A vision about ethics and morality based on science. Some reflections.


Leandro Castelluccio

(Image obtained from: link)

In 2010, the neuroscientist, philosopher and author Sam Harris published the book “The Moral Landscape”, which reverberated in academic circles, reviving the discussion about morality and the role of science in it.

The book tries to reintegrate scientific facts and human values ​​at the level of the discussion about ethics and morality. For Harris, morality is related to the well-being of human beings, more specifically, sentient or conscious beings, where there are peaks and valleys of well-being in a “moral landscape”. Considering that welfare is the basis from which to build a morality, Harris affirms that science rather than describing can prescribe those things that are moral or correct to do because we can objectively (through science) determine what things contribute to the welfare of conscious beings such as humans.

According to Harris we already know enough about the brain and its interaction with the world to affirm that there are objectively correct or erroneous answers about morality, so the author moves away from a moral relativism, although he does not deny the contribution of culture on how we can come to experience the welfare peaks of the moral landscape.

Here are some links where Harris explains his ideas embodied in the book and gives answers to some criticisms of it:




The book proposes interesting debates, but the scope of its pretensions is somewhat limited from my point of view. Here I share some thoughts on this.

To begin with, I would suggest that not everything can be the standard of an action, that is, the criterion for labeling it as good or bad, not anything can be considered in reference to a morality that looks after well-being. Harris would agree that it is not, but if happiness is the standard, anything that makes one happy is good, regardless of the consequences for oneself or others. That seems to be one of the criticisms of Ari Armstrong from the perspective of the philosophy of objectivism that can be found in the following link:https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2012-winter/sam-harris-unscientific-morality/. Several criticisms of Sam Harris often come from people who align themselves with this objectivist philosophy, stating that Ayn Rand has already developed an objective morality. Although I believe that Harris would deny that anything can make a person happy, since there are objective truths regarding human well-being, the objectivist argument would go further, affirming that happiness is not the standard but the consequence of morality. As Ari Amstrong points out in his article in the aforementioned link, rational values ​​are the standards of ethical or moral conduct and the consequence is happiness, and not vice versa, that happiness is the cause or reason of moral conduct. The problem that I consider with this aspect of objectivism is that these rational values ​​are impregnated in their base, so to speak, with mental elements such as pleasure, well-being or happiness. Objectivism seems to suggest that moral values ​​are rational based on the idea of ​​the survival of the human being as a thinking and rational being, and that the experience of pleasure or suffering does not justify morality. But why would a person want to survive in the first place? It is not something that is sometimes even a rational decision but an uncontrollable impulse. In this sense, I believe that at the base of the moral positions there are such experiences, we do not survive by a simple decision to survive disconnected from our nature, we do it because of the subjective experience that it entails. In this line, my thought would be more consistent with Harris, but I have wide differences with his, as I clarify in this essay. In turn, regarding the position of the objectivist philosophy, I consider that survival and the values ​​obtained are a consequence of the reward they imply, the issue is that there are things that objectively lead us to high reward states and things that do not. In this sense, at the ethical level, I consider that objectivism entails certain problems, for example that men can use other men as slaves and they can survive in this way, survival does not necessarily require the rational faculty of a subject, that seems to be clear even in Ayn Rand’s own writings, but in a way the position seems to be emphasized in that, in the question of survival for a rational man, at the same time that it does not clarify or emphasize that point of why to survive and that the rational faculty is not always necessary, which invites us to discredit the objectivist reasoning regarding morality. On the other hand, I would add with regards to the ethical approach of Ayn Rand, that the explicit and implicit demands of it, with respect to the perfectionist attitude, the constant attentional conscious work, the greatest possible consciousness, etc., can transform the morality in an experience of suffering rather than pleasure or well-being.

Going back to Harris, to begin with, there is a risk of contextualizing happiness or things that make one happy. It is true that there is a cultural role, but culture does not affect the essence of morality in my point of view, on the contrary, culture can mask an experience as if it were a peak of happiness when in reality it is counterproductive to it , although Harris might be partly in agreement with this proposal.

On the other hand, Harris does focus on the idea of ​​happiness or well-being as a moral value to guide behaviour and hence build objective moral mandates based on what science can tell us about well-being and how it is obtained, increased or decreased. Now Harris seems to take into account this also applied to welfare itself, this question of abiding by such criteria has its problems in the approach of Sam Harris (as I will indicate below). Now, my point is that morality and ethics refer to human actions, human actions are based on criteria or ends, every action has a criterion behind it. And the point is this, to see what is the best criterion. My analysis has been to find the basic criterion of all human action, which I identify with reward (which does not necessarily refer to happiness or well-being). And from there I build my ethical proposal. However, Harris seems to take the position that there is a scientific basis by which we should value the well-being of ourselves or others. Well-being is better than discomfort, we might say, but more than a philosophical or scientific position, the reward, which does not necessarily equate to the notion of well-being Harris may be thinking, is an axiomatic issue of human nature, that is my position. So the issue now is to see which behaviors involve high reward states and which ones do not.

The option of opting for high reward rather than low states is a philosophical one yes, but that will be determined by the reward itself (like any other philosophical position that implies a moral question), so that the moral nature determines itself to put it in a way. Harris’ own arguments depend on what rewards him or considers to be rewarding, whether or not they lead to high reward states is another matter. On the other hand, although it is true that certain truths do not need proof, they are axiomatic, that is not the case, according to my criterion, when we say “a world in which everyone was miserable to the maximum would be worse than a world in which all they were happy “, because to say that a criterion is required. Because what does “worse” or “better” imply? What is the criterion of that? “Better” is associated with states of reward, and since that is the criterion on which we decide, we say that a thing is better or worse, we can say it objectively, but only based on such association with that criterion. That is, there are moral objective truths but these are linked to a criterion, and such criteria eventually do not have an objective reason that justify them, we simply adopt the criterion, that is what we decide as human beings, based on our nature. Harris seems to argue that many scientific positions assume certain truths, but I would say that this is not equivalent to adopting a criterion as an axiomatic truth, it would be equivalent in some way to adopt the criterion associated with the afirmations, but not to say that it is an obvious truth.

Although I agree that we can find objective moral truths, these depend on criteria, I consider that I have found the only criterion, the true one, since it is the basic axiomatic criterion that we do not choose, that of reward, which is part of how we function, how our nature is. This is elaborated in detail together with my ethical proposal in general in my book “Propositions” (link). And on this aspect I also have differences with Harris. The high reward states are the standard of my approach, not simply happiness, because I distinguish happiness and self-esteem, and within the high reward states in particular self-esteem is the central axis of my ethical approach and not other types of reward or happiness. I develop the concept of how self-esteem is not cultivated in just any way, and I make certain proposals in this sense. The peaks in the moral landscape do not necessarily equate to the high reward states that I highlight, for example the self-esteem in my proposal is something very specific and what it does yes involve and allow refers to the maximum possible reward states in the human being. On the other hand, high reward states refer to an individual experience, not a general or inter-individual well-being. In turn, I develop the socio-political derivations of the high reward states as a moral standard, what happens and how conflicts between people are resolved at this level.

I also argue that suffering does not play the same role as reward, avoiding suffering is not in my approach a moral standard, but the cultivation of reward. And as indicated, in my proposal the reward is axiomatic in human action, all contemplate a moral action, no one escapes the reward, the problem refers to the states to which that reward leads and how this affects the reward of other subjects.

Finally, one last difference I have with Harris: the subject of consciousness. I would not necessarily say that morality depends on the existence of consciousness as we know it, referring in this case to qualia, the subjective experience itself, for example the experience of redness when we observe something of that color. For I consider that the own representations of things, united in a complex system, that has representation of itself and intentions and particularly representations of reward is sufficient for morality to be considered relevant in relation to such entity. This is pertinent when we talk about the notion of rights, because we can fall into the error of denying rights to intelligent entities that do not necessarily have the same kind of consciousness that we do. As I indicate in my book “Propositions”, that an organism has the possibility of high reward states in its subjective dimension, of qualia, (which is my main ethical point of view at the political level) I would say that it should be considered the rights for such an entity, but I emphasize that the neuronal representations of such states, for example, would be enough, because all that the brain is capable of doing and that would have its mimic in the subjective plane according to my proposal, is an expression of a high level of self-consciousness and motivation, which can be manifested in neuronal patterns or other patterns in other physical systems. An entity that acts given such activity of the patterns in a certain period of time, with full knowledge of its existence as an entity and with reward patterns that work as a motivator and that have implications for the survival of the entity, entail sufficient complexity to consider rights and respect for them for such an entity, although the justification is only the activation of such patterns in such system and the degree of such activity on a scale, which would refer to greater or lesser states of reward, outside of the associated subjective sensations in a mental environment, in terms of qualia. Because of that I consider that if we were able to build artificial intelligences motivated by such patterns, even ignoring the possibility of a dimension of subjective awareness for them, they would have rights and morality would be relevant to them.

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