P1 A Review and Critique of Sam Harris’ book: “The Moral Landscape”


Today’s post begins a series of posts designed to review and critique Sam Harris’ book “The Moral Landscape”. Some may wonder what a post  critiquing a premier atheistic thinker is doing on a site dedicated to the exegesis and study of the Bible in its original languages? The goal of this site is to of course introduce readers to a deeper study of the Bible. With that said, our exegesis and interpretation of scripture is not complete until we have applied our findings to real life and cultural engagement with those who have not yet embraced Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord and Treasure.

The main point of this blog-series

Dr. Sam Harris is a UCLA trained neuro-biologist who has garnered public recognition for being a leading voice in the so-called “New Atheist” movement. Over the past decade, Dr. Harris has authored such books as “A Letter to a Christian Nation” and “The End of Faith” to promote his secularist vision for culture and America. Although his book “The Moral Landscape” came out a few years ago, Sam Harris’ unrelenting crusade to promote militant atheism and to undermine the historic Christian faith has wielded major influence through North American Western culture. One of his most recent books: “Waking Up – A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” (published in 2014), is predicated on much of what is argued in the focal book of this review and critique: “The Moral Landscape”. This review and blog series will proceed in the following three-fold manner:

1. To understand Sam Harris’ main thesis or argument in his book “The Moral Landscape”

2. Offer critiques of the major arguments in the book

3. End the series with an alternative proposal that demonstrates how objective moral values and duties can only exist due to the existence of the God of the Bible.

The main thesis of Sam Harris’ book: “Moral Landscape”

The main thesis of Sam Harris’ book “Moral Landscape” is spelled out in the opening pages of the 308 page work. He writes on page 1: “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, therefore, 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 neuro-physiology of happiness and suffering, etc.” How Harris draws out this core idea will prove to be controversial, a point that he divulges on page 2: “Of course, we will have to confront some ancient disagreements about the status of moral truth: people who draw their worldview from religion generally believe that moral truth exists, but only because God has woven it into the very fabric of reality; while those who lack such faith tend to think that notions of “good” and “evil” must be products of evolutionary pressure and cultural invention.”

In Harris’ estimation, the first alternative of explaining the reality of moral values and duties as being due to the reality and existence of God is unacceptable. Without batting an eye, Harris then rejects the second alternative offered by many of his fellow atheists and naturalists that moral values and duties are depended upon society or the individual.

For Harris, his book is a project aimed at offering a third alternative that touts moral values and duties as being “objective” (that is, the same everywhere, for all people, at all times) and with such grounded in the well-being of human beings. In order to tie together what he will be arguing, Harris offers what he calls “The Moral Landscape”. He writes on page 7: “Throughout the book I 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.”

Thus we have the central thesis and main argument of the book. For the remainder of this review, I will first note for fairness sake a valid point raised by Harris, followed by by observations and critiques concerning the flaws in his overall presentation. At the end of this blog series, we will conclude with some final remarks and a proposed alternative to Harris’ “Moral Landscape”.

Some brief comments on a valid point raised by Sam Harris in “The Moral Landscape”

To be as objective as possible, any review of any book ought to include a brief section where the reviewer finds a point of agreement with the author in question. Dr. Harris brings out some points that prove fascinating to ponder and with which do provide common ground for engagement. Although this reviewer may not agree with how Harris arrives at his rejection of moral relativism (namely – his assertion that scientific ‘facts’ and science itself are able to discover and deliver proper grounds for establishing moral values and duties”), nonetheless, Harris’ criticism of moral relativism is agreed upon by this reviewer. Harris notes for example on page 45: “Given how deeply disposed we are to make universal moral claims, I think one can reasonably doubt whether any consistent moral relativist has ever existed.” 

Critical Weaknesses in Sam Harris’ book: “Moral Landscape”

To review, the central thesis of Sam Harris’ book revolves around the idea of establishing the reality of objective moral values and duties in the well-being of human beings. For Harris, what counts as “good” is the condition of maximized human well-being. The opposite value of “badness” is portrayed by Harris as situations where human being’s well-being is compromised or jeopardized.

As a way of visualizing his key concept, Harris uses the metaphor of a “moral landscape” with peaks and valleys of human well-being as representing objective morality. Such objective moral values and duties are claimed by Harris as having their root and discovery in the activities of science and reason. For Harris, science and reason are the proper grounds for maintaining and defining such values as they exist within the human global community.

The philosophical underpinnings of Harris’ book coupled with his mis-characterizations of Christian-Theism occupy the general weaknesses of the book. Below are a list of specific weaknesses that this reviewer finds plaguing Sam Harris’ “Moral Landscape”. Today we will deal with the first specific weakness:

1. Circular reasoning. Harris’ central thesis argues that human well-being is demonstrated as the highest good by “human well-being”. Harris repeatedly asserts this as the one thing worth valuing and using as a measuring rod for determining “the good”. The problem is that using “human well-being” to prove that “human well-being” is the standard of goodness is an exercise in circular reasoning.

Christian philosopher and theologian Dr. William Lane Craig sees this weakness in Harris’ book: “So to ask, “Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is on his definition the same as asking, “Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures’ well-being?” It is simply a tautology — talking in a circle. Thus, Harris has “solved” his problem simply by redefining his terms. It is mere word play. At the end of the day Harris is not really talking about moralvalues. He is just talking about what’s conducive to the flourishing of sentient life on this planet.” Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/navigating-sam-harris-the-moral-landscape#ixzz3yVBsW3DK

More next time….


About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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