The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

March 6th, 2011 at 11:11 am

“It seems abundantly clear that many people are simply wrong about morality – just as many people are wrong about physics, biology, history, and everything else worth understanding.” – Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

I like Sam Harris. End of Faith was invigorating if long-winded. Letter to a Christian Nation was the opposite, a pamphlet to the masses. Both should be read.

With erudition, comes distance. The Moral Landscape began as Harris’s thesis for a doctorate at UCLA. And such nascent gestation lends the book a dry tone of academia. The notes & references are as long as the book itself.

And such straightforward pedagogy is felt throughout the book:

“The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.”

“I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.”

“My goal is to convince you that human knowledge and human values can no longer be kept apart. The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled. And science and religion – being antithetical ways of thinking about the same reality – will never come to terms. As with all matters of fact, differences of opinion on moral questions merely reveal the incompleteness of our knowledge; they do not oblige us to respect a diversity of views indefinitely.”

Got that?

“From the point of view of popular culture, science often seems like little more than a hatchery for technology.”

But beyond convincing us of the potential of Science outside of the iPad 2 and a computer winning Jeopardy, Sam Harris has high expectations. Whether he honestly believes that society can change to such a degree in the first place, much less because of a mere book that he has written, Harris does seek a global civilization based on shared values, peaceful coexistence and a science of human flourishing. You have to love the guy’s ambition. And he shares such lofty goals with a calculating, rational, aw-shucks, straightforward aplomb that you cannot help like the guy but also worry about him a little bit in the way you worry about a younger sibling. There is concern about naivete.

In his attempt at convincing readers that morality is a science that can be studied, examined, and understood much in the same way in which we study all other things, Sam Harris provides some helpful metaphors to lead the way.

His image of a moral landscape provides not just a title but a backbone to the entire book. It works to acknowledge a nuance and complexity that emerges from the inevitable questions contrary to Harris’s argument: “Even if there are a thousand different ways for two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive – and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of well-being and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.”

Harris also extends the image of thinking about morality just as we do about cuisine: “no one would argue that there must be one right food to eat. And yet there is still an objective difference between healthy food and poison.” Harris implores us to think of morality as physical health: we must occasionally experience some unpleasantness¬† – medication, surgery, etc. – in order to avoid greater suffering or death.

And with his moral landscape and moral fiber, it is all very easy and straightforward for Mr. Harris. He tells us, “The only thing we can reasonably value is the well-being of conscious creatures.”


“There may be nothing more important than human cooperation.”

Loud and clear.

“Genocide Neglect – our reliable failure to respond, both practically and emotionally, to the most horrific instances of unnecessary human suffering – one of the more perplexing and consequential failures of our moral intuition.”

Genocide Neglect is the name of my next band. Maybe U2′s next hit? A B-side by Pearl Jam? At least a track by Bad Religion. Maybe we can get Fergie to do the hook.

“The development of a reliable lie detector would only require a very modest advance over what is currently possible through neuroimaging.”

Good. Our Justice System could use all the help it can get.

“The answer to the question ‘What should I believe, and why should I believe it?’ is generally a scientific one. Believe a proposition because it is well supported by theory and evidence; believe it because it has been experimentally verified; believe it because a generation of smart people have tried their best to falsify it and failed; believe it because it is true (or seems so). This is a norm of cognition as well as the core of any scientific mission statement. As far as our understanding of the world is concerned – there are no facts without values.”

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One Response to “The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris”

  1. His book was great. I never really fully disagreed with him. I think it’s easy to pretend he’s saying things he’s not, but as you mentioned, he concedes that there are not facts without values. One cannot value evidence without first placing a value on evidence, so naturally we all have to take some leaps in order to really do or believe anything. And Harris argues that morality is no different and should be valued just as much as sciences are. In all of those regards, I am with him, not because of wishful thinking, but because he seems to make a damn good, intelligent, honest argument.

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