Morality Philosophy

Sam Harris – The Moral Landscape

My Opinion

Strong case for the foundation of moral thinking in science and the existence of moral truth. Different peaks in the moral landscape represent various states of human flourishing. Sometimes a little bit out of scope in regards to the original idea of the book but nonetheless highly interesting. 

Reading Recommendation: 8/10

My Notes

Long history of philosophers arguing that no description of the nature of the world (facts) can tell us how to behave (morality), e.g. David Hume, G.E. Moore, Karl Popper. Clear distinction between facts (‘is’) and values (‘ought’). 

Sam Harris argues that this is wrong and that the scientific study of morality is needed (and, in parts, already well under way) based on the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures. Since well-being depends on processes in the brain, it can be objectively understood, hence there is such a thing as moral truth that leads to states of human flourishing (represented as a peak on the moral landscape). It is, however, absolutely possible that there is more than one potential path to maximizing well-being (i.e. multiple peaks). 

Moral truth exists, because the distinction between facts and values is illusory based on following premises:

a) Whatever we know or will know about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures – which is as Harris argues the only reasonable foundation of any value – translates at some points into facts about brains and their interaction with our world. 

“Anything of value must be valuable to someone (whether actually or potentially) – and therefore, its value should be attributable to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.”

b) Beliefs about facts and values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain (belief seems to be largely mediated by the MPFC) – apparently our system of judging truth and falsity in both domains is very similar. If believing “the sun is a star” is importantly similar to believing “cruelty is wrong”, how can we say that scientific (factual) and ethical judgments have nothing in common? 

Beliefs bridge the gap between values and facts. We believe certain facts to be true (in that regard, the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’ is merely a matter of expressing certainty). But we also form beliefs about values i.e. judgments about morality, meaning and personal goals.  

IMPORTANT: The consequence is moral truth. If the premise “well-being is the basis of morality” is accepted (which really is the fundament of the entire book!), then that means that securing well-being depends on events in our brain and events in the world, and that there are, objectively speaking, better and worse ways of achieving it. In this case, “some cultures will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some world views will be mistaken in ways that cause needless human suffering”. 

The courage of moral truth. Why is it that most educated, secular people tend to believe that there is no thing as moral truth? Harris states that “moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of Western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism.” If morality is indeed based on maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, it seems to be very clear that many people are simply wrong about morality – just as many are wrong when it comes to physics, biology, history, etc. 

The problem of religion. Derivation of moral behaviour from an ancient textbook that is based on salvation of our souls . Dogmatism prevents almost by definition the maximization of well-being. Harris argues that science and religion are in a zero-sum conflict about fundamental claims of reality. 

Since most religions understand morality as being obedient to God, their definition of moral behaviour often don’t have anything to do with maximizing well-being in this world (heaven vs. hell)

Examples catholic churn: “Even among non-Catholics, its doctrines are widely associated with the concepts of ‘morality’ and ‘human values.’ However, the Vatican is an organzation that excommunicates women for attempting to become priests but does not excommunicate male priests for raping children. […]
It seems clear that the CAtholic Church is as misguided in speaking about the ‘moral’ peril of contraception, for instance, as it would be in speaking about the ‘physics’ of Transubstantiation.” 

Just because we can’t answer a question concerning our well-being right now, doesn’t mean there is no right answer. “People consistently fail to distinguish between there being answers in practice and answers in principle to specific questions about the nature of reality” 

Evolution is not a contradiction to morality. Arguing that evolution entails selfishness as a biological imperative is an oversimplification. In fact, evolution fosters cooperation. This is explained by the concept of reciprocal altruism which includes friendship, moralistic aggression (i.e. cheaters get punished), guilt, sympathy and gratitude. Neuroimaging studies show that cooperation is associated with an increased activity in the brain’s reward regions. 

Idea: If cooperation is genuinely human to homo sapiens, then that replaces the original Hobbesian “state of nature”. One could assume that large scale cooperation necessarily requires a moral code and needs to be designed based on principles of fairness to be sufficiently stable. 

There is an (almost) unsolved problem with defining morality as maximizing well-being by taking all consequences of actions into consideration (which in philosophy is called consequentialism)

  • We can’t always determine what the best decision is. As Harris writes, “population ethics is a notorious engine of paradox” since “people have competing interests and mutually incompatible notions of happiness.”
  • Further, what should we maximize? Total happiness? Then we would prefer a world where 100 millions people live a life barely worth living over a world where 7 billion of us live in perfect ecstasy. Average happiness? (1 extremely happy person > 1 billion only slightly less happy people). This is called The Repugnant Conclusion.
  • Harris concludes: “However, such puzzles merely suggest that certain moral questions could be difficult or impossible to answer in practice; they do not suggest that morality depends upon something other than the consequences of our actions and intentions. This is a frequent source of confusion: consequentialism is less a method of answering moral questions than it is a claim about the status of moral truth.” 
  • Further, what we should do is try to follow a path that maximizes both our own well-being as well as the well-being of others

People are biased in various ways. Should these be taken into consideration when making a moral decision?

  • Loss Aversion – people care much more about potential losses then they care about potential gains. Assume a child with IQ of 195 accidentely given a neurotoxing decresing IQ to 100 → loss; versus a child with IQ of 100 that should have been given a genetic enhancement to increase its IQ to 195 which now has been given to someone else → gain. Obviously, the result is the same. But what if the mental suffering is much worse in the former exampel? 
  • Also: Peak-End-Rule (memory as distortion). Should decisions such as medical treatment be based on actual experienced pain or rather based on the memory of suffering? 
  • Order – The Asian Disease Problem (A: 200 people will be saved, B: ⅓ probability that nobody will be saved, ⅔ that 600 people die OR A: 400 people die, B. ⅓ that nobody dies and ⅔ that 600 people die)
  • Context – Study where psychologists had themselves committed to psychiatric hospitals. After being commited, they declared they no longer had symptoms. Yet, the average length of hospitalization was 19 days.  

The Identifiable Victim Effect represents an obvious violation of moral norms. We care more about the suffering of an individual human than about the suffering of millions which appears to be much more abstract (which is for example something that NGO tend to make use of). 

One of the most interesting approaches of “designing” a fair society: John Rawls in Theory of Justice. People are asked to design a society while not being born yet (veil of ignorance). Harris adds that fairness is not merely an abstract principle but felt experience. Neuroimaging shows that fairness drives reward-related activity in the brain whereas unfair behaviour requires the regulation of negative emotion. “It seems perfectly reasonable, within a consequentialist framework, for each of us to submit to a system of justice in which our immediate, selfish interests will often be superseded by considerations of fairness.”

Human evil is part of our nature, yet we have grown steadily less violent.

  • Studies show that “both humans and chimpanzees tend to display the same level of hostility towards outsiders, but chimps are far more aggressive than humans are (by a factor of about 200).”
  • 20th century state-societies have broken all records of violent deaths. Yet, this is only true in absolute terms. The actual percentage of violent deaths was on average higher in traditional pre-state societies 

Moral responsibility depends on the intention to do harm. 

  • Example 1: 25-year old man, who had been the victim of constant abuse as a child, intentionally shot and killed his girlfriend because she left him
  • Example 2: 25-year old man, raised by wonderful parents, intentionally shot and killed a young women he had never met just for the fun of it
  • Example 3: 25-year old man, raised by wonderful parents, intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met just for the fun of it. An MRI revealed a large tumor in his medial prefrontal cortex. 

→ What we condemn in other people’s behaviour is the intention to do harm. “Our urge for retribution, therefore, seems to depend upon not seeing the underlying causes of human behaviour 

Cognitive biases influence our public discourse and moral reasoning. Political conservatism for example is governed by a number of factors. It is correlated with dogmatism, inflexibility, death anxiety, need for closure, and anticorrelated with openness to experience, cognitive complexity, self-esteem, and social stability.

It seems that religiosity is strongly coupled to perceptions of social insecurity. This seems to be the case both within and between nations. In the U.S. 57% think one must believe in god to be moral and 69% want a president who is guided by ‘strong religious beliefs’. Further, only 26% believe in evolution through natural selection. This might be caused by the fact that the U.S. has the greatest economic inequality of all developed nations. 

Maybe there is a cognitive template for religious ideas that runs deeper than culture. The same seems to be true for language. Several experiments suggest that children are predisposed to assume both design and intention behind natural events. Therefore, many anthropologists and psychologists believe that children, left entirely on their own, would come up with some conception of God.  

Even though many behave as there wasn’t, there is a conflict between reason and faith. Francis Collins, who is the director of the National Institute of Health (annual budget of €33b), publically argues (in this example at the University of California) how God created the universe 13.7 billion years ago, planning the “mechanism of evolution” and “gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.” Isn’t there an obvious conflict between science and religion? Imagine how it would look like if Collins were a Hindu (he certainly wouldn’t run the National Institute of Health).

Despite our perennial bad behaviour, moral progress seems unmistakable. We are increasingly reluctant to violence. We are less tolerant of ‘collateral damage’ in wars and condemn ideologies that demonize whole populations. Racism, even though it remains a problem, has been diminished significantly in the last hundred years. 

An Example, almost hard to believe,  to illustrate the progress: “Most readers will have seen photos of lynchings from the first half of the twentieth century, in which whole towns turned out, as though for a carnival, simply to enjoy the sight of some young man or woman being tortured to death and strung up on a tree of lamppost for all to see. These pictures often reveal bankers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, church elders, newspaper editors, polcement, even the occasional senator and congressman, smiling in their Sunday best, having consciously posed for a postcard photo under a dangling, lacerated, and often partially cremated person. Such images are shocking enough. But realize that these gentell people often took souvenirs of the body – teeth, ears, fingers, kneecaps, genitalia, and internal organs – home to show their friends and family. 

The current state of research as it relates to human well-being is in its infancy. Sometimes this pile of research is called ‘positive psychology’. The part that we understand about human well-being is strinkingy small, especially on the brain level. But we are progressing. Some examples of relevant questions:

  • Paradox of choice – it might be rational to strategically limit of number of choices
  • Affective forecasting – we systematically overestimate the impact of good or bad experiences in regard to our well-being (changes in wealth, health, age etc.) 
  • The experiencing self vs. the remembering self (Kahnemann) – which one to choose? (According to Kahnemann, the correlation in well-being between the two ‘selves’ is around 0.5)

This claim, that science has something important to say about values, is made on first principles. It could however, be falsified, if there wasn’t any connection between “being good and feeling good – and, therefore no, no connection between moral behavior (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being. In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints. This, however, seems a little bit far far-fetched, considering that neuroimaging shows how cooperation is affecting our reward-center in the brain. 

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