Moral Landscapes or Human Values?

The question is prompted by this week’s NYRB review of The Moral Landscape by H. Allen Orr, a Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester.

Although Orr took his PhD under the supervision of Dr Jerry Coyne, he is very much a freethinker when it comes to the uses and limitations of scientific know-how and know-what.  In a perfectly chivalrous way, he pronounces the three major premises of Harris’s attempt to bridge the gap from polemic to science unsuccessful.


I have always been skeptical that science, as a purely descriptive field, would help us to navigate the moral universe.  This feeling–and it’s no more than that, and thus has to be regarded as pure cotton–comes less from my training as a  theologian (there, I said it) than from earlier work in linguistics–what we used to call philology when trying to impress girls.  –It never did.

When language analysis moved away from the older classical models that taught us how languages ought (keep your eye on this word) to behave in their various tenses and moods, to the way language actually works, whole new worlds of understanding opened up.  What we learned from the New Linguists like Chomsky & Co. was that language is both a formative and transformative process.  It changes as long as it is living. When it’s dead, it’s merely “studied.” Classical linguistics and classical archeology have in common the fact that their subject matter is no longer breathing and cooperates efficiently.

Language and ethics are not the same thing.  But ethics depends on language and not merely action, and certainly not merely neural activity.  Choices are formulated in language.  Actions are the effect of linguistic cues.  Some ethical actions are merely linguistic–like saying “No.” Some must be terribly complex, like deciding not to fight in a war, or determining whether to end your own life.  As long as you are living the choices are also (to quote James) live options.  When you are dead, they are philosophical premises to be studied in philosophy classes as test cases.

Sam Harris spends less than six pages and a few footnotes on language, preferring instead to locate the throne of morality in physiological functions of the brain, available through neuro-imaging studies. Orr describes the outcome as “far from compelling.”

  It seems odd to try to assess the relationship between two ideas or judgments by analyzing whether the same brain regions are active when each is represented in the human mind. Surely such an assessment requires one to analyze the ideas or judgments themselves. If the same brain regions are active when people mentally perform addition and multiplication, would Harris conclude that the addition/multiplication distinction is illusory?

Given the fact that neuroimaging doesn’t answer primary questions about action, the desirability of “right” or ‘wrong” action or the adjudicative faculties that cause us to describe certain actions as moral or not, it looks for all the world as though Harris has once again turned  interesting possibilities, drawn from a range of disconnected sources, into extravagant claims.  It’s the same sort of rashness that led to his mistaken view of “religion” in his earlier work, The End of Faith, which people happily ascribed to his relative immaturity as a writer.

This isn’t new to the pop-science genre he is writing in, of course, but given that most of the people who read The Moral Landscape will be neither professional ethicists nor professional scientists (a few of each, no doubt), his performance does raise the question of whether this is not just another expression of scientific hubris directed at religious objects.  Orr thinks so:

But there’s a more important point. Harris’s view that morality concerns the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures doesn’t follow from science. What experiment or body of scientific theory yielded such a conclusion? Clearly, none. Harris’s view of the good is undeniably appealing but it has nothing whatever to do with science. It is, as he later concedes, a philosophical position. …Near the close of The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that we can’t always draw a sharp line between science and philosophy. But it’s unclear how this is supposed to help his case. If there’s no clear line between science and philosophy, why are we supposed to get so excited about a science of morality?

It’s for others to judge whether Harris’s performance in the arena passes the test.  Lions are always circling. But his book raises another, more important question. It’s a question about whether someone purporting to write about morality needs to know something about ethics. And it all hinges on the timeless question of How one ought to behave: like a dead language or a living speaker?

Since the late eighteenth century–in theology since Schleiermacher and in philosophy since Kant–ethics has been seen as the last refuge of the religious imagination.  That’s when supernaturalism exploded in Christianity’s face. Even first year philosophy students know what Kant thought about morality and its “demand” on evilly-inclined human nature.  The further history of philosophy, when it comes to the study of morality, has been an attempt to get away from Kant’s categories to the right while fleeing the command ethics of the Bible on the left.

In many ways, Schleiermacher’s system was more profound, drawing out of Kant’s work ideas that remained implicit or obscure.


–And the theologian was much more radical, in almost every department, than the Prussian master.

He is a hard read, but his ideas about the formation of ethical ideas was crucial for practically all later philosophical and psychological reflection. Schleiermacher was aware of the chasm between self-consciousness (Cartesian style) and the wider world of immediate experience, which is always both subjective and objective.  Using ideas that would later become standard in psychoanalysis, he described the way in which we are able to “cognize” an inner life of feeling and outward existence of things that present themselves to us for description.  At every step, we are driven by the inner life of feeling and the outer world of experience (things, events), but see ourselves at the center of both–affected by the consciousness of big ideas like nature, world, goodness, and  other ideas, that have only a “temporal” importance–things that are tolerable choices in children but turn out to be illusions in adulthood:

Is it then the case that the first childish objects of enjoyment must, in fact, be lost that the higher may be gained? May there not be a way of obtaining the latter without letting the former go? Does life then begin with a pure illusion in which there is no truth at all, and nothing enduring? How am I rightly to comprehend this? (Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas (trans. W. Hastie; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890), 33

I mention Schleiermacher because Harris doesn’t.  There is a reference to Hume, and almost nothing on Kant.  A bit on Rawls (a scant, useless two pages), but otherwise an extremely eccentric index of authorities that don’t add up to a coherent picture of much of anything in terms of the history of ethics or a wide syllabus on the subject.  If this were a random list of books I read over my summer vacation it would make more sense than as documentation for work on a serious subject.

I can be criticized for saying this, I’m sure.  After all, pop science or not, this is meant to be ground-breaking work. Most ground-breaking work doesn’t trudge through the cemetery of dead authorities.  It transcends them.  Is that the reason for the omissions?  And as to its ground-breakingness, if not in ethics, then in science: someone much more knowledgeable about how it might be scientifically earth-shaking, like Allen Orr, thinks it is merely peculiar.

Which brings me to a related and belated point.  It wouldn’t bother me in the least if the New York Times announced tomorrow that the the morality code has been cracked, and that all of us belong to one of a million phenotypes that accurately predict how we will act in particular moral situations, especially on Tuesdays.

But we are not quite there yet.  For that reason, philosophical speculation still matters.

The terms “science”  and “human values” are still to ethics what bacon and eggs are to breakfast: related, but in a way we are at odds to explain.

Orr puts it down to basic semantic confusion (something philosophers and theologians are supposed to look out for)–in this case over a misue of the term “ought”:

Of course science can help us reach some end once we’ve decided what that end is. That’s why we have medicine, engineering, economics, and all the other applied sciences in the first place. But this has nothing to do with blurring the is/ought distinction or overcoming traditional qualms about a science of morality. If you’ve decided that the ultimate value is living a long life (“one ought to live as long as possible”), medical science can help (“you ought to exercise”). But medical science can’t show that the ultimate value is living a long life. Much of The Moral Landscape is an extended exercise in confusing these two senses of ought. Despite Harris’s bravado about ‘how science can determine human values,’ The Moral Landscape delivers nothing of the kind.

But Harris is not exactly to blame for the confusion, the confused cross-ranking of oughts and is’s.  He’s a victim of a culture that wants the distinction overcome by force majuere since “ought” as philosophers, especially ethicists, use the term still bears the marks of its religious birth.  The mere addition of the word “science” to the mix seems to give the word “moral” a degree of support it doesn’t have when it’s left outside to lean on its own flimsy wall.

A serious, well funded, ongoing project devoted to the intersection of ethics and science (or science and human values) is devoutly to be wished.  But it will not happen in the atmosphere of current proprietary thinking, where scientists  (Is this the I want to be Darwin syndrome?) promise more than they can deliver, and ethicists and theologians are ruled out of order because (why?) they have only language to offer.

32 thoughts on “Moral Landscapes or Human Values?

  1. Other thoughts that should be taken into account.

    If adoption of religion has any effect in gaining a moral framework, why are so many religious people immoral? It is difficult, if not impossible to determine whether atheists are over- or underrepresented in the prison population, so using that as a measure of morality is a non-starter.

    Customarily, this argument is used to promote a specific religion (Christians believing that Christianity is the most moral of all faiths, and Muslims believing that Islam is the only true path to righteousness). Is it merely the presence of a religion in one’s life that creates morality, or does the brand name matter?

    Remember, if the flavor of the religion is important, why does every culture in the world have their own version of “Do unto others…”? (A saying which, it could easily be argued, is the actual source of all morality.)

    Perhaps the level of empathy in a person is the true key to how moral that person is – you avoid behavior that would hurt another simply because you wouldn’t want to cause the other person pain.

    In the end (and remember, you’re the one who brought up linguistics), you have to have a definition of morality before you can actually locate its source, correct? You need to define what is “good” and “bad,” or “right” and “wrong,” and since those terms are often ambiguous (Is it wrong to kill a person? What about killing a murderer? What about euthenasia?), the whole logical structure tends to collapse in on itself.

  2. “Harris has once again turned interesting possibilities . . . into extravagant claims. It’s the same sort of rashness that led to his mistaken view of “religion” in his earlier work, The End of Faith, which people happily ascribed to his relative immaturity as a writer.”

    Who are these people who ascribed Harris’ mistaken view of “religion” to his relative immaturity as a writer?

    • I’ll give you a pass because I don’t know you, but I know the style: You really haven’t read any reviews of the book, have you? Viz., Van Harvey in the CSER Review for 2007, to mention just one.

      • Joe, having turned to a bonified Christian believer Andrew Klavan for a fuller critique of Sam Harris (who may have exhausted just about any rational secular basis for morality) based on theologian Alister McGrath’s “The Twilight of Atheism”, suggess that you might meaningfully revisit my three comments to “Religion” quoting from The Reality of God by Schubert Ogden (your once intellectual hero). The first quote brought your cmment: “A very nice comment Ed. Thanks.” Only to be followed by “Humanist Deficient?” a critical critique.
        Klevan wrote: “(Harris’) embrace of mystic selflessness and the understanding that love and virture are essential to human happiness, give one hope that even scientific rationalists may one day stumble nigh to the wisdom of Jesus”. I need ask, what do you think?

      • Hi Ed–can you give me the blog address for Klevan; I would like to read more (theoretically)….

  3. “I’ll give you a pass because I don’t know you, but I know the style.”

    You do know me; I submitted four comments to your April 1st, 2011 article “Bloody Fools.”

    Like you, I am fascinated by language, so your use of the word “know” is intriguing. Of course you don’t know me because it is not easy to know someone, even in the electronic sense, from a few responses to one article. As for my style, have you read anything I’ve written?

    I haven’t read any reviews of the The End of Faith. Thank you for the links.

    PS My first response to the article above was to ask what is the question you refer to in your first sentence: “The question is prompted by this week’s NYRB review of The Moral Landscape by H. Allen Orr. . . .”

    This comment has not been posted.

  4. I’m glad your post scrolled up on my morning tag surf (Kant, Schleiermacher)- I passed over it too quickly last evening.

    I haven’t yet given Harris’ writing any serious consideration; I mean, life is short – 1 or 2 interviews has sufficed (in my opinion) to expose his lack of grounds.

    But I’m grateful for the quality of thinking here, both yours and professor Orr’s. The subject will not go away, so I appreciate all extra means of re-directing the conversation to higher ground.

    Especially liked the rhetorical question about brain-scans for addition vs. multiplication (which regardless of whether it can be answered, still brings up important questions about subtle yet significant distinctions).

    I love real science, and real scientific discovery, but I gather from Harris no depth of appreciation for the limits of scientific method.

    Anyway thanks again for the post, and the blog – an occasion for reflection this morning.

  5. OK, I’m confused. Is the issue here one of comparative philosophy – Hume vs Kant vs Scheiermacher? Or, is it science vs philosophy vs cognitive science vs psychology? Or, is it about linguistics – Chomsky vs everybody? Trying to arrange everything so that they fit neatly into their respective, designated little boxes is not always easy.

    I tried to read Harris’s “The Moral Landscape” but couldn’t get very far. Lots of words, but not much substance. OK. I’m not a Harris fan. And I’ll admit that this book is much calmer that others he wrote when his hair was on fire. Anyway, to me anyway, it was kind of like reading Dawkiin’s “The Selfish Gene.” I got it after the first three pages. Now, just think of how many forests could have been saved if the other 380 pages had been left out.

    As to this review (of a review,) there is a glaring omission: Humans are not the only animal to exhibit what we might agree to call moral/ethical behavior. Our closest living relatives – chimpanzees and bonobos – have been observed in nature doing what could justifiably be described as a selfless “good.” Some behaviorists have said that elephants occasionally do likewise.

    So, the statements here that, “Choices are formulated in language.” and “Actions are the effect of linguistic cues” are just flat wrong. Moral acts are often performed without verbal cues. Take a battlefield, for example, or a tsunami, or a traffic accident, or any of a myriad of other situations that just present themselves in the moment and are responded to, or not, by the beholder – without a call to action.

    Moral relativism is alive and well and living in our churches, and boardrooms, and courtrooms, and the halls of Congress, and philosophy 101, down there in room 205.

    • @Herb, at root it’s about a guy trying to write a groundbreaking work who doesn’t know much about ethics. fair enough–that’s why the omission of Kant and Co is relevant–but how can he get by without talking about behavioralism, Lorenz, linguistic theory. It’s quite frankly the strangest assortment of “authorities” I’ve ever seen.

    • Herb, I visited your blog to check on the claim about chimpanzees and bonobos exhibiting moral/ethical behavior. I didn’t see you’ve got anything there on the surface. Are these studies supposed to be well-known?

      Lacking any sense of what these ‘observers’ were looking for, I would challenge your definition of selfless good in regard to animal behavior – if you will allow me to disallow non-ethical motives like parental instinct, quid pro quo (including sex) and anything that does not involve real sacrifice of a present good in the interest of a fellow.

      • @John – I guess you don’t have Mad Googlin’ Skillz like some of us. There are several studies that show this, the most famous being Bongo.

        The problem is, the results are hotly debated because creationists refuse to admit that anyone but humans show moral behavior. (Because morality is rooted in the soul, which only humans have, essentially.)

        They employ mind-numbing levels of apologetics, trying th explain this behavior with “actions don’t matter, it’s intent! What you’re thinking when you engage in moral behavior is the important thing! And… um… since monkeys… can’t… ummmm… think…”

        They tend to trail off into mumbling and stuttering, and a good time is had by all.

  6. Excellent review— and I especially like the thoughts on language. My own background is in History rather than ethics, so I’ll be a while analyzing my immediate impression that there’s something empty in Harris’ work. Other than that— I discovered your blog a few weeks ago, and I’ve enjoyed it and recommended it (though I wish your entries could be linked to Facebook).

  7. @Nameless – I am not what you are probably calling “creationist” but I have enough moral philosophy to know that there are good non-religious arguments (chiefly Kantian) for the case that recognition of duty and selfless intent in its execution are two characteristics of actions which distinguish moral action from non-moral action. (this has nothing to do with immoral action – which only takes place if moral action is possible).

    In my opinion Bongo’s thinking (however clever) is on a non-moral level (neither moral nor immoral) as long as it does not include determinations to selfless behavior made from an a priori awareness of duty.

    I perceive you have no experience with apologists for either morality or religion who are not bound by false notions of an inerrant Bible.

    Or is my comment no different than those others which, in your experience, you have categorized as ‘mind-numbing’?

    • Not to keep things on track but I do find the discussion of Kant interesting as used by Lorenz in his 60’s study on Aggression, where issues like object fixation and militant enthusiasm are discussed as areas that are developed abstractly and morally by humans by affixing labels that differentiate but don’t really distinguish animal and human behavior. A chimp’s hair-raising stiff gaited territorial display Lorenz saw as a close relation of seried ranks of infantry rattling sabers. But even Lorenz saw the rational limits of behavioralism; the chimps will never be Kant, never rationalize their behavior, never say anything as paradoxical as “A truly reasonable man would never kill another.” The basic problem is, Harris promises a naturalistic basis for morality here, then retreats to philosophy for his premises, and returns with a completely different sense of the word “ought.” Orr has him to rights. At the same time, Harris never mentions 75 years of work in behavioral psychology that is directly related to the subject he is addressing, and merely glances at 200 years worth of ethical speculation. I have now read the book twice. it is not just bad, it is absolutely terrible.

    • @John – Words, not actions, define the man? Really?

      Bongo hoarded food. The other chimps essentially shunned him, not letting him have more.

      “I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.” ~John Locke

      • You see I had no idea, but now that you have helped me by contributing an example you think has value, I reject it. I don’t see how we get from an act of shunning a food hoarder to any discussion of morality. So there’s no example here, actually.

        Locke? Really?

        “Interpretations” of a man’s thoughts by his actions is moralism, not moral judgment in the Kantian sense.

      • I think I am on John’s team on this. No one is doubting behavioral similarities. But morality is imputed through language, even if the imputing is done to chimpanzees or geese–which is why I brought Lorenz up. Language is not irrelevant because it’s the means through which the moral universe is shaped. And I think that in terms of evolution it is language that fast forwards the species from action to reflective action. Certainly this is what Huxley (as in Julian) thought even before behaviorism was a science. The issue is not Kant or chimps, surely: it’s what we do with a word chimps don’t cipher: Ought.

      • I fail to see why you feel that words matter. Morality, adhering to a system of moral behavior.

        mor·al adj \ˈmȯr-əl, ˈmär-\

        1 : of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical (moral judgments) © 2011 Merriam-Webster

        The other monkeys saw that Bongo was doing something that they felt was wrong. They distinguished between good behavior and bad. They made, by definition, a moral judgement.

        Are you going to discriminate against them simply because they’re lower on the evolutionary scale? Primates are known to be tool users, several species mate for life, some can learn to use language, all of them show emotion.

        Give one a shave and a suit, and I know several humans they could easily replace (and in many cases it would be an improvement).

        If a creature makes a moral judgement, how is that not de facto evidence of morality?

  8. John Anngeister, there are many studies involving animal behavior, some of which reveal actions that could be interpreted by a reasonable person as “moral.” If you are really interested in this subject, a good starting point might be Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee.” (Genetically, humans are closed to the common chimpanzee and the bonobo than any others in the great ape family.) Of course, anything by Jane Goodall, who spent a lifetime studying chimpanzees in the wild, would be interesting. Her 1986 book, “The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior” describes some of the chimps’ “moral code.” More recently, there is “Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals” by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce. Published in 2009, it covers the moral lives of such commonly studied animals as primates, wolves, household rodents, elephants, and dolphins, among others. Dolphins, of course, are legendary for their “selfless good” in saving who-knows-how-many humans. Anyway, there is much more literature on this subject as a quick google search will show.

    As to your challenge to my “definition of ‘selfless good’ in regard to animal behavior,” I refer you to the above. If, after becoming more familiar with those studies, you still wish to challenge my descriptor, which, by th way, I just made up, I would be happy to discuss the matter further.

  9. rjosephhoffmann says, “morality is imputed through language, even if the imputing is done to chimpanzees or geese–which is why I brought Lorenz up. Language is not irrelevant because it’s the means through which the moral universe is shaped. And I think that in terms of evolution it is language that fast forwards the species from action to reflective action.” This says, to me anyway, that morality didn’t exist until humans came along with language sufficient to describe it.

    I’ve never heard any medal of honor recipient credit his commanding officer for telling him to “get out there in harm’s way and don’t stop till you get yourself killed or nominated for a medal of honor!” No, there is something about those soldiers, something beyond words, that compels them to do what those of us who thought about it for a second and a half would not dare do.

    “On Oct. 30, 2004, lifeguard Rob Howes and three women were on a training swim about 100 meters off Ocean Beach near Whangarei on the North Island of New Zealand. While they were swimming, a pod of dolphins suddenly came steaming at them and started circling. The dolphins bunched the four swimmers together and began slapping the water with their tails for about 40 minutes. Howes drifted away from the main group when an opening occurred. It was then that he saw a great white shark several feet away. When the shark started moving toward the women, the dolphins went into hyper-drive. Howes said, ‘I would suggest they were creating a confusion screen around the girls. It was just a mass of fins, backs and human heads.’ The shark left as a rescue boat neared, but the dolphins remained close by as the group swam back to shore.”

    So, what, exactly, did the dolphins get out this behavior? Were they after the dolphin equivalent of a medal of honor? Were they doing this for some other reward? Did this action somehow enhance their ability to survive? Did some humans, standing safely on shore, make a psychological evaluation and yell to the dolphins that their behavior was a “selfless good?” Do dolphins have a “Golden Rule” gene?

    I think dolphins are just altruistic by nature and that altruism extends, by way of empathy, to other species. In fact, I suspect these dolphins would have done the same exact thing 50,000 years ago, with no language then, as now, to guide them.

  10. On reflection, how about starting up a “Dolphin-ism Movement?” From what I understand of their behavior, they seem to be actually living out and practicing most, if not all, of what we call Humanist principles. All the Humanists who are tired of the Gnus could join. I’m pretty sure, though not completely, that dolphins have no evangelistic, fundamentalist religions to deal with, nor anything remotely connected to Catholicism or Islam. Consequently, any Gnus that did sign up would soon get bored and leave anyway. We could have a contest to come up with logos, and motos for t-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs. I think it would make a big splash. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) It’s gotta be a win-win. Thoughts?

  11. Pingback: 04 May Religion and Atheism News Digest | Evangelically Atheist

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