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Atheist author Sam Harris (AP)
Atheist author Sam Harris (AP)

Interview

Sam Harris on the science of ethics Add to ...

It's not as difficult to tell right from wrong as people think, Sam Harris says. The issue is whether those who are wrong will ever admit it. An interview with the author.

What do you mean by Moral Landscape?

The moral landscape is the framework I use for thinking about questions of morality and human values in universal terms. The moment we realize that the only things we can intelligibly value are actual and potential changes in the experience of conscious beings, we can think about a landscape of such changes - where the peaks correspond to the greatest possible well-being and the valleys correspond to the lowest depths of suffering. Given that consciousness and its contents must depend upon the laws of nature, there are clearly right and wrong answers to how to move across this landscape.

Your project seems to be to collapse the old distinction between facts and values. How?

My argument for why all values relate to the experience of sentient beings is pretty simple. Imagine a state of the universe in which every creature suffers as much as it can for as long as possible - with nothing good coming of it. I call this "the worst possible misery for everyone." It seems rather obvious that if words like "bad" or "evil" mean anything at all, they apply to this situation. If someone says the worst possible misery for everyone isn't really "bad," or there's something that might be worse, I don't know what he's talking about - and I don't think he knows what he's talking about, either. There's a continuum here: We have the worst possible misery for everyone on one end, and then we have all other possible states that offer something better. Given that experience depends on the laws of nature in some way, there must be right and wrong ways to move across this continuum toward states of greater well-being. The totality of all these possible experiences is what I call "the moral landscape." There may be many peaks on it - which is to say that there might be many ways for us to thrive - but there are clearly many ways not to be on a peak.

How does science help us to do that?

The moment we admit that questions of right and wrong, and good and evil, are actually questions about human and animal well-being, we see that science can, in principle, answer such questions. Human experience depends on everything that can influence states of the human brain, ranging from changes in our genome to changes in the global economy. The relevant details of genetics, neurobiology, psychology, sociology, economics etc. are fantastically complicated, but these are domains of facts, and they fall squarely within the purview of science.

We should reserve the notion of "morality" for the ways in which we can affect one another's experience for better or worse. Some people use the term "morality" differently, of course, but I think we have a scientific responsibility to focus the conversation so as to make it most useful. We define terms like "medicine," "causation," "law" and "theory" very much to the detriment of homeopathy, astrology, voodoo, Christian Science and other branches of human ignorance, and there is no question that we enjoy the same freedom when speaking about concepts like "right" and "wrong," and "good" and "evil." Once we acknowledge that "morality" relates to questions of human and animal well-being, then there is no reason to doubt that a prescriptive (rather than merely descriptive) science of morality is possible. After all, there are principles of biology, psychology, sociology and economics that will allow us to flourish in this world, and it is clearly possible for us not to flourish due to ignorance of these principles.

How can we apply this in the real world? For instance, how do liberal democracies, mostly now post-religious or irreligious, deal with the zealotry of those who think they have all the answers, either the Christian fundamentalists in your own country or Muslim fundamentalists such as those in the Taliban, who believe that morality is revealed, eternal and unassailable?

This is the hard part. But I think these false certainties will eventually yield in the face of progress. Look at how the belief in witchcraft has eroded in the developed world, largely due to progress in medicine. It takes a special breed of ignorance to confuse epilepsy with demonic possession in the year 2010.

Religion is remarkably unhelpful on moral questions for many reasons. The most important being that it tends to separate moral concern from the genuine reality of human and animal suffering. Take, for example, the Catholic Church: Here is an institution that is more concerned about preventing contraception than preventing child rape. It's more concerned about preventing gay marriage than genocide. The moment you realize that Catholic doctrine is not really focused on human well-being, you see that it is not offering an alternative moral framework: it is offering a false one. The Catholic Church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology.

Does religion have any role to play in your moral universe?

No more than a belief in the gods of Mount Olympus does. Of course, I'm not denying that religious people occasionally do very good things on the basis of their faith. But even here, religion has given them bad reasons for being good, where good reasons are actually available. Of course, human consciousness allows for a wide range of contemplative insights and experiences of self-transcendence. But even the most rarefied mystical experience must depend, in some way, on the laws of nature - and such experiences can, therefore, be talked about in terms that do not insult our growing understanding of the universe.

Does postmodernist relativism, the belief that one woman's bikini is another woman's burka, muddy the moral waters?

Yes, I think that moral relativism - the idea that right and wrong depend entirely on one's cultural context or personal preference - is intellectually bankrupt and genuinely dangerous. The moment we connect morality to questions of human and animal well-being, we can see at a glance that the Taliban are advocating an obscene distortion of morality. To not judge the Taliban from the point of view of science is tantamount to saying that we know absolutely nothing about human well-being. It's like saying: "We've got 150 years of psychology, neuroscience and sociology to draw from - and we've made some very impressive gains on civil rights - but maybe, just maybe, forcing half the population to live in cloth bags and beating them or killing when they try to get out is as good as anything we've come up with." This form of "tolerance" or "contextual understanding" is pure, masochistic stupidity.

In doubting whether we can talk about human values and moral truth scientifically, we are essentially saying that when we do our best thinking, when really try to get our biases out of the way and are most committed to careful observation and honest reasoning, these efforts have no application whatsoever to the most important questions in human life. That should seem ridiculous on its face.

How, then, might we begin to resolve conflicting moral claims?

That's rather like asking how we resolve conflicting beliefs about epidemiology. What do we do when we come across people who deny the germ theory of disease? There is no easy answer. But when the stakes are high, we take steps to protect ourselves.

You say that changing people's ethical behaviour is the most important task now confronting us? Why?

I think the greatest challenge facing our species is to build a global civilization based on shared values. To do this, we will need to think about questions of right and wrong and good and evil in a common framework, purposed toward human flourishing. The alternative is for us to waste our time debating things like gay marriage, while problems like nuclear proliferation, energy security and climate change go unaddressed.

How would you propose going about beginning to make such changes? What, for instance, would you say to a Taliban leader who believes so strongly that women should not be educated that he's willing to burn schoolhouses, or kill homosexuals and apostates. How would you convince him that your moral landscape is superior to his?

The failure to convince everyone never counts against the truth of a proposition. It's been 150 years, and we still can't convince a majority of Americans that evolution is a fact. This hasn't put the science of biology in jeopardy.

How would a scientific approach bolster your argument?

A science of human well-being would be part of a maturing science of the human mind. Just as advances in medicine have ended certain arguments about the origins of disease, without really seeking such rhetorical effects, advances in psychology and neuroscience could change the way we think about our own subjectivity and the possibilities of finding happiness in this life. Imagine how our view of the human condition would change if we ever found a cure for racism, xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. What if there were perfectly safe ways to increase feelings of compassion and altruism? I think interventions of this sort - pharmacological and otherwise - are probably in our future. Neuro-imaging technology could also change our lives profoundly. We will probably develop reliable lie detectors, so that when the truth really matters, it will be impossible for a person to lie. This will change politics and diplomacy rather profoundly. There is no telling how developments of this kind could put pressure on popular beliefs.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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