Resurrecting Morality

moral landscape

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

by Sam Harris (Bantam Press 2010)

Book Review

The historical record indicates religion has been pretty hopeless in guiding human beings in leading moral and ethical lives. The Moral Landscape outlines a proposed morality based on objective scientific principles.

Sam Harris, a PhD neurophysiologist, bases this proposed morality on the principle of maximizing human well being. Because human well being is a function of world events and states of the human brain, there must be some truths about morality that can be scientifically verified. Harris maintains that a more detailed understanding of these truths would greatly improve the quality of human life.

For example, he asks whether corporal punishment of children, female genital mutilation and honor killings* are beneficial to human well being. There must be an answer to these questions (which can be established by research), even if we don’t know, at present, what it is.

The book is highly critical of the “cultural relativism” advocated by secular liberals and many US scientists when they insist there are no objective answers to the moral questions Harris poses. He believes this attitude leaves secular societies at the mercy of fundamentalist religion. Harris (an avowed atheist) also argues that obedience to God creates a morality that is more concerned with a theoretical afterlife than human well being in this lifetime.

The development of a science-based morality would have to weigh the ultimate well being of the individual vs the general well being of the society. It would also be open to controversy and dissenting viewpoints, like all scientific disciplines.

Harris’s chapter on religion describes how Freud, Marx and other prominent nineteenth century intellectuals believed the world religions would disappear with the scientific advances that enabled the industrial revolution. With the exception of the US, their predictions proved correct: most developed societies are predominantly secular.

At present most societies become more secular as they become more prosperous stable and democratic (in New Zealand, only 10% of the population attends church). Moreover the least religious countries (Scandinavia and the Netherlands) have the best societal health. Research shows that loneliness, helplessness and poverty are poorly conducive to happiness and moral behavior.

At present fundamentalism is limited to the US and developing countries. Harris believes that high levels of inequality have caused America to take a different path than other developed countries. Extreme poverty in many areas of the US is linked to low levels of educational achievement, superstitiousness, excessive religiosity and racism.

* Honor killings are acts of vengeance, usually death, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family.