Sam Harris’s Arbitrary Moral Vision

Sam Harris, author of “The Moral Landscape,” is one of America’s most noted atheists.

By Blake S. Neff

When I was growing up, one kernel of wisdom I heard from my parents was, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” This is pretty sound advice, so I’ll at least take the time to say the following: This book did not give me cancer. Now, the negatives.

In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, bestselling author Sam Harris continues his interminable crusade against all things religious from a new angle. His previous works, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, were standard attacks on the reasonability and utility of religious faith, but garnered enough attention to place Harris alongside Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett as one of the “Four Horsemen” of modern atheism. Landscape, though, goes beyond the goal of arguing that religious belief is superstitious nonsense and instead tries to alter the beliefs of many who would identify as “non-religious” as well.

One of the major bulwarks that supporters of religion have relied upon is the argument that theism is essential to providing any sort of objective morality in the world. For some, a concern over the alleged amorality of atheism is enough to prevent a lapse of faith, but on the other end of the spectrum are many atheists who also accept this claim. Harris himself opens his book with an account of the great many people he has met who profess that there are no absolute moral principles, just the diverse and equally valid principles of each society and each person.

To Harris, such beliefs are simply intolerable. Does any supposed relativist really believe, he says, that the worldviews of the Taliban and that of the liberal West are equally valid ways of viewing the world, and that disagreements over which to follow emerge simply from intractable preferences? Harris says the answer is a definite “no.”

To Harris, moral worldviews should be framed in neuroscientific terms. Our moral attitudes are, at their roots, attempts to produce certain mental states that we like while avoiding those we dislike. Therefore, Harris’s thesis is that morality itself should be treated as a branch of scientific inquiry no different from fields like astronomy. By this, Harris means to say that we can apply the scientific method towards moral questions in order to provide objective answers. Just as we might study natural phenomena to find the density of zinc, we may use the same standards to decide whether something like the death penalty is morally justified. With this argument, Harris is directly opposing the popular opinion of David Hume, who argued on the unbridgeable divide between questions of fact and ones of value.

It’s an argument that at least some have found persuasive already. The back cover contains an array of advance praise from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker praising this “thrilling, audacious book” for its “tremendously appealing vision” which will turn moral philosophy “upside down.”

Those outside of the “bestselling atheist author” niche may prove less credulous. As one friend put it upon hearing this book’s title, its natural opposite would be a book subtitled “How Religion Can Conduct Experiments.” The obvious absurdity there serves to highlight the patent failure of Harris’s book.

Harris is blazing a bold path with this assertion, but his case starts to fall apart almost as soon as he leaves the gate. First of all, Harris’s “moral science” is less using science to determine values than it is using science as an evaluative mechanism for what Harris has already deemed to be moral. For instance, without any science in sight, Harris baldy asserts that “the only thing we can reasonably value” is “maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures.” Far from using science to determine human values, Harris simply assumes as a first principle that his version of utilitarianism is correct. By making this assumption, Harris skips entirely past where his argument should be. Even those whose knowledge of philosophy is limited to high-school debate can list the many potential flaws with a utilitarian worldview, but Harris brushes them aside with a single sentence where he bothers with them at all. Why, precisely, should individuals value the good of the collective whole or of future generations over their own immediate personal wellbeing? It is never precisely made clear, although Harris boldy implies that everybody prefers a fair world to one that favors them. Would it be right for our species to be sacrificed towards the unfathomably immense happiness of some race of superbeings? Harris says the answer is “clearly” yes, and leaves it at that. Should average wellbeing be held in highest esteem, or aggregate wellbeing? This is mentioned and then goes unaddressed.

The fact that Harris is simply skipping past what is supposed to be his book’s central argument is bad enough, but the situation is made worse by the fact that Harris seems aware of this. There is already a rich array of philosophical literature dealing with issues like moral realism and skepticism, and Harris would do well to work the arguments of this literature into his book as a means to bolster his position or rebut criticisms. Instead, though, Harris makes the almost unbelievable claim that he can jump past all of this because the “views and conceptual distinctions” in academic discussions of morality are simply too boring to warrant inclusion in a book for popular audiences.  For such an ambitious book, such outright laziness on the author’s part is appalling. If Stephen Hawking can write a well-reviewed bestseller on black hole physics, was it truly impossible for Harris to find a compelling, accessible way to write about the details of moral philosophy?  

Aside from the fundamental issues with Harris’ thesis, plenty of other problems abound. Harris’s thesis really only requires that he articulate his viewpoint, offer reasons to support it, and counter any possible objections. However, Harris frequently embarks on tangents which stray quite far from the supposed theme of the book. Some, like lengthy ventures into the neurological bases of belief or an argument against free will, loosely pertain to the topic but seem mostly to reflect subjects that Harris is interested in (he got his Ph.D only last year and seems intent on showing it off). The more common culprit, though, is the subject of Harris’ previous two books, religion. Although there is really no need for Harris to address religion much at all in his book, he can never resist the opportunity to bash it. Since Harris has put ink to dead tree twice already on this matter, it is rather depressing that Harris still frequently fails to understand what he is attacking. Minor mistakes such as not understanding Catholic excommunication combine with larger ones like implying that all religions require free will to work, forcing the informed reader to endure uncomfortable passages where a very certain man is also certainly wrong.

While snide remarks about the vengefulness of the God of Abraham or the inherent violence of Islam can be seen as innocent if annoying attempts to appeal to his target audience, the problem becomes far greater when Harris allows his religion-bashing to consume about half of the book. Harris devotes one of his five chapters to religion-bashing, and works it in to all of the others. Sometimes, he comes off as outright deranged, as when he goes on a two-page rant in the endnotes in which he calls the Catholic Church “a criminal organization devoted…to the sexual enslavement of children.”

The best example of Harris’s inability to stay intellectually focused, though, is the long attack he makes against Dr. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and evangelical Christian. In a blistering 13-page critique, Harris accuses Collins of intellectual dishonesty, self-deception, and outright stupidity, essentially stating that Collins cannot be both a Christian and a scientist in good standing.  To build upon this, he attacks the editors of Nature for praising Collins’s writings, the scientific community at large for not making him a pariah, and the Obama Administration for allowing this asylum escapee to head the NIH.

What does this intellectual mugging do to advance Harris’s advocacy of scientific morality? Nothing. What relationship does it have with possible criticisms of this thesis? None.  The entire effort is a personal attack against a man Harris does not like which fits in with a general hatred he has for religion. Not surprisingly for an attack of such venom, Harris’s beloved reason is often left by the wayside. For example, his “rebuttal” to Collins’s appreciation for scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne is to simply take a random passage from a Polkinghorne book, provide no context, and observe that it is not easy to understand with a cursory read. 

This tangent, combined with the oppressive weight of so many others, reveal the book for the sham that it is. Harris seeks (or at least, claims to seek) to write a book of profound moral philosophy, but instead winds up with a half-baked mixture of philosophy and the anti-religious polemic he is so used to serving up. This mixture serves no one. Philosophy deserves better ideas, atheists a better advocate, and readers a better book. For the love of God and science, read something else.