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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
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book I've ever read. Jan. 17 2012
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. If you only ever read one book, make it this one, please.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Morality one,religion zero May 22 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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. Keep the bare bones truth coming and just maybe humanity wont destroy itself in the name of some he,she, it, they, deity anytime soon!!!.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars over-promised and under-delivered Dec 28 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Harris is another of the popular atheist-scientists who spends most of the time riffing about the evils of organized religion. Fine. Got it. Heard it lost from Hitchens and all those other loudmouths. I am not defending Christianity or any religion but what these guys don't know about the human drive to believe in something other than oneself could fill another book.
i bought this book because Harris offers the novel idea that there may be scientific/biological basis for morality - he sets this against the idea of well-being as a moral indicator and imperative. But he never gets to explaining in other that the most vague terms what this might mean. It is an old saw on materialism and not much more. Wasted money IMHO.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking but not an answer to much Jan. 5 2011
By C. J. Thompson TOP 500 REVIEWER
I read this book in a single night due to a particularly vicious episode of insomnia. Admittedly, this is probably not the best frame of mind to read a book as complicated as this but I was still able to read it from cover to cover without getting too terribly lost. My final conclusion after the first reading is that the book was thought provoking enough to warrant a second read. I believe that any publication about which that can be said warrants three stars on that basis alone. I'm afraid, though, that I could not go higher than three stars on this one. I do not belong to any organized religion and would generally agree that most of the great faiths are ill-suited to be authorities on morality, but I am not quite ready to accept Harris's position that ethics can be reduced to equations (I know that is a GROSS oversimplification of what he proposes, but I wish to be brief in this analysis). Suffice it to say, I do believe that moral issues can be resolved rationally (as opposed to by 'revealed' authority) but that is about as far as I am willing to go as yet. Harris has not convinced me of anything further in this book. I will give him a second read at least and see if I change my mind so, I guess from that perspective, I have had my money's worth already.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Fascinating argument,
Published 1 month 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 4 months ago by David Taylor
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 17 months ago by Pierre-Henry Fontaine
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 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
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provocation at it's best.
Right from the intro, Sam's provocative discussion grabs and challenges. Sure to be a conversation starter, or stopper depending on the crowd.
Published on Jan. 4 2011 by AxePilot
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