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The Moral Landscape

How Science Can Determine Human Values

By Sam Harris
15-minute read
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris

These blinks explore cutting-edge research in neuroscience and philosophy to explain human morality. Harris argues that morality can best be explored using scientific inquiry, rather than relying on religious dogma or theology.

  • Anyone interested in morality and ethics
  • Anyone interested in neuroscience and the brain
  • Anyone concerned with making the world a better place

Sam Harris has authored a number of the New York Times bestsellers, such as The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation and Free Will. In addition, Harris is co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit foundation Project Reason, which aims to promote scientific knowledge and secular values within society.

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The Moral Landscape

How Science Can Determine Human Values

By Sam Harris
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris
Synopsis

These blinks explore cutting-edge research in neuroscience and philosophy to explain human morality. Harris argues that morality can best be explored using scientific inquiry, rather than relying on religious dogma or theology.

Key idea 1 of 9

Morality isn’t supernatural: it’s governed by physical and chemical processes in our brains.

Most people have a sense of morality and will readily proclaim, for example, that helping people is right but killing them is wrong. You’re probably nodding in agreement in your seat right now, right?

But have you ever paused to think about where morality comes from?

Many people believe that morality has been derived from religious teachings and was originally determined by a divine power. However, the more we understand about the brain, the more we see that morality is actually a completely natural consequence of our neurology.

So let’s examine the brain more closely: it turns out that there’s nothing mystical about it and, like all our other organs, it functions only through chemical, electrical and physical processes, for example, the release of dopamine or a firing synapse.

These processes together form our brain state: a physical state which reflects how we’re experiencing the world at that moment. These brain states are near universal to all humans, which means that if you examine the brains of two people who both feel sad, for example, the brain states will have the same pattern.

This physicality means that morality can also be traced back to brain states: we decide whether an action is moral or immoral by discerning whether it makes us feel good or not, and the brain state of “feeling good” is induced by the regulation of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.

For example, cooperating with someone is an action that typically makes us feel good. It’s no surprise then that feeding the hungry (cooperative behavior) is usually considered more moral than letting them starve, which entails no cooperation at all.

The fact that brain states determine how we perceive the morality of actions means that the only possible way to approach moral questions is through our understanding of the brain. This approach can offer us far more useable knowledge about morality than the anecdotes and parables in ancient religious texts.

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