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The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
Sam Harris
Free Press, 2011
320 pp., $16.00

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Benjamin B. DeVan


Moral Landscapes or Sandscapes?

New Atheist grounds for ethics and morality.

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Crafting a Christian critique of pioneer New or Neo-Atheist Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, just out in paperback, prompts empathy for the proverbial mosquito in the nudist colony. Where to begin?

There is much to criticize, as well as to commend. Partly adapted from Harris' doctoral dissertation, his most recent New York Times bestseller is one of several contemporary efforts to construct an atheist account for morality. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Greg Epstein, Owen Flanagan, Steven Pinker (who endorses Harris), Dan Barker, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, along with Harris himself elsewhere, poke at this problem additionally or more briefly. In approving Harris, Dawkins doth protest too much (Hamlet 3:2:242), "I … [h]ad unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me … [A]s for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris."

Harris predicts science in general and neuroscience in particular will eventually eclipse all other resources for ethical discernment by decisively and exhaustively quantifying suffering and well-being as mediated by human (and animal?) brain chemistry, and by pinpointing "valleys" (cf. Psalm 23) of misery and peaks of flourishing across the "landscape" of conscious experience. The purpose of morality is to steer us away from valleys and toward peaks.

For Harris, atheism gears us to scale mountaintops, while "religion" (a category New Atheists apply to virtually anything they find ridiculous, repulsive, or repugnant) leads to valleys of death and squalor. With this in mind, Harris upbraids other atheist scientists who speak more gently about religion, or who decline to enlist in his anti-religious crusade. "[They] brought to mind the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: people who looked like scientists, had published as scientists, and would soon be returning to their labs, nevertheless gave voice to the alien hiss of religious obscurantism at the slightest probing …. [We] have considerable work to do." Harris sounds like a riff on Rudyard Kipling's notorious "The White Man's Burden":

Take up the atheist's burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child!
Take up the atheist burden—
Have done with childish days—
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Come now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

Still, traditional Christians and other believers who abide Harris' anti-religious rants may resonate with Harris at other points. Harris believes in "Absolute Truth" with a capital "T." He attacks moral relativism in ways reminiscent of C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. He extols marital fidelity, integrity, minimizing and eschewing vengeance, but without crediting "religious" sources for these ethics.

Harris' prime targets are scholars who, in his view, demagnetize their own moral compasses and confuse the moral compasses of those they influence (cf. Matthew 23:15). Harris doles a portion of wrath to anthropologists, cultural relativists, and politically active defenders and propagators of injustice and absurdity who hide behind "multiculturalism" and "diversity."

Even the most bizarre and unproductive behaviors—female genital excision, blood feuds, infanticide, the torture of animals, scarification, foot binding, cannibalism, ceremonial rape, human sacrifice, dangerous male initiations, restricting the diet of pregnant and lactating mothers, slavery, potlatch, the killing of the elderly, sati, irrational dietary and agricultural taboos attended by chronic hunger and malnourishment, the use of heavy metals to treat illness, etc.—have been rationalized, or even idealized in the fire-lit scribblings of one or another dazzled ethnographer.

Browsing the local college or university library confirms Harris is not being frivolous. To such relativists, Harris responds that some contexts, cultures, societal norms and ways of life are absolutely healthier and more worthwhile than others. "Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc. enjoyed in the context of a prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects?" Better ways of living are those "more true to the facts." That we do not yet know all the facts—and disagree how to weigh competing values—does not mean facts and values are imaginary. Moreover, multiple good and right objective solutions to ethical conundrums may be available, but this does not make all resolutions equally desirable or equally free from small or catastrophic errors. In due course, we will discover the more elusive features of physical and ethical reality, and comprehend continuums of wise and foolish choices more clearly (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).

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