Sam Harris' Amoral Landscape

Sam Harris is a more complex figure than he might at first appear. He is best known as the most pugnacious of the New Atheists, a streetfighter who argued in his polemic The End of Faith that rational science should no longer merely tolerate religious belief, but instead should declare total war on it.

What is less well-known is that Harris spent a decade studying Buddhist meditation, had several mystical experiences as a teenager on MDMA, and was once, briefly, the bodyguard for the Dalai Lama. He is, for sure, the most spiritually-minded of his New Atheist chums, but also the most aggressively anti-religious: he ended his Buddhist studies by writing a paper suggesting that we should should ‘Kill Buddhism’. The body-guard turned assassin.

In his new book, The Moral Landscape, Harris takes aim at two targets: moral relativists and religious fundamentalists. His argument has three parts: firstly, morality is a question of the well-being of sentient beings; secondly, science can tell us facts about well-being; thirdly, using science, the fog of dogma and superstition will gradually clear and we will be able to perceive a ‘moral landscape’, with obvious peaks of well-being and troughs of suffering.

Harris has spent the last few years completing a doctoral thesis in neuroscience, and he comes fresh from the lab with the shining eyes of the new convert. He insists that science can tell us, objectively, whether a life is a Good Life or a Bad Life. He gives us two examples. Person A is a young widow who “has lived her entire life in the midst of civil war”. Her daughter was raped and killed today, by her son. Person A is “now running barefoot through the jungle with killers in pursuit.” This, Harris says, is a Bad Life. By contrast, Person B has a loving partner, an intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding career, a great social life, and has just received a billion-dollar grant to benefit the children of the world. This, Harris tells us, is a Good Life. And who would argue with that?

Harris says: “The moment one begins thinking about morality in terms of well-being, it becomes remarkably easy to discern a moral hierarchy across human societies.” At one end, you suspect, are those unfortunate countries who groan under Islamic theocratic states. At the other end lies, not the US (it’s too fundamentalist)...but perhaps Denmark. Harris looks forward to the day when an elite of ‘moral experts’ can clearly define whether an action, a person, or indeed a whole society, is Good or Bad.

Harris is clearly a interesting figure within the wider movement to build a ‘science of well-being’, a movement which tries to use empirical measurements to build an evidence-based definition of the Good Life. He’s Richard Layard, with boxing gloves on. But there are some thorny questions to be cleared away before we reach the Promised Land of a perfect science of well-being. First of all, how do we define well-being? Harris admits: “People often use the same words differently...What does it mean, for instance, to compare self-reported ratings of ‘happiness’ or ‘life satisfaction’ between individuals or across countries? I’m not at all sure.”

The easiest definition of well-being, from the point of view of scientific measurement, is good feelings. But there are problems with defining the Good Life as simply good feelings, as Harris recognizes. His first great spiritual experience was when he took MDMA as a teenager. But would a life spent popping MDMA be a peak in his moral landscape?

At other times, Harris seems to follow Aristotle (and therefore the Catholic Church) in defining well-being as flourishing or eudaimonia. But the problem with this is: how do we scientifically measure this broader eudaimonic conception of well-being? Aristotle himself said you couldn’t call a person happy until you could look at their whole life, and all the consequences of that life. That’s a fairly daunting challenge for statisticians.

And Aristotle also thought that the Good Life involved man fulfilling his divine ‘purpose’ on Earth, via the contemplation of God. His theory of human happiness very much depended on his belief that human existence had a purpose, a telos, which could either be fulfilled (the Good Life) or not fulfilled (the Less Good, or Bad, Life).The challenge for happiness scientists looking to create a secular and evidence-based version of Aristotle's theory of eudaimonia is, can you do that while ditching his teleology? Without the sense of a telos or purpose that can be fulfilled, Aristotle's moral system is a chicken without a head.

If we don't believe in man having a higher 'purpose, then how can we know for certain what the best life is? If our 'purpose' is whatever we want it to be, then the Good Life would also seem to be whatever we want it to be. If our 'purpose' is just to be happy, then bring on the MDMA.

At the least, there would seem to be a limit to what we can say about the Good Life by scientifically measuring it from the outside. Let’s go back to Harris’ Person A and Person B. Person A is clearly having a bad day. But might not they still be a Good Person, even amid all that evil? Likewise, even amid all that success and prosperity, might not Person B still be a complacent and self-righteous fool? A lot depends on the inner attitude of the person, and that’s hard to measure scientifically - partly because our attitude can change in a moment. You need stories, not empirical data, to step inside a person’s inner life and appreciate it. The best writers on neuroscience - such as David Eagleman, Jonah Lehrer or Oliver Sacks - understand this, and tread carefully. Harris doesn’t.

It’s a pity the book is so bull-headed, because Harris’ topic is an interesting one, and he himself is an interesting figure who brings together the disciplines of science, moral philosophy and contemplative religion. Unfortunately, he seems to see this consilience as a zero-sum game, in which the competition must be killed. In fact, as Harris must know from his decade studying Buddhism, the great religious traditions have interesting things to tell us about human well-being, if we stop trying to punch their lights out.

And the book suffers from some fatal contradictions and confusions, which Harris typically considers for a sentence or so, before brushing all doubts aside with his favourite word: 'Clearly'. For example, he doesn't believe in free will, or in the possibility of conscious moral choice. In which case, how is his landscape 'moral'?

Nor is he sure that morality necessarily leads to well-being. He suggests that it's possible one could have a life of substantial well-being (a 'peak' in his landscape), while being, for example, a rapist. He says that, in such a scenario, there would still be peaks and troughs of well-being in the landscape, it just wouldn't be very "moral". Well, quite.