The Moral Landscape (RJS)

The Moral Landscape (RJS) October 14, 2010

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith has a new book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.  In this latest offering Harris tackles the question of morality. As is the norm he is out giving interviews and building interest in the book – many available online. In an interview at AVClub (read the whole interview) he outlines his purpose in writing the book and some of his conclusions. He finds the abdication of moral framework by science and scientists to be unfortunate to say the least. Such an abdication leaves a place for religion and for tyranny. This is something that Dr. Harris finds regrettable. From the interview:

Secularists and more educated liberal types, by and large, think that there’s just no such thing as moral truth; morality is either purely a product of culture, or we make it up, or it has just been drummed into us by evolution and there’s nothing about our intuitions of right and wrong and good and evil that actually connects to reality in any scientific sense.

I really perceive this to be an intellectual emergency, because the only people who are sure that there are right answers to moral questions are, for the most part, religious demagogues.

Given the current state of affairs he sets out to define morality.

So what I’m arguing in my book is that we are actually free to define our terms in our conversation about morality in the same way we’re free to define our terms on any other scientific topic.

Before looking to Dr. Harris’s argument, what would you define as moral truth? What is the basis for morality?

Sam Harris, of course, will not turn to religion to define morality. Iron age superstition, he feels, has little to add to the discussion. Morality, according to Dr. Harris, relates to the well-being of conscious creatures—humans and animals. Moral good promotes such well-being, moral evil runs counter to such well-being. This is the basis for a rational, scientific morality.

If science can make such a claim – then Dr. Harris suggests that we should, in fact enforce, or try to enforce that morality world wide. This doesn’t mean exporting western culture – rather, it means exporting a scientific idea and ideal. He does acknowledge, however, that there may be many “peaks” corresponding to optimal human and animal well-being. No one optimal form has preference over any other. But any situation that does not put forth human and animal well-being as paramount is immoral. The difference between that which forwards human and animal well being and that which does not defines universal human morality.

Not only is it the most valuable thing in the universe, I argue it’s the only thing of value: the possibilities of having increasingly good experience.

If this is morality – human and animal well being – then no church, no religion, is moral. The aims are, Harris suggests, wrong. Modern secular liberalism of the live and let live variety is equally wrong. Who are we to condemn – oh  say Islamic treatment of women – the educated, liberal, secular person asks. Harris suggests that we should, and in fact, must confront such behavior on moral grounds.

Dr. Harris’s definition of morality has merit, in fact it is not all that different from a Christian morality. However,  his approach, his solution to the “morality problem,” is inherently unscientific. He imposes this value ad hoc to suit his purpose. He asserts that what he finds to be right and good is, in fact, ultimate right and good (we just know it in our gut). He then suggests that this should be spread throughout the world.

What do you think? Is Harris’s suggested ground for morality valid?

Is well-being of conscious creatures a reasonable alternative to religion? Is it scientific?

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  • Jeremy

    It doesn’t work. Science is supposed to be, at least on some level, glimpses of a concrete reality that we can’t perceive without experimentation, right? Physics only works because it corresponds with something ineffably real. Without something concrete behind morality, it is little more than sentiment and nowhere near any science I can think of. I think he’s got a heck of a huge task ahead of him if he wants to argue otherwise.

  • Rick

    So he thinks science can, and should, provide the definition of “well-being” and a “good experience”. Essentially it sounds like they are “survival” and “pleasure”.

    However, to provide such a definition is to place a value on it that is outside the realm of science. How is science able to make that value statement, and what makes survival and pleasure “good”, as opposed to them just being aspects of life?

  • dopderbeck

    Rick (#2) is exactly right. The notion of “well being” is not a “scientific” one, and therefore Harris’ entire project is incoherent. Moreover, even if “well being” could be defined empirically as “efficient functioning,” this would not answer the problems that arise when the efficient functioning of one member of the species impinges on the efficient functioning of another. In other words, it would not explain why I ought not to steal Mr. Harris’ lunch.

  • Sue

    The best work in this area is now centred on the concept of empathy. (Google empathy and morality for examples.) There is a program called Roots of Empathy which is now in most Canadian schools and in some American ones now, I believe.

    This approach intersects with religion specifically in the area of the golden rule, and all the reciprocal commands, as long as we interpret them as truly reciprocal.

    In the Hebrew prophets, justice was predominately caring for the weak. But in the NT and Jewish literature of the same time, justice was caring for others as oneself, or doing no harm, or submitting each to one’s neighbour.

  • T

    In a word, “ditto” to the above comments. If you’re going to say that the natural world is the only reality there is, then whatever works for the survival, pleasure and/or reproduction for any one of us is just as ethical/moral as anything else. If lying works for one or more of those things, how do we say it is immoral from nature’s standpoint? If force or violence works, how does nature condemn it for that creature? Nature applauds the victor, through whatever means used. That’s not exactly a recipe for any kind of strong moral aspirations or even condemnations.

    I know Harris is a bright guy, but his hope to find some kind of strong, convincing and shared morality from nature’s “rules” and exegencies is truly the kind of wishful thinking he ascribes to theists.

  • DRT

    Since when is religion and god primarily concerned with moral issues? For most of history religion has more to do with protection, benefit, victory, and nationalistic/religious pride.

    I have this argument with my aethist son all the time. He contends that the least appropriate organization to teach morality is religion. I must admit, when taking religion as a whole I agree with him. Religion would like to think that, but the world does not bear that out.

  • Just another example of the name of science being lent to something that at its core is outside the realm of questions science can answer.

  • Harris is preloaded from the get go. As an atheist, he ultimately believes all religious folks are demagogues. Framing the debate in this way allows Harris to have his way with the topic.

  • T


    In fairness, Christians aren’t proposing that “god/gods/religion” are interested in morality, but that Jesus is the “Way” and that he and his Father and Spirit are good in every sense. Second, how each person, church, nation, etc. interprets and/or uses “god” or Christ in particular is a separate question from whether the God that Jesus reveals cares about and teaches an adequately coherent and compelling morality. Regardless of this though, Harris is arguing that nature does and can. I think he’s got more wishing than compelling argument.

  • rjs

    Clearly Harris’s definition is not consistent with the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, strength; but is it consistent with “Love your neighbor as yourself”?

    Could it simply be an ad hoc assertion of this command?

  • T


    I thought the same thing, that Harris’s proposed ethic seemed similar to the Golden Rule. I just don’t see how nature would “command” that in any moral sense, other than when it happened to take a person or group where they wanted to go for pleasure, survival or reproduction.

  • Paul

    He does seem to describe the idea of well being as a conversation. This might imply that things will change and what we thought was good for the well being was in fact not…which means it’s not all about me vs. you, but about figuring out what is best for all.

    So stealing lunch does not wokr because we could argue it would ultimately not benefit either of us in the long run.

    Sounds a little like epicurianism with an eye to the future, before it become understood as immediate pleasure

  • DRT

    First off let me say I agree with T that my perspective of Christ as God is moral.

    But, is my sensibility of Christ being moral only because Christ’s morality intersects with the natural morality of sentient-being benefit? Isn’t the moral part of Christ’s teaching the part about loving neighbors? Does loving God/god have anything to do with morality?

    A few years ago I regularly debated with my father about whether the ethics of people (writ large) should trump the morality of religion. We concluded that the overriding consideration was the ethics of people because of the problem of cross religion morality. If everyone were to believe that their religious morality were the right one then we get religious war and not love of neighbors.

    If I believe that the morality of my religion is superior to the morality of other religions then I have an obligation to spread that view to others. But if they have a different morality at the time, then I must use the ethic of People to interact with that other group. Therefore the ethic/morality of People is the ruling morality.

    Sure there are moral elements to our religion. But is loving God moral?

    rjs asked, “What is moral truth?” Isn’t it the ethics/morality of People?

  • Kenny Johnson

    I was thinking…

    Could Harris’ idea support the idea why society should not allow people to steal each other’s lunches, but not why an individual shouldn’t steal a lunch? Society would be better off without everyone stealing from each other — but would I (as an individual) not be better off not stealing?

    But then, maybe that’s all moot, because can science really say which is better anyway?

  • Kenny Johnson


    Isn’t moral truth the truth found in the nature and being of God himself? I think that’s the classical theistic view of God and morality. That things are good or bad because of who God is.

  • DRT

    Kenny#15, I hear you, but is it Al Mohler’s god or mine that is moral?

  • Kenny Johnson

    Gotcha. Yeah, that’s a tougher question. For me, it’s the person and teachings of Jesus. And sure, those can be twisted, but I think the core is undeniable. Unconditional love and self-sacrifice.

  • T


    If the God that Jesus describes exists, then not only is it “moral” to love him, but immoral not to do so. Agreed?

    But, it does not follow from Jesus’ account that his followers should go to war to require people to love that God that deserves our love. This to me is in contrast to the narrative of Islam, for instance. It does not shock me that many folks who believe that Muhammed is God’s chief prophet thereby conclude that they should follow Muhammed’s example and impose submission to God on others through force. The narrative of Muhammed gives strong reason for that view IMO. Contrastly, the narrative of Christ–his teachings and example–give little reason, and even strong counter-reasons, to impose the Christian faith on others via force, despite that some do that.

  • Tim

    To start off with, I am not a fan of Sam Harris’s book. I was initially intrigued when he gave his short presentation at TED, and I thought he might really be on to something. But after hearing the sorts of things he advocates for in his book, it seems a big let down.

    I do like the landscape metaphor though. From a secular point of view (as opposed to a spiritual/religious absolutist point of view), morality would best be seen as the interplay between universal pro-social dispositions of our species, inherent in our biology, and relative cultural and environmental manifestations of those universal tendencies.

    So given such a scenario, you really would have a moral landscape. Morality for Native Americans would be in many ways the same, but in many ways very different from morality of the modern Americans. Morality of Northern Pakistani’s might be very different from morality of the Japanese. There are universals, but there are also relativistic cultural modifiers. So you could get a landscape.

    And why couldn’t you study that? Why couldn’t you study pro-social behavior in Bonobo and Pan Troglodyte Chimpanzees, and draw inferences to hominid behavior? Why couldn’t you study anthropological findings of past civilizations and infer how human morality has manifested across the millenia? Why couldn’t you analyze psychological and neurological findings for mechanisms that mediate or influence expression of pro-social behavior? The answer is, of course, you can do all these things. Does this mean that science can confidently tell you what morality is? Probably not. But it doesn’t mean that science can’t tell you SOMETHING about morality. It might very well be able to do something along these lines.

    I am a theist, and I believe morality comes from God. I truly do. But I also believe that no mental phenomenon is ever divorced from our physical anatomy of the brain. I don’t ascribe to some sort of Platonic dualism in that capacity. We just have too much evidence to the contrary that cognition just doesn’t work like that. So I think that while morality is transcendent, it’s expression is still very much steeped in biology. So I think that both spirituality/metaphysics/religion as well as science (and the humanities) has a role to play here.

  • Jeffery C

    Isn’t Harris redefining the meaning of “morality”? Those of us who are Believers see “morality” as having a permanent, transcendent quality because we associate it with God. Harris apparently sees morality as “truth” relative to situation, time, and place.

    Seems that he’s really talking about “ethics” as opposed to “morality.”

  • We had a long discussion about this back at the old “Jesus Creed” home here: (and, later, here: )

    I think Harris is rather overreaching and greedy in what science (at this point, today) does say, but he’s not that far off about what it could say, given a lot more research.

  • Kenny Johnson –

    Could Harris’ idea support the idea why society should not allow people to steal each other’s lunches, but not why an individual shouldn’t steal a lunch?

    You mean, when you were six your parents never asked you, “What if everyone did that?” 🙂

  • pds

    I agree that science is going beyond its limits, so I agree with most of the comments here. But that won’t convince Harris.

    Dop #3 said,

    “The notion of “well being” is not a “scientific” one, and therefore Harris’ entire project is incoherent.”

    Why is it not scientific? You can measure it. It is experienced by natural beings. They can feel it and evaluate it. If morality is merely the outgrowth of Darwinian evolution, it is clearly scientific.

    What is moral is what creates the highest well being for the greatest number. When there are conflicts, we can vote, and measure public opinion scientifically.

    His morality reflects how we pass laws. We vote. The law of the land generally reflects the moral rules that a majority want to impose on each other.

  • rjs


    Well-being seems a rather arbitrary bar; and perception of well being changes from circumstance to circumstance. I don’t find it a very solid definition for morality.

    And this definition of morality certainly isn’t the outgrowth of Darwinian evolution. If it was a natural outgrowth I don’t think Harris would be, with a sigh of exasperation, grasping at mists to propose a definition and a law. Perhaps the book presents something a good deal more sophisticated than the interview – but I doubt it.

  • Tim


    I would agree that well-being is an arbitrary bar for morality from a secular point of view. In my post #19, I argued that an investigation into morality would have more to do with pro-social behavior. As always, I value your thoughts.

  • EricG

    I get concerned when we as Christians get critical of books by atheists based solely on an interview. I wouldn’t evaluate the Wright/Piper debate w/o reading the books, for example. I also think we learn from listening to them. Although I am initially skeptical of Harris’s book for some of the reasons mentioned, here is something positive to say about aspects of what he seems to say: I think he is correct that it is possible that we have some sense of “good” separate from God, based on what benefits humanity. As a thought experiment, do you think you would characterize an all powerful deity as “good” if it derived pleasure from torturing humans? (I’m not saying that is what God is actually like). I suspect not. This suggests to me that at least to some extent we can define the good apart from God. This isn’t to deny some of the arguments above. But I plan to read the book, because I want to see what folks like Harris are saying, even though I will likely disagree with at least parts (maybe most parts).

  • rjs


    I agree that a discussion should be based on the whole book not merely an interview. I think Scot’s plan is to actually post on the book – or to have someone post on the book.

  • Well-being seems a rather arbitrary bar; and perception of well being changes from circumstance to circumstance. I don’t find it a very solid definition for morality.

    Harris addresses this, in that very interview:

    We define health in a very open-ended way as having something to do with not dying too early and not being in continuous pain and not being ravaged by infectious disease, etc. Health is a very loose concept and yet we can have a science of human health and that’s what medicine is. It’s very clear when the difference is between someone who’s dying of end-stage Alzheimer’s and someone who’s in the prime of their youth. That difference is hard to define rigorously, but it’s something we can talk about quite intelligently and study scientifically.

    No one ever thinks to attack the philosophical foundations of medicine by saying, “What gives you the right to define health as being free from debilitating pain and early death? How can you convince someone with Alzheimer’s that they’re not as healthy as you are?” Yet when I talk about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, I get these exact charges thrown at me. “How can you say to Mullah Omar of the Taliban that morality relates to well-being? Who’s to say it doesn’t relate to cutting the heads off adulterers?” People think that this is some kind of philosophical insight that they’re expressing and yet it’s patently insane.

  • rjs


    Harris has answers – the question is how convincing the answers actually are. We need to read the book – not just an interview to address this question. Right now though, we are confined to his interview for information.

    His health example is patently absurd. It is very easy to define the difference between prime of youth and dying of end-stage Alzheimer’s. It can be done with empirically testable reproducibility. Assigning a “value” to the two different states is somewhat more arbitrary – but really only slightly more arbitrary.

    I am not objecting to his premise that morality relates to well-being. I question his ground for that assertion and for how it plays out. One can certainly rationally (no insanity involved) propose that adultery damages people and society and thus destroys the well-being of many. In the absence of rehabilitation potential execution is required to preserve the well-being of the rest and to deter misconduct by others.

    Now – I don’t think the death penalty is justified, ever, and certainly not for adultery, and I think the actions of the Taliban in such a situation is evil. But Harris’s definition doesn’t get us far enough.

  • RJS –

    His health example is patently absurd. It is very easy to define the difference between prime of youth and dying of end-stage Alzheimer’s. It can be done with empirically testable reproducibility. Assigning a “value” to the two different states is somewhat more arbitrary – but really only slightly more arbitrary.

    Hold up – his point is that while ‘heath’ as an abstract condition is hard to define (Is it just the absence of disease? What about old age – are older people generally less healthy than younger people? Is someone who’s not an Olympic athlete ‘healthy’? Are people with varying degrees of autism ‘healthy’? What about people with Down’s Syndrome? What counts as mentally ‘healthy’?) as you point out there are a lot of specifics that we can look at, and often even measure.

    Brain plaques, or the lack thereof, is one factor relevant to health.

    But health, in turn, is one factor relevant to well-being. So is food, shelter, physical safety, social and political freedom, and so on. Since we’re all human, there’s a whole lot we agree on about what circumstances we want for ourselves and our loved ones. There’s disagreement, too (in the same way that a lot of people disagree about some parts of what’s ‘healthy’, especially in the mental sphere) but on the whole I’d say we agree lots more than we disagree.

    His food example is relevant, too – just because not everyone agrees on what’s the best food, that doesn’t mean there are no clear answers on what’s not food.

    One can certainly rationally (no insanity involved) propose that adultery damages people and society and thus destroys the well-being of many. In the absence of rehabilitation potential execution is required to preserve the well-being of the rest and to deter misconduct by others.

    Well… ‘rational’ only if one accepts a certain risk/value ratio – and as Harris points out, the people in your Taliban example are factoring in (putative) facts about the afterlife. If they could prove some of those propositions, maybe they’d even be right. The question is, what grounds do we have to accept those propositions as facts?

  • rjs


    I didn’t say anything about his food example (which I thought relevant to his point) or his view of morality landscape (which I found interesting).

    But – even without an afterlife or a supreme being in the picture – one can have a rational view that requires executing some, for say adultery or theft, to preserve the well-being of the majority. We need not just human well-being, but, it seems to me, also a sanctity of human life concept in our morality.

  • DRT

    Scot please delete if this is something I should not post due to copyright type stuff. I don’t want to steal their studies.

    While this post has drawn the moral division between religion and secularism, I think there is an even bigger gap between conservative and moderate (or liberal) genres of moralism. I have been fascinated by thinking about the implications of the differences in moral behavior over the past couple of months. I don’t know who posted it, but there is a wonderful site run by Virginia educators that is researching the difference between liberal and conservative values.

    The main site is:

    The moral surveys are at:

    I believe the Your Morals survey is immediately relevant to out conversation here. It is obvious that the two great tenants of Christianity are loving God and Neighbor. The study seems to not consider the loving God part, but operationalizes the loving neighbor part in terms of harm and fairness to the other. The liberals score somewhat higher on each of these categories.

    But the eye opener for me were the other three categories of morality that they find significantly different factoring in degree of conservatism. Those three categories are:


    On a 5 point scale the first two (harm and fairness) had a 0.5 to 0.8 difference between libs and conserves. But the last three, had a 1.3 to 1.6 difference in score.

    Perhaps this effect was born out in the post on “do they ever doubt” where no one really cared about the atheist, but me (and others) cared a whole bunch about Al Mohler.

    I propose that there is a bigger difference in the moral behavior between liberals and conservatives than Christian and non-christian.

  • RJS, as I said, executing aldulterers only holds for a given risk/value ratio. What kind – and amount – of harm do adulterers do, and to whom? What are the consequences – beneficial and detrimental – of execution, and to whom? What are the risks and consequences of false positives, and false negatives? And how do you know? And how precisely do you know?

    It’s only ‘rational’ to execute adulterers if all of those properties have particular ranges of values. I think our answers in the Western world work better, and I think we can roughly quantify that – at least to the point of being able to say what’s greater or lesser.

  • Phil M

    Sam Harris is, to use a common phrase, begging the question.

    As has been pointed out, he is assuming the goals of well-being and survival are morally good.

    Whilst science can and should be able to measure and contribute to the well-being of humanity, it has nothing to say about if or why such a result is morally good.

    Sam is trying to show that science can help provide moral guidance (free from religious input), but he simply sidesteps the very point he is trying to prove by talking about how science can determine and measure those things, while assuming they already have moral attributes.

  • Phil M – Please take a look at the links I gave in comment 21, which do cover the is/ought problem – from a perspective I don’t think you’ve considered.

  • Phil M

    Thanks for the references Ray, but I don’t think I will have the time to track through those conversations – they are huge! Are you able to summarize the perspective you mentioned?

  • Phil, you can see the nutshell summary in comment #6 here:

  • I have no problem with Harris’ claims and desires to seek a scientifically based morality. I also don’t think that he will “fail”, but that doesn’t mean that I think he will completely “succeed” either. It seems like his vision has been publicized (to his fault) as being way too grandiose, but I think there may be a nugget or two of truth to come out of this, which in addition to the other explanations that we have (from philosophy, theology, anthropology) will provide for a much more thorough and complete understanding.

    RJS, coincidentally, before I even saw your post, last night I wrote a brief post on the limits of science… I chuckled a bit when I saw this!

  • Phil M

    Thanks for that Ray, (#37) – that’s easy enough to understand.

    You said:

    We have physical laws, and we have human desires. It seems to me that “oughts” – strategic rules – morals – arise from those two things


    That’s not the Christian conception of morals handed down from a God on high […] but it’s not “moral relativism” either

    It is actually a perspective I have considered before – it’s not a new one. It is simply a form of utilitarianism.

    There are 3 things I would say about that proposition:

    1) It is exactly moral relativism because it (a) cannot arbitrate between conflicting courses of action based on differing human desires even when the goal is the same (Descriptive Relativism), (b) does not recognize any guiding universal absolute truth positions (Meta-ethical Relativism), and (c) is likely in practice to tolerate any societal practice that achieves the end goal (Normative relativism).

    2) It is not very far removed from Harris’ position since both assume human well being is the highest good. Harris inadvertently holds on to a traditional concept of morality, whereas your proposition simply redefines morality as what flows logically from physical laws and human desires.

    3) For such a replacement “morality” to have validity it must show that there are no absolute moral truths (but we generally all believe there are) and that the highest good is the fulfillment of human desires.