In search of lost ethics

Published: March 24, 2011

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris takes a commendable stab at convincing the general public that moral issues can be discussed and debated within the rational domain, facilitated by scientific findings, and need not to be confined to the theological realm.

Harris is well known in scholarly circles for his earlier works, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. In The Moral Landscape, Harris defines morality in terms of the “well-being of conscious creatures” and claims that science, especially neuroscience, psychology, sociology and anthropology, can help us determine how to maximise our well being. His view of human well-being is not restricted to the concept of happiness described by Benthamite utilitarianism – that the greatest happiness for the greatest number should be the ultimate goal of humans. He comes closer to the ‘Capabilities Approach’ developed by economist Amartya Sen and political philosopher Martha Nussbaum which takes several other factors into account in order to determine human well-being.

Traditionally, there have been two views on how to distinguish good from bad, and right from wrong. According to the approach championed by religious scholars, something is good or bad because divine commandments proclaim it to be so. Socrates highlighted the dilemma with this approach: If something becomes good or bad by divine declaration then it seems to be an arbitrary phenomenon, but if something is intrinsically good or bad then humans can identify its true nature independently.

The second approach is that of ‘Moral Relativism’ based on the premise that reason cannot find definite answers to moral questions. It entails that all moral systems are equally valid. It is an exaggerated form of multiculturalism thriving on political correctness which advocates tolerance and intolerance at the same time. Harris challenges this approach vehemently by presenting lucid arguments and remarkable examples to substantiate his thesis. He argues that it is the consequence of an act that determines whether that act adds towards human well-being or suffering. So, Harris takes a consequentialist approach on ethics.

Harris adds to these debates by bringing in a cutting edge research on neuroscience and cognitive psychology. He explains how neuroscience can be used to determine human well-being as a state of mind. How we will be able to tell whether people are lying by examining their brain activity? How will a better understanding of the human brain’s functions help us devise enhanced or improved teaching and learning methods? The shift from behavioural psychology to cognitive psychology a couple of decades ago is the hallmark of this approach. Behavioural psychology only focused on stimuli and responses, i.e. apparent behaviour. Cognitive psychology takes a radically different approach. The mind becomes the centre of inquiry to understand psychological, social, economic, and even moral issues.

The book has caused ripples in the philosophical and scientific world. Multiple critiques have been produced in a very short period of time. Philosophers of ethics are mostly appalled by the lack of philosophical rigor in the content of the book. They object to the idea of finding answers to moral questions without exhausting all the theories propounded by philosophers throughout centuries. Furthermore, they question the way Harris has defined moral values in terms of human well-being. Some critics even question why we should bother to maximise human well-being in the first place. However, on a parallel level, these critics fail to prove why their mundane definition of moral value should be preferred over Harris’s.

Philosophers of science defy the way Harris has abandoned an old established tradition of separating the world of facts from values. David Hume, G E Moore and Karl Popper say that morals can not be determined by an examination of the natural world. Eminent psychologists like Jerry Fodder have also followed this line. In their opinion, by examining how the world is, one cannot determine how the world ought to be. This is/ought dichotomy has plagued discourse on ethics for ages. Harris does not say that there has to be only one correct answer to all moral questions. But this does not mean that we cannot segregate wrong answers from the right ones in the light of their impact upon human well-being.

In the end, we must remind ourselves that The Moral Landscape is not the final word on the subject. Rather, it merely shows us the way forward to building a science of morality with the ongoing advancements in other areas of science.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 20th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Lamp
    Mar 25, 2011 - 12:17AM

    Since when did book reviews turn into op-ed pieces? Gosh, this was pathetic!Recommend

  • Mar 25, 2011 - 7:25PM

    It is heartening to see a good review of this book in the Pakistani print media! I commend Umair Khan for this. Harris has done a great job by bringing this discourse to the public, and I am glad to see him attack the notion of moral relativism, especially when it is used as a weapon to excuse moral outrages, such as those committed by Taliban. Unfortunately, Harris is not a rigorous philosopher, and he overlooks several things which a professional philosopher would have easily picked up. Russell Blackford has done a good job of pointing them out.Recommend

  • saba
    Mar 25, 2011 - 7:27PM

    I think this review provides a great understanding of author’s view point on morality and its understanding from scientific perspective. It is not an easy task to review Harris’s writing but you have done a great job!Recommend

  • Steve
    Mar 25, 2011 - 9:42PM

    I too am impressed with your tone and style and substance of this review. I think you have captured much of the push and pull of Harris’ views and of the critics. I also agree with your last statement that this book is not intended to be the final word on the subject put to point us in the right direction.
    If we ever hope for mankind to have a future global civilization we need a common way to see the world and morals/ethics are an important part of the view.
    I give kudos to Harris for trying to find a way to this future based on our common humanity.
    Thanks for your review!Recommend

  • Ali ^_^
    Mar 25, 2011 - 11:15PM

    @Lamp coz its not ur gossip girl review dats why it seems pathetic to you …

    excellent book review, it has intrigued me to pick this book up … the last Sam Harris book i read was End of Faith. I didn’t agree with the most of what he had said but still that book was an eye opener and it was a kind of a mental exercise to go through that book..
    Reading this review I guess Sam Harris wants to have a sort of uniformity of morals throughout .. i dont think this idea is any good but i have to read this book before totally rejecting his arguments Recommend

  • Saba Ejaz
    Mar 26, 2011 - 12:08AM

    A very subtle synopsis! Clear, crisp and precise. I haven’t read the book but I am sure the way you have captured all the details will only make a reader to get an insight of what has been written here, nothing left, nothing over-emphasized. I disagree with the comment given by Lamp. After all a book review is a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit – definition taken from Wikipedia. Book review is all about what the writer of synopsis thinks or holds an OPINION about it. Criticism is by and large part of book review.Take it out and you’re left with a bland piece of review that only entails the summary of the book. Anyway, good job Umair. Way to go! Waiting for your next piece of writing.Recommend

  • Dr. Junaid Aslam
    Mar 26, 2011 - 1:05PM

    The review has been made in a way similar to writing editorials and opinions. The subject selection is excellent and they way umair khan has tried to uncover the theme is excellent. He explained the content of the book rather giving a review. I appreciate his efforts and hope that in future he will bring more reviews. Recommend

  • Sajid
    Apr 6, 2011 - 6:09PM

    This seems a nice review. But the focus is too much on philosophy. Guess thats because the book is about philosophy. Overall it gives a feeling that the book will be an interesting read.Recommend

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