Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

I first encountered Sam Harris in a review of The End of Faith in The New York Times a little over six years ago in September of 2004. My journey to rationalism covered many years, much reading, over a difficult path. Sam Harris became the first of the “new atheists” who explicated my mental turmoil in a logical and common sense manner. A little over two years later, he followed this work with Letter to a Christian Nation. In this book, he answered many of the criticisms leveled at End of Faith. Many of his critics had not even the slightest taint of rationalism. Since then, I have followed Harris through his blog,, which provides e-mail updates of publications and appearances. I knew Harris spent much of his time working on a dissertation in neuroscience from UCLA. This book is an off shoot of that dissertation.

Harris’ thesis runs like this: “…the split between facts and values – and, therefore, between science and morality – is an illusion” (179). He posits that human morality arose because it provided a value to early hominids. “…values actually are – the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being, as well as that of other conscious minds” (22). The contradictions among religions arose because of narrow interests of small tribes in conflict with neighboring groups. Thus, the commandments proscribe murder and theft, yet the God of Moses directed the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in the way of this particular group’s takeover of large areas of the Middle East. Belief enables individuals to bridge the gap between facts and values.

Harris states, “Science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible” (28). Imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived by the “Golden Rule.”

The idea of a “moral Landscape guarantees that many people will have flawed conceptions of morality, just as many people have flawed conceptions of physics” (53). Recent polls have shown that an astounding number of people in the US believe the universe is only about 7,000 years old, and therefore expect, that if evolution were true, we should be able to see monkeys evolving into humans before our eyes. Harris adds, “the fact that millions of people use the term “morality” as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time” (53).

The chapters entitled “Belief” and “Religion” offer particularly complicated lines of reasoning, but the conclusion remains the same: “For nearly a century, the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion -- that great engine of ignorance and bigotry – a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom. As a result, the most powerful societies on earth spend their time debating issues like gay marriage when they should be focused on problems like nuclear proliferation, genocide, energy security, climate change, poverty, and failing schools” (191).

At times, The Moral Landscape is not an easy read. I found myself going back over some key passages in order to fully digest Harris’ lines of reasoning. However, the challenge is extremely worthwhile in the long run. The author devoted nearly 100 pages – one-third of the book – to detailed footnotes, references, and an index. This work represents scholarship of the first order. This book belongs on the shelf of every person concerned with rationalism and the moral and ethical problems of the dangerous world in which we live. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 10/16/10

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