Author: Sam Harris
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
Full title: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
I read it: September 2011
Sam Harris is a slippery one when you try to catch him off guard from a fan’s perspective. As a master of clarity, devastating logic, and possessor of the most level head and clear mind, he’s bound to hold me in his sway on almost all topics. The Moral Landscape offers a juicy proposition that secular types will flock to: science can determine human values (it’s there in the subtitle, folks!). This is a more pointy topic than some might guess at first glance. It means the death of moral relativism at the very least. Harris is no stranger to attacking traditional morality claims, namely those birthed by religion. He sees no compatibility between religion and modernity and thinks that something has to give: “The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled.” Sign me up.
Harris’ moral landscape–peaks of well-being, valleys of suffering–rests on his purportedly simple premise: “human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain.” Of course, in order to extrapolate he delves into all sorts of scientific and philosophical terrain, including truth, good vs. evil, belief, happiness, ethics and its dilemmas, and, you guessed it, religion. Harris’ insistence on writing lengthy chapters on this last topic constitute the weaker pages. And not for the arguments–he is spot on in describing the foolishness of Frances Collins’ Christian beliefs as head of the National Institute of Health, and in his continual reminders about the dangers of radical Islam (although he amusingly acknowledges that this group of righteous crazies is “especially low-hanging fruit”). It seems to me that these arguments might be a tad outside the scope of the book–that a shorter description of why religion fails to reliably deliver morality would have sufficed. After all, Harris must leave room to explain his proposals about the capacity of science to substitute in the vacuum left after people come to the light of reason.
The vacuum is mostly illusory (we have moral patterns due to our evolution as social creatures, which should be enough) but it will be necessary for 21st century citizens to be able to get a grasp as to why we do what we do. Harris discusses implications of neuroimaging (with interesting findings that show that people believe in deities in the same way they believe carrots are orange, though the brain is working at a slightly slower pace while contemplating the supernatural) and supposes an intriguing future in which humans cannot hide their lies due to the specificity of brain scan technologies (imagine being able to detect a fib in a bar as easily as you would secondhand smoke). Our science is making the first steps toward marrying the measurement and the meaning.
However, I do think the subtitle of the book should probably have been “Why Science Should Determine Human Values” instead of “How Science Can.” It’s simply too early to know how science can do this, even if this book sets the stage. Harris is proposing his argument with a desire to generate interest in hard physical research: we need to get the ball rolling on honest scientific study of how to pin down what is moral, and what is not. We have reliable ground to say that many actions are one or the other, but it will be all that much more fruitful to be able to say exactly how and why this happens. As Harris points out, “We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrass us. This is moral progress.” If humans agreed that this was a goal to live up to, we would go far. I can’t help but think that Sam Harris is on the right track, and so far I’m on board. When it comes to moral possibility, it’s all in the brain. We’re good and bad because of gray matter, not god memes.