Quotes from Sam Harris’ “Moral Landscape”

MAJOR THEMES:

  • SCIENCE
  • MORAL RELATIVISM
  • CONSEQUENTIALISM

MORALITY
“Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it couldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are. There couldn’t be a science of the human condition” (Harris 11).

“First, I want to be very clear about my general thesis: I am not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor am I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. . . . Rather I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want — and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible” (Harris 28).

“My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind” (28).

“Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn” (29).

“Clearly we can make true or false claims about human (and animal) subjectivity, and we can often evaluate these claims without having access to the facts in question. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do. And yet many scientists will say that moral truths do not exist, simply because certain facts about human experience cannot be readily known, or may never be known. As I hope to show, this misunderstanding has created tremendous confusion about the relationship between human knowledge and human values” (31).

“[My] claim that consciousness is the basis of human values and morality is not an arbitrary starting point” (32).

“Moral relativism, however, tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework — but this claim about that status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice, relativism almost always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward as simply one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. Rather, tolerance is held to be more in line with the (universal) truth about morality than intolerance is. The contradiction here is unsurprising. Give how deeply disposed we are to make universal moral claims, I think one can reasonably doubt whether any consistent moral relativist has ever existed” (45).

“Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of Western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism. This is, I think, the only charitable thing to be sad about it” (45).

“While each of us is selfish, we are not merely so. Our own happiness requires that we extend the circle of our self-interest to others — to family, friends, and even to perfect strangers whose pleasures and pains matter to us. . . . even Adam Smith recognised that each of us cares deeply about the happiness of others. He also recognized, however that our ability to care about others has its limits are themselves the object of our personal and collective concern” (57).

“The truth about us is plain to see: most of us are powerfully absorbed by selfish desires almost every moment of our lives; our attention to our own pains and pleasures could scarcely be more acute; only the most piercing cries of anonymous suffering capture our interest, and then fleetingly. And yet, when we consciously reflect on what we should do, an angel of beneficence and impartiality seems to spread its wings within us: we genuinely want fair and just societies; we want others to have their hopes realized; we want to leave the world better than we found it” (58–9).

“1. Genetic changes in the brain gave rise to social emotions, moral intuitions, and language . . .

2. These allowed for increasingly complex cooperative behavior, the keeping of promises, concern about one’s reputation, etc. . . .

3. Which became the basis for cultural norms, laws, and social institutions whose purpose has been to render this growing system of cooperation durable in the face of countervailing forces” (59).

MORAL REALISM AND CONSEQUENTIALISM

“Students of philosophy will notice that this commits me to some form of moral realism (viz. Moral claim can really be true or false) and some form of consequentialism (viz. The rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures). . . . Here is my (consequentialist) starting point: all questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.) depend upon the possibility of experiencing such value. Without potential consequences at the level of experience — happiness, suffering, joy, despair, etc. — all talk of value is empty. Therefore to say that an act is morally necessary, or evil, or blameless, is to make (tacit) claims about its consequences in the lives of conscious creatures (whether actual or potential)” (62).

“One of the problems with consequentialism in practice is that we cannot always determine whether the effects of an action will be bad or good. . . . One difficulty we face in determining the moral valence of an event is that it often seems impossible to determine whose well-being should most concern us. . . . no one, to my knowledge, has come up with a way of assessing collective well-being that conserves all of our intuitions. As the philosopher Patricia Churchland puts it, ‘no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs o two, or the needs of one’s own two children against the needs of a hundred unrelated brain-damaged children in Serbia.’ . . . Just how motivated should we be to act when 250,000 people die in an earthquake on the island of Haiti? Whether we know it or not, intuitions about the welfare of whole populations determine our thinking on these matters” (67–8).

“[Consequentialism is less a method of answering moral questions than it is a claim about the status of moral truth. Our assessment of consequences in the moral domain must proceed as it does in all others” under the shadow of uncertainty, guided by theory, data, and honest conversation. The fact that it maybe difficult, or even impossible to know what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be does not mean that there is some other basis for human values that is worth worrying about” (72–3).

RELIGION

“[R]eligion will have geopolitical consequences for a long time to come” (145).

“The evolutionary origins of religion remain obscure. The earliest signs of human burial practices date to 95,000 years ago, and many take these as evidence of the emergence of religious belief. Some researchers consider the connection between religion and evolution to be straight-forward insofar as religious doctrines tend to view sexual conduct as morally problematic and attempt to regulate it, both to encourage fertility and to protect against sexual infidelity. . . . It is, therefore, tempting to trace a line between religious doctrines regarding marriage and sexuality to evolutionary fitness” (147).

“The psychologist Bruce Hood likens our susceptibility to religious ideas to the fact that people tend to develop phobias for evolutionarily relevant threats (like snakes and spiders) rather than for things that are far more likely to kill them (like automobiles and electrical sockets). . . . Hood posits an additional cognitive schema that he calls “supersense” — a tendency to infer hidden forces in the world, working for good or for ill. On his accounts, supersense generates beliefs in the supernatural (religious and otherwise) all on its own, and such beliefs are thereafter modulated, rather than instilled, by culture” (151).

“What is God’s love good for? It is good for escaping the fires of hell and reaping an eternity of happiness after death. To say that the behavior of Muslim jihadists has nothing to do with their religious beliefs is like saying that honor killings have nothing to do with what their perpetrators believe about women, sexuality, and male honor” (156).

THE CLASH BETWEEN FAITH AND REASON

“The idea that there might be an immortal soul capable of reasoning, feeling love, remembering life events, etc., all the while being metaphysically independent of the brain, seems untenable given that damage to the relevant neural circuits obliterates these capacities in a living person” (159).

“The soul doctrine suffers further upheaval in light of the fatal resemblance of the human brain to the brains of other animals. The obvious continuity of our mental powers with those of ostensibly soulless primates raises special difficulties. If the joint ancestors of chimpanzees and human beings did not have souls, when did we acquire ours? . . . Our moral intuitions must, therefore, be the work of God” (159).

“Is there a conflict between marriage and infidelity? The two regularly coincide. The fact that intellectual honesty can be confined to a ghetto — in a single brain, in an institution, or in a culture — does not mean that there isn’t a perfect contradiction between reason and faith, or between the worldview of science taken as a whole and those advanced by the world’s “great,” and greatly discrepant, religions” (160).

The Language of God is a genuinely astonishing book. To read it is to witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide. It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: The body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now — and yet polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man’s health” (160).

“Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collin’s science and his religion? Just imagine how scientific it would seem to most Americans if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in a way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in great conflagration. Is there any chance that Collins would be running the NIH if he were an outspoken polytheist?” (162).

“Collin’s ignorance of the world religion appears prodigious. For instance, he regularly repeats the Christian canard about Jesus being the only person in human history who ever claimed to be God. Collins seems oblivious to the fact that saints, yogis, charlatans, and schizophrenics by the thousands claim to be God at this very instant” (162).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store