8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best approach I have heard of
Lets get a few things out of the way.
If you actually understand what Mr Harris is saying (which many negative reviewers clearly did not) you should understand this:
1) He does not advocate moral relativism in the sense that 'anything goes'. He clearly outlines what he means by morals and then goes on to describe a framework for identifying those...
Published on May 11 2011 by Bitfiddler
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking but not an answer to much
I read this book in a single night due to a particularly vicious episode of insomnia. Admittedly, this is probably not the best frame of mind to read a book as complicated as this but I was still able to read it from cover to cover without getting too terribly lost. My final conclusion after the first reading is that the book was thought provoking enough to warrant a...
Published on Jan 5 2011 by C. J. Thompson
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great read on a topic that needs more emphasis & clarity,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)I've listened to the CD version of this book a couple times now on my commute to and from work. As Harris has a wife and daughter, he has a vested interest in making the world a better place using his intellect and background as a neuroscientist. While maintaining his intellectual honesty and collegial respectability as an atheist, he must also make a case that morality is not merely subjective, and that all opinions on issues of morality, however complex, cannot have equal weighting. In essence, there are moral truths that can be found scientifically, as science can be tied to the continuum of happiness to suffering in conscious creatures (namely humans). He argues for a utilitarian consequentialism, while deftly dodging the criticisms of (the fundamental flaw of strict atheism) moral relativity, as well as moral preference, and of course morality on the basis of religious authority. I particularly like his example of a fictional society whose religion teaches that every third shall walk in darkness, justifying the 'plucking out of the eyes' of every 3rd child.(Obama's advisor on human bioethics actually relays to Sam in conversation that this society would be morally justified in this mandate, which Sam finds abhorrent, and I agree).
While his diatribe against Francis Collins is mostly correct, though harsh, I don't think he has quite ruled out the possibility of non-revealed religion (a la Thomas Paine, Spinoza and company). If he really thinks there are morally objective truths, without there being a god, he is sadly mistaken. In Bryson's, 'A Brief History of Nearly Everything', he talks about the origin of DNA (and though scientists haven't found it yet), the molecule just wants to exist (and replicate), and we organisms are just hosts for these replicators. In a materialistic world where there are no goals, and chaos reigns supreme, I find it extremely unlikely that anything could arise out of this prebiotic world to desire anything. So too, I disagree with Harris' assertion that there is a 'moral truth' that can be devised arising from nothing at all, with no top-down topology. As Einstein stated, "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." Our minds, after all, are the result of evolution, so our understanding of the nature of things is limited.
I think he is treading dangerously close to the theistic waters. You can't have it both ways Sam! (moral truth still requires God, even if that truth requires an amount of pain in this world you reject) His reasoning on this subject will be tested in his debate with WLC later this year, I am sure.
Overall, still a fantastic book I recommend to anyone concerned with religion, ethics, and the progress that science is making in the cognitive & behavioral fields of humanity.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Successful elaboration of how science can guide morality.,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)Good and evil guided by science: What a concept!
Sam Harris' arguments are clear and impressive.
I thoroughly enjoy his depth of intelligence and the style of his speech on the subject of what is right and wrong.
Great author, great speaker.
I learned something important, good and helpful reading this book.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disoriented on the moral landscape,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)I'm of 2 minds about this book. It is written well enough and is clear enough as far as it goes. It's not a nasty book - I'm sure it would be offensive to many of religious persuasion but I frankly didn't find it as bad as what I might have expected. I appreciate Harris' concern with moral issues and his dismissal of moral relativism is refreshing. Frankly, Harris deserves a lot of credit for attacking a subject many scientists (and other thinkers for that matter) won't approach.
But does he prove his thesis - that science can determine human values? Not really - he relativizes things with his "multiple peaks" of well-being and he tends to stack his deck by focusing on extreme situations. I really find it hard to see how his theory could be applied in more sticky situations where it isn't clear at all what improves "well-being". Also, in spite of Harris' best efforts, the concept of well-being remains one that is rather murky.
Harris' position being what it is, he has to discredit religion. So he spends a chapter on that. This chapter was necessary for him to prove religion unnecessary but at the same time does little for his larger case. By the time I finished the book, I was not terribly enlightened. I also find it troubling that Harris (and others of his ilk) insist on emphasizing religion's worst failings and insisting that these are representative of the essence of religion. That's sort of like insisting Stalin represents the essence of atheism. Not terribly useful.
So Harris deserves credit for his courage - and this is a thought-provoking book in spite its flaws. I'm afraid, though, that in the cold light of reality, we must insist that Harris has accomplished little here. But give him credit, in the last chapter he (sort of, not really) concedes that it may be possible that he is wrong. So maybe he does have some humility after all. We could use more people like that.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provocation at it's best.,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)Right from the intro, Sam's provocative discussion grabs and challenges. Sure to be a conversation starter, or stopper depending on the crowd.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolutely better moral framework,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)This book sets a very solid foundation for a science of morals. Sam Harris has a way to cut through the issues and extract the important details. I have always found discussion of morals missing a few key ingredients, but Harris addresses them all with clarity and humility. Don't get me wrong, he aims big -- very big, but he avoids grandiose claims.
The essence of the proposed moral framework is the definition of morality is that which improves human well-being. Indeed, this isn't everyone's definition, and Harris doesn't hide from that fact. But he discusses it in the context of which features of a definition of morality are defensible and which are not. From this definition, the rest of the book falls into place, and indeed both a science of morality and a moral absolutism can be derived from it. Harris does not claim that determining rules of morality by this method will be easy, far from it. But the difficulty, or impossibility, of measuring or predicting cause-effect outcomes on human well-being does not mean the principle itself is flawed. If we cannot determine an outcome for a particular scenario, and hence cannot determine a moral course of action, that does not mean that inserting answers by other methods (such as dogma) are better in any way. That sort of "morality of gaps" is very analogous to the "god of gaps" in scientific knowledge. Bad information is worse than no information, and admitting we don't know the answer to something is better than making one up, particularly when people make up different answers. Moreover, such ability to make determinations can change over time and contributing factors become clearer, as is the case in complex and chaotic systems. I can't determine what the weather will be in my city 1 year from today, but that doesn't mean making up an answer is helpful, and I can make a fairly accurate prediction if I wait until a few days beforehand to re-evaluate the conditions.
Harris attacks moral relativism and points out it is based on a fallacy of incredulity. Since people cannot, or could not, think of a fundamental basis for morality, that does not justify holding all cultural morality systems as equal. Likewise, the difficulty in defining "well-being" -- both individualistically and statistically -- does not negate the argument for its use as a moral foundation. Harris points out that the same problem exists in a variety of fields. The fact that we cannot all agree on a strictly bounded definition of health does not stop us from making absolute measurements and improvements of health, even if there are fuzzy boundaries where answers are less clear. Even the statistical problem is not a show-stopper. How does one measure "well-being"? If a course of action improves the "well-being" of 99% of people but makes 1% worse off, is that an improvement? This is a red herring though, as it is simply the age-old statistical problem of aggregate and distribution. The same problem is true of standard of living. An increase of total and average standard of living can occur by a few getting hyper-wealthy while the majority get worse off, or by everyone improving equally, and all sorts of distributions in between. But that doesn't stop us from improving our standard of living, or evaluating good and bad methods of doing so. Additionally, there may be multiple solutions of equal value. The existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape in terms of behaviours, and peaks of the same height of well-being, means that there can be multiple answers. That doesn't negate the principle either. Going up one of the peaks is still an improvement in morality if we currently aren't on one.
Perhaps the most interesting contribution of the book, in my opinion, is addressing morality in science. In the past, many thinkers have suggested that science has no place in morality, most notably scientists such as Steven J. Gould. Many scientists still believe that nowadays, and certainly the moral relativity of social science is rife with it. I had thought this sort of thinking had been put to bed with evolutionary psychology. A large part of our moral behaviours and moral judgments are strategic solutions to social game theory problems. Although not the first, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene discusses the evolution of behaviours and judgments we call "moral" in terms of the "tit-for-tat" optimization of the Iterated Prisoners Dilemma, a circumstance that models many social interactions. In fact, I had hoped Harris would spend more time on this topic, and particularly in addressing the differences between innate moral behaviours (e.g., altruism) and moral judgments of others. The fact we don't cut in line is interesting but understandable in a tit-for-tat sense. The fact we wish to punish people who cut in front of us is even more understandable in that it costs us directly. What is more interesting is that we innately wish to punish people that cut into somebody else's line, and that we wish to punish the people in that line who fail to punish the person who cut in. The most interesting is when we have those judgments of others but feel justified ourselves in cutting in line sometimes, especially if we won't get caught. Such hypocrisy does have some evolutionary explanation.
That isn't to say it is good, as "natural" does not necessarily mean "good". And this is how Harris sidesteps the whole evolutionary discussion above. He simply points out that "intuitive morality" via evolution is no more correct than "intuitive physics". Natural selection pressures might have lead us to some social rules of thumb that are good enough, and counter-balanced by others, but this doesn't mean they are the best answers for our own well-being. The same is true of intuitive physics, as it is often quite wrong but a good enough approximation for the sorts of activities that drove our evolution. (The same has been said for many "spiritual" intuitions, such as assuming a rustling in the leaves is the result of an intentional agent rather than the wind. A false positive is inherently safer than a false negative under such circumstances.)
This book has reset my basis for philosophical evaluation of morality. I had previously focused on the moral absolutism of game theory solutions, and indeed those outcomes do fit into Harris' well-being-based framework. But after reading this book I have moved back one step to a more basic and generalized definition. I concur with Harris' framework.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lost in the Moral Landscape,
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)The premise of this book is that science can determine moral values; that reason can be used to help us decide what is morally true and that the disagreements between cultures as to moral truths can be resolved by the application of reason and evidence. Although this is a thought provoking and fascinating attempt to establish this, Sam Harris does not prove his thesis. His secondary aim, to clear the way by showing how other attempts either to establish moral truths through non-rational means or to deny that there are such things as moral truths, are more successful. It is easier to find flaws in others' arguments than to construct a water-tight one of one's own.
One central theme is the idea that morality is just a question of human well-being. While I agree that this is a central concept, the challenge is that this is too difficult to define, if only because humans differ in what makes for well-being for them. Harris does not show how science can help us make trade-offs between different people and their wants and needs. He admits that he does not know how some of these can work (he quotes Churchland with approval: 'no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs of two') and while an early work on the topic cannot answer every such question, there are no examples of how science could be used to assess any questions of this type.
Nevertheless, in spite of this fundamental shortfall, I recommend the book as being a pioneering work in showing at least that science and reason can be much more helpful in supporting our quest for moral agreement in the world, and in skewering many of the arguments against this point of view.
The book is easy to read, given the difficulty of some of the subject matter and certainly stimulates debate.
5.0 out of 5 stars Why not a science of morality?,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)This book does not nearly reach the philosophical depths that its subject matter allows. For many readers, this is a very good thing.
The subtitle reads "How science can determine human values". The book does not, however, go into much detail about the relevant philosophical moves required to begin to define values as Harris suggests. That is not to say that Harris' interest in philosophy does not come through at all, but for better or for worse, the philosophy is at the level you would expect from scientists more interested in science, and in this case, appraising society's norms.
Harris's interest in neuroscience provides multiple startling glimpses into the human mind. He shares ideas challenging some forms of free will, and questioning whether we really feel empathy the way that we think we do. On the other hand, his distrust of all religions is more of a distraction than an addition to his case - not quite worthy of the time it is given in the book.
Sam Harris's idea of a "Moral Landscape", by his own admission, is just the beginning of a groundwork for a scientific, practical approach to morals. The book will leave some readers craving for modern philosophers' views on Ethical Naturalism - but that might not be so bad. Harris's latest book is extremely entertaining, and is a fine, if casual approach to the question "Why COULDN'T we have a science of morality?"
5.0 out of 5 stars Imagine......,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)... all the people living life in peace. I really appreciate Dr. Harris taking on this much-needed study (unfortunately, it seems dangerous to be an intellectual within a species seemingly dominated by superstition, and divisive ones at that). Are we, as a species, brave enough to trust our own abilities of investigation and reason? What a novel thought! I hope so.
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)The book is pretty good, but I'm left uneasy by Sam's thrashing of Jonathan Haidt's theory. I think Haidt has it exactly right. From Wikipedia:
"His Moral Foundations Theory looks at the way morality varies between cultures and identifies five fundamental moral values shared to a greater or lesser degree by different societies and individuals.
These are: 1. Care for others, protecting them from harm. (He also referred to this dimension as Harm.) 2. Fairness, Justice, treating others equally. 3. Loyalty to your group, family, nation. (He also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.) 4. Respect for tradition and legitimate authority. (He also referred to this dimension as Authority.) 5. Purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.
Haidt found that Americans who identified as liberals tend to value care and fairness considerably higher than loyalty, respect, and purity. Self-identified conservative Americans value all five values more equally, though at a lower level across the five than the liberal concern for care and fairness. Both groups gave care the highest over-all weighting, but conservatives valued fairness the lowest, whereas liberals valued purity the lowest. Similar results were found across the political spectrum in other countries."
Sam thinks 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all ultimately related to item 1. Looking around me, this seems absurd.
2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is now my bible,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)I'm just past the half way point. This book is just as good if not better than his other book the End of Faith.
As a debater I'd hate to have to try to go against Mr. Harris He makes some really amazing points that will make it difficult for any religious person to honestly deal with and still follow their faith.
My only criticism is that he tends to show off his vocabulary and this may turn off some readers not use to higher English. It still gets 5 out of 5 though.
I hope this book gets translated into as many languages as possible.
This book oozes with rationalism and I think it has the potential to change and save the world from peoples obsession to hold onto mythology as fact.
He doesn't preach Atheism which is a good thing because that is a form of irrational religious faith as well. He promotes "well being" for all. In my opinion that's a hard thing to criticize.
Any opponent of organized religion needs to have this book in their arsenal.
Long live Sam Harris
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The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris (Hardcover - Oct 5 2010)
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