The Moral Landscape – The Great Debate

A couple of years ago an impressive range of scholars attended a conference called Beyond Belief (BB) hosted by the Science Network and Roger Bingham. There have now been three of these. They have focussed on: the issues surrounding the nature of dogmatic beliefs that appear to be unassailable by evidence and; what would be required philosophically, scientifically and technologically to construct a society to maximise human wellbeing/flourishing. Each speaker is given around 15-20 mins to give their ideas and then Q&A or panel discussions follow.

BB challenged its attendees to think through the issues to come up with a way to improve upon the ways in which humanity navigates it various social and political problems in particular religious division and violence. A way to Enlightment 2.0 as Roger Bingham put it. No real conclusions were ever reached and it’s now been a couple of years since the last conference, but from the outside it looks like one of them took up the challenge and it was Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, and now The Moral Landscape. In this latest work, Harris explores what he sees as the heart of the issue: that we seemingly have no way to establish objective truth about the way we should live in order to effectively pursue human flourishing.

Image by Jennifer Roper
Image by Jennifer Roper

Prior to the release of the book Harris presented his ideas at a few conferences and events like TED. This led to a barrage of criticism by a host of intellectuals and scientists, notably Sean CarrollRussell Blackford (probably the most even handed treatment), Massimo PigliucciPZ Myers and Ophelia Benson. By anyone’s standards that’s a pretty high powered intellectual assault.Whilst many of the criticisms raised were interesting, for me, none really addressed the heart of his claims. Needless to say I found the majority of the critiques superficial in the points they made and therefore unconvincing (although I must point out that I have studied philosophy, science and ethics it was very long time ago and not in any depth).

So when I saw that the Arizona State University was to hold a great debate with Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Pat Churchland, and Peter Singer I nearly leapt out of my skin. This was one hell of a group (I’ve read works by them all), surely here we’ll get some solid philosophical meat and potatoes that goes to the core of the argument at hand. Now obviously what I see as the core argument and what Simon Blackburn, infinitely more educated professor of philosophy, sees as central could very well be different (and it turns out they are), but still I was champing at the bit to watch this intellectual equivalent for me of the World Cup. And now a mere hour after watching my last download I am still vibrating with excitement and looking forward to watching them again. Below is my summation of the debate and my own conclusions for what they’re worth. Whatever you think of this I would urge you to read The Moral Landscape as it clearly presents a range of serious issues with excellent writing and may start you thinking about certain important ethical issues quite differently.

I haven’t been able to embed the link to the video as the code given is too buggy so follow this link to The Science Network to watch them.



Extremely happy for this debate to be taking place between some of the world’s top thinkers. First thing to note of course is that it wasn’t really a debate but in many respects more a defining of terms, mixed in with a few pot shots taken at certain phrasing. There wasn’t a team arguing for the motion and one against, but more 6 individuals stating their own case. Ultimately everybody agreed that science was indispensable to moral judgements to a point, such that it provides the best guide to reality — but then once the facts are established the other tools of reason, such as logic and reflection, were required to produce the value judgement. The latter part was most succinctly put by Pinker who said, “If we use it [the term ‘science’] the way most people use it as being biology, physics and chemistry then it’s indispensable in determining right from wrong but it’s not enough to do it.”

The primary division between Sam and Singer, Blackburn and Pinker was that the values of a fact are not a ‘fact-of-the-matter’ in themselves. For Blackburn the values came from another functional mental state to facts and so science which deals with facts could not by definition provide answers to value questions; Singer recognized that the ability to value came from our evolutionary past but didn’t really say where the values came from rather than reiterate several times that they didn’t come from science; Churchland described the evolutionary underpinning of moral decisions and didn’t so much as disagree that science couldn’t tell us right from wrong but rather warn that we need to be careful about who tells us such things and of certain political ramifications; and Pinker who seemed to say that the application of a broader sense of reason and logic do provide the answers to right and wrong in conjunction with science but not science on its own as it’s commonly understood and used by most people. To brutally amalgamate and abbreviate their points into one: we need to step back and reflect upon the scientifically established facts coherently and logically in order to produce the value/moral/ethic.

In contrast Krauss said that the processes of science and values inherent in those processes, coupled with it’s findings, are the sole conduit to reliable answers to right and wrong whilst Harris’ primary contention seems to be that values are a type of fact to be known, and that if we have the time and ingenuity  we could explore values empirically. As he said:

“Given the experience of conscious minds is a natural phenomenon emerging out of the way the universe is and is constrained by the laws of nature in some way then there are going to be right and wrong ways to move along this continuum of possible experience. There are going to be right answers on how to avoid the worst possible misery. And it’ll possible to wrong.”

As far as I can tell no one seriously engaged with this part of Sam’s argument. And for me, two of the speakers in particular gave what I thought was surprisingly poor engagement with the topic. Firstly Simon Blackburn stated that he believes that our values should be tempered by science, and then he describes values as belonging to a different ‘mental state’ than facts about the world — this seems a poor argument to lead with against a neuroscientist. Just two mental states? And so well defined?

A value is a desire that you are prepare to make public; that you’re prepared to take action on; that you’re prepared to insist upon from other people; at it’s limit it’ll define the things that you think you ‘must’ do not just the things you want to do and things that other people ‘must’ do in their relationship to you. So it’s inevitable that there is a gap between fact and value because the two mental states have different functions.”

There are some serious assumptions about the brain and mind in this argument that I think a brain scientist would probably be someone better placed to comment on, but they appear to be the foundations of his entire thesis. Two different brain-states? Inevitable gap between fact and value because they have two different mental functions? Because  a value by his definition is intentional so there must be a gap to the non-intentional fact? The first two of these would take me well off track, let’s just say that he’s just stomped on brain science in the same way Sam dissed moral philosophers but perhaps a little worse. The second, seems to me, to take the division between the fact and value as a given, and therefore doesn’t deal with Sam’s main assumption.


I was also taken aback by his use of strawman tactics, by simplifying Harris’ arguments to the point were they could be blown down:

Sam thinks that you can go to a scientist and ask, was the Buddha right? And I don’t think you can, I think you have to work it out for yourself, what you care about in your life and the way you care to live it.”

Even if Harris did say this, saying I don’t think you can and you have to work it out for yourself isn’t much of a reason against it. Nor does it account for the ability for people to be wrong in their working out of what matters to them. What Harris explicitly stated was, that there isn’t one right way, hence his metaphor of a moral landscape:

The moral landscape allows for many equivalent and distinctly different ways to thrive and many more ways how not to. And when you admit this you have to admit that some people and groups and cultures are wrong about how to move towards peaks of wellbeing. Some people care about the wrong things.”

He has also said numerous times, that we are at the very beginning of learning about morality from a scientific perspective and that the contemplatives in particular may have learned things that science would do well to pay attention to.

It seems to me that Blackburn didn’t deal with the substance: conscious of experience – natural phenomenon — obeys natural laws — so navigation of experience can be known by exploration of the ‘experiential facts’, facts which are firmly in the domain of one or other aspect of science: genetics; psychology; sociology; economics etc. What is the question about wellbeing that can be better responded by moral philosophy than by any of these disciplines or combination thereof?

The second speaker I felt did little to advance his case was Peter Singer. Although he spoke about things we all care about: the limitations of our moral intuitions and; the desperate need to take care of those we can’t see as well as those that we can. But he limited his reasons for science not being able to answer questions of right and wrong to: “I don’t think it can.” He did acknowledge that science has shown where morality has come from in terms of evolution and then he defined the difference between our morality and that of animals by referring to our greater capacity for reflection and reasoning about our behaviours. This it seems to be at the heart of his thoughts on this, that this far greater capacity for reason produces a moral realm that is somehow beyond the capacity for science to provide right and wrong answers to. I cannot see why this would ipso facto be the case based upon his assertions.

Most critiques of Harris’ idea for a science of morality in the past few months have largely skirted the issue of values being a type of fact and have instead tackled more peripheral aspects of his argument or the delivery of his argument, such as: Harris’ dismissal of much moral philosophy; his use of extreme examples and analogies to make specific and general points; his loose definitions of science and wellbeing; or his regard of the ‘is’ / ‘ought’ problem as illusory. I see these as peripherals because they mostly evaporate if his central claim is that values are facts is true and for the reasons he gives.

So what are values? Are values scientifically verifiable facts? How are these hypotheses testable? Or conversely, how could we establish that it is only through logical reflection that can values be arrived at? Or if a combination of reflection and facts are used in constructing a value is this testable? For instance, a fact (assuming that a value is cannot be an objective fact) must have a finite number of values that can be ascribed to it, and so it seems plausible that one fact may have less value given to it that another? If this is so then facts may be shown at the very least to constrain values to certain parameters, and then if this were the case then science, as the best tool for exploring facts, would become central to defining the parameters of value-ideas.

There is another way to challenge the central thesis and the reasons for it. The further we get away from a rigorously tested idea under scientifically controlled conditions the less sure we must be. The most accurate results arise from very tightly constrained hypotheses. So whilst morality may or may not be an area for science (and I am convinced that it is) it is extremely unlikely to become a physics or chemistry in it’s claims for accuracy – at least in the short term. The systems it deals with are simply infinitely more complex, so there will probably always be substantial disagreement about every fact discovered by it’s methods. Who was it that said, physics would be much harder if atoms could think? This does not diminish the reasons for pursuing a science of morality but it should temper our hope in it’s guiding us through the difficulties humanity faces today, including religious fundamentalism. And should Harris be right that values are facts and that morality is a proper, perhaps the most proper of all areas for scientific pursuit, then we are in the position of Copernicus at the start of a multigenerational baton changing race for knowledge in a new universe.

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