The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris

Review published on April 12, 2012. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

For centuries, humanity has fallen into a Cartesian trap of dividing knowledge into the subjective from the objective.  On that basis, even scientists themselves have largely conceded that their empirical research can have no bearing on matters of morality.  In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris takes a fascinating look at a potential new branch of the sciences.  That branch is scientific morality, in which our growing understanding of neuroscience underpins science’s ability to speak meaningfully for the first time on moral matters.

A frustration with moral relativism lies at the heart of The Moral Landscape.   Having attended endless scientific conferences, Harris has consistently been staggered by the refusal of his peers to accept that, in terms of the promotion of human flourishing, there is an essential difference between a moral code that practices genital mutilation and public execution, and one such as that codified in the US constitution, which espouses life, liberty and equality.  While Harris does reject the concept of a Platonic, or Catholic, intrinsic morality founded on (apparently) objective models, or on divine diktats, he does argue that a core foundation of any worthwhile code should be the well-being of conscious creatures.  In effect, that which is morally good would be that which moves conscious creatures towards a “peak” on the titular moral landscape, a landscape of moral peaks and troughs in which there is no simple, intrinsic right and wrong, only better or worse conditions of well-being.

Well-being is a key concept in The Moral Landscape.  Harris posits that moral or emotional well-being should be considered as similar to physical health.  There is no single defined paradigm of a physically healthy human being, and even if there were, it’s accuracy would be constrained by cultural and temporal factors.  However, Harris argues, the absence of a paradigm does not prevent us from speaking meaningfully about gradations in healthiness.  He goes on to argue that a similar position should be taken on well-being.  We would not, for example, consider the health programme of a primitive tribe with a life-expectancy of 35 to be equally beneficial to that espoused by a modern, urban healthcare professional.  And yet, Harris argues, we have fallen into precisely that trap with morality.  While it we cannot say for certain that any moral code or lifestyle is inherently good or evil, Harris maintains it is neither desirable nor intellectually honest to suggest that there are no significant gradations in the well-being fostered by differing codes.

Of course, as one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism (now three since the passing of the great Christopher Hitchens), Harris carefully examines the iniquities that the Abrahamic religions have introduced into moral thinking.   At the heart of it, Harris suggests the failures of religion to establish societies which are conducive to well-being are founded not on vindictiveness but on misguided thinking.  As he says of the Taliban –

“I think it is quite clear that members of the Taliban are seeking well-being in this world (as well as hoping for it in the next).  But their religious beliefs have led them to create a culture that is almost perfectly hostile to human flourishing.  Whatever they think they want out of life – like keeping all women and girls subjugated and illiterate – they simply do not understand how much better life would be for them if they had different priorities.”

No doubt there are those who would contend that Harris’ approach is patronising, but this is a simple matter of presentation.  It is, after all, possible to be both utterly patronising and entirely accurate.

While The Moral Landscape is a moral philosophical text, it is underpinned by scientific data.  Through his intimate knowledge of brain states, obtained by fMRI scans, Harris and his colleagues have determined that brain activity relating to moral values is virtually identical to the brain activity produced by contemplation of established facts.  Through this scientific data, Harris argues that the division between apparently subjective values and objective facts is a false one, and should be disposed of.

This is not, it should be established, a book in which moral questions are reduced to a simple child’s peg toy, in which they can be answered, in the manner of hammering the round peg in to the round hole, by referring to which course of action will produce a particular brain state.  Moral dilemmas such as risk, the balancing of the few against the many, and the punishment or rehabilitation of criminals, will remain.  Instead, The Moral Landscape is a foundation stone for a truly fascinating and important concept; a world in which moral questions be examined by scientific minds.

Throughout, Harris’s argument, though often complex, is marked by passion and by clarity of thought.  It will be controversial, no doubt, but unlike the work of his religious adversaries, could never be accused of being unthinking.  Ultimately though, this is a vital document.  At the very lowest estimation of its power, The Moral Landscape is one of the most thought-provoking books you’re ever likely to read.  It is, however, so much more.  This is a potentially epoch-making book, and required reading for every thinking human being.

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