Should I read Moral Landscapes

The moral landscape - The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is a 2010 book by Sam Harris promoting a science of morality, arguing that many thinkers have long confused the relationship between morality, facts, and science. He wants to take a third path between secularists who say morality is subjective (moral relativists) and religionists who say morality is dictated by God and Scripture.

Harris argues that the only viable moral framework is one in which "morally good" things involve enhancing the "well-being of conscious beings." He then argues that, regardless of the problems with the philosophy of science and reason in general, moral questions have objectively right and wrong answers based on empirical facts about what makes people thrive. Harris questions the traditional philosophical notion that a "should" cannot follow from an "is" (Hume's Law), arguing that moral questions are best pursued not only with philosophy but also with the methods of science because science can tell us what values ​​they lead to human prosperity. With this in mind, Harris advocates that scientists begin discussions about a normative science of morality.

The book was published after Harris received a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California at Los Angeles with a similarly titled thesis: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values .


Harris's case begins with two premises: "(1) Some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences are rightfully and not entirely arbitrarily related to states of the human brain and to states of the world." . The idea is that a person is simply describing material facts (many about their brain) when describing possible "better" and "worse" lives for themselves. Granted, Harris says we need to conclude that there are facts about what practices enable one to have a better life.

Harris emphasizes the importance of admitting that such facts exist because he says that this logic applies to groups of people as well. He suggests that there are always better ways for societies to lead better lives. Just as for an individual, there can be several different ways and "tips" for societies to flourish - and many more ways in which to fail.

Harris then argues that science can meaningfully define morality in terms of facts about human well-being. His arguments acknowledge that problems with this scientific definition of morality appear to be problems shared by all scientists or by reason and words in general. Harris also spends some time describing how science can use nuances and challenges in identifying the best ways for individuals and groups to improve their lives. Many of these problems are covered below.

Philosophical case

Harris says science requires one to recognize certain values ​​(e.g. curiosity)

Although Harris' book discusses the challenges faced by a science of morality, he also mentions that his scientific argument is indeed philosophical. In addition, this is the case with almost all scientific studies. He mentions that modern science means careful practice of accepted first philosophical principles such as empiricism and physicalism. He also suggests that science should focus in answering the question "What should I believe and why should I believe it?" Already very strong Has established values . Harris says it should come as no surprise that normative ethical sciences are, or would be, based on fundamental assumptions (fundamental norms) in a similar manner. Harris says:

... In practice, science is often a question of philosophy. It is probably worth noting that the original name for the natural sciences was actually "natural philosophy" ... You could [my suggestion in the moral landscape ] call a "philosophical" position, but it is one that relates directly to the limits of science.

The way he believes that science could deal with moral issues draws on various philosophical positions such as ethical realism (there are moral facts) and ethical naturalism (these facts relate to the physical world). Harris says that a science of morality may be similar to utilitarianism, but that the science is more open because it involves an evolving definition of wellbeing. Rather than subscribing to reductive materialism, Harris acknowledges the revisionist arguments that psychological definitions themselves depend on research and discovery. Harris adds that any science of morality must consider everything from emotions and thoughts to actual actions and their consequences.

For Harris, moral statements and explicit values ​​in general are about the blossoming of conscious beings in a society. He argues, "Social morality exists to maintain cooperative social relationships, and morality can be objectively assessed by that standard." Harris sees the speech of some philosophers as strict more private Morality an unproductive discussion about a private, personal physics. "If philosophers just want to talk about a bizarrely unnatural private morality, they just change the subject."

Harris also discusses how the interchangeability of perspectives could emerge as an important part of moral thinking. He alludes to an "uncomfortable surprise principle" in which someone finds they support an ineffective moral norm (e.g., reported cases of Jewish hunting Nazis discovering that they themselves were of Jewish descent).

Science and moral truths

Harris names three projects for science in how it affects morality: (1) explaining why people do what they do in the name of morality (e.g. traditional evolutionary psychology), (2) determining what thought patterns and behavior people behave should follow (the science of morality) and (3) convince people in general to change their behaviors. According to Harris, the first project focuses only on describing what is, while (2) and (3) focus on what should or could be. His point is that this second, prescriptive project should be at the center of a science of morality. He also says we shouldn't fear an "Orwellian future" with scientists at every door: important advances in the science of morality could be shared in the same way as advances in medicine.

Harris says it is important to separate project (1) from project (2) so that we don't make moral mistakes. He also emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between (2) - asking what is right - and (3) in order to change behavior. He says we need to realize that the nuances of human motivation are a challenge in themselves; People often fail to do what they should "do" even when successfully selfish: there is every reason to believe that discovering what is best for society would not change every member's habits overnight.

Harris does not imagine that humans, even scientists, have always made the right moral choices; in fact, it is precisely his argument that many of them are wrong about moral facts. This stems from the many real-world challenges to good science in general, including human cognitive limitations and prejudice (e.g. loss aversion can influence human decisions on important issues such as medicine). He mentions the research of Paul Slovic and others to describe just some of those mental heuristics that can keep us from arguing properly. Although he mentions that exercise could mitigate the influence of these prejudices, Harris worries about research showing that incompetence and ignorance in one area lead to trust (the Mahn-Krüger effect).

Harris explains that debate and disagreement are part of the scientific method and that one side can be wrong. He also says the debates that are still available to science illustrate how much work can still be done and how much conversation needs to continue.

Harris' positive beliefs

The book is full of topics that Harris believes are not moral gray areas. For example, he cites a survey that found that 36% of British Muslims believe that apostates should be killed for their disbelief and that these people are "morally confused". He also suggests that it is obvious that loneliness, helplessness, and poverty are bad, but that this is by no means as far as positive psychology has and will take us.

In a section, "The Illusion of Free Will," Harris argues that there is an abundance of evidence in psychology (e.g., the illusion of introspection) or specifically relating to free will neuroscience that suggests that there is no metaphysical free will. That, he thinks, is intuitive; "Thoughts ... convey the apparent reality of freely made decisions. But from a deeper perspective ... thoughts just arise (what else could they do?)". He adds, "The illusion of free will is an illusion in itself." The implications of the non-existence of free will may be a working determinism, and Harris warns us not to confuse this with fatalism.

One implication of determined will, Harris says, is that punishing people out of retaliation becomes unreasonable - just changing behavior and deterring others still seem to be potentially valid grounds for punishment. This is especially because behavior changes are a kind of cure for bad behaviors; Harris offers a thought experiment:

Think what would happen if we discovered a cure for human evil. For the sake of reasoning, imagine that the cure for psychopathy like vitamin D can be added straight to the food supply. For example, consider the prospect of withholding the cure for evil from a murderer as part of their punishment. Would that even make moral sense?

Harris recognizes a hierarchy of moral considerations (e.g., humans are more important than bacteria or mice). It follows that, in principle, there could be a species with which we are relatively unimportant (although he doubts that such a species exists).

Harris supports the development of lie detection technology and believes it is beneficial to humanity as a whole.

Religion: good or bad?

Consistent with Harris's definition of morality, we must ask whether religion today increases human prosperity (regardless of whether it increased it in the distant past). He argues that religions can be practiced largely because they fit well with human cognitive tendencies (e.g., animism). In Harris' view, religion and religious dogma are an obstacle to reason, and he takes Francis Collins as an 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 patronizing attempt to pacify more devout theists. He claims that society can move away from deep reliance on religion as well as witchcraft, which he believes was once just as ingrained.


Prior to publication, four personal and professional acquaintances of the author praised the book, including biologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins, writer Ian McEwan, psycholinguist Steven Pinker, and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. They each serve on the Advisory Board of Harris Project Reason, and their praise appears as blurbs (published by the book publisher on Harris website and reproduced on the book jacket). Dawkins said:

I was one of those who rashly bought into the hectic myth that science can't say anything about morality. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape changed all of that for me. It should change it for philosophers too. Spiritual philosophers have already discovered that they cannot finish studying neuroscience, and the best of them have improved their game by doing it ... ".

McEwan wrote, "Harris breathes intellectual fire into an old debate. As you read this exciting, bold book, you will feel the ground shift beneath your feet. Reason has never had a more passionate lawyer." Pinker said Harris offers "an incredibly compelling vision that no thinking person can afford to ignore". Krauss wrote that Harris "has the rare ability to formulate arguments that are not only stimulating but downright nourishing, even when you don't always agree!" Krauss predicted that "readers will have to get away with previously firm beliefs about the challenged world and a vital new awareness of nature and the value of science and reason in our lives."


The Moral Landscape ranked 9th on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover non-fiction books in October 2010.

Reviews and criticism

James W. Diller and Andrew E. Nuzzolilli, Associate Professor of Philosophy at ECSU, have given a generally positive review in a journal of the Association for Behavior Analysis International:

The moral landscape is an important contribution to a scientific discussion of morality. It explains the determinants of moral behavior for a popular audience and places causality in the external environment and in the correlated neurological states of the organism.

In his review for Barnes & Noble, Cal State, Associate Professor of Philosophy Troy Jollimore wrote that the book “has something good, reasonable, and sometimes convincing things to say” to people who are not familiar with moral skepticism, but “has little to say to those who actually know what the arguments are and it will not help others become much better informed. "Jollimore also feared that Harris was mistaking complex problems as simple solutions.

Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in the New York Times, "When [Harris] stays closest to neuroscience, he says many interesting and important things," but criticized Harris for failing to articulate "his central claim" and not figure out how science "revealed". This human well-being has an objective component. Appiah argued that Harris "ended up ... advocating something like utilitarianism, a philosophical position now more than two centuries old ... facing a number of well-known problems" which Harris merely "drives". aside. "Harris replied to Appiah in the paperback epilogue, claiming that all of Appiah's criticisms are addressed in the" good and bad "chapter.

The cognitive anthropologist Scott Atran criticized Harris for failing to study the philosophical literature on ethics and the problems involved in attempting to scientifically quantify human well-being, and noted this

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman examines what makes Americans happy - watching TV, talking to friends, having sex - and what makes them unhappy - commuting, working, caring for their children. So that leaves us where ...?

Kenan Malik criticized the book, writing:

Imagine a sociologist who wrote on evolutionary theory without discussing the work of Darwin, Fisher, Mayr, Hamilton, Trivers, or Dawkins because he failed to reach his conclusions by reading about biology and discussing concepts like "adaptation" . Speciation, ”“ homology, ”“ phylogenetics, ”or“ kinship selection ”would“ increase boredom in the universe. ”How seriously would and should we take his argument?

David Sexton from London Evening Standard described Harris' claim to provide a science of morality as "the extraordinarily exaggerated claim and obviously flawed. Science does not create moral values ​​of its own, it can and was used for good or bad. Harris cannot stand outside of culture, and the 'brighter future' he prophesies is itself a cultural projection. "

John Horgan, journalist for the blog Scientific American and author of The End of Science , wrote: "Harris continues to show his arrogance when he claims that neuroscience, his own specialty, is best positioned to help us establish universal morals. ... Neuroscience I can't even tell how I know may that my dog ​​Merlin is the big, black, hairy thing on my couch, and we'll trust neuroscience to tell us how to resolve debates about the morality of abortion, euthanasia, and the interference in the affairs of other nations ? "

Russell Blackford wrote: " The moral landscape is an ambitious work that will please the hearts of many worldly thinkers and strengthen the stings, "but had" serious reservations "about the book.

The philosopher Simon Blackburn, who reviewed the book, described Harris as "a mind-boggling atheist" who "joins the amazing ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just one example of doing it very badly" and pointed out that "if Bentham" s hedonist is in one brain state and Aristotle 's active subject is in another, as it undoubtedly would be, it is a moral, not an empirical, problem to say which to prefer. "And H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books wrote: "Despite Harris' bravery about how science can determine human values, it delivers The Moral Landscape nothing like that. "

Steve Isaacson wrote Mining The Moral Landscape: Why Science Doesn't (and Can't Determine) Human Values . Isaacson sums it up: "The biggest objection to Harris' argument is still Moore's open argument. Harris dismisses the argument as an easy-to-avoid pun, but never explains the game and how to avoid it. He just ignores it."

The American writer Marilynne Robinson, who im Wall Street Journal wrote , claimed that Harris "could not articulate his own positive morals" but, if he had, would have found himself in the company of "Unitarians" who have zealously worked on plans to improve the well-being of the world as they have for generations . "

At the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg described how he had been a utilitarian in his youth but had been held back by the notion that "the fundamental principle that guides our actions is greatest happiness for the greatest Number should be ". by reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World . Weinberg added, "Well, Sam Harris is well aware of this kind of counter-argument [to utilitarianism], saying it is not happiness but human welfare. Well, of course, when you make things vague and vague, it becomes more and more difficult to tell you "It doesn't match your own moral feelings, but it's also becoming less and less useful for making moral judgments. You could go to extremes and make up a nonsense word and say that's what's important and no one could disprove it." but it wouldn't be very helpful. I look at people's welfare and the way Sam Harris calls it half the way in that direction to utter nonsense. "

Responding to critics of Harris

A few months after the book was published, Harris wrote a follow-up on The Huffington Post, to respond to its critics.

In response to the negative reviews of his book, on August 31, 2013, Harris publicly urged anyone to write an essay of less than 1,000 words that refutes the book's "central argument". Submissions were reviewed by Russell Blackford, with the essay author ranking best at $ 2,000 or $ 20,000 if he managed to change Harris' mind. Four hundred and twenty-four articles had been received by the cut-off date. On March 11, 2014, Blackford announced that the winning essay was written by philosophy teacher Ryan Born.