The subtitle to Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape is: “How Science Can Determine Human Values.” In the introduction to the book, Harris presented two opposing viewpoints on the origin of human morality. The first claims that morality is woven into reality by God while the second views morality as the product “of evolutionary pressure and cultural invention.” In regards to these two views, Harris says:
My purpose is to persuade you that both sides in this debate are wrong. The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.
This is a very bold claim. Both of these views are views about the existence of moral values. The first of these views claims that morality really exists and is grounded in the character of God while the second claims that morality is just an illusion. I was actually looking forward to seeing what kind of middle ground Harris had found between the two. I was curious as to how he would account for the existence of real objective values without invoking the existence of God. I was greatly disappointed, therefore, to discover that Harris’ entire argument is nothing more than a colossal example of question begging. Instead of providing a scientific explanation for the existence of human values, Harris merely asserted that well-being should be the standard by which we measure morality, and contemptuously derided anyone who might disagree with him.
Throughout the book’s introduction, Harris entices his readers with the prospect that he will eventually provide a logical argument for his claim that moral values are grounded in well-being. He made claims such as:
whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures -- which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value -- must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large. (emphasis mine)
If we define 'good' as that which supports well-being, as I will argue we must, the regress initiated by Moore’s “open question argument” really does stop. (emphasis mine)
Yet, before we even get out of the introduction, we find Harris reneging on his promise. Just a few pages after the second of the above quotes, Harris explains that, in order for his argument to hold, his readers would only have to grant two points. The first of those points was that “some people have better lives than others.” This is just question begging. In order to say that one person’s life is better than that of someone else is to attribute greater value to one life than to the other. Harris is saying that, in order for his argument for the existence of real objective values to hold, his readers must first grant that such values exist; but it is the existence of these values that Harris has promised to explain in the first place.
This type of question begging continued throughout the book. I scoured the entire text searching in vain for a single legitimate argument for the existence of human values only to be met with such statements as:
Let me simply concede that if you don't see a distinction between these two lives that is worth valuing (premise 1 above), there may be nothing I can say that will attract you to my view of the moral landscape.
Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens? I don't think so.
As well as:
It seems uncontroversial to say that a change that leaves everyone worse off, by any rational standard, can be reasonably called “bad,” if this word is to have any meaning at all.
In each of these statements, and in several others, Harris denies his responsibility to present an argument for the existence of real objective values, and asserts instead that his readers must simply accept that such values do exist. In fact, the last of the above quotes is nothing more than an audacious dismissal of the second of the two views that Harris had earlier promised to persuade us of being false. Not one time does Harris ever explain why the word “bad” actually has any meaning. He simply assumes that his readers already agree with the question begging of his first premise.
Overall, it seems to me that Harris’ book is much more about turning Christians away from their faith than it is about providing a scientific explanation of moral values. In the first chapter, Harris identified the principle of cause and effect as being essential to science. Thus, if he really wanted to present his readers with a scientific explanation for the existence of moral values, then he should have outlined the causes which are necessary in order to produce that effect. The fact that he did not do so belies his stated purpose for the book.
In contrast to Harris’ view, the Christian view of moral values is not guilty of question begging. On this view, moral values are grounded in the character and attributes of God. Those actions which are consistent with the character of God are good, and those which are not are evil. Granted, this simplistic statement does not tell us exactly which actions should be taken in every situation, but neither does Harris’ moral landscape. The value of the Christian system is that it provides an actual cause for the effect that we call morality. Harris’ refusal to do the same disqualifies his view from the realm of science.
 Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, (New York: Free Press, 2010) Kindle Format, loc 79.
 Ibid, loc 230.
 Ibid, loc 248.
 Ibid, loc 291
 Ibid, loc 313.
 Ibid, loc 362
 Ibid, loc 702
 Ibid, loc 515
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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