Sam Harris and the Dangerous Quest

I’m beginning to understand Sam Harris’ argument. He’s seeking an alternative to religion as the basis for morality, and he’s seeing morality as the core issue of our time. In a presentation and lengthy discussion at the Edge Foundation conference on The New Science of Morality, Harris explained that he wants science to take on the project of moral persuasion.

How can we persuade all of the people who are committed to silly and harmful things in the name of “morality” to change their commitments, to have different goals in life, and to lead better lives? I think that this third project is actually the most important project facing humanity at this point in time.

It subsumes everything else we could care about — from arresting climate change, to stopping nuclear proliferation, to curing cancer, to saving the whales. Any effort that requires that we collectively get our priorities straight and marshal massive commitments of time and resources would fall within the scope of this project. To build a viable global civilization we must begin to converge on the same economic, political, and environmental goals.

I agree with Harris that the foundation of almost all suffering may well be our human inability to understand how to act morally and to act on that knowledge. However, I’m not certain science — or as Harris explains — a scientific approach is the answer. My year-long search for goodness is, at least in part, my quest to understand this problem and to glimpse possible answers.

But the more I listen to Harris, the more I see the danger of our shared quest. Human experience is littered with the bodies and minds of those who have been sacrificed on the altar of Moral Right. (Think Taliban. Think Ugandan anti-gay lawmakers. Think genocide: I’m right. You’re wrong. Therefore, you must do what I say.)

I suspect that it’s fear of the errors of the past (and sometimes of the present) that makes so many people shy away from the topic of morality. And yet, the problem we’re considering — that sinking, awful lack of morality that’s crippling society — is real.

How do we do this morality thing in a way that actually helps people, instead of hurting them?

This entry was posted in Becoming Good, good vs. evil, morality and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Sam Harris and the Dangerous Quest

  1. Carolyn says:


    I have to write to say how much I am enjoying — really “thinking from” / “getting from” — your writings. Your point of view is so vast and open that I feel both completely understood and pointedly challenged by you, a pretty damn remarkable combo.

    In at least a small way, you’re taking me on the journey with you.

    Thank you for that.


  2. dianesilver says:


    Thanks so much for these kind words. You just made my day!

  3. Darrell Icenogle says:

    If you haven’t seen it, watch his TED talk. He makes his case more fully. At one point, he’s nearly overcome with emotion. The Q&A session is revealing.

    I’m not convinced he can get very far past the polar choices that he presents, or even that he’s really speaking to a scientific domain. Still, he seems onto something.

  4. Darrell Icenogle says:

    > Human experience is littered with the bodies and minds of those who have been sacrificed on the altar of Moral Right.

    In 1973, Jacob Bronowski made this point in an unforgettable way. Speaking on the topic of “Knowledge or Certainty” in the “Ascent of Man” series, he’s standing in front of a pond at Auschwitz where ashes from the crematorium were flushed. At one point, he simply begins wading into the pond, in his dress shoes and suit, and pulls up two handfulls of muck from the bottom.

    “When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality–this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

    “Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge or error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we *can* know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

  5. I’ve always believed that a system of ethics should be the underpinning of life, and that religion is not a necessary component of ethics. I’m curious about Harris’s ideas on science, though in my own life I’ve drawn on Aikido as my primary source of ethical behavior. That is, I have turned to a different philosophical system that is based neither in science or religion. (I keep thinking of this line from a Butch Hancock song: “When a man of the cloth and a man of science meet a man who stands in full defiance …”)

  6. dianesilver says:

    Darrell – Thanks so much for passing on the Bronowski quote. I remember watching the series, but had forgotten that. The point Bronowski makes is why I’m beginning to wonder if I should change my blog tagline to “365 days to answer a dangerous question.” If any of us settles on a definition of “good” or “morality,” and then refuses to be open to the idea that we might be wrong, then don’t we just set ourselves up to recreate the horrors of the past?

    Harris seems to be arguing that us frail, flawed humans can use the tools of scientific inquiry to answer my question about goodness. Since science has so often been wrong, that’s a frightening thought, but it may be one way to move forward. I’m still reserving judgment until I read Harris’ new book. By the way, I did see the TED talk. While it was inspiring, I also thought it was too limited. There wasn’t enough detail for me to understand exactly what he’s proposing. He does better in a lengthy written response to his critics. I also like the discussion I linked to in my post. It’s much more detailed than anything on TED.

    Nancy Jane – Thanks for the perspective. I know a little about Aikido as a martial art, but I had no idea it came with a system of ethics. Could you enlighten us? Thanks!

  7. Darrell Icenogle says:

    A telling aspect of Sam Harris’s philosophy, evident in both the Edge conference, and the TED talk, is that someone who reports to be happy and flourishing may simply be delusional, and under the spell of someone who is immoral and manipulative. How does that not pull the rug out from under the only criterion he gives us for being able to distinguish between good and evil?

    Perhaps he more fully answers that question in the answer to his critics that you mentioned, and that I will read.

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  9. Aikido principles are too large a topic for the comment slot on a blog — especially when the commenter hasn’t had supper yet! So I’ll just toss out one idea: The highest ideal in Aikido is to respond to an attack by saving yourself and your attacker.
    While people write about Aikido principles all the time — I’ll search out some books that might interest you — the best way to truly understand these principles is through training. Your body learns certain things, and it translates into the rest of your life. Just as an example: Years ago, when I was struggling with the technique ikkyo (which means first technique and takes a lifetime to understand), I began to understand that when I came in too hard, I met resistance, while when I moved off the line a little and used a spiral with my arms (it’s really easier to show this than to explain it), I could get my partner to cooperate with me. And then I began to apply the same idea in dealing with officials of the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. I had a particular problem there, because they weren’t lawyers and I was. I was there representing my clients, so I tended to take a forceful stance, one that would not have fazed another lawyer, but which often put off non-lawyers. One day I watched them literally back up, and realized that I had unintentionally come on too strong. As I learned to moderate my style (while still taking care of my clients), I had better results. And everything was much more civilized.
    I hope that gives you some idea of what I’m talking about.

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