- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Free Press; First edition (Oct. 5 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1439171211
- ISBN-13: 978-1439171219
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.8 x 22.9 cm
- Shipping Weight: 363 g
- Average Customer Review: 37 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #113,607 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values Hardcover – Oct 5 2010
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“Sam Harris breathes intellectual fire into an ancient debate. Reading this thrilling, audacious book, you feel the ground shifting beneath your feet. Reason has never had a more passionate advocate.”
Beautifully written as they were (the elegance of his prose is a distilled blend of honesty and clarity) there was little in Sam Harris's previous books that couldn't have been written by any of his fellow 'horsemen' of the 'new atheism'. This book is different, though every bit as readable as the other two. I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. It should change it for philosophers too. Philosophers of mind have already discovered that they can't duck the study of neuroscience, and the best of them have raised their game as a result. Sam Harris shows that the same should be true of moral philosophers, and it will turn their world exhilaratingly upside down. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.
“Reading Sam Harris is like drinking water from a cool stream on a hot day. He has the rare ability to frame arguments that are not only stimulating, they are downright nourishing, even if you don’t always agree with him! In this new book he argues from a philosophical and a neurobiological perspective that science can and should determine morality. His discussions will provoke secular liberals and religious conservatives alike, who jointly argue from different perspectives that there always will be an unbridgeable chasm between merely knowing what is and discerning what should be. As was the case with Harris’ previous books, readers are bound to come away with previously firm convictions about the world challenged, and a vital new awareness about the nature and value of science and reason in our lives.”
—Lawrence M. Krauss, Foundation Professor and Director of the ASU Origins Project at Arizona State University, author of The Physics of Star Trek, and, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science
“A lively, provocative, and timely new look at one of the deepest problems in the world of ideas. Harris makes a powerful case for a morality that is based on human flourishing and thoroughly enmeshed with science and rationality. It is a tremendously appealing vision, and one that no thinking person can afford to ignore.”
--Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate.
About the Author
Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, and Lying. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing has been published in over fifteen languages. Dr. Harris is cofounder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Please visit his website at SamHarris.org.
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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.
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).
i bought this book because Harris offers the novel idea that there may be scientific/biological basis for morality - he sets this against the idea of well-being as a moral indicator and imperative. But he never gets to explaining in other that the most vague terms what this might mean. It is an old saw on materialism and not much more. Wasted money IMHO.
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