P2 – A Review and Critique of Sam Harris’ book: “The Moral Landscape”

Introduction and Review:

In our last post we began a blog series that sets out to evaluate and critique Atheist’s Sam Harris’ book – “The Moral Landscape”. The link for that prior post is found at: https://biblicalexegete.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/p1-a-review-and-critique-of-sam-harris-book-the-moral-landscape/

We noted that one of the flaws in his overall argument concerns circular reasoning. Harris contends that he believes there to be such things as objective moral values and duties that are standards by which people of all cultures live by and govern themselves. Such objective moral values and duties are not the result of God’s existence, but rather lie in human well-being.

Hence, how people across the world flourish in their lives represents what he calls an “overall moral landscape”, located within the collective human experience. To demonstrate his book’s thesis, Harris uses human well-being to prove that human well-being is the way in which we establish standards of right and wrong, good and bad. This fatal flaw is circular and thus provides the reader with the first major weakness in the book.

Today’s post continues our review and evaluation of Dr. Sam Harris’ project. Does his system escape the moral relativism which he himself decries? Moral relativism asserts that there are no objective moral values and duties independent of what I think or what you think. Instead, moral relativists assert that each individual, or culture, determines what moral values and duties to live by and what obligations people have to one another. In today’s post, the aim will be to show why Harris fails to escape moral relativism and why he is unreasonable in dismissing God’s existence as the reason for why there are objective moral values and duties in our world.

1. The inability to escape moral relativism.

Harris’ insistence on the reality of “objective moral values and duties” as rooted in human flourishing and social activities among conscious creatures is sounded through his book. However, does his construct of a “moral landscape” truly escape the moral relativism he so strenuously opposes? If indeed objective moral values and duties exists as a result of combined activities among conscious intelligent creatures, then what about the time prior to the emergence of such beings?

Harris speaks for example on page 83 of “the architecture of my mind and about the social architecture of our world.” If objective moral values and duties are discoverable by science and reason in the human brains of people, then how is this any different than the typical individual or sociological moral relativism that touts “what is good for me differs from what’s good for you”?

Relativism in its varying forms denies the existence of objective moral values and duties outside and apart from individuals and cultures. It seems that asserting all of humanity’s combined peaks and valleys of differing levels of human flourishing does nothing to demonstrate whether such values exist apart from human beings. All the “moral landscape” achieves is locating such values within the human species, but not outside of it nor apart from it. It seems then that on Harris’ view, moral values and duties are really “human moral values and duties” that are not independent of the human species. Henceforth the “Moral Landscape” championed by Harris does not escape the trap of moral relativism.

2. Unreasonable Dismissal of God and religion as the proper grounding for objective morality.

Anyone who has read Harris’ work knows his militant stance against religion. What is clear in “the moral landscape” is how he persistently rejects God as the ground of moral values as a valid option on emotional grounds rather than reasonable grounds. Three brief examples will illustrate this observation.

First, Harris’ view of determining what is ethical is based upon noting which course of action will produce the best overall consequences for all concerned. Such a theory (called consequentialism) is the only theory mentioned by Harris in his book for defining how one decides the best moral course of action. Other ethical theories such a virtue ethics (morality and ethics are known through human virtues) are never discussed by Harris. Harris’ persistent emotionally-loaded dismissals of Divine-command theory (the theory that God is the proper ground of morality) results in the infamous “either-or” fallacy. Such a fallacy occurs when one asserts there are only two choices to choose or reject, knowing full-well that there are really three or more. This observation alone unveils Harris’ basis for rejecting the Divine basis for morality as rooted more in his emotional disdain for theism, rather than a valid set of reasons.

Second, Harris admits that there are situations where the perceived consequences of what is deemed “good for everyone” may prove inconsistent in the real world, since often-times what is done in the best interest of all ends up hurting many people. Harris’ concedes on page 82: “These failures of ethical consistency are often considered a strike against consequentialism. They shouldn’t be. Who ever said that being truly good, or even ethically consistent, must be easy?”  Harris’ commitment to consequentialism is tightly embraced, despite his admission to its inconsistent application.

However, whenever he rails against religion, he will cite the “inconsistencies” of devotees in their application of religion as reason for its dismissal. As a typical two-fold tactic of the New Atheists, Harris first asserts that religion (and more specifically Christian theism) is an immoral and irrational basis for reason. He at one point notes on page 157: “The boundary between mental-illness and respectable religious belief can be difficult to discern.” Then Harris follows up his quote by citing a grisly case where two Christian parents refused to administer medical treatment to their son on religious grounds. As a consequence of their choice, the parents carried the boy’s corpse around in a suit-case. Again, such dismissal of Theism as a proper grounding for morality is not rooted in reason but rather Harris’ disdain for religion in general.

Then thirdly, Harris’ assertion that religion can never be a valid option for grounding moral values and duties with respect to science is argued in his case-study of famous geneticist Dr. Francis Collins. Harris notes on page 160: “What can be shown by example is how poorly religious scientists manage to reconcile reason and faith when they actually attempt to do so.” Harris mounts a verbal assault for 15 pages on Collins’ apparent unreasonableness in basing his public work as a scientist upon his Christian faith. What Harris thinks to be a slam dunk demonstration of his point turns out to be the weakest part of the whole book! If anything, Francis Collins’ reputation as a scientist is not the result of his subscription to atheism, but rather to theism! As we can clearly see – Sam Harris’ assertion that religion is not a reasonable basis for morality is just that – an assertion.


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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