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The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape:
How Science Can Determine Human Values

by Sam Harris

Free Press, Copyright 2010

304 pages, hardback

Review by Jim Walker

For centuries theologians, philosophers, scientists, and even agnostics and atheists have believed (and still do) that science can never determine morality. In this book, Sam Harris challenges this belief and presents an apparently, heretical thought: science can, indeed, study and make determinations about the well-being of humans. Since human behavior, emotions and feelings all reside within the natural world, and science provides the tools to study the natural world, it therefore should present no surprise that science can make determinations about morality. Interestingly, many scientists and philosophers have attacked Harris, seemingly without either reading his book, or because they still cling to the old philosophical idea of moral relativism.

Moral relativism goes back to at least 599 BCE where an ancient Mahavira principle states that people perceive truth and reality from diverse points of view and that no single point of view describes the complete truth. Most humanists, scientists and atheists today hold to David Hume's idea of emotivism or moral relativism. Hume denied that morality has an objective standard and believed that facts and values differ and that moral judgments can only derive from values, but never from facts. From his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) developed a belief that reduces to: "You can't derive an ought from an is."

Sean Carroll, a distinguished scientist attacked Harris on this very point. In an article in Discover, You Can't derive Ought from Is, Carroll insisted that it "is simply not possible. I'm not saying it would be difficult --- I'm saying it's impossible in principle. Morality is not part of science, however much we would like it to be." So there!

Carroll goes on to advance three arguments that he thinks supports his reasoning. "1. There's no single definition of well-being," "2. It's not self-evident that maximizing well-being, however defined, is the proper goal of morality," and "3. There's no simple way to aggregate well-being over different individuals." Harris' book answers all three of Carroll's arguments (and much more).

Actually I agree that one cannot derive an ought from an "is" but only from a semantic point of view. That little word "is" has caused so much confusion because it rarely conforms with reality. (For more information, see Toward Understanding E-Prime.) However, Hume, Carroll and Harris take "is" to mean facts about the world, not ghostly or supernatural identities. And of course people do derive oughts from facts all the time. If you visit a village that has pathogenic microorganisms in the water (facts), science can tell you that if you want to maintain your well-being you ought to avoid drinking the contaminated water!

Perhaps some people misconstrue Harris' "ought" as a political statement. Harris does not intend for science to involve itself with laws or ideology or to force people to behave, but rather that science provides a way of determining the best action to take. If one wants to fly faster than sound, for example, then the science of aerodynamics can tell you what you ought to do to achieve this goal. The same with morality. If you want to know how to live a life of well-being, what better tool to use than science? Of course, politicians and theologians would benefit from using the tools of science to determine morality, but Harris says nothing at all about science forcing political actions.

Harris compares well-being to medicine. Think about it. Morality equates with proper behavior in regards to well-being. Preventive medicine, in effect, also amounts to nothing more than the science of preventing diseases, and solving problems that enhances physical and mental well-being. In other words, morality.

Harris explains that values come from our emotions and emotions come from brains and brains operate in the natural world, Harris sees an opportunity for science to study how the brain develops emotions and values. Couple this with human behavior and the study of the well-being of humans and you have a theory: In a landscape of morality, science might discover the peaks (higher well-being) and the valleys (lower well-being) and determine the best strategy to achieve a higher well-being (morality). I see nothing controversial, in principle, about this approach.

Considering the title of this website, needless to say, the chapter on Belief caught my attention. When Harris writes about brain science, he does so from experience. As a neuroscientist he represents one of the first, if not the first scientist to perform studies about how and where belief emerges in the brain. In part of his doctoral research at UCLA he studied belief, disbelief and uncertainty with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Harris has argued the philosophical claim that facts and values both reduce to a certain type of fact. Harris' research on belief suggests that any split between facts and values should look suspicious. Although Harris says "there is no reason that any of our beliefs abut the world are stored as propositions, or within discrete structures, inside the brain," he found that belief appears to mediate from an area of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, the area involved in linking factual knowledge with relevant emotional associations. (I have long suspected that beliefs involve feelings and emotions and now we have some evidence to support this.) According to Harris, "'Belief can be thought of as a process taking place in the present; it is the act of grasping, not the thing grasped." This sounds very Zen-like, doesn't it?

Although Harris did not go into metacognition, (awareness of one's own thoughts), without metacognition, it should prove difficult if not impossible to change one's beliefs or to disown them outright. I suspect that people with more rigid and dogmatic beliefs have a lower ability to examine their own beliefs. It usually comes from people with intransigent beliefs who make the most reasoning errors. According to Harris, "we know that people often acquire their beliefs about the world for reasons that are more emotional and social than strictly cognitive. Wishful thinking, self-serving bias, in-group loyalties, and frank self-deception can lead to monstrous departures from the norms of rationality."

I have some experience with this form of irrationality. As a child, I remember that I once believed in God without even knowing what the word meant! I believed simply because those around me believed and they seemed to have good emotions about it, so when I believed in God, I felt good emotionally too even though I had no evidence or good reason to believe.

In the chapter on Religion, Harris makes observations about how the most religious nations on earth tend to have the worst measure of societal health compared to the most atheistic nations. Many of the problems associated with religious belief comes from the fact that they do not correspond to reality. After all, the supernatural supposedly has no connection with this world. Harris (correctly, I think) associates this kind of belief to delusion. After all, it meets the definition of delusion: "a false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary."

If no one knows how the brain works, how in the world can anyone fully understand how faith, belief, or morality works? According to Harris, "Introspection offers no clue that our experience of the world around us, and of ourselves within it, depends on voltage changes and chemical interactions taking place inside our heads. And yet a century and a half of brain science declares it to be so." Yet priests and theologians continually ignore brain research and still rely on the concept of souls and ghostly gods who allegedly inspired scripture to determine what, they believe, constitutes morality. One only has to look at the tragic history of religion to see that religion has never produced a workable morality for mankind, even for those within the religion who proclaim ownership of its morality. Consider all the religious wars, pogroms, and child molestations carried out by the very people who should have benefited most from religious morality (the priests) and you'll see that it lacks any form of verisimilitude about the well-being of humans.

My only disagreement comes form Harris' claim that "we must form our beliefs about reality based on what we think is actually true." In the book's notes section, he writes: "I think 'science' therefore, should be considered a specialized branch of a larger effort to form true beliefs about events in our world." No, no, no. How about just thinking about reality instead of adding unnecessary beliefs? Although it certainly proves better to have beliefs that connect with reality than beliefs without reality, what if the "truths" about our beliefs of reality changes? Beliefs involve emotions that have no connection to reality. Beliefs involve grasping, not the thing grasped, remember? Will people change their beliefs when presented with better facts? Not always. In fact most people don't change their beliefs especially if they have deeply held emotions connected to them. Ironically, Harris makes this point but apparently does not see the danger of it if it applies to scientific beliefs. Science aims to produce knowledge about the world, not beliefs. Scientists can make theories, models, and predictions without owning beliefs in them at all. In fact advanced computers coupled with sensors can produce scientific actions without emotions or consciousness at all (autonomous spy planes, autonomous interplanetary spacecraft, Jeopardy winning computers, etc.) In fact many times, scientists can make accurate predictions without even understanding what their mathematics mean (especially in the field of quantum mechanics).

Harris has written an important book. It took courage to publish this, especially considering that he knew that many in the field of science would attack him. However, as I see it, Harris presents a rather modest proposal in the hope that science recognizes its application to the well-being of mankind. The pandora's box has opened and either Harris or his critics have it right. Either science can determine moral facts or it can't. As Max Planck once pointed out, "A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."


A few quotes from the book:


[H]uman well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it.

In my experience, mistaking no answers in practice for no answers in principle is a great source of moral confusion.

Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, we will see that there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality. Indeed, I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.

I can say with some confidence that a shared belief in the limitations of reason lies at the bottom of these cultural divides.

The underlying claim is that while science is the best authority on the workings of the physical universe, religion is the best authority on meaning, values, morality, and the good life. I hope to persuade you that this is not only untrue, it could not possibly be true.

Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.

My goal is to convince you that human knowledge and human values can no longer be kept apart.

[C]onsciousness is the only intelligible domain of value.

[T]he Vatican is an organization that excommunicates women for attempting to become priests but does not excommunicate male priests for raping children. It excommunicates doctors who perform abortions to save a mother's life---even if the mother is a nine-year-old girl raped by her stepfather and pregnant with twins---but it did not excommunicate a single member of the Third Reich for committing genocide. Are we really obliged to consider such a diabolical inversion of priorities to be evidence of an alternative "moral" framework?

I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive "morality," but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being).

Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it though science.

Morality---in the terms of consciously held precepts, social contracts, notions of justice, etc.---is a relatively recent development.

Here is my (consequentialist) starting point: all questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.) depend upon the possibility of experiencing such value. Without potential consequences at the level of experience--happiness, suffering, joy, despair, etc.---all talk of value is empty.

Moral judgment is, for the most part, driven not by moral reasoning, but by moral intuitions of an emotional nature.

Slovic found that when given a chance to donate money in support of needy children, subjects give most generously and feel the greatest empathy when told only about a single child's suffering. When presented with two needy cases, their compassion wanes. And this diabolical trend continues: the greater the need, the less people are emotionally affected and the less they are inclined to give.

[T]he faculty we use to validate religious precepts, judging the Golden Rule to be wise and the murder of apostates to be foolish, is something we bring to scripture; it does not, therefore, come from scripture.

The medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is central to most discussions of morality and the brain. . . . this region is involved in emotion, reward, and judgment of self-relevance. It also seems to register the difference between belief and disbelief.

Evolution may have selected for territorial violence, rape, and other patently unethical behaviors as strategies to propagate one's genes---but our collective well-being clearly depends on our opposing such natural tendencies.

Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.

There is no reason to think that any of our beliefs about the world are stored as propositions, or within discrete structures, inside the brain.

I have argued that there is no gulf between facts and values, because values reduce to a certain type of fact.

Knowing what a person believes on a specific subject is not identical to knowing how that person thinks.

The neurologist Robert Burton argues that the "feeling of knowing" (i.e., the conviction that one's judgment is correct) is a primary positive emotion that often floats free of rational processes and can occasionally become wholly detached from logical or sensory evidence. He infers this from neurological disorders in which subjects display pathological certainty (e.g., schizophrenia and Cotard's delusion) and pathological uncertainty (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder).... rationality is mostly aspirational in character and often little more than a facade masking pure, unprincipled feeling.

As it turns out, dopamine receptor genes may play a role in religious belief as well. People who have inherited the most active form of the D4 receptor are more likely to believe in miracles and to be skeptical of science..."

[T]housands of unlucky boys and girls have been blinded, injected with battery acid, and otherwise put to torture in an effort to purge them of demons; others have been killed outright; many more have been disowned by their families and rendered homeless. Needless to say, much of this lunacy has spread in the name of Christianity.

As was the case in the Middle Ages, when the belief in witchcraft was omnipresent in Europe, only a truly panoramic ignorance about the physical causes of disease, crop failure, and life's other indignities allowed this delusion to thrive.

In addition to being the most religious of developed nations, the United States also has the greatest economic inequality. The poor tend to be more religious than the rich, both within and between nations.

And on almost every measure of societal health, the least religious countries are better off than the most religious. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands---which are the most atheistic societies on earth---consistently rate better than religious nations on measures like life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, and charity to poorer nations, etc.

The relevance of the brain's dopaminergic systems to religious experience, belief, and behavior is suggested by several lines of evidence, including the fact that several clinical conditions involving the neurotransmitter dopamine---mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and schizophrenia---are regularly associated with hyperreligiosity.

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.

The Language of God is a genuinely astonishing book. To read it is to witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide. It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: The body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now---and yet polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man's health.

Rather often, a belief in souls leaves people indifferent to the suffering of creatures thought not to possess them.

Concern over human embryos smaller than the period at the end of this sentence---when, for years they have constituted one of the most promising contexts for medical research---is one of the many delusional products of religion that has led to an ethical blind alley, and to terrible failures of compassion.

One of the virtues of thinking about a moral landscape, the heights of which remain to be discovered, is that it frees us from these semantic difficulties. Generally speaking, we need only to worry about what it will mean to move "up" as opposed to "down."

[M]ost of the research done on happiness suggests that people actually become less happy when they have children and do not begin to approach their prior level of happiness until their children leave home.

We care more about creatures that can experience a greater range of suffering and happiness---and we are right to, because suffering and happiness (defined in the widest possible sense) are all that can be cared about.

[T]he Catholic Church has spent two millennia demonizing human sexuality to a degree unmatched by any other intuition, declaring the most basic, healthy, mature, and consensual behaviors taboo. Indeed, this organization still opposes the use of contraception: preferring, instead, that the poorest people on earth be blessed with the largest families and the shortest lives. As a consequence of this hallowed and incorrigible stupidity, the Church has condemned generations of decent people to shame and hypocrisy---or to Neolithic fecundity, poverty, and death by AIDS.

It is no exaggeration to say that for decades (if not centuries) the Vatican has met the formal definition of a criminal organization devoted---not to gambling, prostitution, drugs, or any other venial sin---but to the sexual enslavement of children.

Many people find the idea of "moral experts" abhorrent. Indeed, this ramification of my argument has been called "positively Orwellian" and a "recipe for fascism." Again, these concerns seem to arise from an uncanny reluctance to think about what the concept of "well-being" actually entails or how science might shed light on its causes and conditions.

Seen in this light, moral relativism---the view that the difference between right and wrong has only local validity within a specific culture---should be no more tempting than physical, biological, mathematical, or logical relativism.

This truth bias may interact with (or underlie) what has come to be known as the "confirmation bias" or "positive test strategy" heuristic in reasoning... people tend to seek evidence that confirms an hypothesis rather than evidence that refutes it. This strategy is known to produce frequent reasoning errors. Our bias toward belief may also explain the "illusory-truth effect," where more exposure to a proposition, even when it was revealed to be false or attributed to an unreliable source, increases the likelihood that it will later be remembered as being true.


Introduction   The Moral Landscape

Chapter 1      Moral Truth

Chapter 2      Good and Evil

Chapter 3      Belief

Chapter 4      Religion

Chapter 5      The Future of Happiness





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The Moral Landscape