A Review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Part 2 (of 3)

A Review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Part 2 (of 3)

Today continues my three-part review of atheist Sam Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. (See part 1 here).

Determinism vs. Free Will

Like many who hold an atheistic worldview, Harris does not accept the notion of free will. Rather, he accepts determinism, as is demonstrated by the following quotes:

  • “You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. As we shall see, however, this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.”
  • “All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.”
  • “I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will next think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.”1

Though it’s possible Harris believes his brain to operate in this manner, believing in determinism produces sobering consequences (mostly leading to increased immoral behavior).2 Harris himself indicates that the Supreme Court has said that a belief in determinism “is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system” (United States vs. Grayson, 1978). Despite the obvious moral pitfalls of determinism, Harris insists that anyone examining his or her own life will “see that free will is nowhere to be found.”3 However, later in the book, Harris seems to suggest that choices are possible despite a complete lack of free will:

Obviously, when I speak of “freedom” and “choices” of this sort, I am not endorsing a metaphysical notion of “free will.”4

Moral Truth

In a surprising way, Harris does not approve of any kind of moral relativism. Instead, he believes that moral truth exists as does any other kind of truth. Accordingly, he writes, “It seems abundantly clear that many people are simply wrong about morality—just as many people are wrong about physics, biology, and oncology.”5 Harris attributes the ability to make moral choices to the evolution of the human brain, saying, “Genetic changes in the brain gave rise to social emotions, moral intuitions, and language.”6 Although there is evidence for genetic differences between humans and apes that allow humans to create and use language, Harris provides no evidence to support the idea that changes in our genetics resulted in the ability to form “social emotions” and “moral intuitions.”

Harris says that questions of morality should be determined scientifically7 and that “science has long been in the values business.”8 He believes that science will advance to the point that morality will be compulsory. He even envisions the day when “lie detectors ever become reliable, affordable, and unobtrusive” so that “we may come to expect that certain places and occasions will require scrupulous truth telling.”9 This sounds like a really good idea—when in the right hands. However, one can easily imagine a dictatorial regime that uses such technology to eliminate its opponents ruthlessly. What Harris seems to have forgotten is that any and all advanced technology can be used by evil men to accomplish their evil purposes.

Determining Morality

Where The Moral Landscape really falls flat is in its lack of explaining how exactly science can determine moral values. Harris admits, “As we are about to see, population ethics is a notorious engine of paradox, and no one, to my knowledge, has come up with a way of assessing collective well-being that conserves all our intuitions.”10 However, Harris does offer some solutions, specifically mentioning “the interchangeability of perspective,”11 which is just a restatement of the Golden Rule.12

Harris readily admits that he is a political liberal13 and that liberals and conservatives see the world in completely different ways. He represents the liberals’ standard morality, saying, “Our system of justice should reflect our understanding that each of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.”14 He also equates conservatism with “outright hypocrisy.”

The most conservative regions of the United States tend to have the highest rates of divorce and teenage pregnancy, as well as the greatest appetite for pornography…If one wants examples of such hypocrisy, evangelical ministers and conservative politicians seem to rarely disappoint.15

 He goes on to quote a study published in Psychological Bulletin,16 “Conservative ideologies, like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs,” describing such a statement as having “more than a whiff of euphamism.”17

Yet the same could also be said for liberal ideologies .The really scary part of such a philosophy is how Harris proposes to solve our moral problems:

We must build our better selves into our laws, tax codes, and institutions. Knowing that we are generally incapable of valuing two children more than either child alone, we must build a structure that reflects and enforces our deeper understanding of human well-being.

Harris complains that most moral judgment results from emotional reaction rather than logical analysis. However, he goes on to cite neuroimaging experiments18 showing that psychopaths lack neural activity in the regions of the brain associated with emotional stimuli. From such experiments, it is clear that a completely logical brain, devoid of any emotional component, could be a very dangerous thing.

On Friday, part 3 will conclude this review of The Moral Landscape with an examination of Harris’ depiction of religion.

Richard Deem

Mr. Richard Deem received his MS in Medical Microbiology from California State University of Los Angeles in 1979 and currently serves as a research scientist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

  1. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press), 102–12.
  2. K. D. Vohs and J. W. Schooler. “The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating,” Psychological Science 19: (2008) 49-54.
  3. “Our sense of our own freedom results from not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with truth.” Ibid, 111.
  4. Ibid., 139.
  5. Ibid., 87.
  6. Ibid., 59.
  7. “The answer to the question ‘What should I believe and why should I believe it?’ is generally a scientific one. Believe a proposition because it is well supported by theory and evidence; believe it because it has been experimentally verified.” Ibid., 144.
  8. “Science has long been in the values business. Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, scientific validity is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; rather, scientific validity is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument.” Ibid., 143–44. (Emphasis original)
  9. Ibid., 134–35.
  10. Ibid., 68.
  11. “We have already begun to see that morality, like rationality, implies the existence of certain norms—that is, it does not merely describe how we think and behave; it tells us how we should think and behave. One norm that morality and rationality share is the interchangeability of perspective.47 The solution to a problem should not depend on whether you are the husband or the wife, the employer or the employee, the creditor or debtor, etc.” Ibid., 80–81. (Emphasis original)
  12. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:31, NIV.
  13. “The same point can be made in the opposite direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of thinking in terms of harm and fairness, can readily see that my vision of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others.” Harris, 90.
  14. Ibid., 109.
  15. Ibid., 90.
  16. J. T. Jost et al., “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” Psychological Bulletin 129 (2003): 339–75.
  17. Harris, 125.
  18. K.A. Kiehl et al., “Limbic abnormalities in affective processing by criminal psychopaths as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging,” Biological Psychiatry 50 (2001): 677-84.