The Moral Landscape, Introduction

Chapter-by-chapter thoughts on Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

Last year I wrote a series of posts offering my first impressions of Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth.  Readers responded positively and enthusiastically to that project, so I’m doing it again with the new book by Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith (which, according to some, launched the so-called “New Atheist” movement) and Letter to a Christian Nation.  Harris is also co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, “a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.”

Summary: Harris rejects Gould’s NOMA, Hume’s Is-Ought Gap, and cultural relativism.  Since human well-being is based on natural law, the scientific study of morality is a valid line of inquiry.

Harris is nothing if not ambitious.  He makes it clear up-front that he is no fan of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “nonoverlapping magesteria” (NOMA), the idea that science and religion are not inherently in conflict, that the former seeks to determine facts about the universe while the latter concerns itself only issues of morality and meaning.  I agree with Harris that this is a “doomed notion”–I would add that NOMA doesn’t withstand 30 seconds of thoughtful analysis.  While Gould may have been trying to make peace between the two main factions in the “culture wars,” it’s abundantly clear that science and religion are in conflict, and cannot be otherwise, precisely because science’s discoveries of fact consistently erode, debunk and render foolish many of the longstanding “teachings” of religion.  As Harris puts it: “Rational, open-ended honest inquiry has always been the true source of insight into [the relationship between morals and reality].  Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.” (Harris points out later in the Introduction that it’s probably no surprise that so many scientists claim to believe in NOMA, if for no other reason than their reliance on public funding controlled by politicians who kowtow to the superstitious masses.)

I think I’m safe in saying that 99% of nonbelievers don’t buy into NOMA.  Opinions aren’t so one-sided when it comes to the so-called “is-ought” gap, first outlined by the 18th century philosopher David Hume.  This is the idea that facts about how the world is cannot tell us how we ought to behave.  Harris laments that the vast majority of scientists and Western intellectuals apparently take the is-ought gap for granted.

The “moral landscape,” as defined by Harris, is a hypothetical space representing all the possible outcomes of human well-being or suffering.  Harris dismisses objections that, since it is impossible to define precisely what we mean by “well-being” that scientific study of such a thing is impossible.  He points out that the fact that medical researchers cannot precisely define “health” has not stopped modern medicine from making great advances toward improving the human condition and lengthening life.  (I might add that the fact that biologists have difficulty defining “species” has not stopped the progress in understanding evolution.)

Rather than dithering over absolute definitions, Harris asserts what amounts to a sliding scale: on one end is the Bad Life; other other the Good Life.  Again, never mind precisely what each might mean.  Harris suggests (actually, more than suggests) that scientific progress can be made by a comparative assessment of states of being, and by so doing a clearer map will begin to emerge.  “Given that change in the well-being of conscious creatures is bound to be a product of natural laws, we must expect that this space of possibilities–the moral landscape–will increasingly be illuminated by science.”  (More on this in Chapter 1.)

Harris also tackles head-on the scourge of cultural relativism, an idea embraced by a great number of influential progressives that all cultures are equally valid.  (I’ve always thought this was pretty crack-brained.  It always seemed to me that it would be statistically impossible for any two cultures to be equal.)  As Harris sums up: “It would be a miracle if all societies…had [subdued certain aspects of human nature through social mechanisms and institutions] equally well.  And yet the prevailing bias of cultural relativism assumes that such a miracle has occurred not just once, but always.”  Harris describes an Invasion of the Body Snatchers moment in which otherwise thoroughly credentialed scientists spout condescending views about letting the people have their faith, or otherwise apologize for the failings of religion.

The Moral Landscape is available at Amazon.com in hardcover, audiobook, or Kindle editions.

For more on Sam Harris visit SamHarris.org.

John C. Snider

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One Response to The Moral Landscape, Introduction

  1. Pingback: The Moral Landscape, Chapter 1: Moral Truth « American Freethought

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