Sam Harris is a controversial philosophy writer with an atheistbackground. His works have triggered the thoughts of many scholarswhom he always challenges to look for loopholes and criticize themaccordingly. In his book, The Moral Landscape, Harrisgave a reward for anyone who would convince him to change hisperception towards the ability of science to guide morality. Harrisexplores the ability of science to determine human values. Harrisholds that science can objectively inform human beings about moralityand give answers on what is favorable and wrong.1 As a non-religious philosopher, he has been under heavy criticismfrom the scholars who term his views as biased and a reinforcement ofthe ancient atheist ideology. The issue of science having thecapacity to give moral advice attracts two schools of thought. Inthis paper, I will explore the pro and counter arguments of Harris’claims and demonstrate that while his argument is not absolutelycorrect, it is tainted with some hyperbolic claims that sciencecannot fulfill.
Human conscious is primary in determining what is moral. Harrispostulates that consciousness is a natural phenomenon hence, it canbe studied by science. The normative in the universe has to do withthe connection that human beings have with other creatures.2Since consciousness happens in the brain, it can be studied throughneuroscience. His argument is convincing since human beings do nothave ethical obligations towards non-living creatures. For example,the ethical responsibility that one towards his friends or an animalis different from what they would extend towards a rock. Besides,cultural orientation has far-reaching effects on their perception.Neurobiology, therefore, can be the key to a moral discourse.
Secondly, Haris is passionate about the relationship between valueand consciousness. According to him, the concept of value is inherentin creatures that are conscious. Besides, consciousness is the domainof intelligible creatures. For example, non-living creatures do nothave any obligation for morality since they are not consciousness.Upholding values guide behavior since intelligible creatures perceivethe expected benefits and losses3.For example, what human beings ought to do can determine what can beuniversally beneficial. For example, scientific facts show thattaking care of the environment can save human beings from varioushealth conditions. Therefore, they ought to protect it.
In addition to attributing consciousness to intelligent creatures,Harris strongly associates harm and objectivity to valuable meanings.According to him, natural goodness is similar to the logic ofattributions. An activity that results in a benefit to a creature isregarded as good. Therefore, the virtue of goodness is attached tolife.4The relationship between morality and what is acceptable can set astandard for behavior. Harris demonstrates this by outlining that aleaf on a tree does not fault by its inability to read poetry. Thehypothesis for this is that literature does not play any significantrole in the life of leaves. Conversely, the same leaf would bevalueless if it cannot harness sunlight energy to make food. Theauthor is consequently right by propounding that pursuing what isbeneficial is a scrupulous liability. Harris avers that science is animperative tool to determine what works for the perquisite of humanbeings. It is, therefore, an avenue for guiding virtuous conduct.
On a contradictory approach, Owen Flanagan outlines that beforedetermining what is moral and obligatory for human beings, it isimperative to consider their fallibility and inability to fulfillsome tasks. According to him, “ought” implies “can.”Individuals cannot have a responsibility to satisfy a requirement ifthey do not have the capacity towards such a task.5Harris errs by assuming that “ought” can be derived from “is.”According to David Hume, all items of knowledge have a basis on givencurrent situation.6The situations that are “ought” to be are not known, and therecan be no moral knowledge towards them.
Harris observes that separating science and human values is anillusion. According to him, values and facts belong to the samespheres. In his Treatise of Human Nature, David Humedifferentiates the ideologies of what is and what is ought to be.Harris idea is a frontal attack on Hume’s idea since one cannotentirely derive values from facts.7For example, among chimpanzees that are not obliged to have humanvalues, science indicates that rape is a common activity among them.Some scientists have made revolutionary arguments to explain thepractice of rape among human beings. Nonetheless, while science showsthat there is an aspect evolutionary fact on rape, it does notexplain if it is right for a human to perpetrate it.8From, Hume’s argument, what is natural does not always constitutewhat is right. Among human beings, it is a heinous activity to forcesomeone into sex. Moral philosophy and common sense also disregardthe act. Therefore, Harris errs by assuming that values and facts areinseparable.
In addition, Harris definition of morality as a channel to flourishhuman behavior leads him to question the role played by religion inlife. He attributes religious practices to animism that allows it tofit well in people’s lives. In his view, the dogmas inhibitreason.9Initially, some people relied heavily on witchcraft and magic as thefoundation of their logic. Gradually, scientific discoveries renderedsome of the beliefs obsolete. However, Chris Mooney argues that thereis no superficial and fundamental conflict between them. He assertsthat not all scientific claims have been certified, and the sameapply to religious teachings.10Consequently, Mooney believes that science cannot take the positionof religion in shaping morality.
The author asserts that doing what is right pertains to the ideologyof duty and obligation. Harris fails to address the meta-ethicalissue that defines right and good. Obligation inclines to the moralrules that are universally accepted. Conversely, what is goodpertains to the benefits or harm associated with an activity.11Harris pitches his camp in goodness, and he convincingly spells outthe implications of what is beneficial and detrimental to humans andother creatures. However, apart from claiming that goodness trumpsrighteousness, he does not demonstrate whether goodness describesmorality or a duty.
In addition, Harris` argument reinforces the philosophy ofexplanatory reductionism. He believes that understanding the complexnature of the objects found in the universe can be more effective ifthey are broken down into small constituents.12However, Putnam counters this argument by inferring that the overallappearance and composition of an item is a better explanation sinceit can lead to understanding the nature of an item without going intothe details. He gives the example of using quantum physics to explainwhy a square peg cannot fit into a cylindrical hole. While the firstmethod can give a correct explanation, the overall geometry can stillgive a valid solution. Therefore, the epistemic reductionismsupported by Harris does not override the ontological reductionism.In fact, it leads to further breakdown of the constituents ofbehavior. While trying to understanding human morality using scienceand facts, the result is not always true.
In conclusion, while Harris claims harbor that scientific logic istainted with some hyperbolic claims, which facts cannot fulfill. Theauthor substantively demonstrates that consciousness is inherent inintelligible creatures. Since it can be traced to the brain, sciencecan explain the virtuous process and consequently detail thecomposition of morality. Nonetheless, he errs in his arguments thathuman beings ought to do what is right. It ties them to a moralresponsibility. Hume counter argues this by asserting that one cannotbe held morally responsible for tasks that are beyond his/hercapacity. Harris does not provide a convincing argument on theimpediment of religion to reasoning and moral knowledge. While it isfactual that science has dismissed some baseless religious beliefs,it has not managed to term all the teaching as obsolete andobstructive. Finally, while his tests what constitutes morality andgoodness as what makes human life flourish, he fails to outlinewhether virtue constitutes a duty.
AllenOrr. The Science of Right and Wrong. The New York Review of Books.May 12 2011. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/05/12/science-right-and-wrong/
Armstrong, Ari. “Sam Harris’s Failure toFormulate a Scientific Morality.” The Objective Standard,Vol. 7.4 (2011).
Austin L. Hughes. The Folly of Scientism. The New Atlantis, 2012.Retrieved fromhttp://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism
Harris, Sam. Themoral landscape: How science can determine human values.New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.
Hudson, William Donald. "The is-oughtquestion: A collection of papers on the central problems in moralphilosophy." (1969).
1 Harris, Sam. The moral landscape: How science can determine human values (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011), p6.
2 Harris, p9
3 Harris, p12
4 Harris, p14
5 Armstrong, Ari. “Sam Harris’s Failure to Formulate a Scientific Morality.” The Objective Standard, Vol. 7.4 (2011), p5
6 Hudson, William Donald. "The is-ought question: A collection of papers on the central problems in moral philosophy." (1969), p7
7 Armstrong, The Objective Standard, p.8
8 Allen Orr. The Science of Right and Wrong. The New York Review of Books. May 12 2011. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/05/12/science-right-and-wrong/
9 Harris, 23
10 Austin, Hughes. The Folly of Scientism. The New Atlantis, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism