Home > Atheism, Ethics, Philosophy, Science > Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Primer.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Primer.

I’ve read this book a long time ago, since then my perspective has changed, and after some interactions with friends on Facebook in which it was brought up again, I decided to give it another read. I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about it, if I had any major criticisms, but I know I do want to catalogue some notes, some account of what it is Harris is saying in his book, for my notes, and to refer to later on.

It might be best to start with Harris’ main thesis, which he states:

I will argue, however, that questions about values – about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose – are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture – just as facts about physical and mental health do. (Harris, 2010, pp. 1-2

To Harris human well-being depends on “events in the world and on states of the human brain.” (p. 2), and although he doesn’t anticipate a complete understanding of all the complexities and nuances of moral problems, he does propose that his theory will force people to deal with moral reasoning constrained to the (scientific) facts. Morality and values will become a discussion about facts of the brain, about how thoughts and intentions arise, and what those mental states will mean in terms of behavior; terms like “good” and “evil” will be exhausted by the science governing the analysis of these states.  As the man himself states: “I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” (p.4)  Harris makes his motivations clear, in that at least in part he is looking to solve the problem of relativism, that is specifically moral relativism from the secular left and the “scriptural literalism” of the conservative right, he wants an objective morality that is not based on supernaturalism.

The Moral Landscape

Throughout the book Harris discusses several terms, which we might now like to turn to and define, for the sake of clarity, firstly, the Moral Landscape:

Throughout this book I shall make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape” – a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving – different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government etc. – will translate into movements across this landscape, and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. (Harris, 2010, p. 7)

Harris anticipates that some may find this term vague, but he argues there are analogies we can use, that of food, in that there is no one food that is right to eat, yet there is an objective difference between food and poison.

Peaks and Valleys

Although we covered this briefly above, let’s draw out some more detail on these terms:

Even if there is a thousand ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive – and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of well-being and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.  (Harris, 2010, p. 41

Harris’ theory is aiming, in consequentialist fashion (a topic for another blog) to map out a formula to provide a way to find the most amount of happiness for the most number of people, and although he admits there will be “practical impediments” to finding that route there will be moral equivalencies on such, and in turn many peaks on his moral landscape. That is a point that needs special attention, Harris seemingly respects that different cultures and people might have different ways to reach a moral peak, to feel fulfilled in life, but the unifying factor is the moral theory he is proposing; you feeling you have different values, may also be a way to a peak on the moral landscape (it would of course need to be evaluated). The grounding of a science of morality in conscious states, with “the worst possible misery for everyone at its depths and differing degrees of well-being at all other points – seems like the only legitimate context in which to conceive of values and moral norms.” (p. 41)


Another term we might like to look at is that of “well-being” a term that Harris admits is difficult to define, but through analogy Harris explores how we might use it: that is, in reference to physical health. To Harris physical health is a term that is indispensable, yet is constantly open to revision (think of what might have been considered healthy in the dark ages, compared to now) similarly so too is well-being. Although there might be ‘valleys’ and ‘peaks’ on the moral landscape, we must define that which is good as integral to well-being. It might be reasonable to ask from here why this is so, and what specifically composes this ‘good’ Harris speaks of. Harris thinks, that when we ask, for example if pleasure is good (or should be maximized), we are really asking if it is conducive to some deeper form of well-being, and although some may question whether it makes sense to maximize pleasure in any given sense, it makes no sense to ask if maximizing well-being is thus. This admits that there are answers to the question of well-being, even if we aren’t sure what they are, but most importantly, it ties “notions of goodness to the experience of sentient beings.” (p. 12)

Harris anticipates and respects the objection that some may not accept that values or morality have anything to do with well-being, or rather that some may possess some skewed form of well-being that is hostile to the well-being of others, he states this objection is at the heart of many peoples doubts about moral truth. To this objection Harris states that consensus, that is in moral or scientific discourse does not hold that every opinion is valid, that for some reason people who do not accept our moral goals make the act of looking for such incapable. To further draw this point out Harris looks at Biblical Creationists in science, now, they may claim to be using science, but as Harris states “real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term.” (p. 34) Similarly those concerned with moral discourse whose moral principles cause tremendous suffering, nothing predisposes us to simply saying these people have distorted values. Going further Harris asks if people would attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death?” (p. 36) Harris thinks that although someone is allowed to raise such an objection as this, it doesn’t mean we need to take it seriously. Harris admits we all possess intuitive moral reasoning, but much of this is wrong, and only genuine moral experts will posses a “deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.” (p. 36)


Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Categories: Atheism, Ethics, Philosophy, Science
  1. September 9, 2013 at 3:09 am

    Is there an ‘objective’ difference between food and poison? Many foods/drinks can be poisonous (including water) when done to excess – and yet, in ‘normal’ quantities, they are perfectly ok. What we today consider outright poisons, once were used in small doses as medicine.

    His notion of ‘wellbeing’ can be criticised from another angle – its purely human-centric. While I can agree that medicine is about preventing, or minimising suffering – even promoting wellbeing – I don’t think there is anything wrong with also suggesting that there is a moral issue to how far we take this – I can deem some procedures and medications to be immoral for prolonging life, where there is little left to offer the individual (and, indeed, even the cost for others/society); for not allowing someone to die with dignity, at a time of their choosing – I can even suggest that there are times where human wellbeing should be put secondary to that of protecting our environment and other animals (since we might survive in the short term – but do future persons have any rights? Are we obligated in any way to non-existent persons?)

    Another one to add to my holiday reading list?

    Rebecca Glasencnik

    It must be remembered that the purpose of education is not to fill the minds of students with facts… it is to teach them to think, if that is possible, and always to think for themselves. — Robert Hutchins

    Rob Bezant posted: “I’ve read this book a long time ago, since then my perspective has changed, and after some interactions with friends on Facebook in which it was brought up again, I decided to give it another read. I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about it, if I h”

  2. September 9, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    As always Rebecca, thanks so much for your thoughts (and I haven’t deleted your comment this time, oops),

    It might depend on what you mean by ‘objective’, which I will be directly covering in my next post on his work. He might say, the propensity of even safe foods to become poisonous might be the same as any moral good, taken to an extreme in his moral landscape. Somewhere along the ‘valley’ to ‘peak’ continuum even ‘good’ things may become ‘bad’.

    You said: “His notion of ‘wellbeing’ can be criticised from another angle – its purely human-centric.:

    I agree, and it’s a point I might not have otherwise considered, so thanks for bringing it up. He does say, however that his moral system pertains to ‘conscious creatures;, so although he focuses on humans, it seems non-human animals may be included, but just aren’t the focus of his work here (which is admittedly written at the popular level, and thus not very detailed). His theory can be critiqued for it’s consequentialism too, as well as it’s moral realism, which I might tackle in my objections.

    You raise some interesting points, he only briefly touches on the moral particulars of his theory, so while he might be able to answer your objections, I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: