Home > Atheism, Book Review, Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Secular > Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Specific Reflections.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Specific Reflections.

What about reflections more specific to Harris’ theory, that is the so-called “is/ought” problem:

The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how we ought to behave (morality). (p. 10)

Harris states the problem as an issue between ‘facts’ and ‘values’, that philosophers and scientists such as Hume, G.E Moore, Jerry Fodor and Karl Popper have “fallen into the trap” (p. 10) of creating a firewall between facts and values, by thinking there is a problem here.  Scientists often study the “is” Harris states, that is they study “human happiness, positive emotions, and moral reasoning, they rarely draw conclusions about how human beings ought to think or behave in light of their findings. (p. 10) Moreover Harris states that it is generally considered “intellectually disreputable, even vaguely authoritarian” (pp. 10-11) for scientists to suggest that their work has implications for the moral life of others. Harris considers this kind of thinking to be a “faith in the intrinsic limits of reason” (p. 11) Harris believes that the divide between facts and values is illusory in at least three senses:

  1. whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures – which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value – must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large;

  2. the very idea  of “objective” knowledge (i.e. knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon the principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony etc.);

  3. beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears that we have a common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains. (Harris, 2010, p. 11)

To Harris, defining goodness in terms of well-being reduces the gulf between facts and values, in that well-being will be tied to the experience of conscious creatures,  and thus part of natural laws and discoverable by science. (p. 13)

What can we say here? Nielsen 2001 might be able to help us again,  in his discussion on the meaning of life in his book ‘Naturalism & Religion’, Nielsen states:

… we want an answer that is more than just an explanation or description of how people behave or how events are arranged or how the world is constituted. We are asking for is a justification of our existence. We are asking for why life is as it is, and not even the most complete explanation and/or description of how things are ordered can answer these quite different question.  The person who demands that some general description of man and his place in nature should entail a statement that man ought to live and die in a certain way is asking for something that can no more be the case than it can be the case that ice can gossip. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 109)

Nielsen continues, pace Harris, that no statement of fact about how we in fact do live can, by itself, be sufficient to answer the question of meaning and in Harris’ case, morality.  “No statement of what ought to be the case can be deduced from a statement of what is the case.” (p. 109) It is important to note that when we say cannot get an “is” deduced from a ought”, we are saying that we logically cannot.  In defending his moral view, that of “wide reflective equilibrium” (which will be discussed in an upcoming post on his book) Nielsen does agree with Harris insofar as there is “no moral difference without a factual difference”, when we critique Harris, it is not so much that his moral theory relies on facts, as much as it reduces all morality to facts, and facts only. There seems to be no reason why we need to restrict ourselves to a seemingly fallacious mode of thought, that, even if not fallacious, ignores “the plausible fit between our various moral judgements and actual beliefs, including for us our reflective beliefs about the (for us now) best established “substantiative and methodological elements of empirical science.” (Nielsen, quoting Railton, 2001, p. 220)  We can, and according to Craig and Moreland 2006 should use philosophy as a second-order discipline, that is a discipline that discusses primary schools of thought (such as, say, the facts of science, and other schools), to draw out the logical and otherwise philosophical implications of the facts we find in our world. Simply reducing values to facts in such a scientistic way by Harris, seems to miss a whole gamut of reflective experience that could influence the so-called moral landscape.


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

Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL,  Intervarsity Press.

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

  1. October 4, 2013 at 1:41 am

    The other question worth asking, is why limit wellbeing to ‘conscious creatures’? We cannot survive without ‘creatures’ deemed unconscious – plants, microorganisms – so where does he allow for the environment that supports human and animal ‘wellbeing’?

    I don’t think he’s overcome the is/ought distinction.

    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: “What about reflections more specific to Harri’s theory, that is the so-called “is/ought” probelm: The eighteenth-century philosophyer David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how we ought to behave (moral”

  2. October 4, 2013 at 1:43 am

    Can’t edit. Oh well.

    Next question. Who do you think is right? To what extent do you agree/disagree? Its very hard to know where you stand.

    • October 4, 2013 at 1:48 am

      I agree, he doesn’t overcome the is/ought distinction, at all. I also agree, if it wasn’t clear, with Nielsen, that we can include evidence from the sciences without being committed to reductionism, and thus trapped by the is/ought dilemma. I’ll draw more of this out I think when I write on Nielsen.

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