The history of moral thought varies. Though traditionally associated with either philosophers or theologians, whose theories often extrapolate general concepts without empirical evidence, recent trends in both science and philosophy favor another approach to morality, one steeped in empirical observation and scientific study to define and defend moral principles. Garnering controversy and praise for its fresh discussion of morality, The Moral Landscape by neuroscientist Sam Harris represents such an approach . For Harris, moral relativism (the belief that moral goods are not objective) does not effectively create a just and ethical society.[i] Additionally, he rejects moral (usually religious) absolutism, which defines moral goods under strict, dictatorial guidelines.
As an alternative to moral relativism and absolutism, Harris introduces the idea of a moral landscape, where moral situations and concepts are on a continuum of approval or disapproval based on scientific studies of neurological and social data. His benchmark for what constitutes a moral good is the “well being of conscious creatures.”[ii] This argument is a new approach to the classical study of utilitarianism, founded in the nineteenth century by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham and Mill’s social philosophy used the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number” as the standard by which to make moral judgments. Harris’s moral landscape is a modern, more empirically grounded version of this time-honored philosophical tradition, but focuses more on the situational aspects of moral judgement. Thus, Harris’s moral landscape provides us with a new incarnation of utilitarianism based on scientific, as well as philosophical, foundations.
Utilitarianism: The Classical Approach
Before understanding the nature of Harris’s thought, a survey of classical utilitarianism must be conducted. Utilitarianism, as a social and political theory, argues that moral decisions should be made by considering the greatest amount of happiness for the most amount of people possible. The founder of this theory was political philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and he outlined his concepts in an essay entitled “An Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation.” Bentham argues, “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, ‘pain’ and ‘pleasure.’ It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”[iii] Pain and pleasure, generally understood as functionally meaning “favorable” and “unfavorable,” self-evidently show the most appropriate actions for humanity, according to Bentham. Since we are subjected to pleasure and pain, “the ‘principle of utility’ recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation”[iv] of an ethical and moral system. In Bentham’s view, the principle of utility is the guiding precept governing moral action, both for government and for individuals, that expands pleasure or diminishes pain for the greatest amount of people possible.
Bentham arrives at this conclusion with what is called the theory of “hedonistic calculus.” Hedonistic calculus aggregates the principles of intensity, duration, certainty, remoteness, fecundity (relation to others), and purity of the established pleasures or pain within interactions between social individuals to establish the greatest utility possible in any given situation.[v] These criteria, which are applied like an algorithm to each moral situation individually, deliver the best possible moral outcome.This is generally called “act utilitarianism”: moral actions are made individually and situationally, but collectively expand the moral benevolence of a society. Bentham’s theory powerfully argues for the equality of humanity as well as for the unification of laws and moral customs under a principle of utility. Yet, his approach is harder to implement in the real world because there are no unifying, general axioms that might guide society towards actions of the greatest utility. Also, it takes too much time in the real world to use hedonistic calculus in every situation that requires an action. This is where John Stuart Mill, the co-founder of utilitarianism, comes in to pick up the task.
Mill is in agreement with Bentham on the principle of utility, but he expands upon this concept with his own version of the principle, the “Greatest Happiness Principle.”[vi] The principle posits that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”[vii] Therefore, all utilitarian moral evaluation and action is based upon this principle for Mill. In responding to critics who argued that pleasure is only of the body, Mill counters with asserting that some intellectual goals, when achieved, are more pleasurable than bodily desires, which must have some form of primacy over the base, bodily pleasures of humankind.[viii] Thus, Mill’s utilitarian theory argues that broad rules must be created in accordance with the Greatest Happiness Principle in order to effectively implement a standard of morality for as many people as possible.[ix] This is known as “rule utilitarianism,” which argues for the creation of the most general amount of happiness through broad, unifying guidelines that all members of a society use. But what are those rules?
In attempting to create some guidelines, Mill argues, “the ultimate sanction, therefore, of all morality…[is] the conscientious feelings of mankind.”[x] Humanity’s initial moral guidelines stem from subjective value judgments that then evolve into broader social commitments, to ethical ideals like happiness. In an interesting turn, Mill dissents from Bentham and argues for something revolutionary within the utilitarian framework, something that will have a clear influence in Harris’s thinking: human morality is equivalent to states of mind. As such, the sanctions on moral behavior exist, “always in the mind itself…this which is restraining me [from immoral action], and which is called my conscience, is only feeling in my own mind.”[xi] Mill’s dedication to the human mind anticipates the development of the neurological sciences and their relationship to human behavior, something Harris has openly defended. While these properties are of the mind, Mill argues that they are not innate and must be “a natural outgrowth…brought by cultivation to a high degree of development.”[xii] Another key axiom for Mill is that rules for conduct in society be created by, “those who are qualified by knowledge of both ‘moral attributes and consequences,’” and that it, “must be admitted as final.”[xiii] Mill thinks somebody, or groups of people, should be thinking about the possibilities of action given by current circumstances and running the General Happiness Principle through an algorithm to determine general rules of conduct. Due to the natural propensity for intellectual growth and moral guidelines through the expansion of education, utilitarianism can be applied to society through general rules of conduct. This is something Harris, presumably, would agree with.
Both Bentham and Mill created a social philosophy which philosopher Leonard Peikoff described as “knowing skepticism,” meaning that while these do not fully produce objective rules of conduct, the subjective value-states of humankind lead to the creation of larger rules that society functions by.[xiv] In introducing this skepticism, Mill and Bentham orchestrated a social philosophy that has practical value, especially with the introduction of uniform rules of conduct based on collectively understood value judgments. Sam Harris’s “moral landscape” seeks to revamp rule utilitarianism using neuroscience to explain social conduct and the nature of human happiness in a more scientific, objective way.
Harris’s Moral Landscape
As a trained neuroscientist, Sam Harris uses the tools of science to answer our long-standing moral and ethical dilemmas. “Human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain…. Differences of opinion will remain—but opinions will be increasingly constrained by facts.”[xv] Harris is putting forth a more actionable way of approaching ethics; instead of using traditional and potentially subjective modes of moral and ethical thought, these shift into discussions of quantifiable rules of conduct that can be measured within the constructs of science and reason. To this end, Harris posits the moral landscape as, “a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.”[xvi] These moral peaks and valleys are directly proportional to levels of brain states. And under this scheme, various cultural, ethnic, religious, and social customs are represented as features of the landscape. As Harris puts it, “Culture becomes a mechanism for further social, emotional, and moral development. There is simply no doubt that the human brain is the nexus of these influences.”[xvii]
In trying to develop better modes of moral behavior, Harris posits that general well-being, much like the utility principle for Bentham and Mill, is the benchmark for what constitutes a moral judgment, action, or outcome.[xviii] Yet, he disagrees with them about the importance of subjectivity in the moral decision-making process. Harris argues that, “there must be facts regarding human and animal well-being about which we can also be ignorant or mistaken. In both cases, science—and rational thought generally—is the tool we can use to uncover these facts.”[xix] Humanity’s evolutionary shift towards rationality and reciprocity has paved the way for moral and ethical concepts that increase the well-being of most parties within a society.[xx] The insistence on rationality, brain states, human thought, and general well-being creates the necessary moral framework that makes Harris’s views consistent with Mill’s rule utilitarianism, even though Harris believes that objective moral truths are easier to grasp than Mill did.
In explaining the nature of brain chemistry and its relation to human morality, Harris cites a study involving psychopaths and sociopaths. These two psychological categories of people, on average, make immoral or amoral decisions at the expense of others’ well-being. Harris explains that, “the first neuroimaging experiment done on psychopaths found that, when compared to nonpsychopathic criminals and noncriminal controls, they exhibit significantly less activity in regions of the brain that generally respond to emotional stimuli.”[xxi] This correlation suggests that in the future, as the nature of neuroscience progresses to create an even fuller picture of the brain, society may be able to establish social norms based on such empirical data. Harris’s explanation of evil lends itself to Mill’s view that the importance of social norms and reliance on people of experience could be used to create a utilitarianism that has real social weight.
Another way that Harris’s moral landscape shares the qualities of rule utilitarianism is that studies on human belief show facts and values are beginning to become intertwined. To understand this further, Harris elaborates on the nature of biases in human thought processes; he argues that bias, “is not merely a source of error; it is a reliable [italics in original] pattern of error. Every bias, therefore, reveals something about the structure of the human mind.”[xxii] The problems associated with biases serves as a counterpoint to the prevailing moral precepts of a given society. Since logical arguments are created from the withering of bias within a sound proposition, when facts are thus determined, they become believed; a sound fact “inspires belief.”[xxiii] Morality, in some instances, can be inspired beliefs based on past elimination of biases and the creation of sound facts. Logically, our understanding of sound facts allows us to implement a form of rule utilitarianism that applies to a wide variety of societies.
Sam Harris has argued human flourishing is directly correlated with a sound understanding of the fundamental facts of human well-being, particularly freedom, security, and equality. In the conclusion to his book, he argues that, while there may never be a completely implemented form of universal morals, humanity, “must admit that some interests are more defensible than others. Indeed, some interests are so compelling that they need no defense at all.”[xxiv] This brief passage on the nature of competing interests in society is one of the most powerful, implicit defenses of utilitarian thinking: some interests will take precedence over others, for the most amount of well being in a society, and utilitarianism gives us a way of navigating competing social interests. What makes Harris’s moral landscape important to the evolution of ethics is that it offers a method, one rooted in empirical evidence and philosophical consistency. It offers an attainable, institutional form of human morality that is a secular alternative to the all-pervasive contradictions inherent in theological ethics and moral relativism. Rule utilitarianism, from Mill’s classical form to Harris’s moral landscape, shows a systematic approach to the expansion of positive human values that, through science and philosophical inquiry, will only further evolve.
[i] A moral good is any moral decision or consequence that has the characteristic of being “moral.” So the moral good is a general term for any decision or consequence that is morally good.
[ii] Harris, 2010, p. 11
[iii] Curtis, 117, 1962.
[v] As cited in Curtis, 120, 1962.
[vi] (2002 p. 239)
[viii] Ibid., 240-241.
[ix] Ibid. 241.
[x] Ibid., 262-263.
[xii] Ibid., 264.
[xiii] Ibid., 243.
[xiv] 2002 p. 59
[xv] Harris, 2010, p. 2-3
[xvii] Ibid., 9.
[xviii] Ibid., 55.
[xix] Ibid., 31.
[xxi] Ibid., 97.
[xxii] Ibid., 132.
[xxiii] Ibid., 133.
[xxiv] Ibid., 190-191.