Sam Harris is the most pugnacious of the New Atheists, a movement he helped launch with The End of Faith, written in the wake of September 11 and leading to a string of other antireligious bestsellers from Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett et al. Harris also spent a decade studying Buddhist meditation and had several mystical experiences as a teenager on psychedelic drugs. He's the most spiritual of the New Atheists, but also the most antireligious: he ended his Buddhist studies by writing a paper on why we should "Kill Buddhism".
In The Moral Landscape, he takes aim at two targets: moral relativists and religious fundamentalists. He argues, first, that morality is a question of the wellbeing of sentient beings; second, that science can tell us facts about wellbeing; and third, that with the help of science, we can perceive a "moral landscape" with peaks of wellbeing and troughs of suffering.
Harris argues that we can tell objectively whether a life is a "good" or "bad". For example, a young widow who "has lived her entire life in the midst of civil war" and whose daughter was raped and killed by her son today, and is "now running barefoot through the jungle with killers in pursuit" is someone whose life is "bad". By contrast, the life of someone with an intellectually stimulating, financially rewarding career, a great social life, and who has just received a billion-dollar grant to benefit the world's children, is objectively "good". And who'd disagree?
Harris writes: "The moment one begins thinking about morality in terms of wellbeing, it becomes remarkably easy to discern a moral hierarchy across human societies." But this raises thorny questions. For one, how to define wellbeing? The easiest definition is people's self-reported good feelings. But there are problems with defining the good life this way. Harris's first great spiritual experience was when he took MDMA as a teenager. But would a life spent popping MDMA, although presumably full of "good feelings", be a peak in his moral landscape?
At other times, Harris seems to follow Aristotle in defining wellbeing as flourishing or human fulfilment. But how do we scientifically measure this broader conception? Aristotle himself said you couldn't call a person happy until you could look at their whole life, and all its consequences. That's a fairly daunting challenge for statisticians. Aristotle also thought that the Good Life involved man fulfilling his "purpose" by contemplating God. But how can we know for certain what the best life is, when we're not sure what our purpose is, or if we have a purpose?
At the least, there would seem to be a limit to what we can say about the Good Life by scientifically measuring it. Let's go back to Harris's two examples. The first person is clearly having a bad day, but might she not still be a good person, amid all that evil? Likewise, even amid all that success and prosperity, might not the second person still be a complacent and self-righteous fool? A lot depends on inner attitude, and that's hard to measure scientifically.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's 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 as a zero-sum game, in which the competition must be killed. In fact, as Harris must know, the great religious traditions have interesting things to tell us about wellbeing, if we stop trying to punch their lights out.