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The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

June 5, 2012

Bill Meacham in Philosophy Now:

In this book, Sam Harris, a noted New Atheist, asks us to consider two lives:

Life A: Imagine that you are an illiterate and homeless African woman whose husband has disappeared. You have just seen your seven-year-old daughter raped and murdered at the hands of drug-crazed soldiers, and now you’re fearing for your life. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual predicament for you. From the moment you were born, your life has been marred by cruelty and violence.

Life B: Imagine that you are a respected professional in a wealthy country, married to a loving, intelligent and charismatic mate. Your employment is intellectually stimulating and pays you very well. For decades your wealth and social connections have allowed you immense personal satisfaction from meaningful work which makes a real difference in the world. You and your closest family will live long, prosperous lives, virtually untouched by crime, sudden bereavements, and other major misfortunes.

Which is the better life? We would all no doubt say Life B. Harris takes this as evidence that there is an objective way to determine what is morally good and bad. In fact, as the subtitle of the book indicates, he claims that scientific inquiry can tell us what we should and should not value.

Harris feels he can say this because he thinks that the proper meaning of ‘value’ with respect to human life – that is to say, the proper meaning of morality – is that which leads to human flourishing, which means, living a satisfying life.  [More]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2012 12:06 PM

    I don’t find Harris’ appeal to the good life for the grounding of morality as novel. It seems to be an appeal to virtue ethics, wholly Aristotelian actually. But how can Harris even talk about morality, it seems like a vacuous concept (at least to him) if we take him at his word in his recent book on Free Will. In a deterministic universe what point can thinking about morality do for us? He doesn’t seem to be a compatabilist either, so I’m at a loss as to how someone with his deterministic, incompatabilist, views would adopt an objective Virtue Ethicist moral view… I’m perplexed by Harris. Any thoughts here would be helpful.

    • June 5, 2012 1:21 PM

      Perhaps, one way to abate the vexing perplexity one may encounter with Harris is to take into account his appeal to science as foundation for moral evaluation, judgement, and action. Increasingly, philosophers of mind turn to neuroscience to explain away any intangible basis for moral goodness, duty, obligation, and responsibility. Linked below is an article by Philip Kitcher, “The Problem with Scientism” that may prove of value. [].

      One evocative observation which may counter Harris’ superordinate appeals to morality via facticity and science is the following:

      “To derive one’s notion of human knowledge from the most striking accomplishments of the natural sciences easily generates a conviction that other forms of inquiry simply do not measure up. Their accomplishments can come to seem inferior, even worthless, at least until the day when these domains are absorbed within the scope of “real science.” (…) The emphasis on generality inspires scientific imperialism, conjuring a vision of a completely unified future science, encapsulated in a “theory of everything.” Organisms are aggregates of cells, cells are dynamic molecular systems, the molecules are composed of atoms, which in their turn decompose into fermions and bosons (or maybe into quarks or even strings). From these facts it is tempting to infer that all phenomena—including human actions and interaction—can “in principle” be understood ultimately in the language of physics, although for the moment we might settle for biology or neuroscience. This is a great temptation. We should resist it. Even if a process is constituted by the movements of a large number of constituent parts, this does not mean that it can be adequately explained by tracing those motions.” [Philip Kitcher – The Problem with Scientism]

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