Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Philosophy Index: Aesthetics · Epistemology · Ethics · Logic · Metaphysics · Consciousness · Philosophy of Language · Philosophy of Mind · Philosophy of Science · Social and Political philosophy · Philosophies · Philosophers · List of lists

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is a book by Sam Harris. In it, he promotes a science of morality and argues that many thinkers have long confused the relationship between morality, facts, and science. He aims to carve a third path between secularists who say morality is subjective (e.g. moral relativists), and religionists who say that morality is given by God and scripture. Harris contends that the only moral framework worth talking about is one where "morally good" things pertain to increases in the "well-being of conscious creatures". He then argues that, problems with philosophy of science and reason in general notwithstanding, 'moral questions' will have objectively right and wrong answers which are grounded in empirical facts about what causes people to flourish.

Challenging the age-old philosophical notion that we can never get an 'ought' from an 'is', Harris argues that moral questions are best pursued using, not just philosophy, but the methods of science. Thus, "science can determine human values" translates to "science can tell us which values lead to human flourishing". It is in this sense that Harris advocates that scientists begin conversations about a normative science of "morality".[1]


File:EEG 32 electrodes.jpg

Harris believes science has already begun to pin-down the causes of human "happiness", and that regulating this pursuit is the purpose of "social morality"[2]

Sam Harris's case starts with two premises: "(1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences are related, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world".[3] The idea is that a person is simply describing material facts (many about their brain) when they describe possible "better" and "worse" lives for themselves. Granting this, Harris says we must conclude that there are facts about which courses of action will allow one to pursue a better life.

Harris attests to the importance of admitting that such facts exist, because he says this logic applies to groups of individuals as well. He suggests that there are better and worse ways for whole societies to pursue better lives. Just like at the scale of the individual, there may be multiple different paths and "peaks" to flourishing for societies - and many more ways to fail.

Harris then makes a pragmatic case that science could usefully define "morality" according to such facts (about people's wellbeing). Often his arguments point out the way that problems with this scientific definition of morality seem to be problems shared by all science, or reason and words in general. Harris also spends some time describing how science might engage nuances and challenges of identifying the best ways for individuals, and groups of individuals, to improve their lives. Many of these issues are covered below.

Philosophical case

File:Researchers using Niskin bottle to collect water sample · DN-SD-01-00282.JPEG

Harris says science requires that one acknowledge certain values (e.g. curiosity)

Although Harris's book discusses the challenges that a science of morality must face, he also mentions that his scientific argument is unavoidably philosophical—but says that this is the case for almost all science. He mentions that modern science amounts to careful practice of accepted first philosophical principles like empiricism and physicalism, reminding the reader that science was once even called "natural philosophy".[4] He further suggests that science has already very much settled on values in answering the question "what should I believe, and why should I believe it?".[5] Harris says it should not be surprising that a scientific pursuit of morality is equally founded on bedrock assumptions (Basic norms).

The way he thinks science might engage moral issues draws on various philosophical positions like ethical realism (there are facts worth calling 'moral facts'), and ethical naturalism (these facts relate to the physical world). Harris says a science of morality may resemble Utilitarianism, but that the science is, importantly, more open-ended because it involves an evolving definition of well-being. Rather than committing to Reductive materialism, then, Harris recognizes the arguments of revisionists that psychological definitions themselves are contingent on research and discoveries. Harris adds that any science of morality must consider everything from emotions and thoughts to the actual actions and their consequences.[6]

To Harris, moral propositions, and explicit values in general, are concerned with the flourishing of conscious creatures in a society.[7] He argues that "Social morality exists to sustain cooperative social relationships, and morality can be objectively evaluated by that standard."[8] Harris sees some philosophers' talk of strictly private morality as akin to unproductive discussion of some private, personal physics.[8][9]

Harris also discusses how interchangeability of perspective might emerge as an important part of moral reasoning. He alludes to an 'unpleasant surprise principle', where someone realizes they have been supporting an ineffective moral norm (e.g. reported cases of Jew-hunting Nazis discovering that they themselves were of Jewish descent).[10]

Science and moral truths

Harris identifies three projects for science as it relates to morality: (1) explaining why humans do what they do in the name of "morality" (e.g. traditional evolutionary psychology), (2) determining which patterns of thought and behaviour humans actually should follow (i.e. the science of morality), and (3) generally persuading humans to change their ways.[11] Harris says that the first project is focussed only on describing what is, whereas projects (2) and (3) are focused on what should and could be, respectively. Harris's point is that this second, prescriptive project should be the focus of a science of morality.[12] He mentions, however, that we should not fear an "Orwellian future" with scientists at every door - vital progress in the science of morality could be shared in much the same way as advances in medicine.[13]

Harris says it is important to delineate project (1) from project (2), or else we risk committing a moralistic fallacy.[14] He also highlights the importance of distinguishing between project (2) (asking what is right) from project (3) (trying to change behaviour). He says we must realize that the nuances of human motivation is a challenge in itself; humans often fail to do what they "ought" to do to even be successfully selfish - there is every reason to believe that discovering what is best for society would not change every member's habits overnight.[15]

Harris does not imagine that people, even scientists, have always made the right moral decisions—indeed it is precisely his argument that many of them are wrong about moral facts.[16] This is due to the many real challenges of good science in general, including human cognitive limitations and biases (e.g. loss aversion can sway human decisions on important issues like medicine). He mentions the research of Paul Slovic and others to describe just a few of these established mental heuristics that might keep us from reasoning properly.[17] Although he mentions that training might temper the influence of these biases, Harris worries about research showing that incompetence and ignorance in a domain leads to confidence (the Dunning–Kruger effect).[18]

Harris explains that debates and disagreement is a part of the scientific method, and that one side can certainly be wrong.[19] He also explains that all the debates still available to science illustrates how much work could still be done, and how much conversation must continue.[20]

Harris's positive beliefs


Harris rejects the idea of free will

The book is full of issues that Harris thinks are far from being empirically, morally grey areas. That is, besides saying that 'reasonable' thinking about moral issues amounts to scientific thinking. For instance, he references one poll that found that 36 percent of British Muslims think apostates should be put to death for their unbelief,[21] and he says that these individuals are "morally confused".[22] He also suggests it is obvious that loneliness, helplessness, and poverty are "bad", but that these are by no means as far as positive psychology has taken, and will take us.[23]

In one section, called The illusion of free will, Harris argues that there is a wealth of evidence in psychology (e.g. the illusion of introspection) or specifically related to the neuroscience of free will that suggests that metaphysically free will does not exist. This, he thinks, is intuitive; "trains of thought...convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. But from a deeper perspective...thoughts simply arise (what else could they do?)".[24] He adds "The illusion of free will is itself an illusion".[25] The implications of free will's non-existence may be a working determinism, and Harris warns us not to confuse this with fatalism.[24]

One implication of a determined will, Harris says, is that it becomes unreasonable to punish people out of retribution—only behaviour modification and the deterrence of others still seem to be potentially valid reasons to punish.[26] This, especially because behaviour modification is a sort of cure for the evil behaviours; Harris provides a thought experiment:

Consider what would happen if we discovered a cure for human evil. Imagine, for the sake of argument...the cure for psychopathy can be put directly into the food supply like vitamin D...consider, for instance, the prospect of withholding the cure for evil from a murder as part of his punishment. Would this make any moral sense at all?[26]

Harris acknowledges a hierarchy of moral consideration (e.g. humans are more important than bacteria or mice). He says it follows that there could, in principle, be a species compared to which we are relatively unimportant (although he doubts such a species exists).[27]

Harris supports the development of lie-detection technology and believes it would be, on the whole, beneficial for humanity. He also supports the formation of an explicit global civilization because of the potential for stability under a world government.[13]

Religion: good or bad?

Consistent with Harris's definition of morality, he says we must ask whether religion increases human flourishing today (regardless of whether it increased it in the distant past).[28] He argues that religions may largely be practiced because they fit well with human cognitive tendencies (e.g. animism).[29] In Harris's view, religion and religious dogma is an impediment to reason, and he discusses the views of Francis Collins as one example.

Harris criticizes the tactics of secularists like Chris Mooney, who argue that science is not fundamentally (and certainly not superficially) in conflict with religion. Harris sees this as a very serious disagreement, that patronizingly attempts to pacify more devout theists.[30] Harris claims that societies can move away from deep dependence on religion just as it has witchcraft, which he says was once just as deeply ingrained.[13]


The Moral Landscape reached 9th in the New York Times Best Seller list for Hardcover Non-Fiction in October 2010.[31]


Professional reviews of The Moral Landscape have been largely negative. Critics have found that Harris offers insufficient new information beyond offering the reader a science of utilitarianism, and called his treatment of a science of morality naive. Others found the whole project was distracted by Harris's ongoing rhetoric against religion. On the other hand, one critic opined that "when [Harris] stays closest to neuroscience, he says much that is interesting and important...".[32]

In his review for Barnes & Noble, Cal State Associate Professor of Philosophy Troy Jollimore allowed that the book "has some good, reasonable, and at times persuasive things to say" to people who are unfamiliar with moral skepticism, but "has little to say to those people who actually do know what the arguments are, and it will not help others become much better informed." Jollimore also worried that Harris wrongly presents complex issues as having simple solutions.[33]

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, writing in The New York Times, criticized Harris for failing to articulate "his central claim" and identifying how science has "revealed" that human well-being has an objective component.[32] Appiah concluded that Harris "ends up endorsing ... something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, ... that faces a battery of familiar problems," which Harris merely "push[es] ... aside."[32]

Cognitive scientist and anthropologist Scott Atran criticized Harris for failing to engage with the philosophical literature on ethics and the problems in attempting to scientifically quantify human well being, noting that

Nobel Prize–winner Daniel Kahneman studies what gives Americans pleasure—watching TV, talking to friends, having sex—and what makes them unhappy—commuting, working, looking after their children. So this leaves us where . . . ?[34]

Dismissing the book, he writes:

this work contains precious little science. There is, however, much playacting at science to justify a peculiar sort of Brave New World where atheism will help do away with female genital mutilation and lie detectors will preclude pleading the Fifth Amendment.[34]

American novelist Marilynne Robinson, writing in The Wall Street Journal, asserted that Harris fails to "articulate a positive morality of his own" but, had he done so, would have found himself in the company of the "Unitarians, busily cooperating on schemes to enhance the world's well being, as they have been doing for generations."[35]

David Sexton of the London Evening Standard described Harris’s claim to provide a science of morality as ‘ ‘the most extraordinarily overweening claim and evidently flawed. Science does not generate its own moral values; it can be used for good or ill and has been. Harris cannot stand outside culture, and the "better future" he prophesies is itself a cultural projection. ‘’[36]

John Horgan, journalist for the Scientific American blog and author of The End of Science, expressed deep skepticism regarding Harris's claims, pointing out "the harm — historical and recent — wreaked by scientists supposedly concerned with humanity's well-being."[37] Horgan continued:

Harris further shows his arrogance when he claims that neuroscience, his own field, is best positioned to help us achieve a universal morality. ... Neuroscience can't even tell me how I can know the big, black, hairy thing on my couch is my dog Merlin. And we're going to trust neuroscience to tell us how we should resolve debates over the morality of abortion, euthanasia and armed intervention in other nations' affairs?[37]

Writing in Canada's National Post, Peter Foster wrote that "Harris’s assault on religion is vicious to the point of being deranged[,]" while he simultaneously "fails to register that the greatest horrors of the past century have all been perpetrated in the name of 'scientific' socialism...."[38] Foster concluded,

Science may help us better examine moral values, but only if attached to historical knowledge and philosophical wisdom. Mr. Harris might consider removing the beam from his own liberal eye before he pretends to deal with the conservative mote that he finds so annoying in the eyes of others.[38]

Bill Whitehouse wrote Epistle to a Sam Harris Nation: Debunking the Moral Landscape, and wrote "Sam Harris has harsh words for religious extremists -- as well he should. However, he apparently fails to understand how his own position incorporates a brand of irreligious fundamentalism which is inclined to be just as blind and unyielding as the religious people whom he wishes to criticize."

Atheist science fiction writer and philosopher Russell Blackford said "The Moral Landscape is an ambitious work that will gladden the hearts, and strengthen the spines, of many secular thinkers" but that he had "serious reservations about a good book".[39]

The atheist philosopher Simon Blackburn, reviewing the book, described Harris as "a knockabout atheist" who "joins the prodigious ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just an instance of their doing it very badly", pointing out that "if Bentham’s hedonist is in one brain state and Aristotle’s active subject is in another, as no doubt they would be, it is a moral, not an empirical, problem to say which is to be preferred."[40]. And H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books finds that 'Despite Harris’s bravado about “how science can determine human values,” The Moral Landscape delivers nothing of the kind.'[41]

In a review for The San Francisco Chronicle, Deepak Chopra, alternative medicine advocate[42][43][44][45] and one-time debating opponent of Harris,[46] wondered whether Harris "is writing a satire on morality". Chopra wrote that Harris's "naiveté ... raises suspicion about his connection to psychological reality."[47]

Response to reviews

A few months after the book's release, Sam Harris wrote a follow-up at The Huffington Post in response to what he says are "cloudbursts of vitriol and confusion". In this response, Harris expresses regret that few directly engage his theses. Harris says that he does not want to lend credibility to many of his critics, but explains that he is committed to spreading ideas, and says about negative reviews that "not only do they discourage smart people from reading a book, they can lead them to disparage it as though they had discovered its flaws for themselves." A case in point, he cites Colin McGinn (whom Harris does admire), who criticized his ideas based solely on the reviews of others.[48]

Harris is skeptical of reviewers Marilynne Robinson and John Horgan, saying they are paranoid and generally missing the point by focusing on non sequiturs (the claim that a science of morality necessarily leads to Nazism, seemingly added "for good measure").[48] He also says that Kwame Anthony Appiah fails to raise any issues not addressed in the book. Harris is most critical, however, of Deepak Chopra, claims that Chopra's review in The San Francisco Chronicle was made without reading the book and based upon a promotional Q&A published by Harris.[48]

In the end, Harris's Follow-Up Response applies to three reviews: Thomas Nagel's, Troy Jollimore's, and Russel Blackford's (Harris focused his response on Blackford's criticisms—whom he says encompassed the most legitimate criticisms of the others).

Response to Blackford

After summarizing his book's arguments, Harris adds a point he says was not sufficiently discussed in the book. He proposes that the boundary between aesthetic (e.g. I love chocolate) and moral imperatives (it's wrong to kill) may not be as categorical as we think, and it may be that moral issues are simply aesthetic issues with higher stakes. To Harris, this possibility fits well with his belief that morality can only be reasonably understood by referring to facts about minds, and thus people's brains.[48]

Harris again uses a metaphor from his book to recast the main criticisms against his position (replacing "morality" and "well-being", with "medicine" and "health"). The main criticisms become: (The Value Problem) There is no scientific basis to say we should value health; (The Persuasion Problem) If a person does not care about health, there is no way for science to argue that they are wrong when it comes to medicine; (The Measurement Problem) Even if the purpose of medicine is health, "health" cannot be completely defined, and therefore cannot be studied scientifically.[48] Harris argues that this metaphor, although imperfect, makes it more clear how to disarm these three types of critique.

Harris addresses the Value problem by maintaining that some presupposition of values is necessary for any science, and that his science of morality is simply no different. He thus yields Blackford's point that "that initial presupposition does not come from science,"[49] but Harris does not see this as a problem. For example, science presupposes logical coherence and respect for evidence - without which science could not proceed. Harris maintains that a critic who rejects such basic norms of a discussion, whether it is that "science should be coherent" or that "morality depends on maximizing flourishing", cannot be taken seriously.[48] Harris is not saying that everyone must value health, morality, science or even reasonable discussion (indeed, one could always refuse to engage in these pursuits). Harris rather argues that reasonable discussion of these topics requires certain assumptions - and we should not expect reasonable discussion of morality to be any different.[48] He yields that fuzzy terms like health and flourishing admit of reasonable disagreement, but says that these terms are not so fuzzy as to allow extreme deviations. That is, science may not be certain whether it is healthier to be more flexible or to be able to jump higher, but science does seem to be able to call "unhealthy" a raging case of smallpox.[48]

In response to the measurement problem, Harris criticizes the idea that a science of morality falls apart without an iron-clad metric or "unit of well-being". He says this is an unrealistic constraint, and one that is not placed on other sciences (e.g. there is no "unit of depression", and yet depression is certainly a scientific topic).[48]

Sam Harris finishes his response by disagreeing with Blackford's last point: that conceptions of morality that are relative and even nihilistic do not prevent people from criticizing moral systems that causes suffering or violence. Harris says "Unless you understand that human health is a domain of genuine truth claims -- however difficult "health" may be to define—it is impossible to think clearly about disease. I believe the same can be said about morality. And that is why I wrote a book about it."[48]

Praise from colleagues

In advance of publication, four personal and professional acquaintances of the author,[50] biologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins, novelist Ian McEwan, psycholinguist Steven Pinker, and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, offered their praise for the book. They each serve on the Advisory Board of Harris's Project Reason,[51] and their praise appears as blurbs (released by the book's publisher on Harris's website and reproduced on the book's dust jacket).[52] Dawkins said,

I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. It should change it for philosophers too. Philosophers of mind have already discovered that they can't duck the study of neuroscience, and the best of them have raised their game as a result...".[53]

McEwan wrote that "Harris breathes intellectual fire into an ancient debate. Reading this thrilling, audacious book, you feel the ground shifting beneath your feet. Reason has never had a more passionate advocate."[52] Pinker said that Harris offers "a tremendously appealing vision, and one that no thinking person can afford to ignore."[52] Krauss opined that Harris "has the rare ability to frame arguments that are not only stimulating, they are downright nourishing, even if you don’t always agree with him!"[52] Krauss predicted that "readers are bound to come away with previously firm convictions about the world challenged, and a vital new awareness about the nature and value of science and reason in our lives."[52]

See also


  2. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 181
  3. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 15
  4. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 180
  5. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 144
  8. 8.0 8.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "HarrisCFI1" defined multiple times with different content
  9. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 147
  10. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 81
  11. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 49
  12. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 42
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2
  14. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 101
  15. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 92
  16. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 42-44
  17. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 69
  18. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 123
  19. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 88
  20. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 67
  21. includeonly>"Multiculturalism 'drives young Muslims to shun British values'", Daily Mail, 2007-01-29.
  22. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 90
  23. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 183
  24. 24.0 24.1 "The Moral Landscape", pg. 105
  25. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 112
  26. 26.0 26.1 The Moral Landscape, pg. 109
  27. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 210
  28. The Moral Landscape, pg. 148
  29. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 150
  30. "The Moral Landscape", pg. 175
  31. includeonly>Schuessler, Jennifer. "Hardcover", The New York Times.
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 K.A. Appiah, "Science Knows Best", The New York Times, Oct. 1, 2010
  33. Jollimore, Barnes & Noble Review, Oct. 22, 2010.
  34. 34.0 34.1 [: Sam Harris's Guide to Nearly Everything]. URL accessed on 24 September 2011.
  35. Robinson, "What Unitarians Know (and Sam Harris Doesn't)", The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2, 2010
  36. The King James Bible bashers. URL accessed on 13 May 2011.
  37. 37.0 37.1 J. Horgan, "Be wary of the righteous rationalist: We should reject Sam Harris's claim that science can be a moral guidepost", Scientific American blog, Oct. 11, 2010.
  38. 38.0 38.1 "Sam Harris’s Brave New World", National Post, Oct. 9, 2010
  40. Morality without God Prospect magazine 23-Mar-2011
  41. The Science of Right and Wrong by H. Allen Orr New York Review of Books May-2011 issue
  42. Skeptics Dictionary, Robert Todd Carroll, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, copyright 2003, pp 45–48 [1]
  44. Time,New Age Supersage, Ptolemy Tompkins, November 14, 2008
  45. India, Halyeema Sayed, The Mind-Body, April 15, 2001
  46. Nightline Face-Off Does God Have a Future – ABC News. URL accessed on 2010-07-09.
  47. "Beyond belief: Sam Harris imagines a 'moral landscape'",, Oct. 18, 2010
  48. 48.0 48.1 48.2 48.3 48.4 48.5 48.6 48.7 48.8 48.9
  49. Link to Blackford's review of The Moral Landscape sometimes fails:
  50. See, e.g.,Krauss, "God and Science Don't Mix", The Wall Street Journal(describing Harris and Dawkins as his "friends") (accessed on Harris's personal website, Nov. 7, 2010)
  51. Project Reason Advisory Board
  52. 52.0 52.1 52.2 52.3 52.4

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).