Saturday, September 01, 2018

Critique of "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris was published in 2010, but continues to enjoy steady sales. For hundreds of thousands of Sam’s followers, the book and the YouTube and podcast episodes that supplement its arguments might be their only exposure to moral philosophy. Sam’s views as expressed in the work do not appear to have changed. Therefore a critical review even so long after initial publication is I think justified.

In The Moral Landscape, Sam argues that what is moral is that which elevates “the well-being of conscious creatures”. He rejects any religious basis for morality, and argues that just as with any truth, moral truth can only be validated by science. Science can tell us what serves the well-being of conscious creatures; religion cannot.

I am a fan of Sam’s work, and I support his podcast financially through a small monthly donation. While I agree that moral truth can only be validated by science, and I think Sam is on the right track on many points, in this post I will try to show where I think Sam gets it wrong about morality, and will argue for a more robust approach.

There are several distinct shortfalls in Sam’s approach and I will go through them one by one.

Why “conscious creatures”? 

In the book, Sam certainly refers to a lot of science, especially brain science related to brain states. But he fails to provide hard evidence for his contention that the well-being of conscious creatures is the proper yardstick of morality. Indeed, he seems to believe evidence is unnecessary – logic and reason alone can tell you that only conscious creatures experience suffering, and that whatever reduces suffering is good, and whatever increases it is bad.

But science requires more than logic and reason – it requires evidence. Here Sam seems to miss the irony that his principal critique of religion itself is that it fails to provide adequate evidence for its claims, and instead relies on faulty logic. (For example, “Someone must have created the universe, therefore there MUST be a God.”)

Whether a logical argument is cogent depends on the validity of its premises. “Someone must have created the universe” is an invalid premise of a standard religious argument, since the universe could very well have evolved on its own without any external help, and most probably did. Does Sam’s logic in the Moral Landscape hold up? Let’s go through his premises and see.

Sam’s first premise:
“I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” - p. 32
Let me immediately in response suggest a domain of value that is unconscious: instinct. Surely survival is a value of all living things, living things instinctively value survival, and surely all living things engage in instinctual behaviours – taking nourishment, avoiding danger, resting, you name it – that serve the value of survival but are completely unconscious. These values exist below the plane of what Sam considers to be “consciousness”.

Furthermore, living creatures that for Sam would not qualify as “conscious” (but do for me – more on this later) exhibit similar instinctual values. Even single-celled organisms seem to find it of value to seek out nutrients and avoid danger.

That there are values which are unconscious and embedded in the hardware of all living species – that we have instinctual values – suggests that these values are grounded in something greater than the well-being of the individual who carries them. Instincts do not always serve the well-being of the individual, but they can always be traced back to a higher value, which is the survival and flourishing of the species – or more precisely the survival and flourishing of the genetic code of the species.

That such instincts have evolved suggest that they are rooted in the natural world. We know that the physical world is subject to constant motion and entropy, which in the short or long term destroys any individual entity. However, nature has developed a method for overcoming this destruction, through the evolution of genetic material, especially DNA. What has overcome entropy and the inevitable destruction of the individual is the genetic code that outlasts the individual. The unconscious molecule called DNA is motivated by an evolved value system: adapt and survive or perish and go extinct.

DNA is a molecule. It is not conscious, and it is not even alive. This is evidence to suggest that consciousness is not the sole domain of value, and value is not solely the property of conscious creatures, but rather that value inhabits every corner of the broader physical world. DNA evolved from the natural world because whatever survives has the value of survival baked in. And from the point of view of DNA, the well-being of conscious creatures is of value only insofar as it advances the survival of the genetic code of which they are only the temporary vehicle.

Why “well-being”? 

Sam’s second premise:
“I have argued that values only exist relative to actual and potential changes in the well-being of conscious creatures.” - p. 38
“…the concept of “well-being” captures all that we can intelligibly value.” - p. 32
Certainly human beings value well-being. Whether this is “all we can intelligibly value” is questionable. Doesn’t humanity have deeper values?

It is said that for a carpenter, all problems are nails and all solutions involve a hammer. Sam the neurologist spends rather a lot of time in the book discussing brain states and how to influence them. Brain states, however, fall into the category of “subjective experiences”. While Sam does not precisely define “well-being”, frequent references to brain states, happiness, health, and reduction of misery make plain that his emphasis is on the subjective experience – specifically the brain-state known as “well-being” – of conscious individuals. In other words, Sam’s emphasis – not his only interest but certainly his emphasis – is not on the well-being of societies or species, but of individuals within them. In this respect he seems very American.

Unfortunately, subjective experiences are notoriously fickle, difficult to measure, and hard to maintain at a steady state. Individual feelings of well-being go up and down like a yo-yo from day to day and from hour to hour. The sense of well-being of the German people, for example, is very different before a World Cup football match in which the German team has a chance of winning, than it is after the match when the team has been eliminated. And yet in a day or two and with a beer or two Germans tend to recover their equilibrium.

And equilibrium is important, because studies show that individual people have a natural equilibrium of happiness that goes up or down around a fairly constant reference point. People can be driven into misery by extreme poverty, poor health, violence, various forms of abuse, etc., and rescuing them from this kind of pain and deep misery is certainly the moral thing to do, and can elevate their feelings of well-being in a lasting way. But formal studies of lottery winners and informal studies of fans of World Cup contenders show that normal healthy folks don’t stay in a state of elevated well-being or deep depression for very long before reverting to the mean.

Furthermore, we can certainly value the brain state and subjective feeling known as “discontent”. Discontent is what drives human progress, not just at the societal level but also at the level of the individual. People’s lives usually follow a kind of ladder progression, in which they are discontented about their life circumstances, take actions to improve them, achieve some happiness in the effort, succeed wholly or partly, then after a short while become discontented again, and repeat the cycle.

Discontent on the part of whole segments of society has led to civil rights for working people, women, racial minorities, LGBTQ people, and other minorities. Discontent has led people to overthrow dictatorships and change laws and governments, expel invaders and colonial powers, and fight corruption and social injustice of every kind. Discontent is a positive human value!
“The human condition is such that pain and effort are not just symptoms which can be removed without changing life itself; they are the modes in which life itself, together with the necessity to which it is bound, makes itself felt. For mortals, the ‘easy life of the Gods’ would be a lifeless life. - Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958, Ch. 16 
And anyway, as someone as familiar with Buddhism as Sam knows, life is suffering. No one escapes misery and sorrow, and the mortality rate is running at a steady 100%. We should, of course, do our best to relieve suffering, but our ability to relieve the pain or improve the well-being of individual conscious creatures has real limits.

If morality consisted in the main of raising the subjective feelings of well-being of conscious creatures, when would it ever be moral to go to war? To kill in self-defense? To kill and eat animals? If plants are conscious (and many scientists believe they are), to kill and eat plants? To have a beloved pet put down? To send people to jail? Why even get up in the morning and go to work at a miserable job? Making any sort of rational cost/benefit calculation on such difficult issues using “the well-being of conscious creatures” as your moral compass takes you down an increasingly labyrinthine rabbit hole. There are better navigational instruments ahead…

Heaven and Hell 

Sam presents a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which human beings suffer total misery and torture for all eternity. This world is bad by any definition of the word bad. Then imagine a world in which human well-being is maximized. This world is surely good. The Moral Landscape of the book’s title is the contrast between the peaks of well-being and the valleys and ravines of misery and suffering. That which is morally good is therefore that which can move us further from the bad places up the mountain and nearer to the good places.

I witnessed Jordan Peterson at a live debate in Vancouver catch Sam Harris in a “gotcha” moment. He said, and here I paraphrase, “Sam you are a renowned atheist, and you argue that religion has nothing to teach us about morality. And yet you wrote a book about heaven and hell, didn’t you? And in the book you said the moral thing to do is to move away from the hell place and toward the heaven place, isn’t that right?” Jordan’s point was simply that Sam may have thought his view of morality was newborn strictly from the labour of his own intellect, but the monotheistic religions got there before him, and in the end Sam’s theory is very much a product of the culture he was raised in.

Which of course does not make his theory wholly wrong. No one can disagree, says Sam, that an existence of torment for all eternity is a “bad” experience. Surely it is morally “good” to do what we can to bring any who suffer to a “better” place, a place further along the continuum in the direction of well-being. But the moment one enters the world of what is “good” and “bad” or “better” or “worse” for people, one is once again within the realm of subjective experience, and there lie horned devils and demons brandishing tridents waiting to pounce on theories purporting to be scientific.

Here’s one problem: good or bad for what? Every truth has an objective it seeks to address. If something is true, it is true only for that objective. If something is said to be “good” or “bad”, we must ask, “What exactly is it good for? What exactly is it bad for?”

We can say that an existence of eternal torment is bad if the objective is an existence of happiness and pleasure – except that for the Masochist torment is happiness and pleasure. There are plenty of Christians and Muslims who believe in a literal hell and consider it a “good” thing that God consigns all sinners to the flames therein. So if your objective is to punish sinners it is good that God has created a hell. And the road to hell is paved with subjective intentions…

The whole good vs. bad, peaks and valleys of the moral landscape argument kinda makes sense, as long as Sam is able to misdirect our attention towards the eternal lake of fire at the bottom of the ravine. Of course we want to help people out of burning misery and towards greater well-being. But the peaks and valleys are the exceptions in human experience. What about the vast level plain in the middle? Here it is much more difficult to decide what constitutes well-being for an individual with their own personal agency and their own subjective views, goals, and objectives, all of which are for the most part inaccessible to the observer looking for a moral compass.

People have an amazing capacity for acting in ways that are detrimental to their own best interests. They will clamour for war, fall into step behind dictators, vote to repeal their own civil rights, rack up unmanageable gambling debts, eat themselves into obesity, become addicted to various drugs, inflict harm on their loved ones, you name it, all in the service of feelings of well-being. Are we to assist them in their efforts on the principle that the moral act is to help them as conscious creatures elevate their sense of well-being?

A further point. It is often the case that causing harm to some will increase feelings of well-being of others, often of large populations. There are places on earth today where discriminating against, jailing, deporting, and even killing ethnic or racial or gender minorities would result in an elevation of feelings of well-being of the majority. It is also common for one nation or “tribe” to wish for and be gratified by harm and diminished well-being experienced by another nation or “tribe” that serves as the enemy of the moment.

So which is it? Do we take their subjective feelings seriously, or are we in our wisdom to tell them they are wrong about what increases their feelings of well-being, and make smarter decisions for them? And how does it come about that we are the ones to know better?

It’s all subjective, because “the well-being of conscious creatures” has no objective anchor. What objective grounds or evidence does Sam offer for choosing the well-being of one tribe over another? Surely it cannot be the principle of “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people”, which was debunked in its utilitarian formulation. Surely it is nothing so unworkable as an objectively measurable brain state.

I believe there is an objective anchor for morality. Sam is looking in some of the right places, but is not quite able to put his finger on it, and I think the reason might be related to Sam’s understanding of the theory of evolution. Let’s take a look.


Is morality rooted in culture or evolution? For Sam Harris, culture has parted ways with evolution long ago – and this departure marks the birth of morality proper, which he describes as “a recent invention”.

He argues, for example, that behaviours that have evolved from our savage past, such as the urge to kill rivals, must be overcome in a civilized world if we are to live moral lives and maximize well-being. Morality therefore cannot possibly be derived strictly from what has been hammered into us throughout our ape past by evolution.
“Much of what constitutes human well-being at this moment escapes any narrow Darwinian calculus.”- p. 13
Quite true – but Harris is working from a false premise, namely that the function of morality is to increase human well-being. (It isn’t - more on this later...) He concludes therefore that evolution can’t offer guidance on issues of morality. (It can – more on this later...)

So what then is “the Darwinian calculus”?
“As the psychologist Steven Pinker has observed, if conforming to the dictates of evolution were the foundation of subjective well-being, most men would discover no higher calling in life that to make daily contributions to their local sperm bank. After all, from the perspective of a man’s genes, there could be nothing more fulfilling than spawning thousands of children without incurring any associated costs of responsibilities.” - p. 13
This is not quite what Steven Pinker says; he does not mention subjective well-being at all, and in a discussion of the imperative of the selfish gene, he points out that:
“None of this means that people literally strive to replicate their genes. If that’s how the mind worked, men would line up outside sperm banks and women would pay to have their eggs harvested and given away to infertile couples.”(Pinker 2002 p. 53-54) 
Harris is suggesting that the dictates of genetics would impel the individual to engage in mindless reproduction. But Pinker is saying, no, actually this is not how evolution works, and to think so is simplistic.

Harris appears to believe that if we behave differently from what he assumes are the dictates of evolution, it is because culture has taken over from evolution as the primary driver of moral progress. But does he really believe that evolution has designed men to find “spawning thousands of children” without taking responsibility for them fulfilling? Are a man’s fatherly love and a desire to love and care for the mother of his children a product purely of culture and not a product of evolution? Human children take a very long time to mature, and mothers who care for their children require resources and protection. Women have by nature been reluctant to have children with men who are not inclined to stick around and help to care for them, and children without a father around often do poorly. There are no human cultures on record in which it is common for men to father more than a handful of children, even if there are a tiny number of Sultans and Khans and Mormons in the historical record who had resources enough to have done so.

Evolution does not do its work at the level of the individual, because it is the species that carries the genetic material. The prime directive of the evolutionary process is not mindless reproduction of the individual, but the survival and flourishing of the species. Mother Nature develops a wide range of strategies that enable a species to adapt, survive, reproduce, and flourish. Many insect and fish species lay thousands of eggs and care for them little or not at all, but among mammals, mass reproduction as a strategy for propagating the species is rare and family bonding is typical. What imaginary dictate of evolution is Harris referring to?

This is not a minor point in Sam’s overall argument, because it is a part of Sam’s dismissal of evolutionary imperatives as the grounding of morality. But in this dismissal he has abandoned any objectively real and actual anchor for morality and chosen instead to make one up, based on a quite laudable desire to relieve suffering. In this effort he is very much a soldier of the Judeo-Christian culture he was raised in.

Of course morality is culture, but cultural evolution is an extension of biological evolution, NOT a departure from it. The body is the hardware, instinct is the firmware, culture is the software – but they are inseparable, and they evolve inseparably. Culture is the means by which we accomplish the goal of evolution, which is to flourish as a species.

The moral imperative is to flourish 

Two and a half thousand years ago, Aristotle suggested that the purpose of life was “eudaimonia”, which early translators rendered as “happiness”, but which more recent scholarship has determined had a meaning for Aristotle closer to the English word “flourishing”. To flourish is to thrive and do well in a suitable environment. The term can apply to individuals as well as to species, societies, or groups.

I agree with Harris that only science can uncover the foundations of moral behaviour. But what science tells us is that there is no living species which has as its species-goal the well-being of the individual, still less the well-being of other conscious creatures. However, every living species, without exception, has as its goal to flourish. Evolution has given us the objective anchor of morality; what is right, moral, ethical, and just is that which serves the flourishing of the species; what is wrong, immoral, and unjust is that which hinders it. It is the role of culture not to depart from the dictates of nature but to actualize nature’s prime imperative.

Harris states: “The science of human flourishing may be a long way off…” Actually, it’s not. Here are some objective criteria by which science can measure and improve human flourishing:

  • Access to clean water and healthy diet 
  • Access to health care 
  • Adequate housing 
  • Average lifespan in good health 
  • Average birthweight 
  • Rate of infant mortality 
  • Rate of violent crime 
  • Level of poverty 
  • Good economy 
  • Political stability 
  • Equality of opportunity 
  • Research and development activity 
  • Infrastructure health 
  • Rule of law 
  • Level of corruption 
  • Freedom of speech 
  • Healthy environment 
  • Rate of employment 
  • Education levels 
  • Social mobility 
  • Income inequality 
  • Civil rights and legal protection of minorities
  • etc. 

All these criteria and a thousand more are useful measures of societal health and social progress. Nations today that measure criteria of societal health and consciously intervene to improve them are most likely to flourish.

The above are NOT criteria for measuring the well-being of individuals. However, societies that score well on these criteria also score well on surveys of general well-being. It tends to be the case that attending to the well-being of societies serves also to improve the subjective feelings of well-being of members of that society. To improve the well-being of individuals, work the levers of social progress.

Societies that score well on the above criteria tend also to score well on measures of personal and interpersonal well-being:

  • Trust 
  • Tolerance 
  • Inclusivity 
  • Life satisfaction 
  • Security 
  • Work-life balance 
  • Civic engagement 

As I have argued above, measuring the subjective well-being of individuals is problematic and can yield unreliable results. However, one can survey a large population to gain at least a statistically significant snapshot of the state of well-being of a people. It appears from existing global surveys of well-being that the better a society is at taking care of social needs, the better the average subjective feelings of well-being of its population. This shows, I think, that well-being is not the goal of morality; it’s a side-effect. The goal is to flourish.

The Dictates of Evolution 

Of course, some of our baser instincts drive us to immoral behaviour. These instincts evolved to serve the survival of the individual, and the selfish interests of the individual often clash with the interests of society, and indeed with the long-term interests of the species. However, without the survival of individuals, there would be no species. This tension is at the heart of politics, as can been seen most clearly today in the polarisation of American politics under the narcissist president Trump and the glorification of self-seeking behaviour and dismissal of the common good that is the core of Republican ideology.

Morality evolved to reconcile the interests of the individual with that of the collective. We create the rules of traffic, which include things like driving on only one side of the road, stopping at red lights, stopping for pedestrians, and so on. We recognize these rules to be for the common good. It is in everyone’s best interests to obey them. If you do, you will get where you’re going; if you don’t, you will suffer, and others with suffer with you. In the same way we create the rules of morality to accommodate the needs of the individual while allowing society to flourish.

These rules are not pulled out of thin air. They are created to serve the flourishing of human society, and ultimately of humanity itself. The smooth flow of traffic serves a functioning economy and efficiency of business and social interactions, and societies in which citizens respect the rules of traffic, and indeed all laws that serve the common good, are societies that flourish. The rules of traffic were not created purely with your personal subjective feelings of well-being in mind; your well-being is a happy side-effect. Similarly, the rules of morality evolved to serve the common good; because the common good is typically also your personal good, your well-being is a happy side-effect.

All species have the same objective and the same evolutionary imperative: Persist or perish, flourish or fail, adapt and survive and send the genetic code for successful adaptation and survival into the future. It’s not about your personal well-being, which is fleeting. It’s about the flourishing of humanity. We are runners, passing the torch to future generations. We are not the torch itself.

What do human beings actually consider to be moral?

Human societies throughout history have found an astonishing range of behaviours to be “moral”. Some cultures pray once a day, some five times a day, some give small offerings of food to the Gods, some have engaged in ritual human sacrifice. Some societies find it honorable to kill a woman for sexual conduct, to castrate her as a child, to bind her feet, to cover her up head to toe, to burn her alive as a widow, to kill her as an elderly burden. Some cultures eat pork, some do not, some have engaged in cannibalism, some only ate the brains of dead relatives. Some believe in strict monogamy, some in bigamy, some in polyamory, some in polygamy, and some allowed a woman to choose as many men as she liked to father her children. Some engage in genocide, some in suicide bombing, some cultures take care never to harm a single insect.

No wonder many anthropologists who first documented the endless contradictory variations threw up their hands and told the world they could never define what was moral and what was not. Morality was always relative to the culture it was practiced within. Thus was born the theory of moral relativism.

But is there in all the varieties of morality at bottom anything in common, anything tying all the strands together? To find out, we need to return to Darwinism and the theory of evolution.

Question any person about why they consider this or that behaviour to be moral, really probe until you reach the foundation of their belief, and they will tell you they and the culture they are a part of engage in these behaviours because they genuinely believe that they serve the flourishing of the cultures of which they are a part. Ask any libertarian, any leftist, any suicide bomber, any religious fanatic, any vegan, any Nazi, ask anyone why any behaviour can be considered moral, and they will tell you it is moral because it is ultimately in the service of the common good.

Of course, they may be wrong about this. Nevertheless, they believe they are right. And this is the key. Because morality is that which people believe serves the flourishing of their culture and their society, and ultimately serves the best long-term interests of humanity and the planet we live on.

Societies search for and evolve rules of behaviour that seem to help them to flourish. They do this in answer to the call of the evolutionary prime imperative: adapt, survive, and flourish, or perish in the attempt. Just as genetic variation seeks a successful strategy for the flourishing of a species, so cultural variation seeks a successful strategy for the flourishing of a culture. And just as in DNA, diversity is strength.

The role of science in morality

And just as with species, cultural practices that do not serve human flourishing eventually go extinct. No one sacrifices virgins to volcanoes anymore. No one binds ladies’ feet, no one throws widows onto funeral pyres, and no one eats the brains of their deceased parents, which medical science has learned causes Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). Of course, many harmful cultural practices continue, but are in retreat across the globe. Because, simply put, they do not work. They do not help society to flourish. Therefore they come to be seen as wrong, harmful, and immoral.

Here is where science serves morality. Does a specific behaviour help or hinder societal flourishing? A scientific study of the data can let us know. Do societies that oppress women do better than societies in which women have a measure of personal freedom? Do societies in which the rule of law is respected do better than those in which it is not? Do societies in which science is valued do better than societies in which it is suppressed? Look at the evidence to see.

The role of science is to tell us what works and what does not. The role of morality is to serve human flourishing. Science can tell us which behaviours are moral and which are not by proving which behaviours serve humanity and the common good and which do not.


Harris’s concern for the subjective feelings of conscious creatures is praiseworthy but does not explain morality.

No living species has as its goal the “well-being of conscious creatures”. Every living species, including humanity, has as its goal to flourish.

Morality is a set of rules invented by people to help their communities, their cultures, and their societies to flourish.

That which serves humanity and the common good is moral; that which does not is immoral.

Science can tell us what serves human flourishing and what does not.

Therefore science can tell us what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, what is moral and what is not.

One final question!

In this post I have argued that what people believe to be moral they believe to be for the good of humanity. Can you think of any exception to this? If you can, I'd love to hear about it! Please leave a comment below!

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