Moral Landscape challenge to Sam Harris

The skepdick submitted this essay in response to Sam Harris’ challenge about his book, The Moral Landscape.  The essay contest rules are here.


Challenge to The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Let me begin by dividing moral behavior into four separate categories, two of which are easily answered with science, and two which are not. This will illustrate how science provides us with correct answers about some, but not all moral questions.

 Type 1: Delusion

Behavior prescribed by religious dogma or magical based belief; always derived from non-reality and often based on fear of imaginary constructs or intended to please said constructs. Examples include suicide bombing, forcing women to wear a burqa, refusing contraception, the actions of the Dobu, following commandments, etc.

Type 2: Harm

Behavior which physically harms another human or forces another to do something against their will. Examples include clitoral mutilation, the holocaust, racism, rape, murder, theft, etc.

Type 3: Community

Behavior construed as harmful to the community (decency or comfort level) rather than an individual. Examples include public nudity, free speech, drug use, privacy, etc.

Type 4: Ideological

Behavior resulting in no direct harm, but which requires a necessarily subjective measure of risk tolerance and usually operates on a large scale. Examples include nuclear power, genetic engineering, space programs, global warming, health care, opportunity costs of time, abortion, charity, etc.


Type 1 morals have an obvious answer and clearly fall within the purview of science, for a rational person knows that when a behavior is derived from non-reality that behavior must always be wrong. This is not to say these morals are wrong in substance, which must be judged on its own merit and placed in a different moral category, rather they are wrong because of their source. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is correct moral behavior, because murder results in harm to another person (type 2) not because of the fear of going to an imaginary hell (type 1).

Type 2 morals are also easily measured by science since a rational person knows when physical harm is being done to another human and can therefore easily discern correct moral behavior (just don’t hurt other people).

My thesis is that type 3 and 4 morals don’t have obvious right answers for the simple reason that there isn’t one right answer to these types of subjective moral questions. If I force someone to wear a burqa because of what’s written in the Koran, I’m making a type 1 error because my action isn’t based on reality and a type 2 error because I’m forcing a woman to do something against her will. But since this woman must wear some clothing in public, who is to say how much? Pants? Shorts? A bikini? Nothing? There’s a sliding scale to this type 3 moral behavior and while science can certainly measure the amount of clothing she wears and facts can be said about its effect on society, this doesn’t mean there’s a true or best answer.

I worry about global warming and would prefer more nuclear power over coal. Is there one answer with which I’m comfortable as to how many and how far from my house nuclear plants are built? No, there are quite a few answers which would make me equally happy. A moral plateau, if you will, implying no moral truth, only a series of equally valid truths, how can science say which truth is better than another?

Mr. Harris writes that morality comes from a conscious mind and while I agree with him that minds are natural phenomena, I think his conclusion doesn’t logically follow that everything in nature has a right and wrong answer.

If we could in principle measure all the atoms in a human brain, there would be scientific truths to be said about that brain. We could correlate a specific brain state to this person’s reported increase or decrease in well-being, but note the word, “reported”. Just because we could measure unimaginably precise brain states, being able to rank type 3 and 4 moral behavior is still subjective.

Measurement and existence doesn’t imply any truth, it only means we’re able to measure a lot of variables. Having images of different brain states correlating to behavior still requires that we have some starting point. To say that one brain state equates to a higher spot on the ladder of well-being than another requires us to have a method of ranking either the behavior or the brain states. Based on what? Who decides what constitutes the higher spot on the ladder? Yes, worst possible misery is easy to judge, but that will rarely exist when discussing type 3 or 4 morals. Because I see the landscape as a plateau, I don’t see one right answer.

As an aside, thinking about the difference between answers in principle and answers in practice seems to be a waste of time. Technically, like the illusion of free will, since we are all made of atoms our choices are determined by those atoms, not by our conscious minds. If this is so, then I suppose our behavior is also determined by those atoms and can therefore be predicted, in principle. Technically, in principle, the laptop I’m writing on right now could at any moment transform itself into a hippopotamus. The odds are hugely against, but technically you have to admit that it’s a possibility. What is the point of saying something is technically possible or answerable in principle? This might be the topic of a separate discussion.

In conclusion, science easily shows us with type 1 and type 2 morals there are right and wrong answers and therefore moral truths that transcend cultures. This leaves us with the subjective type 3 and 4 morals, and even though there are real facts to be said about them, there can be no truth, only many different truths populating a moral plateau based on individual tastes, preferences, and risk tolerances. Just because real things exist in reality, doesn’t mean that there are correct answers to subjective questions.

-Jordan Brock






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