of human sexuality, we’ve gotten way, way out of the range of what our primal primate brains have to offer!! (It was absolutely fascinating how the crowd cheered him on this point — a confirmation of the inherent moral sense!)

      Finally, the most clearly ridiculous and offensive aspect of this talk was his claim towards the end that people with religiously-derived values claim to have gotten them “from a voice in a whirlwind” and not from careful, rational reflection. In a word: bullshit. Has the man read the Church Fathers, or Aquinas, or even the Bible itself? Is he self-aware enough to know that the liberal democratic values he wants to promote are incomprehensible apart from this rich intellectual background? Or is he just cynical?

      The absolute final irony is his comment right at the end that having a “domain of expertise” means that certain opinions must be excluded from knowledgeable conversation. This from a guy who puts the “sophomore” into “sophomoric” when it comes to philosophy, history, theology, and moral theory….

      • justintopp says:


        Well, I’m not going to defend all of his positions, even if I’m going to defend him and his right to share these ideas. I think you’re being a bit unfair by attacking many of the things he said in a short video… he doesn’t have enough time to address everything in that amount of time. And while I may disagree with how he GETS to some of his positions, it’s possible that he and I will agree on them. I think this is important to note.

        The idea that facts and values are separate could certainly be considered a historical one if it’s been common for the last few hundred years though, no? And I don’t think that because you and I are part of a long Christian history that we must require him to be an expert in those areas just to have a position on these matters. One can begrudge his “importance” in the absence of an appreciation of the great Christian tradition, but one cannot require it for conversation. Sure it will make it so that you can him can’t even talk to one another. But in the current scientific worldview which is predominant, many seemingly don’t believe that they need to engage pre-Enlightenment. Wrong or right.

        That all being said, I don’t believe everything can be reduced to physics and chemistry, so he and I will differ there. I also very much like your point on suffering and this is a key area where he and I can never agree.

        Enjoying the conversation as always…

      • Dopderbeck says:

        If it opens up avenues for dialogue I’m all for that. At this conference I was at this weekend at Pepperdine I was talking with a guy at lunch who is an atheist. He was pretty embarrassed by Dawkins and Harris because he felt that they cheapen the discourse by lack of historical perspective or philosophical sophistication.

      • justintopp says:

        What conference were you at? I could see a lot of philosophers having issues with him!

  5. John says:

    Here is another essay from a Christian, “Giving Up the Grudge: Social Scientists Discover the Healing Power of Forgiveness”, by Gary Thomas, which touches on your interest here.

    In this case, it is appalling to discover that no one seems to have bothered to study the issue of people forgiving other people until Robert Enright started work on this in 1985, and still more appalling that no theologian bothered with this either, until Lewis Smedes wrote his book in 1984, Now there is a huge industry on issues of forgiveness and reconciliation.

    Dallas Willard calls out Christians for constantly talking about “belief”, instead of “knowledge”. If Christians don’t have knowledge that can be tested and used in the real world, then we are in a very bad way indeed. I read you here as saying that Sam Harris is saying that there is moral knowledge, and it can be discovered and put into practice. Now the challenge for Christians is to engage fully in this conversation.

    • Dopderbeck says:

      John, you’re not really understanding what Willard is trying to say. In no way is he buying Harris et al.’s empiricism. He is talking more about “personal” knowledge ala phenomenology and is trying to broaden what counts as “knowledge”. that said, frankly, his Knowing Christ Today is not a very strong book. There are many nuances and qualifications he fails to make in that book, maybe because it aims at a popular audience.

  6. dsholland says:

    I saw two things that stood out. The first was the fact that the “demagogues” who seem to agree with Harris got their information from a whirlwind. Let that thought explode in your brain for a moment ;-)

    The other had to do with why we are unlikely to accept the judgement of a “scientific” morality – we might be wrong. This was most obvious in the Q & A when Harris was unable to accept anyone wearing a “cloth bag” if it’s hot. I think it speaks to the subtlety of inherent moral consciousness identified so clearly by doperbeck above (whose views I must admit I share to a large degree).

    The discussion of history and wisdom is one I enjoy (particularly in light of the “modern” presumption that we are so far advanced). “What has been will be” and pride does go before the fall. One of the facts that support the “whirlwind” IMO.

  7. Pingback: Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty (TED talk of the week) | A biologist's view of science & religion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s