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Toward a Secular Moral Landscape

Toward a Secular Moral Landscape

10 Mins
April 26, 2011

After thousands of years of formal philosophizing and probably a hundred thousand of contemplation around prehistoric camp fires, is there finally proof that an objective moral standard exists, a standard that is knowable by all through the use of our minds and that should guide our actions?  

Don't expect consensus on this or any other matter from human beings. But recently several schools of study have emerged to confirm in the 21st century what the best minds of ancient Athens asserted several millennia ago. And these discoveries have come from quarters better known for denying the possibility that ethics can be anything but personal opinion or social convention.

Do these discoveries point to a future society of rational individualists who respect the liberty of one another and the right of all to run their lives as they see fit, dealing with one another based on mutual consent? Not quite yet. But the exploration is moving to objective grounds on which such a future in fact might be founded.


Two central questions for those seeking a rational approach to ethics and morality are "What questions can we legitimately ask? To which questions can we expect coherent, intelligible, and objectively demonstrable answers?"

In the past century or so, secular thinkers who have valued this approach have tended to believe that only descriptions of ethical systems or explanations for why such systems arose were possible. An anthropologist might describe the behavior of tribes in the verdant jungles of Africa or the concrete jungles of Western cities. Marxists might look for the class and economic explanations for social systems of morality- pseudo-science, really.

In the past, secular scientists who found themselves in pitched battles with religious fundamentalists over evolution had little interest in applying their rational approach to ethics. Most tended to accept some "greatest good for the greatest number" or other good of society-centered ethics with the leftist or socialist public policies that such views entailed. But they rarely applied their rational methods to show why their own preferences were objectively valid. Values ultimately remained subjective.


In recent decades the intellectual battles about religion have erupted anew, led by the so-called New Atheists: philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett; evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris; and author, journalist, literary critic, and all-around Renaissance man Christopher Hitchens. Not surprisingly, many of the debates have centered on new insights into evolution and new research on the human brain. Notably, several secular thinkers have attempted to explain belief in God in terms of the nature of the brain's hardwiring rather than marking down such belief to ignorance or a failure of reason.

Matthew Alper

For example, in The "God" Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God, Matthew Alper describes his own search for God in light of his understanding about the evolution of the universe and of intelligent life. He sees no place foror evidence of-God. Yet all cultures have some notion of God. Alper writes that his obsession with finding God "was as if the need to comprehend an absolute being was somehow instilled in me. Just as I was driven to seek food, shelter, security, and love in my life, I was driven to possess spiritual certainty,driven to search for knowledge of God. But why?" (58)

Alper argues that "God was a word that ... originated from within the workings of the human brain" (60). One might well question some of the philosophers that he calls to his defense Kant, for example. Yet his rational interpretation of the natural basis of a belief in God does not assume that such a being actually exists.

We need not read Alper as arguing that we are born with some sort of innate knowledge; indeed, since he does not see any evidence for a god in the traditional sense, such a belief would be an error, not knowledge. But from the subtle and complex nature of human psychology, such beliefs can emerge. Of course, if religious belief has its origins in a deeper urge that is part of our makeup, presumably we can control and discipline it just like other appetites.

In Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Pascal Boyer also attempts to understand the biological roots of religious belief by examining the hardwired aspects of our minds. Boyer does not suggest that we are hardwired with a belief in God or any innate ideas. Rather, he gives us his understanding of how humans actually have formed concepts, not in philosophy classes but in real life, going back well into human prehistory.

He suggests that we have an inference system that works in a specific way, building templates by which we classify objects and occurrences in the world around us. The nature of this system disposes us to see intentionality in the natural world. In primitive peoples the disposition is manifest in beliefs in animistic forces and spirits, while in modern times it is found in sophisticated theology. Yet all such beliefs originate in the operations of the brain; they do not arise because there is a correspondent entity, force, or prime mover outside of our heads that we label "God:'

Boyer's work is thoughtful and deserves attention. One can think of the tendency to read intentionality into the world the way one thinks of other troublesome human emotional or psychological capacities-such as envy or narrow self-absorption. If that tendency is widespread, it argues for the value of rational thinking and the virtue of rationality. We as individuals need to identify this and other tendencies, evaluate whether they contribute to our survival and well-being, and act accordingly. Boyer's insights about psychology are thus compatible with a normative view about how to act in light of that reality. Indeed, Boyer's insights could help Objectivists develop more efficient means of raising children to avoid the pitfalls of such tendencies, and these insights could give a better understanding

of sound moral character.


Seeking in our brain's functioning a tendency for belief in God has, not surprisingly, led to another course of

exploration. Researchers are taking detailed looks at the emotional capacities and tendencies that are essential

aspects of human consciousness and essential to our moral nature.

Jonathan Haidt

In his research and in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Jonathan Haidt offers empirical evidence concerning alleged inborn moral capacities rooted in our emotions. Indeed, he argues that human reason's control over emotions is like a man's control over the elephant he is riding. The elephant is really in charge. In Haidt's view, moral sentiments are usually the emotions in control, with reason as the after-thefact interpreter and excuse-maker. But in the long run our emotions, like an elephant, can be trained in certain ways. Haidt rejects any hard determinism, but he does not venture to argue for an objective morality.

Robert Wright in The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology argues that many patterns noted by cultural anthropologists are now being understood by evolutionary psychologists as evolved capacities for everything from guilt to a sense of justice, manifest universally in all human societies as family structures, friendship, concern for social status, gossip, and even what we gossip about. These are not attributes that arise arbitrarily from cultures but are based on hardwired capacities.

Wright argues that each individual is born with capacities or tendencies for behavior set at certain levels, what

he calls "knobs of human nature:' They are adjusted differently for different individuals. One "knob" is "thirst for approval:' Some individuals are "self-assured:' Others are "massively insecure:' Yet Wright argues that individuals are not slaves to their hard wiring but can adjust their tendencies over time.

But while Wright works to understand human moral capacities, he, like many of his predecessors, endorses Hume's "is-ought" dichotomy, called by philosopher G.E. Moore the "naturalist fallacy:' The description of a particular capacity, tendency, or urge says nothing about whether we "ought" to behave in a certain way. For example, tribalism and xenophobia might have conferred a survival advantage on primitive humans. But shunning people because of their skin color does not serve survival in an advanced, industrial society.

So Wright ends up like so many others who study evolution and the brain, being able to describe and explain but

offering nothing about how humans ought to act.


Enter Sam Harris.

Harris made his name as one of the New Atheists with his books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian

Nation. In these he decried the central practice of religions: accepting beliefs, often quite absurd ones, as true without verifiable or testable evidence, and elevating the practice of self-imposed ignorance and dogmatism -i.e., faith to a high virtue. Special targets were religious moral dogmas and practices that demonstrably diminish human well-being-radical Islam and sharia law are obvious examples.

Harris tends to favor the good of the many over the good of individuals.

Harris expected criticism from the religious community. But he was shocked at secularists who criticized him for making moral pronouncements that were meant to be taken not as his mere personal preferences but, rather, as statements about what is objectively "good" or "bad:'

In his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, he recounts a conversation with a person who has since been appointed to the President's Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The woman asked Harris how he could argue that science can say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong. Harris pushed her on her cultural value relativism. Could we say that a culture that ritually blinds every third child at birth, based on some religious superstition that "Every third must walk in darkness;' diminishes human well-being? She said no, we can never say that this is wrong (43-44).


Harris sees a third alternative to ethical views that are based on supposed religious revelations or moral relativism. Rejecting Hume's "is-ought" dichotomy, he argues "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 mature sciences of mind" (28).

Specifically, Harris argues that the standard of value or morality is human well-being. His premise is that "human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it. A more detailed understanding of these truths will force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical. Clearly, such insights could help us to improve the quality of human life" (2-3).

Harris has confronted his critics who "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" (32). Further, "While maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures may be what I value, other people are perfectly free to define their values differently, and there is no rational or scientific basis to argue with them:'

Harris replies that "consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What's the alternative?" (32) Further, "So what about people who think that morality has nothing to do with anyone's well-being? I am saying that we need not worry about them-just as we don't worry about the people who think that their 'physics' is synonymous with astrology, or sympathetic magic, or Vedanta:'


Harris's contentions remind us of many of the ancient eudaimonist moral thinkers. In fact, Harris acknowledges that in our own era scholars "have resurrected Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia, which is generally translated as 'flourishing; 'fulfillment; or 'well-being:" But, he goes on to say, "While I rely heavily on those English equivalents, I have elected not to pay any attention to Aristotle. While much of what Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics is of great interest and convergent with the case I wish to make, some of it isn't. And I'd rather not be beholden to the quirks of the great man's philosophy" (195-196).

One can understand Harris's concern about our own understanding and interpretations of Aristotle causing confusion concerning the points that he is trying to make. But, as we shall see, there are questions raised by Harris's approach that will require philosophy to sort out.


Harris asks us to think of a moral landscape with many peaks of well-being as well as many valleys. Our individual genetic makeup, environment, and a myriad of other particular factors will contribute to where we are on this landscape.

Consider a young widow, living barely at subsistence level in a pestfilled jungle, who watches her young daughter raped and dismembered before her eyes by her own son, who is being urged on by an armed, drug-addled press gang. Her well-being can be said to be very low. Consider a couple who are in love, are healthy, are prosperous, have intellectually stimulating careers, and have good friends.

Their well-being can be said to be high. And there are many states in between.

There are many specific situations in which well-being can be described as high and all too many situations in which well-being is minimal to nonexistent.

Harris's metaphor of a landscape also makes the point that the object of well-being is the individual. The concrete circumstances and situations that will contribute to well-being at any given time will be specific to the individual. The "good" is not some one peak to which all should climb. At least with this metaphor Harris avoids the intrinsicist notion of a good separate from the real flesh-and-blood individuals who experience joy or suffering.

Societies and cultures, too, can vary in their moral situation. Western societies for the most part and in a variety of ways are conducive to human wellbeing, while North Korea is much the reverse.

Harris tries to avoid the rule-based morality of religion that consists in claiming that some situation or action is "good" or "bad" out of all contexts and without any regard for consequences. But he doesn't do as well at distinguishing between external and biological factors that contribute to or subtract from well-being on the one hand and the actions, virtues, and moral character that are under the control of individuals on the other. Harris and researchers like Haidt do us a service by illuminating the sorts of actions that tend to contribute to well-being and the pathologies and behavioral traps into which we can fall that can leave us miserable. But over what factors in our own consciousness do we have control? In what matters concerning our well-being can we exercise our will?


Harris refers to free will as an illusion. Up to this point in his argument, he seemed to be working in an Aristotelian and even an Objectivist paradigm. But he now returns to the assumptions of many materialists. He tells us, "All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion" (103). Harris cites brain scans that show a small gap between the initiation of an action and the conscious feeling that one has decided to act.

Harris argues as follows: "Our belief in free will arises from our momentto- moment ignorance of specific prior causes. The phrase 'free will' describes what itfeels like to be identified with the content of each thought as it arises in consciousness" (105).

Free will is certainly one of the most difficult phenomena for any philosopher or scientist to understand. By observing that all behavior is ultimately biological, Harris avoids religious notions of a separable soul. But this fact does not exhaust what might be understood about free will. What are the implications of viewing free will as an illusion when we judge moral responsibility? How can a creature with no control over its actions be described as responsible? Harris does believe that individuals can be held responsible for their actions. He begins his discussion-this sounds like Aristotle in Book III of the Ethics-by considering the various circumstances under which individuals might or might not be culpable. And then we are given this:

It seems to me that we need not have any illusions about a causal agent living within the human mind to condemn such a mind as unethical, negligent, or even evil, and therefore liable to occasion further harm. What we condemn in another person is the intention to do harm-and thus any condition or circumstance (e.g., accident, mental illness, youth) that makes it unlikely that a person could harbor such an intention could mitigate guilt, without any recourse to the notion of free will (108).

But this leaves open the question, what is intentionality? By Harris's way of thinking, aren't intentions simply things that spring from our subconscious? Do we have any control over our intentions? If not, how can we be held responsible?

Harris rightly insists on the importance of ideas as founts of human behavior. For example, he holds that the ideology and dogmas of Islam are principal causes that spur Islamists to their murderous deeds. But where do ideas come from? Are they just another sophisticated form of conditioned behavior? Or must they involve volition, that is, a choice to think or not to think?


The area where Harris's thinking needs the most rethinking is concerning well-being itself. Harris at times speaks of the well-being of individuals and at other times the well-being of humans as a group. Do these two forms of wellbeing conflict with one another? Does the good of one have primacy over the other?

Harris tends to favor the good of the many over the good of individuals, although he acknowledges the problems that utilitarians have faced in trying to determine how to make such a measure.

Consider his treatment of collective well-being. He observes, rightly, that human cooperation can help facilitate meaningful human lives and viable societies. But, he also observes, "When one considers the proportion of our limited time and resources that must be squandered merely to guard against theft and violence ... the problem of human cooperation seems almost the only problem worth thinking about. 'Ethics' and 'morality' ... are the names we give to our deliberative thinking on these matters" (55). So Harris sees ethics and morality as tied to group cooperation not just in some instrumental way-I am better off in a society in which I deal with my fellows based on mutual consent-but in a way that seems to transcend the individual.

As an example concerning moral action, Harris observes that most of us spend far more time deciding what we want to eat in our favorite restaurants than deciding how we might feed the hungry of the world. And he asks, "Can the disparity between our commitment to fulfilling our selfish desires and our commitment to alleviating the unnecessary misery and death of millions be morally justified? Of course not" (82).

Here Harris falls into the perennial problem of the individual versus the group. While he is right to set a fact-based standard for value grounded in real human needs, he does not seem to fully grasp the moral implications of the fact that the conscious, valuing, morally responsible agent is the individual.

Harris rightly points out the cases where doing things that help others creates win-win situations. He looks at research that suggests how and where we get more satisfaction in life by having loving, sharing relations with others. He also notes that it is often difficult for individuals to do things for their personal well-being-e.g., stopping smoking- so it is no surprise that we often do not act in ways to improve overall human well-being and cooperation.

But the philosophical imprecision of Harris's standard of well-being-sometimes for the individual, sometimes for society-is the major problem with his thinking at this time. By what standard do I judge how much time I should devote to a career I love? What time should I devote to my wife and children? How much time should I spend taking my kids to the park or Disney World or for a day in the country? Should I feel guilty for all that time I spend teaching them to read and playing with them in the yard rather than serving in a soup kitchen? If everyone gives up "selfish" interests, would that increase overall well-being? Shouldn't I look out first for my own well-being?

Harris thinks it is morally appropriate for him to be most concerned about his own daughter when he takes her to the hospital. But he also says that it is not appropriate for him to expect that everyone else in the waiting room be concerned for his daughter's wellbeing first. So he does recognize the relationship of the agent or actor-in this case, himself-to the thing valued. He also says that he recognizes that he has more to gain from a system that operates by standards. (If his daughter has a minor ailment and others have life-threatening ones, he would want a system that discriminates against minor ailments rather than putting his daughter's need first.)

And Harris's notion of a moral landscape with peaks of excellence recognizes that different situations will best contribute to the well-being of particular individuals.

But Harris needs to go further to understand that the object of well-being is the individual and what the implications of that fact are for well-being in a society.


Harris is politically in favor of much more government intervention in the economy and in the lives of individuals than would be a limited-government libertarian. This is not surprising, given his treatment of individual versus collective well-being.

Still, Harris is to be congratulated for attempting to put discussions of values on an objective basis. Further, his work and that of others such as Jonathan Haidt offer insights into the actual workings of human minds and what actually tends to lead to well-being. These insights should inform our deliberations about how to flourish as individuals and how to raise and educate our children. And they can help us understand  the failures of others to flourish, which, sadly, can translate into serious social and political problems.

But Harris and those like him who see consciousness and human wellbeing as the venue and the goal of values must understand that it is the individual who is conscious, who acts, and who has personal autonomy. This in turn will show that the venue for human cooperation and well-being shared with others is a society based on individual liberty.

This article was cited in the New York Times " Opinionator" blog (October 26, 2011)

Edward Hudgins
About the author:
Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins, former Director of Advocacy and Senior Scholar at The Atlas Society, is now President of the Human Achievement Alliance and can be reached at ehudgins@humanachievementalliance.org.

Values and Morals
Religion and Atheism