Sam Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, launched the New Atheist movement and struck a mighty blow to dethrone faith as the source of morality. Now, six years later, Harris offers something to replace it: the cool reason of science.
In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris seeks to show exactly what his title claims. But the book, far from the clarion call of reason Harris takes it to be, is sadly lacking, both in philosophical sophistication and rhetorical punch. Harris leaves us with only a dreadfully weak claim supported by even weaker arguments.
The Moral Landscape’s thesis is summarized easily: Morally good behaviors are those that promote human well-being. The experience of well-being exists only in the brain’s chemical and electrical makeup and so can be quantified through scientific technique. Therefore, science, not philosophy or religion, points the way to morality. Because science discovers facts about the world, it banishes the moral fuzziness of cultural relativism and religious faith. Harris argues that science allows us to collapse the distinction between facts and values by seeing that values, including moral values, are facts. “If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being—if kindness, for instance, is generally more conducive to happiness than cruelty is—then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning,” Harris writes.
It’s a big claim, though Harris tries to sneak his way to it in minor steps. All values are only experiences in the brain, he tells us, a claim most who reject the existence of souls or other forms of mind/body dualism would agree with. Because the brain is nothing but physical stuff, all values reduce to changes in physical stuff and the electricity that moves through it. Therefore, values are facts about the physical stuff of the world. Because morality is a system of values, morality reduces to statements about facts.
We need to keep in mind that, if Harris’s argument here works, it extends far beyond morality. It is not just moral values that reduce to facts, it is all values. This means science will someday determine the truths of aesthetics, measuring the quantifiable peaks and valleys of music and literature and painting. One is reminded of the famous instance some years ago when a group of scientists claimed to have discovered, using the tools of science, the world’s funniest joke. Except it decidedly wasn’t.
Harris illustrates the application of this values-as-facts assertion through the book’s central metaphor, the moral landscape. Morality is not a set of sometimes overlapping but often exclusive spheres, as cultural relativists claim. Rather, it should be understood as a typographical map of human well-being. The peaks represent happiness and flourishing, the valleys sadness and pain. Any action or rule that moves us higher on this landscape is morally good. Anything that causes us to descend is morally bad.
Harris likens the moral landscape to the way we already think about and understand nutrition. Moral questions, even when reduced to scientific questions, will frequently allow multiple answers, just as “no one would argue that there must be one right food to eat. And yet, there is still an objective difference between healthy food and poison.” Yet a science of morality that mirrors our science of nutrition exposes the first of many major problems for Harris’s thesis. The history of the government’s food pyramid shows little of the “very precise claims” we’d like to be assured of before turning our moral intuition over to men and women in lab coats.
But quibbles with the consequences of Harris’s argument jump ahead of the game. Even on its own terms and cast in the best light, The Moral Landscape leaves too many unanswered questions to be worthwhile. For instance, if all of morality reduces to doing whatever increases well-being, it’s important to have a solid idea of just what well-being is. Unfortunately, Harris never provides a definition. Instead, he writes, “given the difficulty of defining human well-being, coupled with the general reluctance of scientists to challenge anyone’s beliefs about it, it is sometimes hard to know what is being studied.” In fact, Harris readily admits that well-being is merely a placeholder for “the most positive conditions to which we can aspire.” That’s awfully vague.
He defends this adumbration by lambasting “people [who] consistently fail to distinguish between there being answers in practice and answers in principle to questions about the nature of reality. When thinking about the application of science to human well-being, it is crucial that we not lose sight of this distinction.” A fair point, indeed, but it means Harris offers us little, if anything, to work with when we face genuine moments of uncertainty. Analogizing to a debate Harris is quite familiar with, we’d all like to know whether there is life after death. An answer clearly exists and it’s conceivable that someday science will be able to find it. But knowing that an answer exists in principle does nothing to settle—or even provide guidance about—the issue today. Harris certainly won’t give up his arguments about posthumous rewards and punishments to wait for science to someday settle the matter conclusively. Instead, as his prior books show, he rightly engages in philosophical debate—the very same sort of debate he wants to banish from the field when it comes to the arguably more critical question of what is moral.
This means Harris gives us nothing to aim at. Even if we accept the whole of his thesis, we’re left in the dark until that day arrives when well-being gains sufficient definition to become action guiding. It’s as if Harris wrote, “In order to be moral, you must always do what’s good,” and left it at that. Without an sense of what “good” means, we’d stumble in the dark. His moral landscape metaphor—which he assures us means we don’t need a robust definition of well-being because we instead “need only worry about what it will beam to move ‘up’ as opposed to ‘down’”—can’t help. After all, “up” on the moral landscape means the same thing as “the direction of greater well-being.”
When Harris does provide a clear case of an action leading up or down, he chooses the easy and obvious. Genocide is down. Feeding starving children is up. Female genital mutilation is down. Caring and cooperation are up. Harris tries to make his thesis sound more palatable by showing that it supports what all of his readers already agree with. Only briefly does he address difficult cases, such as when, in arguing against evolutionary psychology, he writes that “evolution could never have foreseen the wisdom or necessity of creating stable democracies, mitigating climate change, saving other species from extinction, containing the spread of nuclear weapons, or of doing much else that is now crucial to our happiness in this century.” One need only ponder what it means to adopt these policies to see how suddenly ambiguous “human well-being” becomes. Do wars today to promote democracies tomorrow promote well-being? Do nuclear weapons hurt well-being by exploding—or do they promote it by making countries less likely to attack each other in the first place? How much well-being should we give up today in the form of making ourselves energy poorer in order to prevent catastrophic climate change at some unknown point in the future?
These questions of long-term policy demonstrate another problem with using science as the exclusive moral yardstick. Science can, at best, measure the well-being of a single brain at a single moment—when the fMRI machine is turned on, for instance. Science gathers statistics, but it is unlikely—and even undesirable—to measure the well-being of all people at all time. Yet isn’t it possible that what produces well-being is contingent upon immediate circumstances, as well as cultural experience and expectations? A woman who thinks her suffering pleases God might genuinely suffer less than one who thinks her suffering is meaningless. Harris’s system thus leaves us with two options. We could scan every person at all times and adjust actions accordingly, but this seems both practically impossible and potentially crippling to our ability to make decisions., Or we can grant that science can answer moral questions by extrapolating from a limited dataset, but only then it is left answering only the obvious ones, such as “discovering” that starvation causes suffering. Neither is particularly helpful. Moving outside of the black-and-white examples Harris builds his case around shows how suddenly complex even the simple idea of “always promote well-being” becomes.
But even if well-being were adequately defined, should it be the sole aim of morality? Harris’s moral theory only holds up if we subscribe to the branch of moral philosophy called consequentialism. Harris admits as much and asserts that consequentialism is obviously true, that it comports with our intuitions, and that he is “unaware of any interesting exceptions to this rule.” Harris may, of course, be right—but he misleads his readers, especially those not familiar with the long history of the philosophy of morals, into thinking that there can be no reasonable debate on the topic. Harris pretends that the rich, complex, and long running debate between consequentialists and deontologists either doesn’t exist or isn’t worth our time.
The Moral Landscape doesn’t tell us what well-being is. It doesn’t tell us how science can measure well-being. It doesn’t tell us how such measurements apply to specific moral questions. Moral questions are difficult when we don’t know what the future holds, when we don’t know all the consequences of our options, and when we’re facing novel situations. In short, moral questions are difficult in precisely the circumstances Harris’s thesis can tell us nothing about. We don’t need Harris’s book to know that murder is bad, that curing disease is good, and that cooperation is worthy. We already know those things. And we don’t need science to tell us, either. What we do need is help with the difficult questions. Harris can only tell us that science supports the easy answers we already have.
In the end, The Moral Landscape is not disappointing primarily because of its poor arguments and caustic, imperious argumentation style. What dooms Harris’s book is how little it actually offers, even if we overlook its flaws. Harris has merely explained that, “in principle,” someday, somehow, science will be able to discover the truths of morality, but that we aren’t there yet. It’s unlikely that the religious and the relativists will abandon their moral positions for such a weak promise.
Two broader problems plague The Moral Landscape. The first is Harris’s seeming inability to take his opponents seriously or to recognize the sophistication and nuance of positions counter to his own. Once hears echoes throughout the book of his debates with unsophisticated theists. Those who disagree with Harris are misinformed, irrational, or under the sway of ulterior motives. This might be an acceptable arguing technique when addressing bombastic preachers and wrathful fundamentalists, but it comes across as downright silly when aimed at Harris’s opponents in the philosophy of mind. Put simply, The Moral Landscape doesn’t demonstrate the level of intellectual depth or sophistication Harris assures us it does; and so his arrogance reminds one of the freshman philosophy major who, upon taking a single class, believes he has figured out the answers to life’s great mysteries.
Far more troubling is the world Harris would have us embrace if we overlook the flaws and embrace his conclusions. Harris would have us turn over the definition of “well-being” to scientists with moral expertise. It is thus impossible not to be overcome with dread when reading lines like this: “The person who claims that he does not want to be better off,” Harris writes, “is either wrong about what he does, in fact, want (i.e, he doesn’t know what he’s missing), or he is lying, or he is not making sense.” This way lies totalitarianism technocracy, a future Harris seems all too willing to embrace.