Beyond Belief: Sam Harris Imagines a “Moral Landscape”

Good science fiction is a worthy genre, and although it’s darker and more tension-filled to imagine a dystopia run by berserk robots or malicious aliens, there’s occasionally a gentle story, about a future where kindly scientific wizards save mankind from its age-old ignorance and folly. In this imaginary utopia human beings have risen above their base drives, reason prevails, and the highest good has been achieved. America’s founding fathers had such a vision, although they didn’t call it science fiction. In his new book, The Moral Landscape, bestselling atheist Sam Harris tries to call it science without fiction, but he’s on shaky ground.

The book’s subtitle, “How science can determine human values,” gives a précis of the main idea: in place of the messy, irrational way that human beings make decisions about right and wrong, Harris proposes that a rational view, based on valid scientific data, can do a better job. Very few adults with a memory of history would easily swallow that the scientists who brought us the atomic bomb, napalm, agent orange, DDT, and ever more diabolical weapons of mechanized death are now to be embraced as bringers of the good life. But as in his previous books, Harris is aiming at a specific target, the religious right, or to broaden the audience, any benighted simpleton who continues to be duped by the laughable yet highly dangerous superstitions of organized religion. Do we not have the example of atheist Denmark and Sweden as places full of really good people, as opposed to the Taliban, who throw acid in the faces of young girls trying to go to school when religious law forbids it?

In an interview at, the author sets the tone: “If there are more and less effective ways for us to seek happiness and to avoid misery in this world—and there clearly are—then there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.” In other words, let’s toss out custom, social agreement, emotional attachments, and religious guidance in favor of reliable data.

When asked if science is really the right judge of morality, Harris says, “Yes, in principle. Human well-being is not a random phenomenon. It depends on many factors—ranging from genetics and neurobiology to sociology and economics. But, clearly, there are scientific truths to be known about how we can flourish in this world. Wherever we can act so as to have an impact on the well-being of others, questions of morality apply.”

“In principle” religion was supposed to do the same thing. It hasn’t had a sterling record in producing human happiness, but the prospect of science doing any better is likely to be just as fraught with error. Harris is as idealistic as any Southern Baptist seeking to be reborn, but let that pass. He is treading on the fashionable ground of happiness research in the field of positive psychology, which has blossomed in recent years. One of the basic findings of this research is that people are very bad judges of what will make them happy. For example, the notion that money brings happiness is profoundly flawed, and so are short-term jolts of bliss that one gets from, say, a shopping spree.

The interviewer points out that ideas of happiness come into conflict, don’t they? If I want a nice juicy steak and you belong to PETA, won’t there be a clash? Harris is sanguine about this small glitch: “There as some circumstances like this, and we call these contests ‘zero-sum.’ Generally speaking, however, the most important moral occasions are not like this. If we could eliminate war, nuclear proliferation, malaria, chronic hunger, child abuse, etc.—these changes would be good, on balance, for everyone.”

This is the first whopper that makes one wonder if the author is writing a satire on morality. To begin with, the eradication of global ills that he cites aren’t scientific in nature; everyone, including poets and monks, wants to achieve them. The fact that war hasn’t been eradicated isn’t for lack of scientific data to enlighten us (indeed, science is the chief reason that modern warfare is so ghastly). Nor is it for lack of a rational answer. The persistence of human aggression is deeply rooted in our divided nature, a part of the inner struggle that never leaves the human condition. Child abuse doesn’t occur because a parent goes, “Oh, I forgot that my child would be happier if I didn’t beat her.” The decision isn’t rational and therefore cannot be cured by sweet reason. This kind of naiveté on Harris’s part raises suspicion about his connection to psychological reality.

Harris can feel the strangeness of his proposal, so he is quick to assert that science isn’t the only answer. “We already have very good reasons to believe that mistreating children is bad for everyone.” Really? Isn’t the point that despite these very good reasons, child abuse continues? Skipping ahead, he says, “I think it is important for us to admit that this is not a claim about our personal preferences, or merely something our culture has conditioned us to believe. It is a claim about the architecture of our minds and the social architecture of our world. Moral truths of this kind must find their place in any scientific understanding of human experience.” The tone is placating and reasonable, but the assertion is nonsense. It’s exactly personal preference and social conditioning that keeps most wrong-doing alive, whether we are talking about centuries-old tribal animosity or families where beating your children is the accepted thing to do (and pretty satisfying, no doubt, when the wallop is delivered in such families).

Harris is so sure that we need to stop going to church and start watching Nova that he rushes forward fearlessly. The interviewer brings up the Taliban, who feel great about what they do, not just because denying all rights to women is moral but because it is dictated by God. Harris remains unruffled: “There may be different ways for people to thrive, but there are clearly many more ways for them not to thrive. The Taliban are a perfect example of a group of people who are struggling to build a society that is obviously less good than many of the other societies on offer.” He seems unaware that Osama bin Laden is the most popular person in the Muslim world and that Islamic media persistently held up the Taliban regime as the closest to an Islamic paradise that any society has ever achieved. A lot of people are going to need a lot of hours on the Science Channel, it would appear. In many ways it is Harris’s cool objectivity that feels the creepiest, as when he asserts, “It is not, therefore, unscientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality. In fact, we must say this. . .” Is he implying that we wouldn’t abhor the Taliban before science came along to enlighten us? If we did know that the Taliban are morally criminal already, why do we need Tom Swift, Jr. or even Albert Einstein to reinforce the point?

The interviewer inserts a bit of realism by asking if the Taliban might have different goals in life than someone else. Harris’s answer again raises the possibility that his book could be a spoof. “They don’t. They are clearly seeking happiness in this life, and, more importantly, they imagine that they are securing it in a life to come. They believe that they will enjoy an eternity of happiness after death by following the strictest interpretation of Islamic law here on earth. This is also a claim about which science should have an opinion.” He seems oblivious to several things. A) Attempts to tell others how to live their lives generally meet with great hostility and resistance. B) People like to try out various alternatives in life, some of them against their own interest. From these negative experiences we develop wisdom and insight (not always, of course). C) Emotion can never be separated from decision-making. People who have suffered the loss of emotional centers in the brain find it almost impossible to make any decisions. We do what we like, and like what we do.

Stripped of its rhetorical decoration, however, The Moral Landscape gussies up old-fashioned utilitarianism, whose motto is “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Like any 18th-century Benthamite, Harris doggedly pursues the utilitarian line as if people are counters on a game board. He calls this board “the moral landscape,” a field of all choices where some people make bad ones and others make good ones. In his position of benign arbiter, Harris wants only to move everyone higher up on the game board. (Thus, if you want to ride a Harley screaming down the highway without a helmet, a scientist needs to remind you that motorcycles have lots of accidents and riders without helmets suffer badly in crashes. Is Harris so naive that he doesn’t see the human capacity for denial?) The agenda here is to get human nature to shape up and fly right. “Given that our experience is fully constrained by the laws of the universe, there must be scientific answers to the question of how best to move upwards, toward greater happiness.” Well, no there aren’t. One of the principles of science, quite pertinent to the laws of nature, is known as entanglement. It says that isolated phenomena are in fact not isolated but linked to one another. The same is true in our daily lives. We experience the good and the bad tangled together, and because we are participants in this entanglement, not cool observers, it’s all but impossible to disentangle good from bad.

Harris should try talking to any psychiatrist, who will offer abundant testimony about patients who know what they are doing wrong and what is causing their pain, yet who never change — or change very slowly. The underlying argument of all utilitarians is the definition of happiness as a surplus of pleasure over pain. But it was discovered, by Freud, and long before him by practical psychologists, that people don’t change because their lives get too painful. Millions of people pursue addictions, stay with abusive partners, refuse to leave miserable jobs, and indulge in self-destructive behavior of all types. Pain won’t make them change; they change when what they are doing no longer works. In addition, there are lots of activities we enjoy, such as marathon running, where “no pain, no gain” applies. Harris’s definition of happiness doesn’t surmount these objections. He simply waves around new words like neuroscience and genetics to plaster over the proven fallacies of the “maximize pleasure, minimize pain” view of human happiness.

A small voice in Harris’s brain must be telling him how close he’s veering to the popular image of Dr. Strangelove, because he sounds a note of seeming doubt. “Positive social emotions like compassion and empathy are generally good for us, and we want to encourage them. But do we know how to most reliably raise children to care about the suffering of other people? I’m not sure we do.” This moment lasts only a short time, however, because he is soon back to his main theme. “These questions have answers, and only a science of morality could deliver them.” It seems to escape his notice that compassion, a leading quality in Buddhism, didn’t save Tibet from a brutal invasion and repression by the Communist Chinese. Oh wait, there weren’t any moral scientists standing at the border to remind the invaders of the natural laws they were violating.

Harris slights the role of intuition and feeling, which is the main way that ordinary people make moral decisions. Doing good feels better than doing bad. If doing bad feels good instead, then by the utilitarians’ own argument, the person will continue to do bad. Horrifying as it is to contemplate, mass murderers enjoy what they are doing and sleep well at night. After the defeat of Nazism, countless ordinary Germans were not remorseful over what they had condoned under Hitler; they regretted instead that they lost the war. This, not the wrongness of their actions, determined their attitude. And since we are speaking of World War II, it is generally agreed that the defeat of Hitlerism justified hundreds of thousands of deaths on the Allied side. In what way did their sacrifice improve the happiness of the dead and wounded, or of their surviving families? Moral philosophy has been wrestling with these issues for centuries. Harris’s band of reasonable scientists are a joke when offered as a better idea.

Near the end of this extensive interview, Harris gets to pounce on his real prey, the faithful. When asked if religion has been helpful in guiding morality, he says, that it has generally been unhelpful. “Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life.” This is not remotely true of many strains of Buddhism, Vedanta, and Judaism, and it’s a gross simplification when applied to Christianity, which has both an afterlife and a doctrine of morality that applies to the here and now. When Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is within, he isn’t pointing to the resurrection. The Sermon on the Mount, like the Ten Commandments, is a guide for the present. I agree with Harris that it isn’t helpful to cling to religious dogma — the reasons have been obvious for centuries — but throwing out Moses, Jesus, and Buddha because their teachings were violated by future followers is just as misguided as throwing out the law because there are bad judges. Moral truth is embodied in our wisest sages and holiest saints. Can Harris produce a “moral scientist’ who has wiser and holier things to say? I doubt it.

In the end, one sympathizes with a desire on Harris’s part to improve the human condition, even if it is self-serving of him to assert that religious people aren’t in his exalted league. But the whole argument is vitiated by a whiff of egotistical self-righteousness. The pioneering behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner became notorious when he raised his infant daughter in a glass-fronted box instead of a crib, the same “Skinner box” he used to train pigeons and lab rats. As it turns out, the daughter grew up to declare that she was loved by her father and couldn’t have asked for a better upbringing. Harris’s similar proposition in regards to morality might well have beneficial results, too, but he should contemplate why the general public was repulsed by Skinner’s experiment rather than inspired to follow his example.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle