In late 2010, Sam Harris, famed atheist public thinker, published what may be considered his magnum opus. “The Moral Landscape”, a then New York Times bestseller, attempts to argue that science can be used to observe human values. In it, Harris lays out what he believes to be a landscape of peaks and valleys upon which the entirety of human morality may be mapped out. He calls this place, you guessed it, the moral landscape.
Though the concept may seem novel at first, one must only harken back to the 19th century to find another famous atheist who laid out his own conception of the moral landscape.
In 1885, Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” was published. This book was vastly different than all of Nietzsche’s prior works in that this was his lone novel. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” had characters, settings, a definite, albeit rather hard to follow, plot. It was not mere philosophical declaration, but rather philosophical novelization.
This novelization, it seems, is the greatest gulf that exists between Harris and Nietzsche.
Nietzsche’s moral landscape is a place brought to life. This makes it an actual setting where action may take place, as opposed to Harris’ moral landscape that is a place of mere theory. This may seem a trivial distinction, but the difference allows Nietzsche to use symbolism to illustrate theoretical human action, behavior, and motive within the moral landscape. Harris’ depiction allows for no such thing. Instead his conception seems a flighty, ill-wrought drawing on a dive bar napkin; it brings to mind images of algebraic charts and graphs. Harris’ moral landscape is never brought to life because there is nothing to bring to life. For Sam Harris morals are not complex entities that need to be brought to life through story, but rather points to be mapped out like ships in a game of Battleship.
For now, though, allow our focus to return to Nietzsche’s conception of this moral landscape. It is depicted as a desert. There is nothing there but sand, and a grand dragon with golden scales, upon which shines the phrase “Thou shalt”. For Nietzsche, the arena in which human morality is played out is lifeless, void of biodiversity, and policed by a mystical, fairy tale creature born of the human imagination; there exists no growth, only a guardian of tradition. Nietzsche posits a three stage metamorphosis within this desert so that mankind may move forward, so that we may will our way out of this desert.
He begins, “There are many heavy things for the spirit, for the strong, weight-bearing spirit in which dwell respect and awe: its strength longs for the heavy, for the heaviest.
What is heavy? Thus asks the weight bearing spirit, thus it kneels down like the camel and wants to be well laden
What is the heaviest thing, you heroes? So asks the weight-bearing spirt, that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength.”
From here we can begin to understand Nietzsche’s project. Within this desert, man must first become like the camel so that he may rediscover, realize, and rejoice in his strength. As the camel man will take all upon him that he can so as to realize how strong he truly is. This makes sense for a man whose guiding light, whose chief value is power. The symbolism makes sense as well. In the Bible the camel is indeed the animal used for load bearing and long journeys.
Nietzsche goes on to explain why simply bearing a burden would not be enough. He continues, “But in the loneliest desert the second metamorphosis occurs: the spirit here becomes a lion, it wants to capture freedom and be lord in its own desert.”
To capture and to lord over are certainly to actions the king of the jungle would be capable of. Again, Nietzsche poignantly and accurately uses symbolic language. And logic would follow that if one wanted to will their way to power, will their way to a new set of values, they would indeed have to be free to do so.
The explanation goes on, “It seeks here its ultimate lord: it will be an enemy to him and to its ultimate God, it will struggle for victory with the great dragon. What is the great dragon which the spirit no longer wants to call lord and God? The great dragon is called ‘Thou shalt’. But the spirit of the lion says ‘I will!’
Nietzsche takes God, and boils his existence down to an ultimate principle represented in a great dragon. The language of ‘Thou shalt’, the language of commandment, is said to be written on this dragons scales. Nietzsche and his lion no longer want to be subservient to a god, but want to be the enemy of God.
Next, we may observe what truly makes this desolate desert guarded by a dragon a moral landscape in the same vein as Sam Harris’ conception.
“Values of a thousand years glitter on the scales, and thus speaks the mightiest of all dragons: ‘All the values of things-glitter on me. ‘All values have already been created, and all created values-are in me. Truly, there shall be no more “I Will!” ‘ Thus speaks the dragon.” My brothers, why is the lion needed in the spirit? Why does the beast of burden, that renounces and is reverent, not suffice? To create new values – even the lion is incapable of that: but to create itself freedom for new creation – that the might of the lion can do…To seize the right to new values – that is the most terrible proceeding for a weight-bearing and reverential spirit. Truly, to this spirit it is a work of theft and a work for an animal of prey.”
There is much to unpack here, and a lot that could be unpacked that I won’t touch. Our focus will be on the nature of values laid out by Nietzsche. As stated previously, the dragon here is God, and thousands of years of values had hitherto been derived from him. The God-dragon proclaims that after him there are no values to be discovered. All that humans value, thus all of human morality, glittered up his scales and commanded men.
Immediately, Nietzsche proclaims his goal: to create new values. This is the entire reason the second stage of metamorphosis – becoming a lion -is needed. The lion must rip and roar its way through this desert landscape, presumably to tear the dragon to bits, so that it may “…seize the right to new values.”
From here there can be no doubt, Nietzsche absolutely saw values and morality derived from God as a hinderance that had held man from his true potential for too long. He also saw values and morality as a treatise man could set out for himself, if only he could theorize a way to obtain the freedom necessary to do so.
Thus far, Nietzsche has coached man how to find the strength necessary to move on from God into the moral wilderness, seize the freedom to create from the great dragon, but once man has grasped such freedom, how will he create?
Nietzsche explains, “But tell me, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion cannot? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes. Yes, a sacred Yes is needed, my brothers, for the sport of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, the spirit sundered from the world now wins its own world.”
Jesus made the same call to man in Matthew 18:1-3. “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ “
In children, there is a purity; they exist as naive, almost empty, vessels that have neither a pure morality nor a corrupted one. Children are the next generation personified, they are pure potential. Nietzsche takes this Christian principle and reimagines it. He also recognizes this raw potential. He even calls on men and women just as Christ did to become like children again. The only difference is Nietzsche calls upon us to become like children again only after we have destroyed God as the conduit from which we draw value, so that we may use the raw potential of childlike wonder to reimagine our own values.
Now, what of Harris’ conception? Harris spends hundred of pages telling us that perhaps someday science will be able to observe human values. He does not once share with us how science will theoretically observe a metaphysical instantiation of reality because, well, he can’t. This is where a reasonable man would have stopped writing; Sam Harris persisted. Harris rails against moral subjectivism, sure. But an atheist has no ground upon which he can plant a flag of moral objectivity. Thus, Harris’ answers with the hope that mother science can one day do the dirty work. He finds himself in this strange middle ground where moral relativism is foolish, but moral objectivity is impossible until science can be used to observe human values. “The Moral Landscape” lacks and and all symbolism as well. This renders the book a lifeless and grey middle school book report. The book offers nothing actionable to its readers. In this way it stands in total opposition to the Bible and even to Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” Jesus and Nietzsche made a call to readers to go out into the world and be something. Sam Harris makes a call to his readers to wait until science is capable enough to tell us what we ought to be. He doesn’t think you need story, symbolism, and narrative because, well, you have Sam Harris.
To be clear, Nietzsche’s attempt at re-imagining the moral landscape was anti-Christian, no doubt, but a place of potential action nonetheless. As stated earlier, Nietzsche stepped away from mere theory to write a novel; he also stepped away from mere theory in an attempt to give people a serviceable starting point from which man could become something beyond Christ. This is much more than Sam Harris tried to do. There is nothing to analyze from “The Moral Landscape.” It is bloated theory that reads like a manual on how to assemble an Ikea dresser. The truth is, it appears Sam Harris did not quite understand what he was doing when he wrote “The Moral Landscape”: teaching people how to be moral. He is, after all, a man who has not even bothered reading the literary and philosophical giants that came before him(Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, etc.), for if he had, he would not have wasted his time writing a far less imaginative, far less useful refutation of Christ than the one Nietzsche wrote nearly one hundred and fifty years ago.