“The Moral Lanscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values” Book Review

Posted: February 21, 2011 in Book Reviews

Sam Harris is one of the leading atheist writers today. He hit the scene with 2004’s The End of Faith and followed it up with Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006. Just like the other “New Atheists,” he is appalled at religion (of all stripes and colors) and fervently preaches an atheism based solely on science and reason (which, apparently, religion cannot coincide with). By far the worst chapter in End of Faith is the one devoted to morality, so when I saw that Harris had recently written an entire book on the subject, my curiosity was peaked. The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Moral Values is Harris’ case that objective morality can (and must) be determined only by science.

In this book, Harris is trying to break down the myth that science has nothing to say about morality. In many ways, the biggest criticism against his atheism has been that he accepts objective moral values, yet has no authority on which to base them. If there is no God, who determines what is right and wrong? Because of this, many scientists have been wary to venture into the moral arena. Even ardent atheists have often admitted that religion’s strong points are that it speaks better about morality than Naturalism does. Harris doesn’t buy that, and sets out to prove why.

The problem with this book comes right in the very beginning. In order to speak about morality, Harris must determine what it is in the first place. Science does experiments using physical phenomenon. You can put bacteria under a microscope and write out your observations. But how does one do that with morality? Is morality something that can be placed in a test tube? Science determines physical facts, but can it speak to the metaphysical? Many scientists have said no, following in the tradition of David Hume that “You cannot derive an ought from an is.” There is a Facts and Values split that keeps them apart.

Harris disagrees with Hume’s conclusion. He bases his entire premise on “Well-Being.” What is Well-Being? Good question. Harris says, “Many readers might wonder how we can base our values on something as difficult to define as ‘well-being’? It seems to me, however, that the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition, and yet it is indispensable.” Ummm, so basically he is saying “I don’t need to define it because everybody knows and agrees on what it is.” I object! I imagine Hitler’s view of “Well-Being” (say, a world without any Jews) is far different from our view. But that’s the problem. It is like saying “Whatever maximizes happiness without taking away someone else’s happiness is the moral thing to do.” Is that true? What about self-sacrifice? What about altruism? Both of these have a hard time fitting into Harris’ Darwinian “Survival of the Fittest” thinking. Even if he could define Well-Being better than he does, why should we seek this? Why is your well-being important to me? As long as my well-being is maximized, isn’t that all that matters? If a rapist catches a young girl in an ally on her way home from dance class, and there is no way he will ever get caught, what stops him? Certainly not any consequences. Why does her well-being keep him from satisfying his own?

When it comes down to it, this entire book is built on the idea of “Well-Being,” and yet Harris never gives a good definition of it. I agree with him that we are all aware of certain states of consciousness that are more pleasant to us (at the time) than others. But why is that what drives morality? He says that the “good” is whatever maximizes well-being and the “bad” is what diminishes it. In the end, it looks very much like Utilitarianism, where pleasure is good and pain is bad. Therefore, maximizing pleasure is moral and causing pain is immoral. But then, Harris is not saying anything that hasn’t already been said (and better) by other atheists like Peter Singer (who said things like “Pain is bad, and similar amounts of pain are equally bad, no matter whose pain it might be.”). It is a Consequentialist theory that tries to predict the future to make a decision (“Will this action maximize pleasure or pain?”). It asks us to be seers as well as hedonists. Now, there are ways that Utilitarians try to get around such accusations, but what strikes me is how ground-breaking Harris thinks he is, when really he is repackaging old arguments, replacing “pleasure” with “well-being.” Since this problem comes up right off the bat, and the rest of the book is built from it, it means the rest of the book is pretty shaky.

When I Googled other reviews for this book, I was surprised by what I found. In an age where America seems to be moving into more and more secular territory, I was surprised to find that most reviewers did not like this book any more than I did. Sure, Harris is no idiot (practically 1/3 of the book is just footnotes). But the top reviews (from respected and definitely not “Christian” or “Religious Right” newspapers) had the same frustrations I had. Harris would likely explain the opposition to the fact that most people still see a split between science and morality as necessary when they shouldn’t. I disagree. I think science definitely plays a part, but it is not the final authority. A surgeon must cause pain in order to fulfill a greater good; a father spanks his child to ensure the boy won’t run into a busy street; a young man in the prime of life goes down with the Titanic because he gives up his spot to an 80 year old woman. Sometimes morality is more complicated than “pleasure” and “pain.” Science may measure such things, but it cannot answer the most fundamental question of morality: “Why?”

Similar Books:

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. This takes an aimed attack at conservative Christians in the U.S. However, Harris has obviously disregarded the wisdom of “know your enemy” since the picture of “Christianity” he gives is miles off base in almost every way.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. This is a broader attack on religion as a whole, focusing primarily on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. You will find lots of arrogant rants about “logic” and “reason” and “science” as if religious people have never heard such foreign words!

Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer. This is a good overview of Singer’s Utilitarian ethics, with exerts from his many writings. And yes, you will see where Utilitarianism (without God) ultimately leads: infanticide up to 30 days after birth.

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