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The Science of Right and Wrong

Charles Ommanney/Getty Images
Sam Harris, right, with the evangelical pastor Rick Warren at a group discussion on religion and faith at Warren’s Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California, March 2007


Once upon a time popular science was the attempt to explain the achievements of scientists to a broad audience. This was a noble endeavor that performed a useful function. How else was the public to learn what physicists, chemists, or biologists had accomplished? Recently, however, a new genre of popular science has appeared, one that shifts the tense from past to future. These new books focus on the great things that science will achieve, and allegedly soon. Thus, before the human genome was sequenced, we were treated to talk about how the project was destined to change our view of humanity. (One hears considerably less about this now, after the fact.) The latest entry in this new genre of popular science is Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.

Harris was trained as a neuroscientist and received his doctoral degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2009. He is best known as the author of two previous books. In 2004, he published The End of Faith, a fierce attack on organized religion. The book, which propelled Harris from near obscurity to near stardom—he has appeared on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The O’Reilly Factor—is one of the canonical works of the New Atheist movement, along with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006). Harris seemed mostly to play the part of polemicist in the movement. He possesses a sharp wit and an even sharper pen, and his attacks on mainstream religion had a scorched-earth intensity. In 2006, Harris followed this up with Letter to a Christian Nation, an uncompromising response to his Christian critics.

In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Harris shifts his sights somewhat. He is now concerned with the sorry state of moral thinking among both religious and secular people in the West. While the former are convinced that moral truths are handed down from on high, the latter are perpetually muddled, frequently believing that morals are relative, the product of arbitrary tradition and social conditioning. Harris hopes to sweep aside both kinds of confusion, convincing his readers that objective moral truths exist and that we possess a (properly secular) means for discovering them.

It may not come as a surprise that Harris thinks these required means are scientific. Science, he insists, will someday show us the way to the good life. Harris’s claims are both bold and, as expected from his previous writings, plainly put: “I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” Indeed, as the subtitle of his book promises, he will show “how science can determine human values.” Though Harris concedes that the science required for this…

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