Sam Harris is Back, Arguing Science Can Answer Moral Questions

March 22, 2010

After completing his Ph.D in neuroscience from UCLA, Sam Harris -- author of "End of Faith" (2004) and "Letter to a Christian Nation" (2006) -- has returned to writing and speaking. In his new book, " The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values ," Harris argues that, in reverse of current thought, science can -- and should -- be an authority on moral issues, shaping morality and setting out what constitutes a good life.

Harris gave a 23-minute primer on his new book at the recent TED conference; video can be found on YouTube here .

"It's generally understood that questions of morality -- questions of good and evil, and right and wrong -- are questions about which science officially has no opinion. It's thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value," he said in his talk. "Consequently, most people ... think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life. Questions like what is worth living for, what is worth dying for; what constitutes a good life."

Harris contends that this is an illusion. Consider how we act toward rocks, insects, and primates: the fact that we give each more moral respect than the last is based on factual claims about the ability of rocks, insects, and primates to experience pain and happiness. If there was compelling new evidence telling us rocks or insects can suffer on par with primates, we would be forced to change our moral views (and be a little more careful on the sidewalk).

Harris also reasons that human flourishing is better seen on a continuum, or what he calls a "moral landscape." That is, while oppression of women is wrong, the sex-crazed Western society isn't necessarily desirable. Moreover, there can be many ways to thrive as humans -- just as there are many ways to win a game of chess, there are many ways to live well. But, Harris maintans, this doesn't prevent an objective philosophical outlook.

To be sure, there was more to Harris' talk than just the above. To read an entry at Huffington Post that covers some issues I do not, click here .

Four immediate thoughts:

First, Harris doesn't pay much time to David Hume's is-ought problem. One would think this a problem considering the above. However, this was a 23-minute talk; comparatively, Harris will speak for an hour on his book tour, and have 320 pages to cover the issue in his book. He has already signaled he will discuss this more in both the extended talks and the book.

Second, I understand it was a short talk, but I'd like to see more direct lines from scientific knowledge existing to moral questions being answered.

Third, Harris has a very interesting retort to the usual relatavist line, "who are we to say...?" Again he reverses on common thinking, asking "Who are we not to say this?" Referring to such practices as honor killing, Harris charges: "Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well-being that we have to be non-judgemental about a practice like this?" 

Fourth, Harris does add that he doesn't think science is guaranteed to provide all the answers -- just that it can currently weigh in on many questions.

I'm excited for this book. I'm also excited that Harris will visit NYC this October -- once for CFI -- as part of his book tour. On Oct. 5, he will be at Cooper Union as part of their speaker series; and on Oct. 7, he will speak for the Center for Inquiry at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Click here other dates and catch him if he's coming your way.


#1 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 9:16am

He’ll be speaking at CFI New York? Swell, you’ll be able to tell him face-to-face what you think of him and his wicked ‘New’ atheism. Will that be on YouTube?

#2 Michael De Dora on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 12:45pm

Ophelia, I don’t see why I would do that. My biggest problem with the “new atheism” is the focus certain proponents put on atheism. Harris hasn’t done that, and instead has stated quite clearly the shortcomings of atheism.

#3 Tyro (Guest) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 3:02pm

AFAIK, Harris has no problems with atheism as a non-belief in God, but he has said that there are problems, with “atheism” the term (which he scrupulously places in quotes to show he is referring to the term, and not the concept).  Are you talking about the philosophical stance, the term, the New Atheists themselves, what?

I want to give you the benefit of the doubt but this was a central issue in your last article and now you go on to make the same equivocation again.  And all this after Wright’s “Evolution of God” where he got called to task for the very same equivocation, talking about the evolution of the concept of God all the while acting like it was God itself changing.

I’m sure you have some points that you want to make but they’re lost because your phrasing is so weak that it can be read in several inconsistent ways.

#4 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 3:13pm

Michael - you don’t see why you would do that. Well maybe you should take another look at your piece on ‘the New Atheists’ then.

This week, I’d like to outline the problems I have with one well-known response to the typical liberal camp: the radical atheists. While these atheists have aired many quality arguments against religious belief, and pushed dialogue on religion and its relation to politics, there are seemingly too many shortcomings to form an approach based on atheism.

Starting in 2005, American public was hit with a fresh wave of secular thought openly criticizing organized religion and religious faith. It started with Sam Harris’ 2004 book “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.” Soon after, Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion,” 2006) and Christopher Hitchens (“God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” 2007) published books similarly critical of religion (1). Moreover, in 2006, Harris penned a rejoinder to his book, “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

That certainly implies that you consider Harris one of the ‘New Atheists’ who are (in your view) a problem.

Many have called these authors and their followers the “New Atheists”—practitioners of a form of atheism that is outspoken and brash in its condemnation of religion and religious belief. These atheists were not content to disbelieve and go on with their lives; they also wanted to let religious beliefs know they were wrong…

Same thing. And so on, through the piece. If you didn’t mean to include Harris, you did a remarkably bad job of making that clear.

#5 Michael De Dora on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 3:16pm

@Tyro, I’m talking about the strategy of actively calling and defining ourselves as atheists.

#6 Michael De Dora on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 3:21pm

@Ophelia, certainly Harris is one of the “New Atheists,” but as I state later in my piece, not all “New Atheists” are the same. If I wasn’t clear that my issues are mostly with Dawkins, Hitchens, and Myers, then that’s my fault.

#7 Michael De Dora on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 3:24pm

@Tyro, also, to make this absolutely clear, I’m an atheist,and I have no problems with the philosophical merits of atheism.

#8 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 5:51pm

Michael, well you did make it clear that you hate Dawkins Hitchens and Myers the most, but certainly not that you don’t hate Harris too. If that’s what you meant to convey then yes, the lack of clarity is your fault. As many have noted, the piece was very badly written.

#9 Tyro (Guest) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 6:29pm


Thank you.  I hope you can appreciate that it is difficult if not impossible for us to distinguish between ‘atheist’ the term, ‘atheist’ the “New Atheist” movement and ‘atheist’ the handful of vocal anti-theists, especially if it appears as if you intermix them.  I do appreciate that you are taking the effort to clear up some of these problems.

#10 Michael De Dora on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 7:39pm

@Ophelia, the essay wasn’t as concise and clear as I would have liked, but when did I say I hated anyone?

#11 Kaizen on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 10:39pm

I look forward to how he addresses the Is-Ought problem. I see no issue with science identifying “values”, but I have difficulty seeing anyone getting around the Is-Ought issue- theists and atheists alike. What does it mean that we “should” do something? I don’t label myself a moral relativist, but the more I think of it, the greater the difficulty I have in answer we anyone might mean when using the word “ought.”

#12 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 8:53am


You didn’t say you hated anyone in those words - but your post as a whole implied…well, make it strong dislike, if you prefer.

This is a really serious point. This is what the sustained campaign against ‘New’ atheism, or rather the people who are engaged in it, don’t seem to get. Chris Mooney doesn’t seem to get it, which is odd for someone who is interested in communication. I see that you have a degree in communication. I think you should make a real effort to consider this point, even coming from a self-declared ‘New’ atheist. (I take the term to refer to people who make arguments critical of religious belief, and I do that, so I take myself to be one.) You come across in that post as very hostile to perceived ‘New’ atheists. If you didn’t intend to, then you should look closely at your wording and try to figure out why you gave that impression.

There’s another thing. You must be aware that atheists are the last minority it’s okay to hate. You must be aware of the surveys that show atheists coming dead last in acceptability. You must be aware that atheists in, at least, small towns and parochial suburbs feel very outnumbered and often bullied. You must be aware that atheists are a small minority. You must be aware that atheism is not actually criminal or even morally wicked.

Given all that - I think you should seriously consider the possibility that joining the very loud chorus of people shouting at ‘New’ atheists is morally dubious - that it is a form of majoritarian bullying which is at least unattractive.

#13 Michael De Dora on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 12:38pm

@Ophelia, I have been reviewing my post, and noting that it was not nearly as clear as I would have liked, I will likely publish another post tomorrow or Friday trying to clear up some of the misconceptions.

Also, while I am relatively unfamiliar with the Chris Mooney situation, I do think there are conversations to be had about strategy, and that atheists shouldn’t be opposed to this. It seems a couple dismissals of my post were sort of out-of-hand rejections of even thinking about how to best foster a secular society based on reason, scientific knowledge, and secular values. At the very start, can’t we admit there are better and worse ways to wage a war of ideas?

#14 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 3:55pm

Sam Harris is really starting to annoy me.

He keeps remotely reading my thoughts and presenting them far more eloquently than I could ever personally manage. Prick.

#15 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 5:36pm

Michael - sure. I do think it’s possible to discuss strategy. I tried to do that with Chris - I tried to get him to say exactly what he meant by ‘more civil’ in the context of a serious book review for The New Republic, for example, but I had no success. People are busy of course, and it can be hard to keep up with comments, and so on - but if one is going to make controversial claims on a blog I think it is at least a mistake to ignore nearly all responses.

So I take my hat off to you for responding so civilly to mine!

Quick dismissals of your post may well be because of the existing history of this debate. There’s a lot of sour feeling about it, by now. Maybe you didn’t know that. If so you kind of accidentally wandered into a shark tank!

A couple of points. Broadly speaking civility is better than incivility - but there is also something to be said for a little vinegar, at least from people who are good at that kind of thing. I wouldn’t want Christopher Hitchens any milder. There is room for more than one kind of approach. And the other point is that the rhetoric of atheists gets judged much more harshly than pretty much any other kind. As Dawkins often points out, language that would be just routine in political discourse is greeted with shock-horror from atheists. That’s a double standard, and I think it should be eroded. I think maybe you’re making that mistake to some extent.

#16 Michael De Dora on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 6:41pm


I’m somewhat aware of the tension within the atheist camp over tactics, but I didn’t expect anywhere near the response I got! At least it’s been constructive for the most part ...

Re Hitchens: There is surely room for him and his approach, I just wouldn’t want to take his approach and spread it across the movement.

Re: Dawkins’ point, two things. First, to say there is a double standard is not to say that anything should go in political critique. Many of my thoughts about strategy and discourse cross labels and fields of study. Second, I think there is one important difference between political and religious beliefs in that the latter tend to be more deep-seated, more identify-forming. At the least, those critiquing the beliefs should take this into account, because it influences how we should approach such issues.

#17 Ophelia Benson on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 9:14am


Yup - I agree with all that.

There’s no danger of the Hitchens approach spreading across the whole movement though. Clearly there already are many different kinds of atheists with many different ways of talking and writing. I think that’s a good thing.

And then, I understand the point about strategy, but a competing point is that there is a hugely powerful taboo against atheism, and given that there is nothing wrong with atheism as such, and that it is liberating to a great many people, I strongly think that taboo needs to be broken down. I think an acerbic approach helps to do that. I also think we have a right to be acerbic, and that we should exercise it, and that advice about strategy often looks very like a disguised attempt to keep the taboo in place. That’s the case with Chris Mooney for example - he seems to be claiming to give advice on how to maintain unity, but in fact he seems more to be stirring up hatred of atheists. He spends a lot of time naming and shaming atheists in major media - to us this looks a lot more like majoritarian bullying than like genuine advice.

Your second point is compelling. I struggle against it, because of the taboo thing, but I recognize its force.

I’m glad we’re talking! How I wish Mooney and Kirshenbaum had done the same - I think they lost a hell of a lot of allies by stonewalling. I was a huge fan of Chris’s books and journalism, until the wall went up.

#18 Brian Rutledge (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 8:18pm

Since you are an atheist, as am I, I don’t see how you could even mount any type of discussion of Harris’ view that science can or can not indeed determine so called morality. Our brains, which can only be explained through science have determined all value systems in the world up to today. There is nothing else but science that can explain such things as how how the human brain has created moral systems. The discussion is thus mute since nothing else exists except the thoughts of the human brain that weighs in on this subject

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