on October 8, 2010
In End Of Faith, Harris poked around in the box marked "Religion" and, with a brilliant wit and the clarity of a well-refined anger, showed much of its content to be rank and not worth keeping.
In The Moral Landscape, he again notes the challenges religion presents, this time to the discussion of morals, but he also opens up the box marked "Science" and hauls out some of the stuff in it that threatens to taint the whole collection. By getting it out of the way, he clears for all of us a path by which we might achieve a civilization bounded by empathy and goodwill and in which the chasm that has existed between "facts and values - and therefore between science and morality" is bridged.
And again, Harris's particularly brilliant wit allows us to enjoy ourselves all the way to the refreshing clarity his wisdom offers.
Make no mistake about it, this book is an ambitious book. Harris challenges the long-held assertion that morals are for religion and culture, outside of the realm of science. In other words, science can reveal the way we behave, and why (in fact, evolutionary psychology and related disciplines are doing just that), but it can't tell us how we SHOULD behave. Harris claims that science can. That science should.
To paraphrase, Harris uses two logical statements to support this assertion:
1- Some states produce more well-being/happiness/goodness then others.
2- These states depend on physical events that are predictable.
This means science can tell us how to achieve (via morals) well-being. For example, allowing rape is not likely to increase well-being in general. The fact that well-being is hard to define, or potentially impossible, is not a deterrent. Science is not about absolutes. It's about probabilities, and improvement. What's healthier- to be a sprinter or a marathon runner? To be kinder to strangers or kinder to kin? George Burns may have smoked and lived to 90+, but is smoking healthy? Some people hit their spouses and enjoy it, but does spousal abuse promote well-being? Harris would answer "no" to those, and claim that science backs him up in both. Harris doesn't claim to have all the answers to many challenging ethical/moral questions, but argues that there are some answers that are objectively better than other answers. Some morals are objectively better at producing well-being than other morals, and science can help us determine what those are. Moral relativism is an excuse. Clearly, some things promote more harm than well-being, like severe child abuse. If we can agree that child abuse does harm well-being (and the new positive psychology, as well as traditional clinical psychology agree), then science can tell us that a moral against child abuse is more likely to be a good moral than a moral promoting child abuse. Just like health science can tell us that eating super-sized fast-food meals is less healthy than eating roasted vegetables. I should point out that I can't really do the book's 200-page argument justice within the confines of a review. It's a simple, but deep argument built on logical deductions and sprinkled with some inductive evidence from psychology/neuroscience. For me, Harris' main argument is pretty hard to escape.
There are some drawbacks to this book that made me consider giving it less than five stars. The biggest one for a lot of readers is probably that Harris is very anti-religion. I feel that Harris wastes a lot of time bashing religion and those who believe it in. He doesn't need to once he successfully argues that science can weigh in on morality. He argues that it's condescending to not tell religious people they're flat-out wrong, but I would argue that it's not effective to do so (and I bet it sure feels condescending to them). Early on, Harris does admit that his theory doesn't exclude the possibility of religious goals entering the well-being equation (e.g., the perceived need to save one's eternal soul would surely weigh in on the definition of well-being), but he dismisses those ideas vehemently in later chapters. The other major drawback is that this is largely an effort in argument and logic that is very scant on actual evidence and research on the topic. In his defense though, this book represents an attempt to start an entirely new branch of science, so the lack of evidence at this stage is excusable. Normally I'd knock off a star for that lack of evidence, but in this case, I find his argument so powerful and interesting that I kept all five stars.
So I know that some people aren't going to think this is a five-star book. I happen to think it is because I find his argument highly persuasive. But more than that, what Harris does is open up a very important topic to real debate- can science have anything meaningful to say about our well-being in the same way it does about our physical health? Whether or not you agree with Harris, I think it's hard to argue that this is not a question worth serious consideration. I also agree with Harris that we are a more moral society now than we were in the past. Objectively so. But I also agree with him that we need to keep considering and questioning our morals rather than sitting on our laurels, and his idea of using science to help us develop better morals is one well worth exploring.
on May 11, 2011
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 moral frameworks which work better than others. He does say that there may be multiple, and equally beneficial, systems for moral reasoning. That is far from saying 'anything goes' (i.e. rape, murder, etc...). This is perhaps the strongest aspect of his argument. He does not claim to know the answer. He does not claim that the answer is 100% knowable. He describes how we have been coming ever closer in some respects (and farther in others) to a moral system that allows more people to live fulfilling lives than could be imagined 200 years ago (and i'm not talking about advances in technology or medicine).
2) He clearly argues against moral absolutism. He convincingly explains why moral absolutism is dangerous and how, despite Religions attempts to claim an unchanging moral compass, the majority of so-called religious moderates are actually shifting their moral leanings/interpretations of their holy books in response to a changing Moral landscape. It is those that do not change their morals that we call 'fundamentalists'.
3) He is not trying to 'prove' anything. He has described a reasonable way in which science, logic, observation and discourse can lead to productive and conscious choices about morality. Over time it is reasonable to hope that we could weed out bad 'moral' prescriptions and modify/replace them with others to move in a direction of increased human flourishing.
If you are the type of person who, without your holy book you would rape, steal and murder, this book will not help you. Actually "God" will not help you either (you probably need counselling and a dose of some anti-psychotics), but that's a topic for another day. On the other hand, if you are the type of person who is uncomfortable with moral prescriptions based solely on ancient texts, this book is definitely a good read. You may not agree with every point, but the book is well written, orderly and thorough. At the end of the day I would much sooner adopt a reality-based moral system than one arbitrarily constructed by ancient mystics. At least if you make a mistake that increases suffering (in the world imagined by Sam Harris) you can identify the problem and correct it. Sacred texts on the other hand shackle you to whatever barbarism is contained therein, otherwise you 'protest' the interpretations of the text and move in arbitrary (without the guidance of evidence and reason) moral directions in the hope of finding something better (a kind of moral evolution you might say, with the unfortunate consequence of mountains of needless suffering).
on January 3, 2011
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.
on January 17, 2012
This book is the most contemplative, thought provoking, and intellectually honest read I've ever had. Not only did it intrigue and delight me, it made me a better person. If you only ever read one book, make it this one, please.
on October 8, 2010
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.
on January 4, 2011
Right from the intro, Sam's provocative discussion grabs and challenges. Sure to be a conversation starter, or stopper depending on the crowd.
This was a very enlightening book, and might be my favorite one from Sam Harris. Given that Harris is considered one of the most formidable "new atheists", people will look at this book as anti-religious (which it certainly is). But it's important not to overstate that element; Harris is just suggesting that there are other places to get your morals and values besides a holy book.
Much of Harris's argument deals with the idea of suffering. The more we know about science (in particular neuroscience and the brain), the more we are learning are the nuance of suffering. There are different types of suffering, the most obvious one related to physical pain; and we essentially know that all conscious creatures have the capacity to suffer. Harris's discussion of morals boils down the goal of minimizing suffering; as he states it, avoiding "the worst possible misery for everyone".
It's a great book that's has it's moments of difficulty, but in general is a fairly easy and enjoyable read. I think any book that examines morality in any capacity is one worth taking a look at.
After reading the book, I viewed some of Harris's public speaking engagements. He often repeats many of the ideas in his book in these lectures/debate (which can be found online) - so they are worth a watch if you want to reinforce the ideas found within.
on March 5, 2012
The purpose of this work is very straightforward- to argue that there are better ways to make moral decisions than religion. Harris makes some very clear points, that few could argue against, in which science clearly is more than capable of showing what the right decision is in on moral questions. This basic argument is all this book needs to be a major contribution to politics, philosophy, and we can only wish, religion.
Detractors of the book tend to delve into philosophical arguments using formal terminologies that most of us don't care about. What is right and what is less right is the premise that is being explored. Harris has to my knowledge not been formally trained as a philosopher, but that does not mean his argument fails- simply that philosophers (who have in the past failed to do much in this area that has contributed to public awareness and discussion) have something to start working with. This is how science works, you start with observation, then a hypothesis, then experiments and testing. So dropping the pointless objections to is-ought errors and getting to the moral point would be a better use of the philosopher's time. The other detraction that is levelled is the lack of empirical data to back up claims in the discussion of what is the correct basis for making decisions about well being. Once again I think this is missing the point and the average reader will not want to read psychology test scores, look at neuron action potentials or sheets of statistics. The use cases Harris presents clearly show that science can make the determination between what is good and what is less good and that is the central issue. There are obviously more difficult scenarios but this is also encountered by those who propose morals should be based on religion, and what is right and wrong differs vastly according to the religion consulted. Given time, thought and experiment scientific solutions to these more complex situations will be apparent.
This is a thought provoking and brave book that provides a framework for making moral arguments about the human condition. It is a critical contribution to humankind, and how we should orient our moral compasses.
on September 24, 2011
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?"