The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values - Sam Harris (2010)
Chapter 1. MORAL TRUTH
Many people believe that something in the last few centuries of intellectual progress prevents us from speaking in terms of “moral truth” and, therefore, from making cross-cultural moral judgments—or moral judgments at all. Having discussed this subject in a variety of public forums, I have heard from literally thousands of highly educated men and women that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions (and are, therefore, nonsensical), and that concepts like well-being and misery are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them.1
Many of these people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose in any case. They think we can combat human evil all the while knowing that our notions of “good” and “evil” are completely unwarranted. It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the “contextual” legitimacy of the burqa, or of female genital mutilation, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that moral relativism does nothing to diminish a person’s commitment to making the world a better place.2
And so it is obvious that before we can make any progress toward a science of morality, we will have to clear some philosophical brush. In this chapter, I attempt to do this within the limits of what I imagine to be most readers’ tolerance for such projects. Those who leave this section with their doubts intact are encouraged to consult the endnotes.
First, I want to be very clear about my general thesis: I am not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor am I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. These would be quite banal claims to make—unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution, the mind’s dependency on the brain, or the general utility of science. Rather I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.
Once we see that a concern for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values, we will see that there must be a science of morality, whether or not we ever succeed in developing it: because the well-being of conscious creatures depends upon how the universe is, altogether. Given that changes in the physical universe and in our experience of it can be understood, science should increasingly enable us to answer specific moral questions. For instance, would it be better to spend our next billion dollars eradicating racism or malaria? Which is generally more harmful to our personal relationships, “white” lies or gossip? Such questions may seem impossible to get a hold of at this moment, but they may not stay that way forever. As we come to understand how human beings can best collaborate and thrive in this world, science can help us find a path leading away from the lowest depths of misery and toward the heights of happiness for the greatest number of people. Of course, there will be practical impediments to evaluating the consequences of certain actions, and different paths through life may be morally equivalent (i.e., there may be many peaks on the moral landscape), but I am arguing that there are no obstacles, in principle, to our speaking about moral truth.
It seems to me, however, that most educated, secular people (and this includes most scientists, academics, and journalists) believe that there is no such thing as moral truth—only moral preference, moral opinion, and emotional reactions that we mistake for genuine knowledge of right and wrong. While we can understand how human beings think and behave in the name of “morality,” it is widely imagined that there are no right answers to moral questions for science to discover.
Some people maintain this view by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms, as though it were synonymous with mathematical modeling or immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn. There are many tools one must get in hand to think scientifically—ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc.—and these must be put to use long before one starts worrying about mathematical models or specific data.
Many people are also confused about what it means to speak with scientific “objectivity” about the human condition. As the philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective.”3 The first sense relates to how we know (i.e., epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e., ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively,” we generally mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counterarguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, and so on. This is to make a claim about how we are thinking. In this sense, there is no impediment to our studying subjective (i.e., first-person) facts “objectively.”
For instance, it is true to say that I am experiencing tinnitus (ringing in my ear) at this moment. This is a subjective fact about me, but in stating this fact, I am being entirely objective: I am not lying; I am not exaggerating for effect; I am not expressing a mere preference or personal bias. I am simply stating a fact about what I am hearing at this moment. I have also been to an otologist and had the associated hearing loss in my right ear confirmed. No doubt, my experience of tinnitus must have an objective (third-person) cause that could be discovered (likely, damage to my cochlea). There is simply no question that I can speak about my tinnitus in the spirit of scientific objectivity—and, indeed, the sciences of mind are largely predicated on our being able to correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain. This is the only way to study a phenomenon like depression: the underlying brain states must be distinguished with reference to a person’s subjective experience.
However, many people seem to think that because moral facts relate to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e., biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue. I hope it is clear that when I speak about “objective” moral truths, or about the “objective” causes of human well-being, I am not denying the necessarily subjective (i.e., experiential) component of the facts under discussion. I am certainly not claiming that moral truths exist independent of the experience of conscious beings—like the Platonic Form of the Good4—or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong.5 I am simply saying that, given that there are facts—real facts—to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice.
And, as I have said, people consistently fail to distinguish between there being answers in practice and answers in principle to specific questions about the nature of reality. When thinking about the application of science to questions of human well-being, it is crucial that we not lose sight of this distinction. After all, there are countless phenomena that are subjectively real, which we can discuss objectively (i.e., honestly and rationally), but which remain impossible to describe with precision. Consider the complete set of “birthday wishes” corresponding to every conscious hope that people have entertained silently while blowing out candles on birthday cakes. Will we ever be able to retrieve these unspoken thoughts? Of course not. Many of us would be hard-pressed to recall even one of our own birthday wishes. Does this mean that these wishes never existed or that we can’t make true or false statements about them? What if I were to say that every one of these wishes was phrased in Latin, focused on improvements in solar panel technology, and produced by the activity of exactly 10,000 neurons in each person’s brain? Is this a vacuous assertion? No, it is quite precise and surely wrong. But only a lunatic could believe such a thing about his fellow human beings. Clearly, we can make true or false claims about human (and animal) subjectivity, and we can often evaluate these claims without having access to the facts in question. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do. And yet many scientists will say that moral truths do not exist, simply because certain facts about human experience cannot be readily known, or may never be known. As I hope to show, this misunderstanding has created tremendous confusion about the relationship between human knowledge and human values.
Another thing that makes the idea of moral truth difficult to discuss is that people often employ a double standard when thinking about consensus: most people take scientific consensus to mean that scientific truths exist, and they consider scientific controversy to be merely a sign that further work remains to be done; and yet many of these same people believe that moral controversy proves that there can be no such thing as moral truth, while moral consensus shows only that human beings often harbor the same biases. Clearly, this double standard rigs the game against a universal conception of morality.6
The deeper issue, however, is that truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: one person can be right, and everyone else can be wrong. Consensus is a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.7 There are surely physical, chemical, and biological facts about which we are ignorant or mistaken. In speaking of “moral truth,” I am saying that there must be facts regarding human and animal well-being about which we can also be ignorant or mistaken. In both cases, science—and rational thought generally—is the tool we can use to uncover these facts.
And here is where the real controversy begins, for many people strongly object to my claim that morality and values relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. My critics seem to think that consciousness holds no special place where values are concerned, or that any state of consciousness stands the same chance of being valued as any other. The most common objection to my argument is some version of the following:
But you haven’t said why the well-being of conscious beings ought to matter to us. If someone wants to torture all conscious beings to the point of madness, what is to say that he isn’t just as “moral” as you are?
While I do not think anyone sincerely believes that this kind of moral skepticism makes sense, there is no shortage of people who will press this point with a ferocity that often passes for sincerity.
Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings. Take a moment to think about what this would entail: whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—it would seem, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe.
So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of human values and morality is not an arbitrary starting point.8
Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that the concept of “well-being” captures all that we can intelligibly value. And “morality”—whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be—reallyrelates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures.
On this point, religious conceptions of moral law are often put forward as counterexamples: for when asked why it is important to follow God’s law, many people will cannily say, “for its own sake.” Of course, it is possible to saythis, but this seems neither an honest nor a coherent claim. What if a more powerful God would punish us for eternity for following Yahweh’s law? Would it then make sense to follow Yahweh’s law “for its own sake”? The inescapable fact is that religious people are as eager to find happiness and to avoid misery as anyone else: many of them just happen to believe that the most important changes in conscious experience occur after death (i.e., in heaven or in hell). And while Judaism is sometimes held up as an exception—because it tends not to focus on the afterlife—the Hebrew Bible makes it absolutely clear that Jews should follow Yahweh’s law out of concern for the negative consequences of not following it. People who do not believe in God or an afterlife, and yet still think it important to subscribe to a religious tradition, only believe this because living this way seems to make some positive contribution to their well-being or to the well-being of others.9
Religious notions of morality, therefore, are not exceptions to our common concern for well-being. And all other philosophical efforts to describe morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the well-being of conscious creatures, draw upon some conception of well-being in the end.10
The doubts that immediately erupt on this point invariably depend upon bizarre and restrictive notions of what the term “well-being” might mean.11 I think there is little doubt that most of what matters to the average person—like fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality—will be integral to our creating a thriving global civilization and, therefore, to the greater well-being of humanity.12 And, as I have said, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive—many peaks on the moral landscape—so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in this life, such diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science. The concept of “well-being,” like the concept of “health,” is truly open for revision and discovery. Just how fulfilled is it possible for us to be, personally and collectively? What are the conditions—ranging from changes in the genome to changes in economic systems—that will produce such happiness? We simply do not know.
But what if certain people insist that their “values” or “morality” have nothing to do with well-being? Or, more realistically, what if their conception of well-being is so idiosyncratic and circumscribed as to be hostile, in principle, to the well-being of all others? For instance, what if a man like Jeffrey Dahmer says, “The only peaks on the moral landscape that interest me are ones where I get to murder young men and have sex with their corpses.” This possibility—the prospect of radically different moral commitments—is at the heart of many people’s doubts about moral truth.
Again, we should observe the double standard in place regarding the significance of consensus: those who do not share our scientific goals have no influence on scientific discourse whatsoever; but, for some reason, people who do not share our moral goals render us incapable of even speaking about moral truth. It is, perhaps, worth remembering that there are trained “scientists” who are Biblical Creationists, and their “scientific” thinking is purposed toward interpreting the data of science to fit the Book of Genesis. Such people claim to be doing “science,” of course, but real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term. Similarly, there are people who claim to be highly concerned about “morality” and “human values,” but when we see that their beliefs cause tremendous misery, nothing need prevent us from saying that they are misusing the term “morality” or that their values are distorted. How have we convinced ourselves that, on the most important questions in human life, all views must count equally?
Consider the Catholic Church: an organization which advertises itself as the greatest force for good and as the only true bulwark against evil in the universe. Even among non-Catholics, its doctrines are widely associated with the concepts of “morality” and “human values.” However, the Vatican is an organization that excommunicates women for attempting to become priests13 but does not excommunicate male priests for raping children.14 It excommunicates doctors who perform abortions to save a mother’s life—even if the mother is a nine-year-old girl raped by her stepfather and pregnant with twins15—but it did not excommunicate a single member of the Third Reich for committing genocide. Are we really obliged to consider such a diabolical inversion of priorities to be evidence of an alternative “moral” framework? No. It seems clear that the Catholic Church is as misguided in speaking about the “moral” peril of contraception, for instance, as it would be in speaking about the “physics” of Transubstantiation. In both domains, it is true to say that the Church is grotesquely confused about which things in this world are worth paying attention to.
However, many people will continue to insist that we cannot speak about moral truth, or anchor morality to a deeper concern for well-being, because concepts like “morality” and “well-being” must be defined with reference to specific goals and other criteria—and nothing prevents people from disagreeing about these definitions. I might claim that morality is really about maximizing well-being and that well-being entails a wide range of psychological virtues and wholesome pleasures, but someone else will be free to say that morality depends upon worshipping the gods of the Aztecs and that well-being, if it matters at all, entails always having a terrified person locked in one’s basement, waiting to be sacrificed.
Of course, goals and conceptual definitions matter. But this holds for all phenomena and for every method we might use to study them. My father, for instance, has been dead for twenty-five years. What do I mean by “dead”? Do I mean “dead” with reference to specific goals? Well, if you must, yes—goals like respiration, energy metabolism, responsiveness to stimuli, etc. The definition of “life” remains, to this day, difficult to pin down. Does this mean we can’t study life scientifically? No. The science of biology thrives despite such ambiguities. Again, the concept of “health” is looser still: it, too, must be defined with reference to specific goals—not suffering chronic pain, not always vomiting, etc.—and these goals are continually changing. Our notion of “health” may one day be defined by goals that we cannot currently entertain with a straight face (like the goal of spontaneously regenerating a lost limb). Does this mean we can’t study health scientifically?
I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that he is not as healthy as you are?” And yet these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously.
One of my critics put the concern this way: “Morals are relative to the time and place in which they appear. If you do not already accept well-being as a value, then there seems to be no argument for why one should promote well-being.” As proof of this assertion, he observed that I would be unable to convince the Taliban that they value the wrong things. By this standard, however, the truths of science are also “relative to the time and place in which they appear,” and there is no way to convince someone who does not value empirical evidence that he should value it.16 Despite 150 years of working at it, we still can’t convince a majority of Americans that evolution is a fact. Does this mean biology isn’t a proper science?
Everyone has an intuitive “physics,” but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter). Only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being). And only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.17 Yes, we must have a goal to define what counts as “right” or “wrong” when speaking about physics or morality, but this criterion visits us equally in both domains. And yes, I think it is quite clear that members of the Taliban are seeking well-being in this world (as well as hoping for it in the next). But their religious beliefs have led them to create a culture that is almost perfectly hostile to human flourishing. Whatever they think they want out of life—like keeping all women and girls subjugated and illiterate—they simply do not understand how much better life would be for them if they had different priorities.
Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science. Medicine can resolve specific questions about human health—and it can do this even while the very definition of “health” continues to change. Indeed, the science of medicine can make marvelous progress without knowing how much its own progress will alter our conception of health in the future.
I think our concern for well-being is even less in need of justification than our concern for health is—as health is merely one of its many facets. And once we begin thinking seriously about human well-being, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values, even while our conception of “well-being” evolves.
It is essential to see that the demand for radical justification leveled by the moral skeptic could not be met by any branch of science. Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. Does this make science itself unscientific? If so, we appear to have pulled ourselves down by our bootstraps.
It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic?18 We might observe that standard science is better at predicting the behavior of matter than Creationist “science” is. But what could we say to a “scientist” whose only goal is to authenticate the Word of God? Here, we seem to reach an impasse. And yet, no one thinks that the failure of standard science to silence all possible dissent has any significance whatsoever; why should we demand more of a science of morality?19
Many moral skeptics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of the world.20 They insist that notions of what we ought to do or value can be justified only in terms of other “oughts,” never in terms of facts about the way the world is. After all, in a world of physics and chemistry, how could things like moral obligations or values really exist? How could it be objectively true, for instance, that we ought to be kind to children?
But this notion of “ought” is an artificial and needlessly confusing way to think about moral choice. In fact, it seems to be another dismal product of Abrahamic religion—which, strangely enough, now constrains the thinking of even atheists. If this notion of “ought” means anything we can possibly care about, it must translate into a concern about the actual or potential experience of conscious beings (either in this life or in some other). For instance, to say that we ought to treat children with kindness seems identical to saying that everyone will tend to be better off if we do. The person who claims that he does not want to be better off is either wrong about what he does, in fact, want (i.e., he doesn’t know what he’s missing), or he is lying, or he is not making sense. The person who insists that he is committed to treating children with kindness for reasons that have nothing to do with anyone’s well-being is also not making sense. It is worth noting in this context that the God of Abraham never told us to treat children with kindness, but He did tell us to kill them for talking back to us (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13, and Matthew 15:4-7). And yet everyone finds this “moral” imperative perfectly insane. Which is to say that no one—not even fundamentalist Christians and orthodox Jews—can so fully ignore the link between morality and human well-being as to be truly bound by God’s law.21
The Worst Possible Misery for Everyone
I have argued that values only exist relative to actual and potential changes in the well-being of conscious creatures. However, as I have said, many people seem to have strange associations with the concept of “well-being”—imagining that it must be at odds with principles like justice, autonomy, fairness, scientific curiosity, etc., when it simply isn’t. They also worry that the concept of “well-being” is poorly defined. Again, I have indicated why I do not think this is a problem (just as it’s not a problem with concepts like “life” and “health”). However, it is also useful to notice that a universal morality can be defined with reference to the negative end of the spectrum of conscious experience: I refer to this extreme as “the worst possible misery for everyone.”
Even if each conscious being has a unique nadir on the moral landscape, we can still conceive of a state of the universe in which everyone suffers as much as he or she (or it) possibly can. If you think we cannot say this would be “bad,” then I don’t know what you could mean by the word “bad” (and I don’t think you know what you mean by it either). Once we conceive of “the worst possible misery for everyone,” then we can talk about taking incremental steps toward this abyss: What could it mean for life on earth to get worse for all human beings simultaneously? Notice that this need have nothing to do with people enforcing their culturally conditioned moral precepts. Perhaps a neurotoxic dust could fall to earth from space and make everyone extremely uncomfortable. All we need imagine is a scenario in which everyone loses a little, or a lot, without there being compensatory gains (i.e., no one learns any important lessons, no one profits from others’ losses, etc.). It seems uncontroversial to say that a change that leaves everyone worse off, by any rational standard, can be reasonably called “bad,” if this word is to have any meaning at all.
We simply must stand somewhere. I am arguing that, in the moral sphere, it is safe to begin with the premise that it is good to avoid behaving in such a way as to produce the worst possible misery for everyone. I am not claiming that most of us personally care about the experience of all conscious beings; I am saying that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being. This is all we need to speak about “moral truth” in the context of science. Once we admit that the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing—whatever these states amount to for each particular being in the end—are different and dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.22
Granted, genuine ethical difficulties arise when we ask questions like, “How much should I care about other people’s children? How much should I be willing to sacrifice, or demand that my own children sacrifice, in order to help other people in need?” We are not, by nature, impartial—and much of our moral reasoning must be applied to situations in which there is tension between our concern for ourselves, or for those closest to us, and our sense that it would be better to be more committed to helping others. And yet “better” must still refer, in this context, to positive changes in the experience of sentient creatures.
Imagine if there were only two people living on earth: we can call them Adam and Eve. Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer number 1: smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, most solutions to the problem of how two people can thrive on earth will not be zero-sum. Surely the best solutions will not be zero-sum. Yes, both of these people could be blind to the deeper possibilities of collaboration: each might attempt to kill and eat the other, for instance. Would they be wrong to behave this way? Yes, if by “wrong” we mean that they would be forsaking far deeper and more durable sources of satisfaction. It seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on earth would be better off if they recognized their common interests—like getting food, building shelter, and defending themselves against larger predators. If Adam and Eve were industrious enough, they might realize the benefits of exploring the world, begetting future generations of humanity, and creating technology, art, and medicine. Are there good and bad paths to take across this landscape of possibilities? Of course. In fact, there are, by definition, paths that lead to the worst misery and paths that lead to the greatest fulfillment possible for these two people—given the structure of their respective brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature. The underlying facts here are the facts of physics, chemistry, and biology as they bear on the experience of the only two people in existence. Unless the human mind is fully separable from the principles of physics, chemistry, and biology, any fact about Adam and Eve’s subjective experience (morally salient or not) is a fact about (part of) the universe.23
In talking about the causes of Adam and Eve’s first-person experience, we are talking about an extraordinarily complex interplay between brain states and environmental stimuli. However complex these processes are, it is clearly possible to understand them to a greater or lesser degree (i.e., there are right and wrong answers to questions about Adam’s and Eve’s well-being). Even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive—and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of well-being and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?
Grounding our values in a continuum of conscious states—one that has the worst possible misery for everyone at its depths and differing degrees of well-being at all other points—seems like the only legitimate context in which to conceive of values and moral norms. Of course, anyone who has an alternative set of moral axioms is free to put them forward, just as they are free to define “science” any way they want. But some definitions will be useless, or worse—and many current definitions of “morality” are so bad that we can know, far in advance of any breakthrough in the sciences of mind, that they have no place in a serious conversation about how we should live in this world. The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan have nothing meaningful to say about particle physics, cell physiology, epidemiology, linguistics, economic policy, etc. How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being?24
The moment we admit that consciousness is the context in which any discussion of values makes sense, we must admit that there are facts to be known about how the experience of conscious creatures can change. Human and animal well-being are natural phenomena. As such, they can be studied, in principle, with the tools of science and spoken about with greater or lesser precision. Do pigs suffer more than cows do when being led to slaughter? Would humanity suffer more or less, on balance, if the United States unilaterally gave up all its nuclear weapons? Questions like these are very difficult to answer. But this does not mean that they don’t have answers.
The fact that it could be difficult or impossible to know exactly how to maximize human well-being does not mean that there are no right or wrong ways to do this—nor does it mean that we cannot exclude certain answers as obviously bad. For instance, there is often a tension between the autonomy of the individual and the common good, and many moral problems turn on just how to prioritize these competing values. However, autonomy brings obvious benefit to people and is, therefore, an important component of the common good. The fact that it might be difficult to decide exactly how to balance individual rights against collective interests, or that there might be a thousand equivalent ways of doing this, does not mean that there aren’t objectively terrible ways of doing this. The difficulty of getting precise answers to certain moral questions does not mean that we must hesitate to condemn the morality of the Taliban—not just personally, but from the point of view of science. The moment we admit that we know anything about human well-being scientifically, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures can be absolutely wrong about it.
Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”
There are very practical concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything—the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference. While much of the debate on these issues must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the “crime” of getting raped. The amazing thing is that some Western intellectuals won’t even blink when asked to defend these practices on philosophical grounds. I once spoke at an academic conference on themes similar to those discussed here. Near the end of my lecture, I made what I thought would be a quite incontestable assertion: We already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing.
As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy. At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. In fact, this person has since been appointed to the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and is now one of only thirteen people who will advise President Obama on “issues that may emerge from advances in biomedicine and related areas of science and technology” in order to ensure that “scientific research, health care delivery, and technological innovation are conducted in an ethically responsible manner.”25 Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:
She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human well-being.
She: But that’s only your opinion.
Me: Okay … Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?
She: It would depend on why they were doing it.
Me [slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head]: Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, “Every third must walk in darkness.”
She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.
Such opinions are not uncommon in the Ivory Tower. I was talking to a woman (it’s hard not to feel that her gender makes her views all the more disconcerting) who had just delivered an entirely lucid lecture on some of the moral implications of recent advances in neuroscience. She was concerned that our intelligence services might one day use neuroimaging technology for the purposes of lie detection, which she considered a likely violation of cognitive liberty. She was especially exercised over rumors that our government might have exposed captured terrorists to aerosols containing the hormone oxytocin in an effort to make them more cooperative.26 Though she did not say it, I suspect that she would even have opposed subjecting these prisoners to the smell of freshly baked bread, which has been shown to have a similar effect.27 While listening to her talk, as yet unaware of her liberal views on compulsory veiling and ritual enucleation, I thought her slightly overcautious, but a basically sane and eloquent authority on scientific ethics. I confess that once we did speak, and I peered into the terrible gulf that separated us on these issues, I found that I could not utter another word to her. In fact, our conversation ended with my blindly enacting two neurological clichés: my jaw quite literally dropped open, and I spun on my heels before walking away.
While human beings have different moral codes, each competing view presumes its own universality. This seems to be true even of moral relativism. While few philosophers have ever answered to the name of “moral relativist,” it is by no means uncommon to find local eruptions of this view whenever scientists and other academics encounter moral diversity. Forcing women and girls to wear burqas may be wrong in Boston or Palo Alto, so the argument will run, but we cannot say that it is wrong for Muslims in Kabul. To demand that the proud denizens of an ancient culture conform to our view of gender equality would be culturally imperialistic and philosophically naïve. This is a surprisingly common view, especially among anthropologists.28
Moral relativism, however, tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework—but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice, relativism almost always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward as simply one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. Rather, tolerance is held to be more in line with the (universal) truth about morality than intolerance is. The contradiction here is unsurprising. Given how deeply disposed we are to make universal moral claims, I think one can reasonably doubt whether any consistent moral relativist has ever existed.
Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of Western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism. This is, I think, the only charitable thing to be said about it. I hope it is clear that I am not defending the idiosyncrasies of the West as any more enlightened, in principle, than those of any other culture. Rather, I am arguing that the most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, just as most other facts do. And if there are facts that are truly a matter of cultural construction—if, for instance, learning a specific language or tattooing your face fundamentally alters the possibilities of human experience—well, then these facts also arise from (neurophysiological) processes that transcend culture.
In his wonderful book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker includes a quotation from the anthropologist Donald Symons that captures the problem of multiculturalism especially well:
If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes “culture,” and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers,” including feminists.29
It is precisely such instances of learned confusion (one is tempted to say “learned psychopathy”) that lend credence to the claim that a universal morality requires the support of faith-based religion. The categorical distinction between facts and values has opened a sinkhole beneath secular liberalism—leading to moral relativism and masochistic depths of political correctness. Think of the champions of “tolerance” who reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing security concerns, or the Danish cartoonists for their “controversy,” and you will understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values. Among conservatives in the West, the same skepticism about the power of reason leads, more often than not, directly to the feet of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Universe. The purpose of this book is to help cut a third path through this wilderness.
Charges of “scientism” cannot be long in coming. No doubt, there are still some people who will reject any description of human nature that was not first communicated in iambic pentameter. Many readers may also fear that the case I am making is vaguely, or even explicitly, utopian. It isn’t, as should become clear in due course.
However, other doubts about the authority of science are even more fundamental. There are academics who have built entire careers on the allegation that the foundations of science are rotten with bias—sexist, racist, imperialist, Northern, etc. Sandra Harding, a feminist philosopher of science, is probably the most famous proponent of this view. On her account, these prejudices have driven science into an epistemological cul-de-sac called “weak objectivity.” To remedy this dire situation, Harding recommends that scientists immediately give “feminist” and “multicultural” epistemologies their due.30
First, let’s be careful not to confuse this quite crazy claim for its sane cousin: There is no question that scientists have occasionally demonstrated sexist and racist biases. The composition of some branches of science is still disproportionately white and male (though some are now disproportionately female), and one can reasonably wonder whether bias is the cause. There are also legitimate questions to be asked about the direction and application of science: in medicine, for instance, it seems clear that women’s health issues have been sometimes neglected because the prototypical human being has been considered male. One can also argue that the contributions of women and minority groups to science have occasionally been ignored or undervalued: the case of Rosalind Franklin standing in the shadows of Crick and Watson might be an example of this. But none of these facts, alone or in combination, or however multiplied, remotely suggests that our notions of scientific objectivity are vitiated by racism or sexism.
Is there really such a thing as a feminist or multicultural epistemology? Harding’s case is not helped when she finally divulges that there is not just one feminist epistemology, but many. On this view, why was Hitler’s notion of “Jewish physics” (or Stalin’s idea of “capitalist biology”) anything less than a thrilling insight into the richness of epistemology? Should we now consider the possibility of not only Jewish physics, but of Jewish women’s physics? How could such a balkanization of science be a step toward “strong objectivity”? And if political inclusiveness is our primary concern, where could such efforts to broaden our conception of scientific truth possibly end? Physicists tend to have an unusual aptitude for complex mathematics, and anyone who doesn’t cannot expect to make much of a contribution to the field. Why not remedy this situation as well? Why not create an epistemology for physicists who failed calculus? Why not be bolder still and establish a branch of physics for people suffering from debilitating brain injuries? Who could reasonably expect that such efforts at inclusiveness would increase our understanding of a phenomenon like gravity?31 As Steven Weinberg once said regarding similar doubts about the objectivity of science, “You have to be very learned to be that wrong.”32 Indeed, one does—and many are.
There is no denying, however, that the effort to reduce all human values to biology can produce howlers. For instance, when the entomologist E. O. Wilson (in collaboration with the philosopher Michael Ruse) wrote that “morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends,” the philosopher Daniel Dennett rightly dismissed it as “nonsense.”33 The fact that our moral intuitions probably conferred some adaptive advantage upon our ancestors does not mean that the present purpose of morality is successful reproduction, or that “our belief in morality” is just a useful delusion. (Is the purpose of astronomy successful reproduction? What about the practice of contraception? Is that all about reproduction, too?) Nor does it mean that our notion of “morality” cannot grow deeper and more refined as our understanding of ourselves develops.
Many universal features of human life need not have been selected for at all; they may simply be, as Dennett says, “good tricks” communicated by culture or “forced moves” that naturally emerge out of the regularities in our world. As Dennett says, it is doubtful that there is a gene for knowing that you should throw a spear “pointy end first.” And it is, likewise, doubtful that our ancestors had to spend much time imparting this knowledge to each successive generation.34
We have good reason to believe that much of what we do in the name of “morality”—decrying sexual infidelity, punishing cheaters, valuing cooperation, etc.—is borne of unconscious processes that were shaped by natural selection.35 But this does not mean that evolution designed us to lead deeply fulfilling lives. Again, in talking about a science of morality, I am not referring to an evolutionary account of all the cognitive and emotional processes that govern what people do when they say they are being “moral”; I am referring to the totality of scientific facts that govern the range of conscious experiences that are possible for us. To say that there are truths about morality and human values is simply to say that there are facts about well-being that await our discovery—regardless of our evolutionary history. While such facts necessarily relate to the experience of conscious beings, they cannot be the mere invention of any person or culture.
It seems to me, therefore, that there are at least three projects that we should not confuse:
1. We can explain why people tend to follow certain patterns of thought and behavior (many of them demonstrably silly and harmful) in the name of “morality.”
2. We can think more clearly about the nature of moral truth and determine which patterns of thought and behavior we should follow in the name of “morality.”
3. We can convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behavior in the name of “morality” to break these commitments and to live better lives.
These are distinct and independently worthy endeavors. Most scientists who study morality in evolutionary, psychological, or neurobiological terms are exclusively devoted to the first project: their goal is to describe and understand how people think and behave in light of morally salient emotions like anger, disgust, empathy, love, guilt, humiliation, etc. This research is fascinating, of course, but it is not my focus. And while our common evolutionary origins and resultant physiological similarity to one another suggest that human well-being will admit of general principles that can be scientifically understood, I consider this first project all but irrelevant to projects 2 and 3. In the past, I have found myself in conflict with some of the leaders in this field because many of them, like the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, believe that this first project represents the only legitimate point of contact between science and morality.
I happen to believe that the third project—changing people’s ethical commitments—is the most important task facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Nearly every other important goal—from combating climate change, to fighting terrorism, to curing cancer, to saving the whales—falls within its purview. Of course, moral persuasion is a difficult business, but it strikes me as especially difficult if we haven’t figured out in what sense moral truths exist. Hence, my main focus is on project 2.
To see the difference between these three projects, it is best to consider specific examples: we can, for instance, give a plausible evolutionary account of why human societies have tended to treat women as the property of men (1); it is, however, quite another thing to give a scientific account of whether, why, and to what degree human societies change for the better when they outgrow this tendency (2); it is yet another thing altogether to decide how best to change people’s attitudes at this moment in history and to empower women on a global scale (3).
It is easy to see why the study of the evolutionary origins of “morality” might lead to the conclusion that morality has nothing at all to do with Truth. If morality is simply an adaptive means of organizing human social behavior and mitigating conflict, there would be no reason to think that our current sense of right and wrong would reflect any deeper understanding about the nature of reality. Hence, a narrow focus explaining why people think and behave as they do can lead a person to find the idea of “moral truth” literally unintelligible.
But notice that the first two projects give quite different accounts of how “morality” fits into the natural world. In 1, “morality” is the collection of impulses and behaviors (along with their cultural expressions and neurobiological underpinnings) that have been hammered into us by evolution. In 2, “morality” refers to the impulses and behaviors we can follow so as to maximize our well-being in the future.
To give a concrete example: Imagine that a handsome stranger tries to seduce another man’s wife at the gym. When the woman politely informs her admirer that she is married, the cad persists, as though a happy marriage could be no impediment to his charms. The woman breaks off the conversation soon thereafter, but far less abruptly than might have been compatible with the laws of physics.
I write now, in the rude glare of recent experience. I can say that when my wife reported these events to me yesterday, they immediately struck me as morally salient. In fact, she had not completed her third sentence before the dark fluids of moral indignation began coursing through my brain—jealousy, embarrassment, anger, etc.—albeit only at a trickle. First, I was annoyed by the man’s behavior—and had I been present to witness it, I suspect that my annoyance would have been far greater. If this Don Juan had been as dismissive of me in my presence as he was in my absence, I could imagine how such an encounter could result in physical violence.
No evolutionary psychologist would find it difficult to account for my response to this situation—and almost all scientists who study “morality” would confine their attention to this set of facts: my inner ape had swung into view, and any thoughts I might entertain about “moral truth” would be linguistic effluvium masking far more zoological concerns. I am the product of an evolutionary history in which every male of the species has had to guard against squandering his resources on another man’s offspring. Had we scanned my brain and correlated my subjective feelings with changes in my neurophysiology, the scientific description of these events would be nearly complete. So ends project 1.
But there are many different ways for an ape to respond to the fact that other apes find his wife desirable. Had this happened in a traditional honor culture, the jealous husband might beat his wife, drag her to the gym, and force her to identify her suitor so that he could put a bullet in his brain. In fact, in an honor society, the employees of the gym might sympathize with this project and help to organize a proper duel. Or perhaps the husband would be satisfied to act more obliquely, killing one of his rival’s relatives and initiating a classic blood feud. In either case, assuming he didn’t get himself killed in the process, he might then murder his wife for emphasis, leaving his children motherless. There are many communities on earth where men commonly behave this way, and hundreds of millions of boys are beginning to run this ancient software on their brains even now.
However, my own mind shows some precarious traces of civilization: one being that I view the emotion of jealously with suspicion. What is more, I happen to love my wife and genuinely want her to be happy, and this entails a certain empathetic understanding of her point of view. Given a moment to think about it, I can feel glad that her self-esteem received a boost from this man’s attention; I can also feel compassion for the fact that, after recently having our first child, her self-esteem needed any boost at all. I also know that she would not want to be rude, and that this probably made her somewhat slow to extricate herself from a conversation that had taken a wrong turn. And I am under no illusions that I am the only man on earth whom she will find attractive, or momentarily distracting, nor do I imagine that her devotion to me should consist in this impossible narrowing of her focus. And how do I feel about the man? Well, I still find his behavior objectionable—because I cannot sympathize with his effort to break up a marriage, and I know that I would not behave as he did—but I sympathize with everything else he must have felt, because I also happen to think that my wife is beautiful, and I know what it’s like to be a single ape in the jungle.
Most important, however, I value my own well-being, as well as that of my wife and daughter, and I want to live in a society that maximizes the possibility of human well-being generally. Here begins project 2: Are there right and wrong answers to the question of how to maximize well-being? How would my life have been affected if I had killed my wife in response to this episode? We do not need a completed neuroscience to know that my happiness, as well as that of many other people, would have been profoundly diminished. And what about the collective well-being of people in an honor society that might support such behavior? It seems to me that members of these societies are obviously worse off. If I am wrong about this, however, and there are ways to organize an honor culture that allow for precisely the same level of human flourishing enjoyed elsewhere—then so be it. This would represent another peak on the moral landscape. Again, the existence of multiple peaks would not render the truths of morality merely subjective.
The framework of a moral landscape guarantees that many people will have flawed conceptions of morality, just as many people have flawed conceptions of physics. Some people think “physics” includes (or validates) practices like astrology, voodoo, and homeopathy. These people are, by all appearances, simply wrong about physics. In the United States, a majority of people (57 percent) believe that preventing homosexuals from marrying is a “moral” imperative.36 However, if this belief rests on a flawed sense of how we can maximize our well-being, such people may simply be wrong about morality. And the fact that millions of people use the term “morality” as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time.
What will it mean for us to acquire a deep, consistent, and fully scientific understanding of the human mind? While many of the details remain unclear, the challenge is for us to begin speaking sensibly about right and wrong, and good and evil, given what we already know about our world. Such a conversation seems bound to shape our morality and public policy in the years to come.37