What Is Sam Harris’s Moral Theory?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

New atheist Sam Harris made a splash with his book The Moral Landscape. In it, Harris claims to have solved the millenia-old debate about the source of objective moral values. Harris is no relativist about moral values. In fact, he reserves some of his harshest criticism for atheists who deny the objectivity of morality.

So what exactly is his thesis? How has he solved the perennial problem of how to ground objective moral values and duties? Here is Harris in his own words:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds— and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

Harris bases his moral theory on the well-being of conscious minds.  These are the two key foundational ideas for him.  For Harris, morality only makes sense given the existence of conscious creatures, since nothing can be valued if there is no conscious creature to do the valuing.  Rocks do not value anything.

Given the importance of conscious creatures, Harris elaborates that “the concept of ‘well-being’ captures all that we can intelligibly value. And ‘morality’— whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be— really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures.” Again, Harris is clear that “meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures— and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain.”

Harris’ next move is to make the explicit connection between the well-being of conscious creatures and science.  How exactly does science determine human values?

Questions about values— about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose— are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.

Science, broadly defined as empirical observation and experimentation, can be employed, according to Harris, to determine which thoughts, actions, and behaviors, contribute to the well-being, or flourishing, of human beings.  As human beings flourish, they climb to peaks on a “moral landscape.” The valleys on the landscape represent the misery and suffering of human beings. Harris encourages his readers to allow science to take humanity to the peaks of the moral landscape, and out of the valleys.

Now that we have a basic understanding of Harris’s “moral landscape,” we next need to understand his metaphysical presuppositions. That will come in a future post.