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"The Moral Landscape": Why science should shape morality - Comments

Pete H's Avatar Comment 1 by Pete H

I just read it - it's quite good.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 03:48:31 UTC | #537549

Neodarwinian's Avatar Comment 2 by Neodarwinian

Morality manifests itself in the real world, so why not accessible to science?

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 03:50:34 UTC | #537550

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 3 by prolibertas

Definitely one of my new favourite books.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 04:21:39 UTC | #537553

glenister_m's Avatar Comment 4 by glenister_m

"who seek ... civil rights for atheists,"

I'm looking forward to getting the right to vote, but I'm actually more interested in reducing the number of undeserved privileges that the church/religions receive.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 04:58:54 UTC | #537556

Fouad Boussetta's Avatar Comment 5 by Fouad Boussetta

The book is pretty good, but I'm left uneasy by Sam's thrashing of Jonathan Haidt's theory. I think Haidt has it exactly right. From Wikipedia:

His Moral Foundations Theory looks at the way morality varies between cultures and identifies five fundamental moral values shared to a greater or lesser degree by different societies and individuals.

These are: 1. Care for others, protecting them from harm. (He also referred to this dimension as Harm.) 2. Fairness, Justice, treating others equally. 3. Loyalty to your group, family, nation. (He also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.) 4. Respect for tradition and legitimate authority. (He also referred to this dimension as Authority.) 5. Purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.

Haidt found that Americans who identified as liberals tend to value care and fairness considerably higher than loyalty, respect, and purity. Self-identified conservative Americans value all five values more equally, though at a lower level across the five than the liberal concern for care and fairness. Both groups gave care the highest over-all weighting, but conservatives valued fairness the lowest, whereas liberals valued purity the lowest. Similar results were found across the political spectrum in other countries.

Sam thinks 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all ultimately related to item 1. Looking around me, this seems absurd.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 05:43:56 UTC | #537562

sbooder's Avatar Comment 6 by sbooder

There is something about Sam Harris that I have always disliked, but I have never been able to put my finger upon it, until today that is. After reading this interview, I realised what it was. There is something of the preacher in SH that makes me feel uncomfortable, and although I have not read his new book (which I will do), there is an overtone all be it slight, of Social Darwinism.

I will leave this paragraph blank while you fume at my last statement, so you can all tap away with your angry replies.

I can only give you the tip of my disagreeing iceberg at the moment as it is my 45th Bday and I am (although it is only 8:50am UK time) going to get very drunk.

Here is the tip. I feel very uneasy about Science being anymore a moral guide than religion. Yes I am an atheist, and yes I love the scientific method, but I need neither to either,assess or progress my moral compass. Science is a tool, a wonderful tool I think we all agree, but science should not become a replacement for religion in any way shape or form. My moral self was formed long ago without the aid of religion or science, mainly because I never had religion and as a child and teen I suffered greatly from dyslexia and concentration problems, science was not even on my radar. But what was prevalent in my being were morals, they were just there as far as I knew, I still find it hard to understand completely where they came from, but as I am now gathering memories and episodes in my life I am getting close to an answer. But as I said at the beginning, I will justify myself later, when more sober.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 08:11:19 UTC | #537571

ev-love's Avatar Comment 7 by ev-love

Notorious?

Would anyone speak of a notorious christian?

ev-love

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 08:12:57 UTC | #537572

Hedgerow's Avatar Comment 8 by Hedgerow

The part in the article about female genetalia mutilation is both shocking and worrying. (answer to question: Why do you think moral relativism is so dangerous?)

An article on the subject in 1994 link concluded "In recent years, concern has grown over how to stop the practice, rather than whether it is appropriate to intervene."

Yet in 2005 we see people saying we need to accomodate the cultural practices...

"Changes in clinical obstetric practice are necessary to incorporate women's perceptions and needs, to use fewer interventions, and to demonstrate greater sensitivity for cross-cultural practices and more respectful treatment than is currently available in the present system of care." link

Great progress!

My worry is that as soon as one tries to stop things like this happening, which are part of people's 'culture' they are hounded and called Hitler etc, (which is exactly what the religious do, just thinking back to the pope visit), in a bizarre and desperate attempt to justify themselves.

Then again, the religious interfere with people in exactly this sort of way, but its okay because they are just preaching their religion :-/ Hypocrites!

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 08:26:14 UTC | #537576

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 9 by Anaximander

Haidt found that Americans who identified as liberals tend to value care and fairness considerably higher than loyalty, respect, and purity. Self-identified conservative Americans value all five values more equally, though at a lower level across the five than the liberal concern for care and fairness.

That sounds like the sum of these components is a constant and that you can just rotate the vector in five-dimensional space.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 08:32:35 UTC | #537579

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 10 by Anaximander

Why is the word "controversial" used so often when people write bout Dawkins, Harris etc. and their theories?

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 08:38:14 UTC | #537580

TheLordHumungus's Avatar Comment 12 by TheLordHumungus

I hate the phrase NEW ATHEISM. It is no different from the OLD ATHEISM except that we are more outspoken.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 09:15:54 UTC | #537586

philotruth's Avatar Comment 13 by philotruth

Haidt's hypothesis? I havent got to read Sams comments yet but Haidt is so bogus, and judging by his TED talk and survey, what he looked at was what people think (or have historically thought) is moral -- not what is actually moral. Take his concept of "purity". If you'd had asked everyone up to a few decades ago about purity -- the majority of people's ideas would be about racial purity and that racial mixing isn't moral. Purity is somebody's "ideal" with a "You better agree attached". He warns his liberal audience for group-think and then has the nerve to posit In-Group-loyalty as a moral liberals dont get. In group Loyalty is why otherwise nice young men in the South went to war to defend slavery -- most rank and file didn't own slaves, mind you. The same is true for many Germans who followed Hitler. Haidt's arguments are intuitively stupid ---because they are propaganda. He cant possibly believe what he's saying. Carl Sagan eloquently warned of those who followed leader's blindly but for Haidt, its a virtue. Probably because he's accepted funding from John Templeton Foundation. The good thing about his research is that it clarifies just how bad our moral foundations are -- particularly for conservatives. We need an approach like Sam's.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 09:25:48 UTC | #537588

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 14 by AtheistEgbert

Comment 6 by sbooder :

There is something about Sam Harris that I have always disliked, but I have never been able to put my finger upon it, until today that is. After reading this interview, I realised what it was. There is something of the preacher in SH that makes me feel uncomfortable, and although I have not read his new book (which I will do), there is an overtone all be it slight, of Social Darwinism.

I have to agree with you I'm afraid. I am waiting to receive Sam Harris's first book: The End of Faith before reading this. But I intuitively sense that Harris is unconsciously at least, still religious.

However, I hope I'm wrong. I am only going by a few interviews and few pieces he's written. I don't automatically support people simply because they call themselves atheist. I will look forward to a deeper appreciation of Harris's ideas but so far, I remain unconvinced.

Here is the tip. I feel very uneasy about Science being anymore a moral guide than religion. Yes I am an atheist, and yes I love the scientific method, but I need neither to either,assess or progress my moral compass. Science is a tool, a wonderful tool I think we all agree, but science should not become a replacement for religion in any way shape or form. My moral self was formed long ago without the aid of religion or science, mainly because I never had religion and as a child and teen I suffered greatly from dyslexia and concentration problems, science was not even on my radar. But what was prevalent in my being were morals, they were just there as far as I knew, I still find it hard to understand completely where they came from, but as I am now gathering memories and episodes in my life I am getting close to an answer. But as I said at the beginning, I will justify myself later, when more sober.

Here is where I disagree with you. Human behaviour is part of the naturalist worldview and therefore morality is as much within the field of science as anything else.

And you said "but science should not become a replacement for religion"

Which is a bizzare statement. Because this statement is itself a moral statement and not a rational one. Also, religion has nothing to do with morality! It is yet another fiction that religion has anything to do with morality, however it has everything to do with power and deception.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 10:25:36 UTC | #537602

ajs261's Avatar Comment 15 by ajs261

In many ways one could argue that morality has already developed somewhat via the scientific method. The scientific method involves the development of models to describe reality. As more evidence and observation comes in, the model is refined.

This is really what has happened over the first three centuries with concepts such as human rights and responsibilities, equality for women, gays, differently coloured people and notions of personal freedom. It is a constructed model of moral behaviour, created by a number of free-thinking, rational people and it works far, far better than the feeble models constructed by organised religion, which were - in all fairness - very irrational much of the time anyway.

I haven't read the book yet but it seems to me that SH simply suggests taking the model one step further.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 10:28:17 UTC | #537604

maybeyourewrong's Avatar Comment 16 by maybeyourewrong

@ thelordhumungus

I hate the phrase NEW ATHEISM. It is no different from the OLD ATHEISM except that we are more outspoken.

More outspoken than Madalyn Murray O'Hair?

Just a tad notorious as well.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 12:23:14 UTC | #537641

seals's Avatar Comment 17 by seals

Divisive, controversial, notorious... I'm sure these words are inserted automatically as a means of playing safe!

And the article itself (not Sam Harris) blurs any distinction between making science the moral authority, which would be an improvement as he frames it, or making scientists the moral authority, which would be way too fallible in my opinion, although hardly worse than the current situation. But I suspect either would be too arid for most people, who just want something to cling and refer to that reinforces their own views so they don't have to otherwise justify or think about it.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 12:28:01 UTC | #537646

Sonic's Avatar Comment 18 by Sonic


Fouad Boussetta wrote:

Sam thinks 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all ultimately related to item 1. Looking around me, this seems absurd.

I’m glad you’ve read the book -- I have too -- but you’ve misrepresented and I think failed to engage Sam’s definition. Sam defines morality to involve “the well-being of conscious creatures”. Haidt’s protection against harm (1) is protection against a negative, which is just one possible component of Sam’s positive.

Anaximander’s vector space is helpful (although Sam would not constrain a vector sum to constant magnitude). Sam would say that for each of Haidt’s vectors 1 through 5, moral reasoning is valid for the component of a vector that projects along Sam’s definition. Conversely, Sam would say moral reasoning is invalid and prone to moral error for the components of Haidt’s vectors that are orthogonal to Sam’s definition.

For example, consider the “moral” rule, “Every sperm is sacred / every sperm is great / If a sperm is wasted / God gets quite irate” (which is not in the book by the way). I suppose Haidt would classify this moral rule under 5 (purity to avoid disgusting things, foods, etc.). Sam would say that if this rule only serves a god -- and that god is silent and invisible, and does not serve the well-being of conscious creatures -- then the rule is based on invalid moral reasoning. Sam could also entertain (and I’m improvising here) that if there was evidence of a god that does get quite irate -- and the ire of that god affected conscious creatures -- then that moral rule could be based on valid scientific reasoning (again my improvisation).

I leave it to people to read Sam’s book.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 12:38:07 UTC | #537649

Letsbereasonable's Avatar Comment 19 by Letsbereasonable

So what prevents amoralists and immoralists defying the authority of science and doing as they please? Where is the pyshcological compulsion associated with an undefyable god?

Our morality is clearly innate and has an evolutionary explanation, therefore science is at its root, but where in the human context of a viable society does science compel one to behave?

Try as I might to eject the idea, or utility, of a compelling god from the human condition, this remains a sticking point for me.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 13:05:11 UTC | #537659

thyme's Avatar Comment 20 by thyme

It is scary how religious defense mechanisms are often undetected by both the religious and the non religious. It annoys me how many atheists protect religion by arguing that we don’t have the right to tell someone their beliefs are wrong and fail to see this as hypocrisy. I agree with Sam's sentiments, pretending not to know better than anyone else is being very false. False modesty is just as dangerous as arrogance. We can not afford to tolerate a culture where there is no polite way to ridicule someone's beliefs. It is too dangerous.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 13:07:15 UTC | #537661

debaser71's Avatar Comment 21 by debaser71

lol nice title and blurb ... editors suck... btw Joan Walsh is the editor of Salon... she's ok but goofy sometimes

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 13:57:25 UTC | #537683

keithapm's Avatar Comment 22 by keithapm

Comment 19 by Letsbereasonable

Our morality is clearly innate and has an evolutionary explanation, therefore science is at its root, but where in the human context of a viable society does science compel one to behave?

It wouldn't but it can inform society's laws which can compel one to behave in a certain way, by restricting and punishing immoral behaviour which is what laws are for in the end.

The concept of a god only compels, firstly, those who believe in the existence of one, to be moral. The problem with that is the subjective nature of such a belief, which leads to people to attribute conflicting attributes to the moral commandments of this being, the result is what we have now; moral relativism. What Sam seems to suggesting (I haven't yet got his book) is that in our dealings with each other we should find an objective standard, and we get that through understanding what improves the well-being of conscious beings like ourselves. An understanding he argues we can get through science. And, increasingly and despite my initial misgivings, I find myself agreeing with him.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 16:43:38 UTC | #537762

keithapm's Avatar Comment 23 by keithapm

I don't understand the charge of Social Darwinism which some here are saying they detect in his ideas. Can you elaborate?

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 16:47:23 UTC | #537763

Zelig's Avatar Comment 24 by Zelig

I have a lot of respect for Sam and look forward to reading his book, but I suspect the primary aim of the work is to honestly confront the deeply widespread, corrosive, and stupid notion of theoretical and practical "nihilism" that commonly goes by the name of "cultural relativism". Far too many have used the "death of God" as a refutation of evaluative hierarchy and gleefully propagated a secularised form of Christian "slave morality" and "resentment" whereby "the first shall be last". This sham of affected passivity has, for decades, been de rigueur of the liberal-left. Well, now it's having its bluff called in the most direct way imaginable, particularly in the shape of Islam, and it finds itself continually an ally of things it pretended to oppose. This enfeeblement and hypocrisy needs to be unapologetically exposed and confronted (otherwise, chaos or theocracy here we come. . .).

I think this battle is far more important (and moral) than what commonly passes for "moral philosophy", and I wish him well in this (for all our sakes). Morality is an intensely practical and worldly matter, contra Plato, Christianity, Kant et al.

p.s. What happened to the proposed exchange between Sam and RD?

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 16:54:25 UTC | #537765

BanJoIvie's Avatar Comment 25 by BanJoIvie

Comment 14 by AtheistEgbert

I am waiting to receive Sam Harris's first book: The End of Faith before reading this. But I intuitively sense that Harris is unconsciously at least, still religious.

I would be very surprised indeed if your suspicion is not laid to rest after reading The End of Faith. Sam does have some sympathy for certain ideas that might be classified as 'religious' (such as the potential efficacy of some meditations and the pursuit of other states of consciousness). He tackles this in the latter part of The End of Faith, and it has been a tad controversial for some in the atheist camps. However Sam is very firmly in the rationalist/impericist/naturalist camp, and has no leanings whatsoever toward theism. A careful reading of even his challenging statements makes this abundantly clear.

I hope you enjoy End of Faith. It's actually my (purely subjective) favorite of the 'Horsemen' books. And Sam himself is (at times) my favorite spokesman for our 'movement' (whatever the heck that is.) If you only know Sam from a few articles or interviews, you're in for a treat.

This speech is a great introduction to Sam in Overview, and I think you'll find it one of the clearest, least ambiguous defenses of atheism possible.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 17:06:29 UTC | #537767

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 26 by Anaximander

although Sam would not constrain a vector sum to constant magnitude.

OK, it's more like a ray in the (5-dimensional) moral space. And it's evolving with time; or maybe we could say that it doesn't evolve, but that some kind of operator will evolve. At this point I'm not sure what that operator means, but maybe tomorrow.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 17:24:51 UTC | #537770

Letsbereasonable's Avatar Comment 27 by Letsbereasonable

Comment 22 by keithapm :

It wouldn't but it can inform society's laws which can compel one to behave in a certain way, by restricting and punishing immoral behaviour which is what laws are for in the end.

I realise that in society there are compelling forces at the disposal of staute law. But 'goodness' is not a legal concept and cannot be compelled by law. So my question remains; if an individual, an atheist, is contemplating immoral behavior, say out of self-interest, what psychologically would compel him to desist? The religious person has the finger-wagging God-who-must-be-obeyed. What compels the atheist to moral behavior? I can't accept a self-regulating authoritative compulsion. That would be naive.

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 17:34:48 UTC | #537773

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 28 by Anaximander

What compels the atheist to moral behavior? I can't accept a self-regulating authoritative compulsion. That would be naive.

Do you mean that those kind of people are naive people?

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 17:49:35 UTC | #537779

Skeptisch's Avatar Comment 29 by Skeptisch

About “The Moral Landscape”: "I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. Moral philosophers, too, will find their world exhilaratingly turned upside down, as they discover a need to learn some neuroscience. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris". — Richard Dawkins

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 17:53:20 UTC | #537780

afyuen's Avatar Comment 30 by afyuen

I had the privilege to hear him speak in Seattle a few days ago. It was a packed full house and I got him to sign all three of his books! :)

Sat, 23 Oct 2010 17:56:36 UTC | #537782