2010 TheMoralLandscapeHowScienceCanD

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Subject Headings: Moral Realism; Prefrontal Cortex; Psychopath.


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The people of Albania have a venerable tradition of vendetta called Kanun: if a man commits a murder, his victim’s family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. If a boy has the misfortune of being the son or brother of a murderer, he must spend his days and nights in hiding, forgoing a proper education, adequate health care, and the pleasures of a normal life. Untold numbers of Albanian men and boys live as prisoners of their homes even now. 1 Can we say that the Albanians are morally wrong to have structured their society in this way? Is their tradition of blood feud a form of evil? Are their values inferior to our own?

Most people imagine that science cannot pose, much less answer, questions of this sort. How could we ever say, as a matter of scientific fact, that one way of life is better, or more moral, than another? Whose definition of “better” or “moral” would we use? While many scientists now study the evolution of morality, as well as its underlying neurobiology, the purpose of their research is merely to describe how human beings think and behave. No one expects science to tell us how we ought to think and behave. Controversies about human values are controversies about which science officially has no opinion. 2

I will argue, however, that questions about values — about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose — are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture — just as facts about physical and mental health do. Cancer in the highlands of New Guinea is still cancer; cholera is still cholera; schizophrenia is still schizophrenia; and so, too, I will argue, compassion is still [[human compassion|compassion[[, and well-being is still well-being. 3 And if there are important cultural differences in how people flourish — if, for instance, there are incompatible but equivalent ways to raise happy, intelligent, and creative children — these differences are also facts that must depend upon the organization of the human brain. In principle, therefore, we can account for the ways in which culture defines us within the context of neuroscience and psychology. The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values



 AuthorvolumeDate ValuetitletypejournaltitleUrldoinoteyear
2010 TheMoralLandscapeHowScienceCanDSam HarrisThe Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values2010
AuthorSam Harris +
titleThe Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values +
year2010 +