Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
by Rich Deem

Introduction

The Moral Landscape by Sam HarrisSam Harris has a new book, The Moral Landscape, whose subtitle claims, "How Science Can Determine Human Values." If you buy the book because of the subtitle, you will be extremely frustrated and disappointed. Instead, Sam Harris has produced the ultimate book that "preaches to the choir" (in this case, the atheistic choir) in order to attempt to shore up what is undoubtedly one of the weakest aspects of atheism - the determination of moral values.

Human evil

Although most atheists tend to minimize human selfishness, Sam Harris genuinely sees it as humanity's major flaw.1 In fact, one of his statements instantly reminded me of what the Apostle Paul said in Romans 7:2

"I know that helping people who are starving is far more important than most of what I do. I also have no doubt that doing what is most important would give me more pleasure and emotional satisfaction than I get from most of what I do by seeking pleasure and emotional satisfaction. But his knowledge does not change me. I still want to do what I do for pleasure more than I want to help the starving."3

The fact that Harris himself acknowledges that he cannot live up to his own moral values calls into question whether "science can determine human values" in any meaningful way.

Human well-being

Sam Harris defines morality in terms of human well-being, with the intent of morality to advance human well-being. Harris also claims that human well-being is a function of the state of the brain.4 However, no evidence is presented that suggests that any particular states of brain can be produced in any particular way. In fact, there is evidence that certain moral behaviors that the vast majority of us would classify as evil produce a functional state of the brain that would be indicative of well-being in those morally reprehensible individuals.

Harris says that "Changes in wealth, health, age, marital status, etc., tend not to matter as much as we think they will-and yet we make our most important decisions in life based upon these inaccurate assumptions... we are poorly placed to accurately recall the past, to perceive the present, or to anticipate the future with respect to our own happiness. It seems little wonder, therefore, that we are so often unfulfilled."5 (page 183-184) However, the Bible describes a man had it all - hundreds of women, immense wealth, and political power. However, at the end of his life he wrote one of the most cynical works of all time, the Bible's book of Ecclesiastes. Even though King Solomon had every physical pleasure a man could want, in his book, he describes it all as vanity and futility.6 Christianity's claim is that all these material things cannot substitute for a relationship with God. Dozens of scientific studies have shown that those who practice some form of religion exhibit superior mental and physical health compared to those who don't.7 Scientific data shows that adolescents who receive frequent religious instruction behave more appropriately and are better adjusted to adult life in society compared to their non-religious peers. In addition, those children are also happier.8 Needless to say, Sam Harris never bothered to cite such studies.

Determinism vs. free will

Like most atheists, Harris is a  believer in determinism and disbeliever in free will:

I guess it is possible that Mr. Harris' brain operates in this manner - which probably explains why his book seems so random at times. Seriously, the implications of a belief in determinism have serious consequences (mostly leading to increased immoral behavior). Harris himself indicates that the Supreme Court has said that a belief in determinism "is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system" (United States vs. Grayson, 1978). Despite the obvious moral pitfalls of believing in determinism, Harris insists that anyone examining their own life will "see that free will is nowhere to be found."10 However, later in the book, Harris seems to believe that choices are possible even despite a complete lack of free will:

"Obviously, when I speak of 'freedom' and 'choices' of this sort, I am not endorsing a metaphysical notion of 'free will'."11

Moral truth

In a surprising way, Sam Harris does not approve of any kind of moral relativism. Instead, he believes that moral truth exists as does any other kind of truth. Accordingly, Harris says, "It seems abundantly clear that many people are simply wrong about morality-just as many people are wrong about physics, biology, and oncology."12 Harris attributes the ability to make moral choices to the evolution of the human brain, saying "Genetic changes in the brain gave rise to social emotions, moral intuitions, and language."13 Although there is evidence for genetic differences between humans and other apes possibly allowing us to create and use language, Harris provides no evidence that changes in our genetics resulted in the ability to form "social emotions" and "moral intuitions."

Harris says that questions of morality should be determined scientifically,14 and that "science has long been in the values business."15 Harris believes that science will advance to the point that morality will be compulsory. He envisions the day when "lie detectors ever become reliable, affordable, and unobtrusive" so that "we may come to expect that certain places and occasions will require scrupulous truth telling."16 Although this sound like a really good idea in the right hands, one can easily imagine a dictatorial regime that uses such technology to ruthlessly eliminate its opponents. What Harris seems to have forgotten is that any and all advanced technology will be used by evil men to accomplish their evil purposes.

Determining morality

Where The Moral Landscape really falls flat is its explanation (or lack thereof) of exactly how science can determine moral values. Harris admits, "As we are about to see, population ethics is a notorious engine of paradox, and no one, to my knowledge, has come up with a way of assessing collective well-being that conserves all our intuitions."17 However, Harris does offer some solutions, specifically mentioning "the interchangeability of perspective,"18 which is just a restatement of the Golden Rule.19

Sam Harris readily admits that he is a political liberal20 and that liberals and conservatives see the world in completely different ways. Harris represents the standard morality of liberals, saying, "Our system of justice should reflect our understanding that each of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself."21 Harris equates conservatism with "outright hypocrisy" saying, "The most conservative regions of the United States tend to have the highest rates of divorce and teenage pregnancy, as well as the greatest appetite for pornography... If one wants examples of such hypocrisy, Evangelical ministers and conservative politicians seem to rarely disappoint."22 He goes on to quote a study by Jost, et al,23 "Conservative ideologies, like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs," describing such a statement as having "more than a whiff of euphamism."24 Of course, liberal ideologies do not suffer from such deficits!

The really scary part of such liberal ideology is how Harris proposes to solve our moral problems:

"We must build our better selves into our laws, tax codes, and institutions. Knowing that we are generally incapable of valuing two children more than either child alone, we must build a structure that reflects and enforces our deeper understanding of human well-being."

If Sam Harris ever becomes president, look out - conservatives not welcome!

Harris complains that most moral judgment results from emotional reaction rather than logical analysis. However, he goes on to cite neuroimaging experiments showing that psychopaths lack neural activity in the regions of the brain associated with emotional stimuli. From such experiments, it is clear that a completely logical brain, devoid of any emotional component, could be a very dangerous thing.

Religion

Although The Moral Landscape devotes an entire chapter to religion, Sam Harris doesn't restrict his disdain of religion to only this one chapter. Throughout the book, Harris provides a world of extremes, nearly always giving examples of evil derived from religious extremism. His ultimate goal is to promote the idea that all religion leads automatically to evil behavior. Not once does Harris mention any of the good things that are done because people believe God has called them to do such benevolent acts. Then he has the audacity to complain that religious people characterize him unfairly saying, "It is often said that we caricature religion, taking its most extreme forms to represent the whole. We do no such thing."25 In reality, this is exactly what Harris does throughout the book. One merely needs to randomly turn to almost any page to find such examples.

On his chapter on religion, Harris tries to tie evolutionary theory to the existence of moral belief based upon religion. On sexuality, he claims that it is in the best interests of both males and females that couples remain faithful to each other. However, he is forced to admit that "evolution should actually favor indiscriminate heterosexual activity on the part of men, as long as these scoundrels can avoid squandering their resources in ways that imperil the reproductive success of their offspring."26 Other evolutionary reasons given for the existence of religion include the fostering of xenophobia, which Harris says "may have offered some protection against infectious illness: for to the degree that religion divides people, it would inhibit the spread of novel pathogens."27

Harris has an interesting section on religious belief and brain functioning. It seems that belief or disbelief in religious versus secular statements elicits similar neurological responses in both religious and non-religious people,28 suggesting that these people really do believe what they say they believe. From these studies, it wouldn't seem that science would ever be able to determine truth simply from examining what people believe to be true.

God is Great, God is GoodSam Harris saves his most vitriolic attack for scientists who believe in God's existence. "The fact that some scientists do not detect any problem with religious faith merely proves that a juxtaposition of good ideas and bad ones is possible."29 Then Harris goes on a 15 page randomized rant against Francis Collins, the director of National Institute of Health (NIH) and an outspoken Christian. Harris then implies that Collins shouldn't be the director of NIH because of his Christian views, saying, "Is there a chance that Collins would be running the NIH if he were an outspoken polytheist?" Imagine if the United States were run by atheists like Sam Harris. We theists wouldn't even be able to get a job.

Instead of providing any evidence that science can consistently provide the best moral answer, Harris repeats standard atheistic myths, including that the Roman Catholic Church's condom policy is responsible for the spread of HIV.30 Harris never attempts to examine the difficult moral issues like abortion and euthanasia from a scientific viewpoint, but always picks only easy moral choices (he really loves Muslim extremists and wacky Christians).

Sam Harris doesn't believe in the existence of any kind of spiritual realm, but cites an interesting example of such beliefs in the Dobu islanders. According to Ruth Benedict, "Life in Dobu fosters extreme forms of animosity and malignancy which most societies have minimized by their institutions. Dobuan institutions, on the other hand, exalt them to a high degree."31 The Dobu practice sorcery and cast spells, which they pass down from generation to generation. A good crop was attributed to either sorcery or theft. Harris attributes such malevolent societies to ignorance and obsession (mental illness?) However, a Christian would attribute such evil to spiritual darkness. The Dobu do not merely have an ignorance issue, but have a spiritual issue, as well. Other societies have experienced these kinds of spiritual issues, but have been cured, not through education, but through the transforming power of Jesus Christ (see Eternity in their HeartsEternity in their Hearts. For example, a recent study32 examined the generosity of different primitive tribes that were either engaged or not engaged in trading. There was a high correlation between generosity and learned trading behavior. However, there were two striking outliers - the non-trading Au and the Sursurunga tribes of Papua New Guinea. The article itself did not state a reason for the unexpected generosity of these groups. However, a 95 page supplement from the study stated that 100% of the members of those tribes were evangelical Protestants. So, this is the most likely reason for their generosity - they had been transformed into generous individuals through the power of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion Top of page

The Moral Landscape is Sam Harris' latest rant against religion. Contrary to the book's subtitle, Harris doesn't even attempt to show how science could be used to determine moral values. Instead, he is constantly referring to possible future scientific research that might aid in such a determination. The Moral Landscape is brimming with liberal political ideology, which seems to be Harris' substitute for the failure of science to provide definitive answers to moral questions. If you are a liberal atheist, you will probably love the book, although it certainly does not address the question that its title suggests.

Physicist Michio Kaku says quantum physics ends the determinism debate. Free will wins:



References Top of page

  1. "The truth about us is plain to see: most of us are powerfully absorbed by selfish desires almost every moment of our lives; our attention to our own pains and pleasures could scarcely be more acute; only the most piercing cries of anonymous suffering capture our interest, and then fleetingly. And yet, when we consciously reflect on what we should do, an angel of beneficence and impartiality seems to spread its wings within us: we genuinely want fair and just societies; we want other to have their hopes realized; we want to leave the world better than we found it." Harris, S. 2010. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Free Press, New York, NY, pp. 58-59.
  2. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (Apostle Paul, Romans 7:18-20)
  3. Harris, S. 2010. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Free Press, New York, NY, p. 83.
  4. Ibid, pp 177-191.
  5. Ibid, pp. 183-184.
  6. I said to myself, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself." And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it accomplish?" I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had home born slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men--many concubines. (Ecclesiastes 2:1-8)
  7. Please see Scientific Studies that Show a Positive Effect of Religion on Health.
  8. Please see Is the Teaching of Religion Really a Form of Child Abuse?
  9. Harris, S. 2010. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Free Press, New York, NY, pp. 102-112.
  10. "Our sense of our own freedom results from not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with truth."
  11. Harris, S. 2010. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Free Press, New York, NY, pp. 139.
  12. Ibid, p. 87.
  13. Ibid, p. 59.
  14. "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..." Ibid, p. 144.
  15. "Science has long been in the values business. Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, scientific validity is not the result of scientists abstaining from make value judgments; rather scientific validity is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument." Ibid, p. 143-144.
  16. Ibid, pp. 134-135.
  17. Ibid, p. 68.
  18. "We have already begun to see that morality, like rationality, implies the existence of certain norms-that is, it does not merely describe how we think and behave; it tells us how we should think and behave. One norm that morality and rationality share is the interchangeability of perspective.47 The solution to a problem should not depend on whether you are the husband or the wife, the employer or the employee, the creditor or debtor, etc." Ibid, pp.80-81.
  19. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Jesus, Christ, Luke 6:31)
  20. "The same point can be made in the opposite direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of thinking in terms of harm and fairness, can readily see that my vision of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others." Harris, S. 2010. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Free Press, New York, NY, p. 90.
  21. Ibid, p. 109.
  22. Ibid, p. 90.
  23. Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., and Sulloway, F.J. 2003. Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition. Psychol. Bull. 129: 339-375.
  24. Harris, S. 2010. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Free Press, New York, NY, p. 125.
  25. Ibid, p. 174.
  26. Ibid, p. 147.
  27. Ibid, p. 148.
  28. Ibid, p. 153.
  29. Ibid, p. 160.
  30. Ibid, p. 179.
  31. Benedict, R. 1934. Patterns of culture. Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin.
  32. Henrich, J., J. Ensminger, R. McElreath, A. Barr, C. Barrett, A. Bolyanatz, J. C. Cardenas, M. Gurven, E. Gwako, N. Henrich, C. Lesorogol, F. Marlowe, D. Tracer, and J. Ziker. 2010. Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment. Science 327, 1480.

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Last Modified July 22, 2013.

 

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