The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris, Bantam Press, RRP£13.99, 291 pages
Sam Harris thinks we can be moral scientifically. We need, he says, to construct a new discipline: a “science of human flourishing”. By understanding the brain more fully – Harris trained both as a philosopher and as a neuroscientist – we can see what the process of becoming better people entails and make the changes to encourage that process. “There is,” he writes, “simply no question that how we speak about human values – and how we study, or fail to study, the relevant phenomena at the level of the brain – will profoundly influence our collective future.” His certainty is most evident when he argues, repeatedly, that human flourishing and better moral choices can be definitively and objectively established: we can know what is better for us, in heart and soul and brain as well as body.
Harris works largely through examples, almost parables – though this is not a word someone as adamantine against religion as he would like. One of these is about the Dobu Islanders of Papua New Guinea, who exhibit (in the words of the anthropologist Ruth Benedict) “extreme forms of animosity and malignancy”. Harris thinks we can say something definite about the Dobu: that is, that they do not know how to live morally and flourish, and that if they think their way of life is good, they are wrong. “Just as it is possible for individuals and groups to be wrong about how best to maintain their physical health, it is possible for them to be wrong about how to maximise their personal and social well-being.”
There is no way out of this through relativism. One of the book’s most sustained and insistent arguments is against seeing societies as “right for themselves” and, thus, refusing to judge them. Burka-wearing, for example, should not be viewed as a custom, but as an imposition on women that will not make them, or their children, more compassionate, contented and able to have better relationships. Only those women who – on the basis of access to all relevant information and without fear that their choice will harm them – individually choose to wear a burka can be held to be free in that choice (a position similar to that taken by the French state).
Harris suggests that those without this freedom are wrong if they advocate the practice – just as Sun Yaoting, the last imperial Chinese eunuch who died in 1996 at the age of 94, was wrong to regret, as he did, the passing of an imperial system that had cut off his childish genitalia using chili sauce as an anaesthetic.
The advances in neuroscience, about which he says too little, have begun to show us what activity moral choice stimulates in the brain. One of these findings is that the medial pre-frontal cortex, where much of the sorting of our intellectual and emotional states goes on, shows the same activity when dealing with a fact, such as a maths problem, as it does with a moral contention, such as that “cruelty is wrong”. For Harris, a fact has a moral basis in its truth.
In his End of Faith (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), and in the frequent controversies in which he has been embroiled, Harris has been militant against religion – especially against Islam, with which he believes the west is at war and which he sees as a religion inclined to violence and intolerance. This has led him to call for a ban on the building of a mosque near Ground Zero – a view with which I strongly disagree, as I do with his belief that Islam cannot be practised moderately, by men and women who ignore the murderous prejudice that litters their sacred texts – as do moderate Christians. To be sure, moderate Muslims – that is, followers of Islam who have substantially diluted their faith with enlightenment and liberal values, by which they will live – are often more at risk for defying their texts and proclaiming moderation.
For all that, this is an inspiring book, holding out as it does the possibility of a rational understanding of how to construct the good life with the aid of science, free from the accretions of religious superstition and cultural coercion. Harris can be repetitive and dogmatic. But he has glimpsed a world where morality is brought up to the truly human level, and the straining is part of his impatience to see it realised.
John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor
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