In Defence of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape – Refuting Brian Earp

In Defence of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape – Refuting Brian Earp

I offer the following rebuttal to Brian Earp’s critique of Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape:


Read Earp’s Critique:

  1. Harris’ “Dishonest Motivation”

Earp alleges that Harris was being dishonest in his attempt to provide a new (scientific) landscape upon which to assess morality, and that Harris’ efforts in attempting to bridge Hume’s is/ought distinction was the “height of dishonesty.”  This dishonesty, Earp asserts, was probably motivated by Harris’ desire to sell books.

Upon what basis does Earp’s libellous assertion rest?  In Earp’s words: “Harris is a very smart writer and researcher…”, therefore he must be lying (the charge later reduced by Earp to “exaggerating”) to sell books.

If you take the time to read The Moral Landscape, you’ll see that Harris has made a sincere effort, whether or not you deem it successful, to bridge Hume’s is/ought distinction.  Therefore, to not only assume, but to publish such an unfounded assumption, that he was being deliberately dishonest, is dishonest in itself.

  1. A Scientific Step in Harris’ Bridge

Harris gives a good example of how knowledge of certain facts – knowledge acquired through the scientific method, can influence the way in which we ought to behave, or ought not behave in this case, and this example reaches beyond the purview of common sense and secular moral philosophy. I am speaking of his corporal-punishment-of-children-example (Harris, 2010, p. 12).

Discussing the biblically-derived practice of beating children – a practice which was, at least in a Western context, sown in the soil of Proverbs 13:24, along with other similar verses from that book, Harris says:

‘There are, for instance, twenty-one U.S. states that still allow corporal punishment in their schools. These are places where it is actually legal for a teacher to beat a child with a wooden board hard enough to raise large bruises and even to break the skin. Hundreds of thousands of children are subjected to this violence each year, almost exclusively in the South. Needless to say, the rationale for this behavior is explicitly religious: for the Creator of the Universe Himself has told us not to spare the rod, lest we spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13–14). However, if we are actually concerned about human well-being, and would treat children in such a way as to promote it, we might wonder whether it is generally wise to subject little boys and girls to pain, terror, and public humiliation as a means of encouraging their cognitive and emotional development. Is there any doubt that this question has an answer? Is there any doubt that it matters that we get it right? In fact, all the research indicates that corporal punishment is a disastrous practice, leading to more violence and social pathology—and, perversely, to greater support for corporal punishment.’ (Harris, 2010, p.12)

It was previously thought to be a matter of common sense to beat a disobedient child, yet, due to scientific studies and research into both the harmful psychological and detrimental sociological effects of such child abuse, we now understand why we ought not to practice this form of discipline, and this transition from is to ought, this piercing of the illusory veil between facts and values, is now reflected in the laws of numerous societies.  Now, I’m not suggesting that just because something has become a law, it somehow ascends to become moral in an absolute sense, for there are many examples which serve to undermine such a fallacious notion, but instead, what I am arguing is that Hume’s distinction between is (informative facts) and ought (normative values), is not an impenetrable veil, and the laws enacted in this regard – laws that protect the well-being of both children and society – laws that embody Hume’s ought, arose from informative facts gathered in a scientific manner.

  1. Earp’s Chimpanzee Rapists

Following Earp’s example of the chimpanzee rapists, an example he furnishes in an attempt to demonstrate that science may only describe, and that an “interface of moral philosophy and common sense” is better suited to analyse moral questions, he says:

“The domain of science is to describe nature, and then to explain its descriptions in terms of deeper patterns of laws.  Science cannot tell us how to live.  It cannot tell us right and wrong.”

Earp’s rapist chimpanzees do represent a valid example in which common sense and moral philosophy might be better equipped to answer such moral questions, yet Earp, by way of this very specific example, seeks erroneously (I won’t say dishonestly) to allege that there are no questions of morality that may be answered by science, which Harris appears to have successfully established with his corporal-punishment-example.

Further, Harris anticipated this kind of objection, saying:

‘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. And it is important to realize that our inability to answer a question says nothing about whether the question itself has an answer. Exactly how many people were bitten by mosquitoes in the last sixty seconds? How many of these people will contract malaria? How many will die as a result? Given the technical challenges involved, no team of scientists could possibly respond to such questions. And yet we know that they admit of simple numerical answers. Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? Of course not. In the same way, the fact that we may not be able to resolve specific moral dilemmas does not suggest that all competing responses to them are equally valid. In my experience, mistaking no answers in practice for no answers in principle is a great source of moral confusion.’ (Harris, 2010, p. 12)

  1. An Ill-Informed Earp

Earp goes on to break The Moral Landscape down into the following three premises:

  1. Morality is “all about” improving the well-being of conscious creatures
  2. Facts about the well-being of conscious creatures are accessible to science.
  3. Therefore science can tell us what’s objectively “moral” – that is, it can tell us whether something increases, or decreases, the well-being of conscious creatures.

Earp alleges that the first premise is a philosophical premise, not a scientific one – thus missing, or perhaps deliberately ignoring, the primary argument of Harris’ book. Earp supports his claim that the first premise is a purely philosophical premise by asking the following question: “How do you define well-being in the first place, “scientifically” or otherwise?

We might assume that Earp hasn’t actually read the book for which he is offering his ill-informed critique, because Harris goes to great lengths to explain how premise one can be evaluated in scientific terms.

The driving force behind Harris’ argument is located in his specialized field of scientific knowledge, namely, neuroscience.  I couldn’t possibly match Harris’ eloquence in stating the crux of his premise, so I’ll allow Harris to speak for himself:

‘The relevant neuroscience is in its infancy, but we know that our emotions, social interactions, and moral intuitions mutually influence one another. We grow attuned to our fellow human beings through these systems, creating culture in the process. Culture becomes a mechanism for further social, emotional, and moral development. There is simply no doubt that the human brain is the nexus of these influences. Cultural norms influence our thinking and behavior by altering the structure and function of our brains. Do you feel that sons are more desirable than daughters? Is obedience to parental authority more important than honest inquiry? Would you cease to love your child if you learned that he or she was gay? The ways parents view such questions, and the subsequent effects in the lives of their children, must translate into facts about their brains.’ (Harris, 2010, p. 18)

To understand the human brain, how it impacts upon the well-being of the individual and their surrounding social environment, is an issue that can only be answered by science.  Harris’ brain-nexus-argument, if accepted as the fact that it is, logically leads to the conclusion that science, specifically neuroscience, at least in this regard, is the best tool for analysing, guiding, and advising us on issues concerning human morality.

To cut a long story short, Harris’ first premise, as posited by Earp, is not a philosophical premise at all, it is a scientific one.

Finally, to address the oft-repeated charge of utilitarianism, repeated yet again by Earp, there are numerous defences available, not the least of which lies in the very title of the book itself.

Harris posits a multi-dimensional moral landscape with various and varying peaks (well-being) and valleys (suffering).  Harris is not proposing a single mountain, but a landscape. Once again, I will let Harris describe this landscape:

‘Throughout this book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape”—a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving—different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc…To see that multiple answers to moral questions need not pose a problem for us, consider how we currently think about food: no one would argue that there must be one right food to eat. And yet there is still an objective difference between healthy food and poison.’ (Harris, 2010, p. 15)

However, it isn’t Harris’ range of possible answers to moral questions that represents the strongest argument against utilitarianism, but science’s open-ended and ever-evolving definition of well-being. (Harris, 2010, p. 20)

To conclude, Earp’s misunderstanding and ill-informed critique of a book he has evidently not taken the time to read, represents the kind of intellectual dishonesty one would expect from a person emotionally reacting to something which has caused that person some kind of psychological suffering.  Earp isn’t religious, so what could Harris have proposed that challenged something dear to Earp’s heart? Might we cautiously presume that Harris’ destruction of the illusory wall between not only science and religion, but between science and philosophy, might be the core of the cognitive dissonance caused by Harris and experienced by Earp?  I don’t know.



Harris, S 2010, The Moral Landscape, Free Press, New York.


2 thoughts on “In Defence of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape – Refuting Brian Earp

  1. I respect Sam Harris and agree with a lot of what he says (and I’m certainly not religious). But, being interested in the discovery of truth, I don’t think you (or Sam) have really addressed how “is” and “ought” are truly bridged. It goes back to that first premise: “Morality is ‘all about’ improving the well-being of conscious creatures”. Earp is right to point out that this is a philosophical premise, although he chose the wrong way to show that. The definition of “well-being” does not necessarily have to be philosophical, but the idea that morality is “all about” well-being certainly is.

    So, we know that beating children has a host of effects on children that are different than the effects of not beating children. We choose to, or we are conditioned to call those effects “negative”, because the children are less happy, exhibit certain behaviours that are indicative of mental health issues, et cetera. But the fact that we call these effects negative and undesirable is simply a result of evolution, both biological and cultural. This is a description of how morality is, not necessarily how morality ought to be.

    How do we know that we should not actually seek to do anything possible to produce these effects we call negative? Sure no one would like that, and no one except a few nihilists would really do that, but that does not mean it is not moral.

    I am not saying that harming people is moral, I am just saying that Sam Harris really does nothing except describe the “is”—he never really gets to how this translates into the “ought”. He describes how we are essentially determined to act, that is, in favour of well-being. Then he describes how science is instrumental to serving this purpose. I agree with both of those things and Harris explains them beautifully, and there is also something to said from a pragmatic perspective of pursuing a morality that we are already “programmed” to have.

    But that does not give us a strong basis for saying that we should do what we are programmed to do. It just tells us that is what we’ll do.

  2. I’m inclined to agree with your defense overall, but I think this part of your case is weak:

    “It was previously thought to be a matter of common sense to beat a disobedient child, yet, due to scientific studies and research into both the harmful psychological and detrimental sociological effects of such child abuse, we now understand why we ought not to practice this form of discipline, and this transition from is to ought, this piercing of the illusory veil between facts and values…”

    While I agree that the veil between facts and values is illusory, this case does not demonstrate that point. In this case all parties share the same values–both Southern Bible-Beaters and Secular Non-Beaters both want children to be happy and well adjusted, and for society to be stable and crime-free. The disagreement here is a factual one: what is the best way to achieve these ends?

    To show this point, imagine a fundamentalist who DOESN’T share these values. You show him the evidence that beating children isn’t good for them and his reaction is “Uh huh, yeah, I accept that. I just don’t care. I’m not beating my children because I think it’s good for them, I beat them because the Bible tells me to.” None of that science is going to move such a person in the slightest. Ergo, the science here isn’t really settling a ‘purely moral’ question, it is simply settling a prudential question.

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