Sam Harris – The Moral Landscape

boatsnguitars wrote: Wed Jan 17, 2024 2:54 pm Harris argues for an objective basis for morality grounded in the well-being of conscious creatures. In his book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values” (2010), Harris posits that there are objective truths to be known about human well-being. He suggests that science, particularly neuroscience, can help us understand what actions and social structures lead to the flourishing of conscious beings. Harris defends a form of moral realism, asserting that there are objective facts about what contributes to human well-being and what does not.

Sam Harris is the only atheist I’ve seen that attempts to argue for the existence and justification of objective moral values. I’ll give him credit for his willingness to take such a position and try to defend it.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is a 2010 book by Sam Harris, in which he promotes a science of morality and argues that many thinkers have long confused the relationship between morality, facts, and science. He aims to carve a third path between secularists who say morality is subjective (moral relativists) and religionists who say that morality is dictated by God and scripture.

He starts with two assumptions:

Harris’s case starts with two premises: “(1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences are related, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world”.

How can it be objectively determined what is a better life than others? Are Americans having a better life than people in the jungles of Brazil? On what criteria is a life better than another? Money, possessions, power, success, education, appearance, mental capabilities, social acceptance, etc?

Judgment of a better life could be related to activity in the physical brain, but it is an assumption it is exclusively related to the brain or the natural world. What about the religious person who believes a better life is a spiritual life and a nourishment of an immaterial soul?

The fundamental issue of objective morality is the existence of something that we ought to do. Instead of addressing this, he seems to just entirely bypass this.

Challenging the traditional philosophical notion that an “ought” cannot follow from an “is” (Hume’s law), Harris argues that moral questions are best pursued using not just philosophy, but the methods of science, because science can tell us which values lead to human flourishing.

If there is no ought, I don’t see how anything can be classified as a moral issue. Rather, it would simply be a descriptive perspective, rather than a normative perspective.

Harris then makes a case that science can usefully define morality using facts about people’s well-being.

A notable failure of the application of science (more specifically Darwinian evolution) to promote the “well-being” of a society is eugenics.

Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population.

It simply is applying the principles of evolution to create a better society.

Historically, eugenicists have attempted to alter human gene pools by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior or promoting those judged to be superior. Early advocates of eugenics in the 19th century regarded it as a way of improving groups of people.

However, we can easily see where this can lead to.

In contemporary usage, the term eugenics is closely associated with scientific racism.

But because it was based on evolutionary theory and “science”, it was initially blinded to the ethical implications and became a worldwide movement at the turn of the 20th century.

the contemporary history of eugenics began in the late 19th century, when a popular eugenics movement emerged in the United Kingdom, and then spread to many countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and most European countries (e.g. , Sweden and Germany). In this period, people from across the political spectrum espoused eugenic ideas. Consequently, many countries adopted eugenic policies, intended to improve the quality of their populations’ genetic stock.

Practical application of eugenics involved marriage prohibitions and forced sterilization of people with “weak” genes.

Such programs included both positive measures, such as encouraging individuals deemed particularly “fit” to reproduce, and negative measures, such as marriage prohibitions and forced sterilization of people deemed unfit for reproduction. Those deemed “unfit to reproduce” often included people with mental or physical disabilities, people who scored in the low ranges on different IQ tests, criminals and “deviants”, and members of disfavored minority groups.

The fall of eugenics started when they took eugenics to its logical conclusion.

The eugenics movement became associated with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust when the defense of many of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials of 1945 to 1946 attempted to justify their human-rights abuses by claiming there was little difference between the Nazi eugenics programs and the US eugenics programs.