A Fundamental Issue with Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape

In the Introduction to his book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris states, “The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.” While others “imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist,” Harris asserts that a science of morality is possible. While I appreciate Harris’s efforts to come up with an empirically measurable moral system, and agree with some of his foundational points, I believe his system is fundamentally flawed because “other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be.”

A root of this issue comes down to some vagueness with the term “science” in Harris’s argument. Harris’s hope is that moving morality into the realm of science will give it a status and authority similar to that of physics or medical science; however, I will show that the type of moral science Harris proposes is significantly different than either of these and, therefore, would not carry the same epistemic clout.

In addressing morality as a science, Harris is concerned that some people define “’science’ in exceedingly narrow terms.” However, in the book, Harris’s working definition—“Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in the universe,”—provides so broad a definition that practically any rational endeavor fits, including astrology. While I know Harris, in practice, draws sharper boundaries than this, in his argument he ignores the fact that there are different types of science and that some types have more epistemic weight than others. For example, the “hard” sciences are seen by many as having more authority than the “soft” sciences; this leads to an interesting question: Is Harris’s science of morality a hard science or soft one? For many people, the answer to this question will lead to a qualitative difference in how the findings of this science should be viewed.

Physics, generally, is a hard science based upon the discovery of ontologically objective facts. That is, independent of any conscious minds, the physical world exists and the laws of physics hold. Once discovered, they are the same for all people—invariably. Harris’s science of morality, on the other hand, is fundamentally different because it is based upon ontologically subjective facts: There is no person-independent reality to draw from. Harris ignores this important difference when he states, “We must have a goal to define what counts as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when speaking about physics or morality, but this criterion visits us equally in both domains.” While he is correct that the standard must be set for each, the goal of physics is to accurately describe the objective world in which we live; however, there is no such ontologically objective starting point for Harris’s moral science. This ontologically objective base gives physics comparatively more authority, just as astronomy should carry more weight than astrology.

If Harris’s moral system is not like physics, what type of science should it be compared to? In his introduction, Harris discusses possible similarities between human moral flourishing and human health, so perhaps medical science or nutrition is a better match. Upon initial inspection, this analogy seems apt because there is definitely a person-subjective aspect here, based upon an individual’s biochemical response to events in the world. For some people, peanuts are a good source of protein and part of a healthy diet. For others, peanuts are poison.

But here, the type of subjectivity is still fundamentally different. In medicine and nutrition, people respond to different medicines or foods based upon their underlying biochemistry. These events, in principle, are directly observable from a third-person perspective and are not dependent upon a person’s first-person point-of-view. Harris alludes to this difference when describing how the “sciences of mind are predicated on our being able to correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.”  Unlike medicine or nutrition, however, Harris’s moral science needs to measure first-person experience—how people perceive events determines the “moral” quality of those events. While medicine has a subjective component, the subjectivity is not dependent upon first-person experience.

Although this problem does not remove morality from science broadly defined, it again shows a substantial qualitative difference between Harris’s moral science and medical science/nutrition and brings into question the authority with which such a science can speak.

At its core, Harris’s moral science is fundamentally different because it attempts to measure first-person experience. To make this a science (instead of an opinion poll or marketing survey), Harris rightly wants to correlate this to the brain states which underlie the experiences, and then draw broad conclusions from this. Unfortunately, this first-person to third-person gap produces significant uncertainty. For some, living a comfortable life—filled with fine dining and travel—produces in them brain states that they interpret as well-being. For others, living a difficult life—bringing some comfort to the poor and needy in Calcutta—produces in them a different biochemical response, which they interpret as well-being. More directly, a masochist’s perception of certain C fiber stimulation is going to be perceived very differently than the same event in other people.

While Harris is correct that a science could be formed like this, I believe it is obvious that it would not have significant imperative force behind it. I think that Harris will want to argue in his science of morality that some actions—like murder—are always wrong. This type of forceful statement works well with sciences based upon objective facts, but not so well with ones based upon subjective “facts.” Unfortunately, murder brings a biochemical response that some criminals interpret as a sense of well-being, and, at the biochemical level, it may be indistinguishable from the feeling others get from helping the poor. So while Harris has put together a system of morality that can be measured empirically, foundational issues leave it with very questionable epistemic authority or imperative force, unlike other branches of science.

Image: "Brain" by D. Schaefer. CC License.