A comment on Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape"

Published on: Thu Apr 18 2024


Sam Harris released the book “The Moral Landscape” back in 2010 and it has since been a hotly debated topic in discussions about philosophy and ethics.


Just to get this out of the way:

I don’t think “The Moral Landscape” is an ethical framework that is meant to be taken seriously on its own. It’s not a “competitor” to other ethical philosphies, such as Consequentialism or Emotivism. I think of it more of an appeal to reason in regards to ethics and morality.

I also really like Sam Harris. I love his debates, his podcast, his talks about meditation, religion, free will, psychology and debunking pseudo science. I mostly try to ignore his rather extreme political statements, since, much like the topic of this blog post, it is not where his intellect shines.

With those things out of the way, let’s get into it.

Terminology and definitions

Let’s get some terms and definitions straight, so we’re all on the same page. Do your thing ChatGPT!


Morality refers to the principles and standards that guide individuals and communities in distinguishing right from wrong behavior. It’s like an invisible compass that helps us decide how to act in different situations, guiding us toward actions that are considered good, fair, and just within a society or culture. Morality often involves concepts such as honesty, respect, fairness, and responsibility. It shapes our choices, influences how we treat others, and reflects our values and beliefs about what makes a good life. While different cultures and individuals may have varying views on what is moral, the essence of morality is about making choices that contribute to the well-being of ourselves and those around us.

Source: ChatGPT 4


Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions about what is morally right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unfair. It involves systematically evaluating and defending concepts of right and wrong behavior. While morality is more about the personal and cultural principles guiding our sense of right and wrong, ethics often refers to the critical reflection on these principles, questioning and analyzing them to guide behavior in various contexts. Ethics can be applied in many areas, including business, medicine, technology, and environmental conservation, providing a framework for making decisions that not only benefit the individual but also society at large. In essence, ethics is about examining and understanding the moral values that underpin our decisions and actions, aiming to promote a more just and equitable world.

Source: ChatGPT 4


Metaethics delves into the foundations of ethical theories, examining the nature, origins, and meaning of ethical principles. Unlike ethics, which is concerned with what is right and wrong, metaethics asks deeper questions: What does it mean for something to be morally right or wrong? Are moral values universal or do they vary across cultures? How can we know what is morally right? It investigates the language we use to discuss morality, questioning whether moral statements can be true or false in the same way as factual statements, and whether moral judgments are driven by emotions, reason, or social agreements. Essentially, metaethics explores the very essence of morality itself, providing a framework for understanding how we come to have ethical beliefs and how these beliefs can be justified or criticized.

Source: ChatGPT 4

Thanks ChatGPT

Hey, it’s me - the human - again.

So to summarize in non-ai words (or are they 👀):

Morality is what people mean most often in everyday language when we talk about “immoral” acts, such as crime & violence. It refers to specific values and guidelines for individuals, but also whole societies.

Ethics is where it gets a bit more macro. We try to generalize moral systems into broader rules and patterns. An example of that would be utilitiarianism. An ethical theory in which all prescribed actions stem from maximising happiness and well-being for the affected individuals.

Meta-ethics is where it gets a bit silly (in my opinion). We try to ground our ethical theory in an even deeper level of truth and objectivity. Not just what actions are considered good or bad, but why they are good or bad, on the most fundamental level. For example for religious people, god might be the ultimate source of good and bad.

The Moral Landscape - A Summary

In the introduction of the moral landscape, I think he summarizes his intentions pretty well. Here is an excerpt from page 9:

While the argument I make in this book is bound to be controversial, it rests on a very simple premise: human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it. A more detailed understanding of these truths will force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical. Clearly, such insights could help us to improve the quality of human life—and this is where academic debate ends and choices affecting the lives of millions of people begin. I am not suggesting that we are guaranteed to resolve every moral controversy through science. Differences of opinion will remain—but opinions will be increasingly constrained by facts.

First of all I would like to note the admission, that he does not think that science can answer every moral controversy. In his discussions with other philosophers about his book, they often pretend like Sam’s position is that he is able to solve all moral questions perfectly with his science tricks. However he acknowledges that that is in fact not the case. There will always be certain questions that come down to subjectivity to some extend. His point is rather that those nuances will be backed up by facts provided through the scientific method.

In “the moral landscape” Sam asks us to think about two lives.

Life A: Imagine that you are an illiterate and homeless African woman whose husband has disappeared. You have just seen your seven-year-old daughter raped and murdered at the hands of drug-crazed soldiers, and now you’re fearing for your life. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual predicament for you. From the moment you were born, your life has been marred by cruelty and violence.

Life B: Imagine that you are a respected professional in a wealthy country, married to a loving, intelligent and charismatic mate. Your employment is intellectually stimulating and pays you very well. For decades your wealth and social connections have allowed you immense personal satisfaction from meaningful work which makes a real difference in the world. You and your closest family will live long, prosperous lives, virtually untouched by crime, sudden bereavements, and other major misfortunes.

The fact that basically every person would consider B a better life, should give us an indication that there are objective ways to judge wether some acts are preferable to others. Hence, objective moral values.

Now I am not kidding if I’m telling you that this is honestly kind of all he says to defend them claim of objectivity. It boils down to “well there are scenarios that most of us prefer, and some that most of us don’t. so there are definitely ways we can make use of that”. He talks a lot of about the value of science, religious opposition and how facts can inform decisions. But regarding the original claim “how science can determine human values”, this is kind of all we get.

Let’s go down the rabbit hole

Even though I know that Sam already warned us that science cannot answer all moral dilemas, I will still go down this route, because it will demonstrate the ultimate problem I have with the views expressed in this book.

There are already a lot of terms, which are key to the critisim of the moral landscape. Terms like “misery”, “worst”, “suffering”, “happiness”, “flourish”, are non-starters for establishing anything objective, unless you can provide exact definitions for them. And even then, you run into the problem that we do not even refer to terms like “good” or “bad”, but instead refer to “suffering”, which in turn is always a very subjective experience.

Nevertheless, here is a potential definition: we define “worst misery” as the greatest suffering that a mind can subjectively experience.

Wait… subjectively? I thought we are trying to establish an objective morality. Yeah we are. With an emphasis on trying 🥲 Now Sam Harris will argue, that there are factual statements about subjective experience. That might be true, and even if we grant, that we can objectively identify that someone is suffering, there is still a major fallacy from a meta-ethical point of view. Namely, that now your whole premise relies on “suffering = bad”. But there is no way to ground this premise without getting circular. Suffering is bad because suffering is a subjectively bad experience… nah man, that ain’t gonna fly here (that is what greek philosophers would tell him).

Remember, we are trying to go beyond the individual and beyond opinion. Objective moral values - the stated goal of the moral landscape - cannot rely on circular definitions or subjective experience.

And this is always going to be the ultimate killer for any ethical or meta-ethical theory. It is either going to be circular or commit the is-ought fallacy.

It is true that once you establish certain axioms, you can start making objective claims about their implications. But Sam starts off with these high-level scenarios of a really bad and a really good life and wants us to admit that there are differences and tries to get us down to this axiomatic realm of philosophic building stones.

Don’t get me wrong, absolute objectivity is practically and, at this point in history, theoretically impossible. Even mathematics and all of the sciences rely on certain axioms which in turn do not have any proof to be objectively correct. One of those comes from the field of logic: the law of noncontradiction. It is just an assumed fact of the universe, because you would get nowhere if you tried to challenge it.


I think Sam is making a crucial mistake by claiming that by accepting his premises and using more facts in your moral positions, you are adding more truth values to those positions.

If you have two people that agree on a really well defined goal, then yes, you can use scientific facts to find the best way to achieve that goal. If you want to create a car that can drive a certain mph with no wind on a flat highway, then there is not going to be any ambiguity and subjectivity in wether you achieved that goal when you present your car and measured the speed.

The problem is that the implication of moral values or questions very rarely are well defined. They always require a lot of context. What makes moral questions even harder is that they often rely on psychology, well-done research and studies and the socio-economic sciences. Psychology is famously not an exact science and to extract precise conclusions from studies, you often rely on meta studies or a degree in statistics.


As already mentioned in the preface of this article, Sam wants us to be more pragmatic about ethics. He often makes a comparison to health and medicine. No one questions why we heal injuries, take medicine or go the doctors. It’s obvious: to stay healthy! And in the same way he wants us to care about human well-being. He doesn’t want us to “proof” that you have to care about human well-being, because it is so obvious that all of us do.

“What about psychopaths though?” - Good point, right? “You don’t take the flat earther seriously at a physics convention” is what Sam said in an interview with Alex O’Connor on YouTube. The psychopath would be the equivalent of the flat earther in our scenario. People who struggle to care about other humans cannot seriously take part in a discussion about ethics. And yeah, that’s fairly pragmatic.

And to be honest… I think that’s about it. He does not solve the Is-ought problem and he does not solve ethics on a meta-philosphical level. And that’s totally fine.

It’s just a “hey, let’s be reasonable and respect facts”. Yeah sure, totally with you. However I think he has barely taken a step on the road to a good definition of well-being or more guidelines on what constitutes a flourishing society.

As I will discuss down below, I think it is a fairly naive world view, at least from how it seems from reading the book. I am sure he would be a lot more nuanced in a real-life discussion and agree with most of what I am saying. However the claims from the book do not convey this nuance.

Science vs Philosphy

Science cannot answer difficult moral questions that we have as a society. Let us take abortion as an example. Here are a couple of points, which you will have to answer:

  • Should abortion be legal?
  • If so, up until which point of the pregnancy?
  • Should you be allowed to abort a baby, if you know that it might have a disability?

Sure, science can tell us about the biological development of an embryo in all of the different stages. But it cannot tell us how we should feel about it when thinking about terminating a pregnancy. Those thresholds are all subjective. They’re all different from person to person, culture to culture and will change with time moving forward.

There will never be a scientist who “discovers” the perfect week up until you should be allowed to terminate a pregnancy. It’s philosphically and definitionally impossible. Period.

Similairly, no amount of facts will convince a religious person, that thinks that being gay should be illegal and is sinful, of the contrary.

Science, Politics And Emotions

I think people often expect too much from science. Or rather they expect it to do things it is not meant to do: politics and resolving conflicts.

It’s great that scientists work in a world where the ultimate goal is to be objective and map the facts of the world. But they make a grave mistake by trying and apply their methods to conflicts in the real world. People frankly just do not care about facts. And if they do, they only care about facts that support their world views. Questions of abortion, territory, resource shortages, may be informed by scientific inquiry, but very rarely - if we are being honest, never - are solved or answered by scientific discoveries, but rather humanitarian activisim and politics.

I don’t want to undersell the power of science and enlightenment. All I am arguing is that this “fight for science”, is not “science”. This is politics and societal activism that fights for facts-first discussions. Something that we will consistently have to fight for and uphold by putting in a lot of energy, because our mental biology is so full of biases, flaws and tribal thinking.

Reason != Moral

Another comment I would like to make is on the concept of reason.

I think and do assume that Sam means well. He is a big proponent of reason and he is a good science communicator in that regard. However I do not think that he sees reason as the tool for which it is. People justify all sorts of world views and values with reason. KKK members will use reason to justify the separation of people from different ethnicities. A theist can use reason to justify the need for a god. Having the good intentions preceeds reason. The fact that Sam means well is not because he is so reasonable, but because of a meriad of other factors (capacity for empathy, his upbringing, culcture, …).

The End

Sam is a fantastic advocator for reason & science. But because of the points mentioned above I think we should not take lightly the effort it will take humanity to move forward with these ideals.