BOOK REVIEW: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

Having enjoyed The End of Faith (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), I eagerly awaited the 2010 publication of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I’ve finally been able to give this book the time and attention it deserves, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in secular ethics, even though I find it somewhat incomplete.

In The Moral Landscape, Harris attacks the willingness of the scientific establishment to accept the notion that science has little or nothing to say about morality and values, a position perhaps best summarized in Stephen Jay Gould’s proposal that science and religion occupy “non-overlapping magisteria.” While giving us much to think about, including descriptions of some interesting ethical conundrums, Harris’ reasoning is readable and straightforward. Morality, he asserts, is about the well-being of sentient creatures. Assuming no spiritual realm or eternal soul, well-being must then be about conditions in the physical world around us, and about the biological realities of the human brain. The important details being aspects of the observable universe, morality must be subject to logic, reason, systemization, and all the experimental testing science can devise. Harris is careful to emphasize that science might not yield one right answer, that there might be many ways to enhance human well-being. But he is also clear that there are many ideas about human well-being that are objectively, scientifically wrong.

For me this was a fascinating read, but not especially eye-opening, as I already agree with the basic premise. The idea of rational and secular ethics is at least as old as Aristotle, even if modern science has steered an odd course around it. I doubt the book will convince anyone not already in agreement, whether they are religious believers or are scientists who accept the currently prevalent separation of scientific “what” from religious “why.” The Moral Landscape is only the beginning of a very long argument, not its conclusion.

Perhaps as an anthropologist myself I am a bit biased, but I would strongly encourage Dr. Harris, and the other “New Atheists” as well, to read more thoughtfully about the anthropology of religion, some parts of which they tend to dismiss too lightly. Harris wants very much to blame religion for many social problems, and deservedly so. But “religious” violence is usually an indicator of political and economic problems that can’t be solved just by making religion go away. Contrary to the view of the New Atheists, people rarely come to blows directly over religion. At least where violence is protracted, repetitive, or organized, we must look for mundane causes, usually based in unequal distributions of wealth and power. The quintessential example of this is “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, a struggle over ethnic identity, political privilege, and economic access, regularly and deliberately mischaracterized as “sectarian strife.” Merely removing religion from the mix would do nothing to address the underlying social problems. Similarly, the perceived problems of “Islamic terrorism” will not be solved without addressing the internal inequalities afflicting many countries dominated by that religion. If we stop our analysis the moment we’ve identified a “religious” conflict, we are making ourselves pawns of the oppressor.

Any scientific approach to the enhancement of human well-being will have to do a good job of distinguishing root causes from superficial appearances. It’s also going to require bringing a lot more than Harris’ own neuroscience to the table. As has always been the case, engineering a healthy society overlaps Philosophy, Anthropology, Political Science, and Economics, as well as the sciences of the mind.

Jim Dugan