In his book The Moral Landscape, published in 2010, author Sam Harris challenged the long-held belief that relegates science to answering questions about the physical universe, and religion to concerns of meaning, values and morality. Harris claims that this separation is false and asserts the supremacy of science as a tool to inform our moral knowledge. The book has just been released in paperback, and Harris’ new book, Lying, is available this week. The following book review of The Moral Landscape was previously published in the Center For Inquiry Portland newsletter. It has been modified slightly.
Harris is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. I listened to Harris lecture on The Moral Landscape at the First Unitarian Church when he visited Portland in October, 2010.
Harris’ prose is like his lecture style: neat, clear and dispassionate, with instances of fascinating insight and sharp wit. The Moral Landscape is lucid, jargon-free, and accessible to non-philosophers and non-scientists.
There are right and wrong answers to moral questions, and the sciences of the mind may one day address these answers, Harris writes. Science can help us realize what we should do and what we should want out of life, according to his new book. He writes:
“Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures – and, in our case, must lawfully depend on events in the world and upon states in the human brain. Rational, open-ended, honest inquiry has always been the true source of insight into such processes. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.”
Harris addresses the facts-values distinction, also known as the “naturalistic fallacy,” in his introductory chapter, and returns to it again later in the book. It has long been argued that one cannot derive notions of morality from facts in the world. This is/ought distinction – as propounded by the 18th Century Scottish Philosopher David Hume – is a manufactured and clumsy way to think about morals. According to Harris:
“If this notion of ‘ought’ means anything we can possibly care about, it must translate into a concern about the actual or potential experience of conscious beings (either in this life or in some other).”
Harris develops this argument along with two others: “objective” knowledge has values built into it, and beliefs about facts and values seem to arise from similar brain processes. He uses the analogy of how we think about health and being healthy to rebut the challenge of the ambiguous definition of “well-being.” There is no one way to define “health,” but science can give us guidance on how to be healthy.
Harris moves forward to confidently assail relativism during his first chapter titled “Moral Truth.” We pay a heavy price in human suffering using this untenable morale standard. He further points out the contradictory nature of relativism.
The following chapter titled “Good and Evil” is the most robust and fascinating. Harris begins by discussing the philosophical problems of moral realism and consequentialism, to which his project seems to commit him. He then moves forward to discuss current moral theory and investigation. His comments on moral illusions, problems and paradoxes are fascinating and relevant. As he did during his Portland appearance, he discusses the ubiquitous trolley problems that seem to inhabit many philosophical discussions. (If a god does provide us with our moral intuitions, then she has a weird sense of humor.)
Beware the section on psychopathy, as Harris leaves little unsaid. It is not gratuitous, but it is detailed, and it could give many people nightmares.
Many will find guilty pleasure reading the chapter titled “Religion.” Harris pursues his criticism of NIH Director Francis Collins, and weighs in (again) on the issue of accomodationism.
Even though some of the subject matter can be difficult, there is a reason to hope: i.e. we can jettison relativism and the dogma of religion. And while this is not the final word on the role of science in morality, it’s a great beginning.