Author: Sam Harris
Date Read: April 12, 2021
I discovered Sam Harris by way of Jordan B. Peterson. After hours of indulging in Jordan B. Peterson’s interviews and lectures, I came across a four-part debate between these two intellectuals that took place in 2018 in North America and Europe. As all good debates go, it was a stimulating intellectual rigour between two men who are, at times, on opposite positions when it comes to topics such as religion, moral ethics, free will and human psyche.
Then I became more intrigued with Sam Harris’ work when I learned more about his controversial stance on religion, well, his open critique of it. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but acknowledge that it helps those who have a religious faith to find meaning and purpose. And while I identify myself as a Zen Buddhist, Buddhism to me, is more of a philosophy.
So enter my interest to pick up The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris and explore what he had to say about science of morality.
In The Moral Landscape, modern philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues that science helps us understand and determine moral values objectively - what we “should do” and “should want” by defining the “wellbeing of conscious creatures” - humans and animals.
Harris opens this discussion by exploring moral truth. Can any of us objectively define what is morally right or wrong? From moral relativists to secular beings and everyone in between, it’s clear that we can’t agree that there’s one universal moral truth. Yet, Harris urges us to deduce it down to understanding “that the most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, just as most other facts do” and those facts about human flourishing (wellbeing in this instance), he says is found in science.
One example he paints in trying to make us understand morals from this perspective of understanding the wellbeing of conscious beings is when he shares that corporal punishment is legal in 21 states in the U.S. Then he argues, “However, if we are actually concerned about human well being, and would treat children in such a way as to promote it, we might wonder whether it is generally wise to subject little boys and girls to pain, terror and public humiliation as a means of encouraging their cognitive and emotional development. Is there any doubt this question has an answer? Is there any doubt that it matters we get it right?”
I see his point. Who would argue that this is morally ok if we look at it from the perspective of "is this good for our children’s wellbeing?"
Moreover, as a neuroscientist, Harris explains how our Moral Brain works and and how we develop our beliefs as it relates to morals and values.
First of all, there’s a region in our brain linked to emotions, reward, judgement and self relevance which are tied to understanding and defining morality. This area of the brain is called medial prefrontal cortex and damage to this area leads to more consequentialist reasonings than what would seem normal. Thus explaining how neuroimaging on psychopaths shows they lack activity in their brains that is linked to emotional stimuli preventing them to understand and have any concern for one’s suffering.
When we think about morals, we define it as what we believe and value as good or evil, right? And while our brain is a meaning making machine, Harris state our beliefs cannot exist without values and vice versa. While there is no specific region dedicated solely to beliefs, in order for us to form our beliefs and hold value, it must be valuable to someone else and these values are then attributable to some facts proven in science.
Harris dives much deeper into his scientific thinking and firmly defends his argument regardless of our cultural differences (and why he critiques moral relativism) that we can [must] look beyond religion to draw conclusions on shaping our moral values. Because “the divide between facts and values is illusory.”
READ IT OR NOT
Invigoratingly challenging. You don’t have to agree with Sam Harris’ views to acknowledge and appreciate his thorough framework of ideas and arguments of how science can help us understand morals. To gain new perspective and challenge your own beliefs, I recommend this read.