The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

If we accept that God does not exist, who or what has the authority to define morality?  Sam Harris believes science can take on that job and makes a case for it in his new book The Moral Landscape.


The concept is quite ambitious – treat morality like gravity, so its force is universal and applies equally to all.  Morality has always been relative, varying from culture to culture, and from religion to religion.  We are all too aware of this because of the conflict between Christianity and Islam, or even between the Old Testament and the New Testament.  What is right and wrong depends on the number of people backing the moral system.

Harris points out that moral relativism is the politically correct stance in our modern world.  If we discover a primitive culture that practices cannibalism, moral relativists do not want to condemn these different people for a practice we find horrifyingly immoral, and allows that cannibalism is morally right within its social concept.  Sam Harris believes that’s a load of crap, and I agree.

I’m reading The Moral Landscape in a non-fiction book club and the consensus is Sam Harris writing is too abstract and vague to make his case clearly and decisively.  How can moral issues be weighed and measured like chemical reactions?  Harris bases his hypothesis on contrasting the lives of intelligent self-aware beings.  If scientific studies can show that one course of behavior leads to a better life for the individual that can be considered scientific proof of morality.

Harris believes it’s obvious that morality should strive to create the best lives possible.  He goes on to muddle the issue, rightly by the way, that it’s very hard to determine what’s the best for any individual.  But throughout the book he tries to tie in many scientific studies that illuminate human nature.  I do recommend the book, it’s not a hard read, and has many fascinating concepts to consider, just don’t expect it to be conclusive proof of the concept.

I’m not sure science can define morality.  For me there’s always been three areas that define right and wrong:  morality, ethics and law.  Morality requires an authority, and for most of history God or gods decided morality.  Ethics is a consensus by philosophers, and laws are decided by governments.  Each system has its own problems.  Science is a system for exploring reality.  It’s impartial and indifferent.  Good and evil, or right and wrong might not exist in reality to be measured.  Ethics and laws might have to substitute for secular morality.

Looking at physics and chemistry, there is no right and wrong.  If we use biology as the basis for morality, survival of the fittest  is a cold form of morality.  If a lion eats an antelope we can’t call it murder.  As Sam Harris points out, morality can only come into play when we’re dealing with self-aware individuals.  Strangely, our species has created morality, and now tries to expand the concept to other species with the idea of animal rights.  Morality has always been an invention of mankind, he’s just used the concept of God to promote it.

Any scientific discussion of morality will be in the social sciences, an area that hard scientists sneer at for being soft.  In other words, imprecise.

Sam Harris uses female genital mutilation (FGM) as a moral issue to consider.  In some parts of the world female circumcision is a very moral practice, but in the west, we find it outrageously immoral.  Anthropology and sociology can defend the practice, so is such moral relativism an example of scientific morality?  Sam Harris says no.  If something is immoral in one part of the world, it should be equally immoral in another part of the world, and science should be able to prove it.

What Sam Harris shows is morality is tied to religion and people do not want to attack religions.  Religious morality always protects the religion rather than the individual.  He wants a morality that protects the individual.  And if you look at a secular society, it tries to protects the individual.  I don’t know if you can make a science out of that, but look at it this way, if the whole world gives up religion and its customs, will not the word morality mutate into what Sam Harris wants anyway, even without the endorsement of science?

Look at the revolution in Egypt.  Its people seem to want democracy.  Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood wants a theocracy, but what if all these revolutions in Islamic countries is a desire for personal freedoms?  Seeking a political solution is asking the legal system to make a moral decision.  In other words, we’ve been moving towards secular morality for thousands of years.  There’s been a shift in power from gods to humans.  Sam Harris wants science now to provide an impartial stamp of approval, but I’m not sure that’s needed.

JWH – 4/13/11

2 thoughts on “The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris”

  1. Jim, you might be interested in this 9-part YouTube series of a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, “Does Good Come from God?”

    I thought Craig was clearly wrong, and I was disappointed that Harris let so many of his assertions pass. (For example, a god doesn’t have to be perfectly good. Just look at the ancient Greek gods, who were very human in their vices. Gods back then weren’t necessarily good, just too powerful to offend.) But as the debate went on, I was increasingly impressed by Harris.

    I haven’t read The Moral Landscape, so I was particularly interested in your comments here. I guess I’m sympathetic to his general idea, but still a bit skeptical. Oh, I’m sure science can tell us a great deal about morality, but… everything?

    Of course, I don’t think a god can make something moral just by commanding it, either, even if a god really did exist. But I have little interest in philosophy. I’m interested in morality as a practical matter, the specifics of it, rather than the theory behind it.

    So let me just say that I agree with your last line. Furthermore, I think I feel about morality the way the Supreme Court feels about pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

    1. Some morality that appears to come from God actually comes from deep seated cultural and biological roots. God’s commands were added later to back up ancient practices, like female circumcision. Since I’m an unbeliever, I’ve always thought that leaders in ancient societies used God as a way to rule their people and maintain order.

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