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.