Human or Objective? – An Answer to ‘The Moral Landscape Challenge’

Dear Dr. Harris

Thank you for your continued contribution to the public debate concerning science and religion, as well as your willingness to take on the tough questions that concern us all.

You have recently issued a public challenge for readers to refute the central thesis of your book, ‘The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values‘. Please allow us to point to some reservations regarding the thesis of your ambitious book.

(1) The book’s subtitle says that science can determine human values. With that, we agree. Insofar as similarities can be found in human populations across the globe, these findings do indeed constitute a case for science determining human values.

However, throughout the book the term human values is then bolstered with some pretense to be objective values. The book argues the existence of a morality that is objective and scientifically true based on a series of hard-wired tendencies in the human brain. Excuse us, but all that means is that this morality has been evolutionarily beneficial to the human species. In no way does it assert that these values are objective.

As William James has said in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience‘, the human brain in its normal state is not necessarily objective. The human brain has evolved capabilities that ensure our survival, but which do not necessarily render reality as accurately as possible or process moral questions as objectively as possible. Your own experiences with psychedelics and meditation will no doubt have hinted this same thing to you: The sum total of possible perceptions and judgments that are objectively there for us to perceive is infinitely vast compared to the humbling subset of perceptions and judgments that we actually do perceive.

In his ‘Descent of Man‘, Charles Darwin himself considered the notion of morality to be a byproduct of evolution; just one more effect of natural selection working upon the raw material of the species. So again: Insofar as the science presented in your book is correct, you are right that science can determine human values. But human values are not necessarily objective values in the sense that they would be valid independently of our species as collective subject.

(2) It is enormously high-minded of you to air the possibility that you might be convinced and recant your view by an argument submitted in this challenge. The probability of that happening through any argument, however, is much lower than first meets the eye. As peer-reviewed studies by Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva and others have shown in recent years, there are considerable variations in the moral instincts of people.

According to these studies, a difference in moral instincts is one of the roots that sprout to create different political affiliations on the emergent level.  Liberals chiefly care about fairness and not harming the weak. Conservatives primarily care about loyalty, authority, and sanctity, and Libertarians mainly care about freedom. In your book, you aim to separate “genes from memes”, but according to the findings of these scientists, these variations in moral instinct are partially genetic.

Such variations in instinct, even within the same species, are in accordance with the ‘Baldwin effect’ as known from developmental biology. Daniel Dennett has referred to this effect as being “no longer controversial” in science and it presumes a developmental framework of epigenesist, phenotypic plasticity. If such mechanisms are indeed at work in shaping our instincts, including our moral instincts, then the premise of separating genes from memes cannot be meaningfully upheld.

(3) In your book, you propose to contest the findings of Haidt and others by conjecturing that “conservatives have the same morality as liberals do, they just have different ideas about how harm accrues in this universe.” But by this argument, any morality could potentially be said to be the same morality as any other morality, albeit with “different ideas about how harm accrues in this universe.” Where a liberal might see cuts in social security as doing harm to society’s poorest, a libertarian might see their continued existence as doing harm to his negative liberties. The differences in empirical data are there, yet your book reasons that these differences are merely different manifestations of the same ultimate morality.

As you do not establish a definitive demarcation line between one and the other, this manner of reasoning must leave you, or some other subject, as the umpire of when these occurrences in the empirical data do indeed constitute a meaningful difference (Haidt), a non-meaningful difference (Harris) or an instance of “moral confusion” (which is how you characterize morality of political Islam in your book). Thus, by the manner of reasoning employed in the book, empirical data acquired through science cannot stand on its own as objective data, but is in need of some subjective interpretation. If two bright, young, well-educated and scientifically minded gentlemen such as Dr. Haidt and yourself cannot even agree on whether what we are seeing in the empirical data is one or several moralities, this constitutes ample illustration that whatever objective data we have to work with cannot be interpreted objectively on its own account, but must be subjected to subjective interpretation in order to make sense to us.

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So this constitutes our argument against the thesis of your bold and adventurous book: We agree that science can and should be used to establish an inquiry into human values. We also agree that science can determine what those human values are. But human values are not necessarily objective, and if they are, there is no way to assert that their objectivity without involving memes and subjectivity.

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