Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris, a reflection.

“The moral choice cannot be right independently of Practical Wisdom and Moral Goodness; because this gives the right End, that causes the doing these things which conduce to the End.”

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Book VI

The Moral Landscape is the hypothetical space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest suffering.

In this book, Sam discusses the different ways of thinking and behaving, and cultural practices. The innate differences among individuals create different degrees of peaks and valleys, highs and lows. And so, these differences will translate into movements across this landscape.

He argues that questions on human values – about meaning, morality, and life’s purpose – are questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. And in his book, he makes five parts for discussion:

1. Moral Truth

While we believe that there are different moral preferences and opinions because there are different human experiences, Sam Harris attempts to direct us to moral absolute; yet, he admits that there are no right answers to moral questions for science to discover, yet. Still, we can identify a morality of actions through his design of moral landscape.

Some actions lead to a greater peak of well-being than others. Or, some experiences result in worse suffering than others. There is real diversity in peaks and valleys that we can experience in this life. Such diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science, in this case through psychology and neuroscience. But, Sam Harris admits that many of the details in this proposition remain unclear.

He suggests that it is safe to begin with the premise that it is good to behave in such a way that can produce positive changes for us and everyone else. Much of our moral reasoning – our ability to ought what is good or bad – must be applied to situations in which there is tension between our concerns for ourselves and those closest to us. And, sometimes that it would be better if we will be of help for others. In this sense, the term better refers to positive changes in our experiences.

2. Good and Evil

The human value (good and evil) in an act depends on how it impacts our well-being. It also depends upon the consequences of experiencing such value. Without the potential consequences at the level of lived experiences, value is empty. Experiences can be said to lie within the action of a conscious man.

These actions, like what Aristotle mentioned in Nicomachean Ethics, are either voluntary or involuntary actions. The former is associated with intentions (desires, goals, expectations, etc.) while the other is not. Sam Harris asserts that human goodness and human evil are the product of natural events. And we have to be responsible for whatever we did in keeping with our intentions, thoughts, desires, and beliefs.

3. Belief

Sam Harris defines belief as the brain capacity to accept such propositions as true – as valid guides to behavior and emotion, as predictive of future outcomes, etc. – explains the transformative powers of words.

We often come to accept statements if we feel that their source is reliable. For some of us, we believe a statement if it makes us feel better. Our emotions play a role in making our reasons to accept and believe a certain statement. And to believe reasonably, we must have a feeling for the truth, conceptual or experiential. And to really believe a proposition, we must also believe that we are in touch with reality.

4. Religion

Sam Harris is a known opponent of any religion. But in this book, he mentions that he sees nothing irrational about seeking states of mind that lie at the core of many of the world’s religions. He admits that compassion, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have. While he is a reliable person to consult about science, he is an unreliable person to learn about the most valuable experiences that religion can offer.

5. The Future of Happiness

There can be a lot of meaning when we use the word happiness. We may relate it to harmless well-being or human flourishing. Some choices that we make are generally good and it gives us a sense that we are happy. While some of our choices undermine that feeling.

Sam Harris admits that it is difficult to study the most positive aspects of human experience scientifically. And our conception of what is possible in our life will affect our judgment of whether we are living up to our potential, if we are meeting our goals, if we are developing good relationships, and if we have control over our lives.

One of the virtues of thinking about a moral landscape, we have to think about how to reach the peak or to move up as oppose to down. We may refer to moving-up as an act of improvement of well-being or human flourishing. And that gives us a sense of satisfaction or can be a feeling of happiness.

We cannot perfectly measure or reconcile the competing needs of billions of humans. But what we can do is to try within our practical limits.

So, Sam Harris hopes that as science develops, it can help us understand what we should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. Maybe in the future, science, through its application and progress, can answer the most complex question on human values.

This book is not for everyone.

If you are open to the ideas of other people, no matter how much you agree or disagree with them, you may find the ideas in this book thought-provoking. It contains ideas about human values, happiness, suffering, and questions about good and bad.

The answers you are looking for every question that you have about life does not have to be scientific, religious, political, or economical, to say the least, it also can be personally experiential.

Remember, at the end of the day, you have to do what you ought is harmless for yourself and the people around you. Similarly, you have not to do what you ought is harmful for yourself and the people around you.

What do you think about my thoughts you just read? Comment them below
If you want to read some reviews about the book, click here.

  1. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris.
  2. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.

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My 2020 goal is to read a book per month; share with people what I learn from and feel about the book. For August 2020, the book I read is The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris.

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