The Moral Landscape is atheist polemicist Sam Harris’ attempt to explicate an objective moral framework that is consistent with atheism and grounded upon science. A summary of this framework could be stated as: (1) Some people experience greater degrees of well-being than others. (2) These experiences are related to states of their brains and states of the world around them. (3) Science can help us to ascertain how to raise levels of well-being in an objective fashion. (4) Maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures is the only thing we could conceivably value, or call morality.
Points (1)-(3) seem to be quite true. It’s (4) that is the sticking point. Harris’ issue here is that his view of morality amounts to a “just-so” story. He claims that maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures is “the only thing we can reasonably value.” But why? Because he can’t give a good explanation why the well-being of conscious creatures is so important that it ought to be valued by all (other than that it tends to be valued by most), it is essentially a useful fiction. Harris begins with a presupposition that he can’t support (morality just is the well-being of conscious creatures), and then calls his position objective simply because there is a systematic way of going about reaching his presupposed goal.
In other words, when Harris calls his moral framework objective, he is committing a category error. The two categories he confounds are “how do we get to A?” and “are we obligated to value A?” When someone asks if morality is objective, they are really only concerned with the second category. Harris claims to have an objective moral framework, but he isn’t answering the question he’s purporting to answer. At times, he seems to acknowledge this, but he doesn’t seem to be very troubled by it. As Harris writes later in his book, “science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science” (p. 37). Sure. Of course. But you can’t simply assume that we should value health. Is it a transcendent truth that we are morally obligated to value health? Can we arrive at that position objectively if our starting presupposition is materialism? No. Neither science nor reason require it. But once we have reached such a position (that we ought to value health), both science and reason can be incredibly useful. Harris spends the majority of his book confusing these categories and arguing that if there is an objective way to get from A to B, that means we have an objective reason to go to B in the first place.
For a moral system to be called objective, it must provide “oughts.” These are not the oughts of practicality, but of obligation. If we are, as Harris believes, creatures which have as our primary biological objective survival and the passing on of our genes, why should the value of other humans matter? If we grant to Harris that no one could ever be more satisfied harming others than working with them, then his system has some practical merit. But why should we? Harris himself acknowledges that there are psychopaths and sociopaths who these kinds of concerns wouldn’t apply to. His solution is to, not surprisingly, point out that they don’t share his presuppositions, so they are doing evil. However, since he gives us no reason to accept his presuppositions, this isn’t a very persuasive argument. Furthermore, obligations, which are fundamental to morality, imply that one can make choices. Since Harris flatly denies free will, this further disqualifies his position.
While Harris’ view could provide some areas of moral agreement among atheists and all types of theists alike, there is one major place where Harris’ moral framework seriously self destructs. It is in fact Harris who stumbles onto this fact, though he seems to, like a moral Mr. Magoo, step right over this gargantuan evidence against his claim without ever noticing:
“Rather often, a belief in souls leaves people indifferent to the suffering of creatures thought not to possess them. There are many species of animals that can suffer in ways that three-day-old human embryos cannot… Concern over human embryos smaller than the period at the end of this sentence—when, for years they have constituted one of the most promising contexts for medical research—is one of the many delusional products of religion that has led to an ethical blind alley, and to terrible failures of compassion” (p. 171).
Set aside the debate over the efficacy of embryonic vs. adult stem cells in medical research for the moment. What is Harris’ criteria for determining what has value? Its ability to experience suffering or happiness, of course! As a result, he very consistently notes that a three day old embryo cannot be of much value, particularly when contrasted with grown animals. This is precisely the argument of ethicist and animal rights advocate Peter Singer, but he applies it far more consistently: It is not just the three day old embryo that lacks “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness” (Singer’s criteria for what makes a human being valuable, which is similar to Harris’ criteria– i.e. “the experience of conscious beings”). It is also the three day old newborn.
The newborn human baby can only be deserving of (at least) equal protection to adults or even full-grown non-human animals if human beings are, in and of themselves, valuable. Because Harris places value not on what someone is inherently, but only on how they are able to value their experiences, he cannot defend the value of the most defenseless of human beings.
Because Harris’ moral theory, though quite often helpful and practical, is not on a solid foundation, there are reverberations of this which demonstrate its inadequacy.