Sam Harris in his book, The moral landscape (2010), has certainly ignited discussions on morality, but did Sam Harris create his view or popularize someone else's? side== I am also curious if anyone knows (or can message me) a sort of "timeline history of morality in philosophy" so I can up my game on philosophers and their ideas/arguments surrounding morality. I know that some of USA's founding fathers are noted as making arguments for God using morality issues, but how deep back in history does this argument go?

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    Judging by Harris's own self-review of Moral Landscape in response to his critics, what he proposes is a variant of what is called ethical naturalism. What detractors would call moral scientism, in his case especially.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 7:44
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    It seems Harris's ideas stem from the ethical naturalism of Buddhism and its equivalents. His difficulty is that there is an idea going around that we cannot derive and ought from an is, and if we hold this view then his ideas will seem incoherent. Meanwhile for Buddhism and the non-dualists the only way to derive an ought is from an is. Harris seems to sit on the fence somewhere between these views and his approach view seems unusual to me. But then, I find him muddled and do not follow his work. . . .
    – user20253
    Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 11:40
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    @PeterJ: Actually, I believe Harris came to Buddhism after the fact. He began as one of the New Atheists (with Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens), arguing strongly (and not entirely fairly) against Abrahamic fundamentalism, and ended up at a quasi-Buddhist worldview because people challenged him on how far the scope of his anti-theist posture extended. But yeah, you're right, he's muddled on the philosophy. C'est la vie. Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 22:06

2 Answers 2


In short, no. Many other philosophers proposed novel innovations in moral philosophy, like Kant, Bentham, and Mill. Of course, the ideas of having rigid duties or making morality a function of consequences or universalizability tests are older than these authors, but they made significant inroads on how to do this and what the resulting ethical norms look like.

Harris is basically an ethical naturalistic and utilitarian. As such, there are many contemporary philosophers who will agree with him, and even those who don't will find his views a recognizable variant on existing ones. Harris adds nothing to the existing debates on ethical norms and theories, however; he basically wants to start pretty far down the road and ignores any need to get there from wherever we start. In particular, he keeps saying it that morality is obviously about making human life better, and that science can tell us how to do that better than religion or arbitrary rules. But he ignores the fact that 1) lots of opposing views of morality very forthrightly say that it's not just about making human life better. Harris doesn't have an argument against such people, he just assumes they're wrong and that's the end of it. Many utilitarians will like his conclusion, but they don't think you can just assume it, you need to show why it's true, which Harris doesn't even try to do. 2) We need a clear definition of what makes life "better." Even lots of people who think this is the basis of morality will argue over subjective vs. objective conceptions of betterness, and varieties within each. Again, Harris may have some particular views on what "better" or "good" life is, and some philosophers may agree with his version. But he doesn't seem to think he needs to argue for one version against another, or even that he himself has or made any choice in the matter. He doesn't seem to get that there's anything worth talking about here. As Bertrand Russell once said of some other people who just assumed some axioms and went on from there instead of saying why those particular axioms were the right ones, this strategy "has all the virtues of theft over honest toil."

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    – J D
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 17:07

I have to say Harris seems to be extraordinarily bad at philosophy. I haven't read the Moral Landscape but have listened to him talk about it. He uses the idea of a 'worst possible situation for everyone' as a supposed self evident foundation to navigate our moral thinking away from. But in doing so he presupposes a value system to call that situation the worst, and doesn't grapple with things like whether a pure/impure axis is involved in that which not everyone might see as important, or generally that no single coherent conception can be made of that 'place'. He tries to make an appeal to intuition, to obviousness, and doesn't deal with the many long discussed problems to this, like those from utilitarianism of trying to found morality on the greatest good evaluated by pleasure. Also the problems to asserting universality, and implicitly assuming there is a best way of living, which Foucault would very reasonably identify as a power-grab for a cultural imperium.

Here he is on Twitter:

Getting from “Is” to “Ought”

1/ Let’s assume that there are no ought’s or should’s in this universe. There is only what is—the totality of actual (and possible) facts.

2/ Among the myriad things that exist are conscious minds, susceptible to a vast range of actual (and possible) experiences.

3/ Unfortunately, many experiences suck. And they don’t just suck as a matter of cultural convention or personal bias—they really and truly suck. (If you doubt this, place your hand on a hot stove and report back.)

4/ Conscious minds are natural phenomena. Consequently, if we were to learn everything there is to know about physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, etc., we would know everything there is to know about making our corner of the universe suck less.

5/ If we should to do anything in this life, we should avoid what really and truly sucks. (If you consider this question-begging, consult your stove, as above.)

6/ Of course, we can be confused or mistaken about experience. Something can suck for a while, only to reveal new experiences which don’t suck at all. On these occasions we say, “At first that sucked, but it was worth it!”

7/ We can also be selfish and shortsighted. Many solutions to our problems are zero-sum (my gain will be your loss). But better solutions aren’t. (By what measure of “better”? Fewer things suck.)

8/ So what is morality? What ought sentient beings like ourselves do? Understand how the world works (facts), so that we can avoid what sucks (values).

"we would know everything there is to know about making our corner of the universe suck less."

His anti-free will stance and assumption moral decisions can be enumerated to move across the landscape, that there is a single line between morally xesirable 'hills', also seems to fall foul of being recursively enumerable, and not allowing for Godel Incompleteness. As in this line in bold where he states a specific set of facts must result in a single set of moral decisions and preferences, that there is single fully knowable set of 'moral facts'. There is also the implication of a 'hedonic calculus' as advocated by Bentham, but that leads to many well violations of what we consider to be moral, and Harris seems totally unaware of this. He's just not philosophically literate.

He has justified nuclear first strike, and torture. When challenged on these, he gets in a huff about context. But refuses to accept the real problems of what he is saying, like by justifying torture seemingly on grounds of the emotional needs of the torturer to do 'everything they can', that he is justifying something known not to work, and causing or allowing a world with horrific unjustifiable suffering, practically and morally.

He seems to rely on getting affronted and saying people don't understand his position frequently. Like in this discussion with Daniel Dennett, where he just fails to grasp what compatibilist free-will is, the majority stance of professional philosophers, and seems aggrieved to find that doing philosophy involves investigating definitions, and Dennett doesn't have that of someone holding a libertarian free will perspective.

In short he doesn't develop other people's ideas because he doesn't understand them. He shouldn't be considered a philosopher, he is a writer of popular philosophy at best (and a cognitive scientist, and student of Buddhism, on which topics he us far more respectable), using motivated reasoning to justify his intuition that being a rich white US atheist means you live in the best of all possible worlds. You won't find many serious students of philosophy familiar with his work because it takes so little investigation of them to realise they are tragically naive and ill informed.

Edit to add. You should have a look on here for the moral views of:

  • Plato & Aristotle
  • John Stuart Mill
  • David Hume
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Rousseau (a big influence on the founding fathers)

at a bare minimum

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    What does recursive enumerability and incompleteness have to do with any of this? I’m also not sure where the free will stuff and enumerability of moral truths is coming from. Is there some quote or short description you can give of what you’re talking about there?
    – Dennis
    Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 20:33
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    @Dennis: It's this philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/31726/… By appealing to a landscape, Harris is replacing the binary with some kind of 'suck vector', but it categorically fails to deal with this all the same. This Godel Incompleteness is a major critique of 'no free will' based on us being rules based (ie governed by causal elements) Turing Machines. For me Hofstadter's Strange Loop model is the way out of that, to model consciousness in a way that accounts for it tackling Incompleteness (and emergentism as causal)
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 22, 2020 at 6:07
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    But what is (rightly) pointed out is that there is no trivial application of incompleteness to ethics since ethical theories are typically not given in formal systems with recursively enumerable theorem sets including Robinson arithmetic. Assuming that the ethical system in question meets the requirements to apply incompleteness is a highly nontrivial assumption.
    – Dennis
    Commented Mar 22, 2020 at 6:14
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    @Dennis: Yes exactly! No one but Harris since the Logical Positivists thinks morality can be reduced to a set of logical experimentally verifiable rules. Because any such set of rules could never be complete. So saying that is how we should, or even can do morality is a total non-starter. My point in that discussion was morals aren't rules with unchanging objective aims, they are contextual heuristics to cope with living together. We can't perfect morality and automatically get utopia. We have to muddle along together, learning as we go.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 22, 2020 at 6:26
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    @CriglCragl I might well be misunderstanding something here but what does your last comment have to do with GIT? Doesn't the incompleteness refer to the arithmatic part of a fixed, recursive axiomatic system? In the case of something like a moral system you can just add another axiom. The system is not fixed so what does GIT have to do with it at all?
    – syntonicC
    Commented Mar 25, 2020 at 0:40

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