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The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values [Hardcover]

Sam Harris
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 5 2010 1439171211 978-1439171219 First Edition

am Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people—from religious fundamentalists to nonbelieving scientists—agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to "respect" the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors.

In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a "moral landscape." Because there are definite facts to be known about where we fall on this landscape, Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of "morality"; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.

Bringing a fresh perspective to age-old questions of right and wrong and good and evil, Harris demonstrates that we already know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply false—and comes at increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.

Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our "culture wars," Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation.

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“Sam Harris breathes intellectual fire into an ancient debate. Reading this thrilling, audacious book, you feel the ground shifting beneath your feet. Reason has never had a more passionate advocate.”
—Ian McEwan

Beautifully written as they were (the elegance of his prose is a distilled blend of honesty and clarity) there was little in Sam Harris's previous books that couldn't have been written by any of his fellow 'horsemen' of the 'new atheism'. This book is different, though every bit as readable as the other two. I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. It should change it for philosophers too. Philosophers of mind have already discovered that they can't duck the study of neuroscience, and the best of them have raised their game as a result. Sam Harris shows that the same should be true of moral philosophers, and it will turn their world exhilaratingly upside down. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.
--Richard Dawkins

“Reading Sam Harris is like drinking water from a cool stream on a hot day. He has the rare ability to frame arguments that are not only stimulating, they are downright nourishing, even if you don’t always agree with him! In this new book he argues from a philosophical and a neurobiological perspective that science can and should determine morality. His discussions will provoke secular liberals and religious conservatives alike, who jointly argue from different perspectives that there always will be an unbridgeable chasm between merely knowing what is and discerning what should be. As was the case with Harris’ previous books, readers are bound to come away with previously firm convictions about the world challenged, and a vital new awareness about the nature and value of science and reason in our lives.”
Lawrence M. Krauss, Foundation Professor and Director of the ASU Origins Project at Arizona State University, author of The Physics of Star Trek, and, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science

“A lively, provocative, and timely new look at one of the deepest problems in the world of ideas. Harris makes a powerful case for a morality that is based on human flourishing and thoroughly enmeshed with science and rationality. It is a tremendously appealing vision, and one that no thinking person can afford to ignore.”
--Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate.

About the Author

Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, and Lying. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing has been published in over fifteen languages. Dr. Harris is cofounder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Please visit his website at

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wit and Wisdom Oct. 8 2010
In End Of Faith, Harris poked around in the box marked "Religion" and, with a brilliant wit and the clarity of a well-refined anger, showed much of its content to be rank and not worth keeping.
In The Moral Landscape, he again notes the challenges religion presents, this time to the discussion of morals, but he also opens up the box marked "Science" and hauls out some of the stuff in it that threatens to taint the whole collection. By getting it out of the way, he clears for all of us a path by which we might achieve a civilization bounded by empathy and goodwill and in which the chasm that has existed between "facts and values - and therefore between science and morality" is bridged.
And again, Harris's particularly brilliant wit allows us to enjoy ourselves all the way to the refreshing clarity his wisdom offers.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A bold new take on universal morality Oct. 6 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Make no mistake about it, this book is an ambitious book. Harris challenges the long-held assertion that morals are for religion and culture, outside of the realm of science. In other words, science can reveal the way we behave, and why (in fact, evolutionary psychology and related disciplines are doing just that), but it can't tell us how we SHOULD behave. Harris claims that science can. That science should.

To paraphrase, Harris uses two logical statements to support this assertion:

1- Some states produce more well-being/happiness/goodness then others.
2- These states depend on physical events that are predictable.

This means science can tell us how to achieve (via morals) well-being. For example, allowing rape is not likely to increase well-being in general. The fact that well-being is hard to define, or potentially impossible, is not a deterrent. Science is not about absolutes. It's about probabilities, and improvement. What's healthier- to be a sprinter or a marathon runner? To be kinder to strangers or kinder to kin? George Burns may have smoked and lived to 90+, but is smoking healthy? Some people hit their spouses and enjoy it, but does spousal abuse promote well-being? Harris would answer "no" to those, and claim that science backs him up in both. Harris doesn't claim to have all the answers to many challenging ethical/moral questions, but argues that there are some answers that are objectively better than other answers. Some morals are objectively better at producing well-being than other morals, and science can help us determine what those are. Moral relativism is an excuse. Clearly, some things promote more harm than well-being, like severe child abuse.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best approach I have heard of May 11 2011
Lets get a few things out of the way.

If you actually understand what Mr Harris is saying (which many negative reviewers clearly did not) you should understand this:

1) He does not advocate moral relativism in the sense that 'anything goes'. He clearly outlines what he means by morals and then goes on to describe a framework for identifying those moral frameworks which work better than others. He does say that there may be multiple, and equally beneficial, systems for moral reasoning. That is far from saying 'anything goes' (i.e. rape, murder, etc...). This is perhaps the strongest aspect of his argument. He does not claim to know the answer. He does not claim that the answer is 100% knowable. He describes how we have been coming ever closer in some respects (and farther in others) to a moral system that allows more people to live fulfilling lives than could be imagined 200 years ago (and i'm not talking about advances in technology or medicine).

2) He clearly argues against moral absolutism. He convincingly explains why moral absolutism is dangerous and how, despite Religions attempts to claim an unchanging moral compass, the majority of so-called religious moderates are actually shifting their moral leanings/interpretations of their holy books in response to a changing Moral landscape. It is those that do not change their morals that we call 'fundamentalists'.

3) He is not trying to 'prove' anything. He has described a reasonable way in which science, logic, observation and discourse can lead to productive and conscious choices about morality. Over time it is reasonable to hope that we could weed out bad 'moral' prescriptions and modify/replace them with others to move in a direction of increased human flourishing.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolutely better moral framework Jan. 3 2011
This book sets a very solid foundation for a science of morals. Sam Harris has a way to cut through the issues and extract the important details. I have always found discussion of morals missing a few key ingredients, but Harris addresses them all with clarity and humility. Don't get me wrong, he aims big -- very big, but he avoids grandiose claims.

The essence of the proposed moral framework is the definition of morality is that which improves human well-being. Indeed, this isn't everyone's definition, and Harris doesn't hide from that fact. But he discusses it in the context of which features of a definition of morality are defensible and which are not. From this definition, the rest of the book falls into place, and indeed both a science of morality and a moral absolutism can be derived from it. Harris does not claim that determining rules of morality by this method will be easy, far from it. But the difficulty, or impossibility, of measuring or predicting cause-effect outcomes on human well-being does not mean the principle itself is flawed. If we cannot determine an outcome for a particular scenario, and hence cannot determine a moral course of action, that does not mean that inserting answers by other methods (such as dogma) are better in any way. That sort of "morality of gaps" is very analogous to the "god of gaps" in scientific knowledge. Bad information is worse than no information, and admitting we don't know the answer to something is better than making one up, particularly when people make up different answers. Moreover, such ability to make determinations can change over time and contributing factors become clearer, as is the case in complex and chaotic systems.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Fascinating argument,
Published 2 months ago by Brenda Callaghan
5.0 out of 5 stars thought is was an audio book my friend liked it,
sorry can't rate it thought is was an audio book gave it to a friend he said kit was good but a bit technical
Published 5 months ago by David Taylor
5.0 out of 5 stars Morality one,religion zero
Just goes to show what we atheists have known all along;the bible is full of contradictions and immoral behaviors that have no place in a humanists world. Read more
Published 17 months ago by gypsylady
5.0 out of 5 stars bravo, sam!
un très bon livre pour qui veut comprendre la situation actuelle de ce qui mène le monde. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Pierre-Henry Fontaine
2.0 out of 5 stars over-promised and under-delivered
Harris is another of the popular atheist-scientists who spends most of the time riffing about the evils of organized religion. Fine. Got it. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Ignatz Pepachuk
5.0 out of 5 stars quantum shift
The purpose of this work is very straightforward- to argue that there are better ways to make moral decisions than religion. Read more
Published on March 5 2012 by Peter Vize
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book I've ever read.
This book is the most contemplative, thought provoking, and intellectually honest read I've ever had. Not only did it intrigue and delight me, it made me a better person. Read more
Published on Jan. 17 2012 by Dagan Shaw
5.0 out of 5 stars Why not a science of morality?
This book does not nearly reach the philosophical depths that its subject matter allows. For many readers, this is a very good thing. Read more
Published on Sept. 24 2011 by DeterminedDominoe
4.0 out of 5 stars A great read on a topic that needs more emphasis & clarity
I've listened to the CD version of this book a couple times now on my commute to and from work. As Harris has a wife and daughter, he has a vested interest in making the world a... Read more
Published on Feb. 13 2011 by Opie
3.0 out of 5 stars Disoriented on the moral landscape
I'm of 2 minds about this book. It is written well enough and is clear enough as far as it goes. It's not a nasty book - I'm sure it would be offensive to many of religious... Read more
Published on Jan. 17 2011 by Rodge
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