Read The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris Online


Sam Harris' first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people - from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists - agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through sciencSam Harris' first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people - from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists - agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to "respect" the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors.In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a "moral landscape." Because there are definite facts to be known about where we fall on this landscape, Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of "morality"; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.Bringing a fresh perspective to age-old questions of right and wrong and good and evil, Harris demonstrates that we already know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply false - and comes at increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our "culture wars," Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation....

Title : The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
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ISBN : 9781439171219
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 291 Pages
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The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values Reviews

  • Nebuchadnezzar
    2019-06-01 15:43

    Why am I sitting here reviewing another Sam Harris book? People keep telling me that I have to have to have to read them, and they seem to generally be what's called in military jargon "target-rich environments."Harris sets out to hunt two of his bugbears: Moral relativism and fundamentalist forms of religion, the former being equated with the political left and the latter with the right. These seem to be the only moral-political systems that exist in his world beside the one he goes on to promote. This, of course, leads Harris to ignore secular systems of thought on the right (usually aligned with right-libertarianism) such as those propounded by Ayn Rand or Friedrich A. von Hayek.Indeed, Harris blithely dismisses moral philosophy in a single footnote! Maybe if he hadn't done so, he would have realized that there is a distinction between descriptive relativism and normative relativism, the former meaning simply that there are no objective moral "facts" (as there are in the sense of scientific facts). The latter position argues from the former that we ought to have no universal standard of morality. Moral skeptics such as J.L. Mackie and James R. Flynn argue in favor of descriptive but not normative relativism. Harris conflates the two and thus turns moral relativism into some kind of blanket apologia for female genital mutilation and other such horrors. (Also, as Russell Blackford noted in his review, Harris commits even further equivocation in blowing off Mackie in a footnote: engages in some rhetorical flailing against David Hume's is-ought distinction, attempting to replace it with a Benthamite hedonic calculus which is to be computed using brain scanning technology. Call it neuro-utilitarianism, I guess. In a truly odd argument, he goes on to use his own neuroscience experiments on religious belief to break down the fact-value distinction, saying that beliefs and facts are equivalent because they are processed in the same fashion in the brain. Well, I use my eyes and visual cortex to process both the sight of a hamburger and the Grand Canyon. That doesn't mean I can eat a national landmark or go whitewater rafting through a beef product.All of this handwaving is claimed to be a solution to the is-ought problem, one of if not the biggest problem in moral philosophy. However, Harris backpedals in a few places as if his argument had failed, noting that science can never determine what we ultimately ought to do. No argument there, but this makes his thinking come off as even more muddled and inconsistent. I'm not aware of any serious arguments that science can never inform morals and ethics. Formulated in this way: "If you want x, then do y," science can inform us about or determine the y, but cannot determine the x. Hume himself also never claimed a total separation of facts and values -- he argued that a logical justification must be made before the "ought" can be derived from the "is." There is nothing new or controversial there, but it stands in contrast to the rest of the book in which Harris continuously promises a capital-S Science of Morality. Whatever it is, it definitely isn't science. The rest of the book doesn't fare well either. The reader is left wallowing in Harris' sophistry for page after page as he tries to work out of the corner he's painted himself in. Some parts verge on the downright scary as well, such as "lie-free zones" that would be made by essentially using fMRI as lie detection technology. (Neuro-fascism?) Harris also wastes some pages pushing a form of naive determinism again, free will and determinism being a topic which he seems to have even less of a handle on than moral and ethical philosophy.Islam pops up as a handy bogeyman again, and he favorably references the conspiratorial Bat Ye'Or, a cranky pseudo-scholar whose book Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis has re-gained currency recently with the more rabidly Islamophobic set. (At least there are no cites to parapsychologists this time, at least none that I could find.) Harris also continues his feud with Scott Atran, claiming him to be another "moral relativist" (apparently this is code for "someone I, Sam Harris, disagree with") and totally misrepresenting his arguments. Atran's "review" of the book (, if it can be called that, is really a continuation of this line argumentation, though it is a priceless evisceration of Harris' ignorance of anthropological and psychological research on religion.The picture that Harris paints is a gross misrepresentation of moral philosophy and current politics, not to mention the fact that the book is more or less the extension of the naturalistic fallacy to a few hundred pages. Like his previous work, this is filled with smug dismissals of actual scholarship in the fields he's attempting to write in and play-acting at "revolutionary" ideas. The only positive I can find here is that it may introduce readers to some more lucid thinkers and scientists doing original research on morality and psychology, such as António R. Damásio, Jonathan Haidt, and Joshua Greene. Otherwise, chalk another one up for the annals of scientism and neo-atheism.

  • Darwin8u
    2019-06-18 18:52

    “The fact that millions of people use the term "morality" as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time.” ― Sam Harris, The Moral LandscapeI've avoided Sam Harris probably from a bit of prejudice. Although I've always enjoyed Christopher Hitchens, I've thought others of the New Atheists a bit shrill. I just assumed Sam Harris was going to be more hammer and less scalpel. I was wrong. I really enjoyed this book. While there is little doubt what Sam Harris feels about religion, his method here is more an attempt to 'cut a third path' through the wilderness between those educated liberals who think there is no universal foundation for human values AND the claim that a universal morality requires the support of faith-based religion. Obviously, being able to criticize religion plays a part of this effort, but Sam Harris (in this book at least) seems more interested in pushing people to think that a scientific approach to morality is at least an important step. I agree. The idea that science has an important thing to say about values and morals is fundamental.Not done. But done enough.

  • Daniel Toker
    2019-05-20 20:42

    Harris's ideology is incomplete - he admits this much himself. But this book provides the groundwork for a (slightly) new way of conceiving of "morality." The general idea is not new, but his thesis is unique in that it identifies psychology and neuroscience as the tools by which to determine how our actions affect conscious beings. And I think that Harris is thinking in the right direction; though we can derive no moral absolutes, we can identify the "morality" of actions on a spectrum or "landscape" of happiness/well-being - some actions clearly lead to greater total happiness and well-being than others. And the extent to which actions lead to happiness/well-being is something that psychology and neuroscience can indeed help evaluate. Much work remains to be done in the realms of neuroscience and philosophy to complete the project Harris has put forth. But I think it is a worthy project, as his is the best conception of "morality" I have seen yet.

  • Shaun
    2019-05-29 15:50

    Oh my, where to start...Okay, so I guess it would be helpful to disclose that I am a long-time fan of Sam Harris. Not only do I agree with most of his ideas, but I find him to be both an articulate and entertaining writer, always a plus. The Moral Landscape is no exception.The motivation for this book seems to be the commonly held belief that religion, if it does nothing else, serves as the source for our morality. It is one of the most common arguments Harris encounters in his campaign for reason, which often finds itself pitted against religious institutions and their belief systems.According to Harris, religion has long been credited with providing humankind a morale code, a precept that many atheists are unwilling to challenge. For, in some cases, even the greatest champions of science, rationality, and logic seem to feel that science has little to offer once we start talking morality and ethics.Harris, however, argues that this is just not the case. Science, he claims, already has lots to say about morality and, with the continued progress in the neurosciences, will only have more to say in the coming years. He further points out that what science has to offer is infinitely better than the world's many religions for a multitude of reasons. I tend to agree and here's why...For one, it is clear that as a rule and generally speaking there is a trend toward treating people better and more humanely in part because--through science--we have expanded our understanding of ourselves and the dynamics that exist in the societies that form the basis of our existence. This is not to say we don't have a long way to go...simply that we have made progress in the right direction. One needs only to look back into our not too distant past to see the barbaric behaviors that were once commonplace and considered justifiable. So though many nostalgic grandmas and grandpas may not agree, over the years, we clearly have raised the moral bar on many levels. Secondly, religion(s) (especially today's most popular religions) are not the source of our morality and never have been, otherwise we would still judge certain instances of rape, pillaging, infantcide, human sacrifice, and genocide to be completely moral. Again, it is our evolving understanding of ourselves and our environment that shape our ideas about what is and what isn't moral in the various religious texts and not vice versa. Furthermore, asserting that religion establishes morality is self-limiting in the sense that only one religion can be the true authority.Just because we don't currently have all the answers to all the complex moral questions that face us...doesn't mean that the answers don't exist. It also doesn't mean that all the answers are equally valid and worthy of our respect. In many cases, science offers a process by which various answers can be systematically evaluated. As our level of understanding continues to grow, so will our moral sense continue to expand.Finally, if you accept that our beliefs and our actions are the complex result of our physiology, genetics, and past experiences then it would seem logical to believe that science will ultimately have lots to say about those beliefs and actions as well as their consequences for both the individual and for society. Such information can and will serve as a foundation for making moral decisions, and/or decisions that maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people.In the end, I think Harris'main point is that the understanding of ourselves, our world, and our universe provides the foundation for our moral reasoning and as such, science not only has, but also will continue to contribute to our understanding of the moral landscape.Harris gives concrete examples of the many ways in which science has already helped to shape and mold our contemporary moral code.For example, consider the following:A man kills his girlfriend.A man kills his girlfriend after finding her in bed with her lover.A man kills his girlfriend. Later, doctors find a tumor in an area of his brain that is associated with impulse control. A man who was severely abused by his mother as a child kills his girlfriend.We view each case differently with respect to morality in part because we have a better understanding of the brain and behavior than we did two-hundred years ago.But this represents a small fraction of what is discussed in the book, and I really can't even begin to do it justice, so I won't try. As always, Harris is a champion of reason and doesn't sugar coat his contempt for any dogmatic institution that discourages critical thinking, including religion. He also stresses the innate dangers of treating all ideas as being equally valid and deserving of our tolerance and respect, especially when it comes to morality. He also tries to bridge the gap between philosophy, which must take into consideration what we don't know, and science, that which is focused on our current knowns...though continually expanding its borders.Bottom line, if you've ever contemplated the complex issues that face us all, not simply as individuals but as a society, and ultimately as human beings, then this book is worth reading if only for the points being raised and ideas being explored. Furthermore, if like me, you believe that religion isn't the basis for morality, than this book will help you to explore that idea in greater depths. Harris most definitely writes to the average person (a plus in my mind), which often garners him criticism within certain circles, but for all the wrong reasons...and thank goodness that he does.

  • David
    2019-06-04 19:41

    As I read The Moral Landscape I wondered if Sam Harris would be good to have as a neighbor. He is a strong believer in objective morality. Many Christians believe that atheists are all terrible people with no morals. Sam Harris shows that this stereotype is false (though he would go a step further and say it is most Christians who have poor morals). As a moral guy who cares about issues in the world, Sam Harris would be a good neighbor. The problem is, I am a Christian. For that reason, I fear Sam Harris would not like me. I would hope that if we got together with our wives to play Settlers of Catan, or perhaps watched a football game (does Penn State every play UCLA?) we could get along. Could we disagree and still live in neighborly friendliness? I have read all three of Sam Harris' books and I am not confident that they would as he shows a deep and bitter anger towards Christians. Not that I blame him for this, the hate mail he has received from people of faith has not done much to bring any sort of reconciliation. In The Moral Landscape, Harris presents a strong argument for objective morality. He opposes secular scientists and philosophers who argue that there are objective facts in science but when it comes to morality, objectivity is gone. Harris sees this moral relativism as false. Worse, he sees in it secularists conceding objective morality to people of faith. His goal is to provide an argument for morality from a secular perspective. Harris defines "good" as that which supports human well-being. Determining human well-being rests mostly on the science of the brain, which Harris admits is still relatively new. Thus his book is not a final argument for a specific morality. Science is not at a place to do that yet. Instead it is an argument that science does speak to issues of morality and over time will do so more and more. As a Christian I tried to come to this book as open-minded as possible. In other words, I expected to disagree (much as an atheist expects to disagree when coming to a Christian text, we're none of us unbiased). But I tried to give Harris a fair hearing. I am sure there were some specific arguments I did not fully grasp, for I am not a trained scientist. I suspect many of those arguments were in the chapter on belief (chapter three), which I found to be the most interesting and insightful chapter in the book. Overall, I still am a Christian and I still find arguments for morality from a naturalistic perspective wanting. Harris' argument seems to be a form of utilitarianism - maximizing the good (well-being) and minimizing the bad. It is difficult to see how this can be measured, which I believe has been the main critique of utilitarianism over the years. Besides that, if Harris is right that well-being is the key, the question is whose well being? Why should I care about the well-being of others if it does not affect my own well-being? He reports an exchange he had with a scientist at a conference who said she has no issue with the Taliban's violence against women because that is just the way their culture is. Harris was appalled at this. But if I am happy, if my wife and kids are healthy and my life is comfortable, why should I care about these people on the other side of the world? Perhaps Harris cares, and good for him. But if I am an atheist, I only have this one life to live and then I am gone forever. The Taliban is thousands of miles away and I do not want to bother with it. I would rather enjoy my life. The same basic question came up a few times as I read. He seems to lament the fact that more people spend their time playing video games than working to help the homeless (p. 70). Again, if such people were lucky enough (or worked hard enough) to have a comfortable life, why not play video games? Who is Harris or any of us to tell them they should live in a different way? Of course, Harris' whole project is to prove that science does provide such "shoulds". I just don't see it. Likewise, he shares a story of his wife being hit on at the gym (p. 51). He was glad she resisted the flirting of this other man and he speaks of how an affair would damage the well-being of his family. I am glad for Harris that his wife is loyal. But if she had chosen to cheat on him...what if that increased her own and this other man's well-being? What if this man was a widower with four children? Perhaps stealing Harris' wife would hurt Harris' daughter, but it could help these other four children? Isn't that more human well-being? My point is that judging morality in these ways is unsatisfying. Further, if all that matters is human well-being, why not envision a scenario from a movie like The Matrix where all humans are plugged into a computer? If such an existence would make us happiest, why not? Or as one reviewer says: "Nobel Prize–winner Daniel Kahneman studies what gives Americans pleasure—watching TV, talking to friends, having sex—and what makes them unhappy—commuting, working, looking after their children." ( ) Harris also rejects free will, while assuring us that this does not lead to determinism or fatalism. (103-105). Reading his argument for this, I felt like I was reading John Calvin (and Harris may be surprised to find that Calvin would agree with him in this assessment, though for different reasons). Harris says we believe in free will because we are ignorant of the causes of our actions in each moment (105). He goes on to say: "But the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they do not matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn't have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are all causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe" (105) "There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will...the former are associated with felt intentions (desires, goals, expectations, etc.) while the latter are not...a voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, while an involuntary action isn't. Where our intentions themselves come from, however, and what determines their character in every instant, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms...the freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was" (105-106). If there is no free will, then however the intentions, goals and such that arise in us, we are not responsible for them. So how are we responsible for the actions they lead to in the world? He goes on to say, "What we condemn in another person is the intention to do harm" (108). Why condemn something that this person has not freely chosen? Why hold them responsible? It seems more consistent to say that we don't have free will and thus we are subject to whatever combination of natural desires made us who we are. Harris did make a huge point that Christians should listen to (123-124). Here Harris talks of how the internet has reduced intellectual isolation but it has also allowed bad ideas to flourish. He goes on to say that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will overestimate his abilities, in other words ignorant people are more confident (123). He applies this to debates between science and religion: "When a scientist speaks with appropriate circumspection about controversies in his field, or about the limits of his own understanding, his opponent will often make wildly unjustified assertions about just which religious doctrines can be inserted into the space provided. Thus, one often finds people with no scientific training speaking with apparent certainty about the theological implications of quantum mechanics, cosmology, or molecular biology" (124) I have to say, I agree with Harris here. Christians do no one any good when assuming that just because they are Christians, they are right about everything. For example, Christians should have no problem admitting that Richard Dawkins (or Sam Harris) knows more about science than they do (unless said Christian has degrees in science). But to turn this critique around on Harris, he often writes as if he possesses a better knowledge of Christian faith than Christians do. He declares the Bible is in favor of slavery, quoting chapter and verse. This sort of surface-level understanding of the text seems to be the same surface-level understanding he decries when Christians approach science. Why not engage with the best Bible scholars? Or at the very least, try to get inside the culture in which the Bible was written to try to understand if there is more going on. Would it matter to Harris that though the Bible allows slavery, it puts regulations on this slavery that put the slave in a much higher position than slaves in the surrounding culture? Probably not, as the idea of progressive revelation does not seem to carry much weight for Harris. Harris, like some other atheists, seem to say if God exists then God would do this (says who?). At any rate, if he wants to be as fair to Christians as he expects people to be to scientists, he should recognize that proof-texting is not valid biblical interpretation. The same critique could be applied to history. Harris rolls out the rhetoric that Christians in the middle-ages burned witches on a regular basis. But Rodney Stark has shown that witches were rarely burned in the middle-ages, instead witch-burning became most popular at the same time as modern science was beginning to rise (see For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, With-Hunts and the End of Slavery). This book has me wanting to read more about brain science, especially books that limit the tangents. Harris seems to be writing for an audience that he knows will agree with him, so he throws out rhetoric and red herrings every now and then, to remind us how dumb religion is. I am not sure what the point of the chapter on religion was (chapter four) other than just to smack around religion for a while. In this I am sure Harris comes across as a hero to those who agree. To me, it sounds like the same sort of arrogance that Harris hates when ignorant Christians discount the findings of science. While I would like to read more about how the brain works, and I assume science will continue to shed light on this, I do not think it is possible to find morality (or meaning, which is a separate question) here. Jerry Coyne in his book Why Evolution is True talks about how when a lion takes over a pride he will kill the baby lions to rid himself of the competition. Of course, no person would say that lion was a murderer or was evil. Yet when I listen to the History of Rome podcast and learn of how many emperors upon coming into power would kill their relatives or relatives of the previous emperor to solidify their power, I see this as murder. What makes humans different? If we are just animals, or if such murder increases the well-being of the emperor and his empire, why is it wrong? I still agree with Ivan Karamazov in the amazing novel, The Brothers Karamazov: "if there is no God, then all things are permissible". If Harris is wrong and there is no objective morality from a secular view, it does not automatically mean there is a God. Perhaps life just is meaningless. That is what Ivan believed, and it angered him as this philosophy justified his father's disgusting life. I think Ivan is right. If there is no God then what reason can you really give a person to choose to help the poor rather than spend their days playing video games?Online Reviews

  • Dylan
    2019-05-22 13:56

    I thought I would have few problems with this book. There’s little to no reason where I’d be annoyed by a book where I agree with the fundamental, underlying principles of the work. I fully believe that it’s possible to scientifically determine moral values. And look! It’s a book about scientifically determining moral values. We should get along famously.Except that’s not what ended up happening.Instead I found myself getting progressively more and more annoyed by the general tone of the entire book. I found myself arguing against what Sam Harris was saying, even when I agreed with him. He has such an insufferable, condescending way of putting things that I didn’t want to agree with him. And if that’s how I reacted, I can’t imagine how much he’d put off people who already disagreed with him. He hasn’t really mastered the persuasive part of the persuasive essay.Then there’s the fact that by the end, he had strayed so far from the point that I had completely lost interest in what he was talking about. It had devolved into an attack on attempts to reconcile rational scientific thought with religious beliefs and faith. Which wasn’t really the point of the book or, at least, I didn’t think that was the point. I picked up the book so I could learn “how science can determine human values”, not look at a vomited up pile of Sam Harris’s bile.While I appreciate that he seems to consider himself the lone voice of reason in an increasingly insane world, the man needs to actually talk to people and not rant at them in a thinly veiled attack on his critics.

  • Richard
    2019-05-21 19:06

    Given that nearly everyone who reads this book will disagree vehemently with its conclusions, and given that the subject matter is almost entirely theoretical, Moral Landscape needed to have been more thoroughly researched and more scholarly in its presentation in order to achieve Harris' goals. I'd originally given the book five stars because, in my opinion, Harris' central points are intriguing and probably correct, but on further reflection I've had to scale my enthusiasm back.Those who disagree with Moral Landscape's conclusion – that reason can guide us to objectively true or false answers to questions of ethics – will almost certainly do so for one (or both) of two reasons:● They argue (per Hume) that an ought can't be derived from an is. Reason may tell us how to achieve our aims after we've decided what they are, but it's incapable of guiding us to those aims in the first place. Morality is therefore intrinsically subjective.● They believe that morality by definition originates with God. Since God establishes the absolute, universal standard, morality is fundamentally objective, but the standard can be obtained only through revelation, never by reason.The problem with the idea of morality deriving from God is that a thing is good either because God has decreed it so, or God has decreed it so because that thing is good. In the former case we would be living under a cosmic dictatorship, whereas in the latter we would find that God, in deferring to a definition of good that exists externally to divine judgment, would be superfluous. As is usually the case with theistic dogma, there's neither objective evidence nor sound logic to support the claim that ethics depends upon God, but if believers choose to regard it as axiomatic, there's also no way to refute it, so that's pretty much that.(Theologians sometimes try to get around that dilemma by arguing that God's nature is somehow ineluctably woven together with goodness. But if good is defined merely as concordance with God's will then it's tautologically trivial for God to be good. If good is defined in terms of happiness and suffering then good can have no intrinsic meaning for an omnipotent, perfect, eternal and solitary being; it can only be meaningful with respect to the interactions of minds capable of harming one another.)The is/ought problem is the more interesting of the two objections. Harris does acknowledge that ethics must be built on postulates that are by definition unprovable, and in this sense, it's true that morality can never be absolutely objective. He argues however, that the same could be said of any such system: there's no reason to consider ethics to be uniquely indeterminate. Physics, for instance, is grounded upon unprovable values. We can't actually prove that acquiring knowledge through reason and evidence is better than obtaining it from authority and revelation; to be a rational skeptic is to accept that axiomatically, and to implicitly reaffirm it at every step in our conversations. Even if one chooses to argue (for example) that reason and evidence are superior because they provide tangible and consistent results, we still must believe, axiomatically and without proof, that tangible and consistent results are things of value. And yet, the necessity for reason to lift itself by its own bootstraps in this way, does not prevent us from asserting that physical laws are objectively true.In other words, the book's major insight (and a point that I think its critics tend to overlook), is that the foundations of ethics are no more arbitrary than the foundations of any other field of understanding. If the physical sciences can be built upon a foundation of unprovable values, why can't there be a science of ethics that does so as well? Even if we accept that an ought can't be derived from an is, what should prevent us from defining our oughts to be is's, i.e., to place our oughts among the axiomatic is's of our moral philosophy? Moral Landscape, in my opinion, stands or falls on whether or not it can convince the reader of this idea. Landscape's second interesting point is that the least arbitrary way to establish our oughts is to base them on the "well-being of conscious creatures." Harris argues that anything that is of interest, is interesting precisely because of its effect upon some entity's conscious state. Whatever it is that anyone values, the value of the thing is ultimately grounded in the emotional, subjective mental state of at least one consciousness. If there were any particular thing that could not, under any possible circumstances, ever have an effect upon any conscious creature, then that thing would have no value whatsoever. In a universe completely devoid of any consciousness, the concepts of good and evil could have no meaning. (If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there anywhere to hear it, does it make a sound difference?) (As an aside, Harris argues that there must be a natural hierarchy of importance among conscious creatures, that is, that a mind with the capacity to experience greater ranges of thought and feeling must be considered to be more valuable than a lesser mind. Thus, chimpanzees are more important than mice, human beings are more important than chimpanzees, and in theory, there could be superior intelligences [extraterrestrial or artificial, perhaps] that would be more valuable than humans. If the hierarchy continues indefinitely then wouldn't that open the door to the possibility that there could be an infinite consciousness that might be ethically more important than the combined collective [yet still finite] consciousnesses of every other living being in the entire universe? There could also be multiple infinite consciousnesses; if so, would the moral value of infinite consciousnesses be ranked by their cardinalities? On the other hand, is it possible that there's some threshold of awareness or cognitive ability beyond which all conscious creatures could be considered to be of equal importance?) Having demonstrated (as the reader may or may not accept) that it should be possible in principle to create a hard science of objective ethics, Harris makes little effort to raise or respond to potential objections to his ideas, nor to suggest ways in which we might go about discovering that new ethics, beyond expressing his (to be fair, well-founded) confidence that neuroscience will play a major roll. Those hoping for greater depth will be disappointed, and may wonder if there's anything more useful here than a theoretical refutation of moral relativism (a philosophy which is already easily dismissed for being self-refuting).

  • AnaVlădescu
    2019-06-03 14:54

    This is my first Sam Harris book, and I'm glad I finally started reading him. I have been familiar with his public appearances, debates and ideas for some time now, but I had not yet found the books of his that I was interested in. Most of the public work that I was aware of was his fight against religion, along side Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and so on. Even though he is one of the New Scientists, I've always felt something is special about him, because he seems to consistently be the youngest (and by that I mean almost 50) in all of the debates he has, which tells (me) a lot about his capabilities as an intellectual powerhouse. This work is his attempt to define what he calls a "moral landscape", a view of the highs and lows existent in human morality, to answer the question of why morals are important and how they find a place in diverse scientific fields, especially from his own point of view: neuroscience. I have read some of his research before, and especially his work on belief and how it correlates with brain function, and it is fascinating. I truly recommend him as an author, his research to anyone interested in the scienc-y parts, and this book (as I am sure, the others I'll read from him), because we never have the right to say we know enough about an opinion, even if it is one that we hold to be true in our hearts.

  • Nikki
    2019-06-18 14:02

    I've had a good go at reading this without any knee-jerk reactions, but generally I find Harris' views instinctively abhorrent -- despite his championing of reason and science, I don't think he avoids knee-jerk reactions more than anyone else. Particularly when it comes to religion.The basis thesis that there are optimal states of well-being for humans, I accept. That science will be able to improve our understanding of that, I don't doubt. That Sam Harris could be the person that executes this moral calculus? That, I can't countenance. It's partly an instinctive dislike -- I haven't enjoyed any of his lectures and talks that I've watched either -- and partly his intolerance of anything he doesn't understand.I mean, he claims to be talking about universal states of well-being, and states that there may be multiple 'peaks' on the 'moral landscape' where the greatest possible well-being can be achieved. In almost the same breath, he dismisses any thought system he can't understand, particularly if it involves religion.Perhaps the fact that I'm a Unitarian Universalist makes this so difficult to swallow. I believe that there are many different paths to follow, whether you're looking for an afterlife, Enlightenment, reincarnation... There are different ways to be good, and it's hard to measure that. For example, we would accept a person who works with abused children in Britain, who kept their good as their first priority, as a good person. We would also accept a person who teaches children who are living in poverty in another country as good. Which is better? Which more worthy? I'm not sure I'm being very coherent about this. I'm sure there's someone waiting to jump on me telling me that Harris is completely coherent, entirely reasonable, etc; most likely some of them will have some sexist comments to make, without being aware of their own hypocrisy. For me, though, I didn't find Harris' argument that coherent. He seemed to argue himself round and round a tiny point without ever looking up to see the wider world and put his work in context -- every statement seemed to be a reiteration of his core thesis, rather than something which expanded it.

  • David
    2019-06-18 17:08

    This book starts out rather slow, with a heavy dose of philosophy. It does pick up after the first couple of chapters, as the book shows how the mind treats facts and values in a similar manner. The author shows that the goal of morality should be to maximize the "well-being" of as many individuals as possible, in the present life (not the after-life, which is not verified by objective evidence). While it is not always obvious what constitutes "well-being" (it can be a very gray area), it is clear that mutilation, slavery, murder, and the like are not conducive to well-being. The book clearly demonstrates why science has just as important things to say about morality as religion--and in certain respects, science is more justified. The author shows that science and religion are truly contradictory in many respects. In fact, though many "scientists" try to use scientific arguments to relieve the contradictions, their predisposal toward religion displays an inherent bias. As a result, they are not using the scientific method--they are simply arguing from emotion and faith, rather than reason.

  • Xing Chen
    2019-06-06 20:47

    Agreed wholeheartedly with practically everything in the book, except for a couple of things:1.Harris repeatedly laments the frequency with which he encounters well-educated, scientifically-minded, secular moral relativists, who defend the practice of repugnant rituals, such as genital mutilation. I imagine that the reason behind their inability to see eye to eye is not due to a fundamental disagreement on morality and the existence of a range of states of being that, for all practical intents and purposes, have positive and negative poles, but rather to the failure to establish a clear consensus on underlying assumptions when discussing theoretical situations. For example, he posed the question to an acquaintance, ‘What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?’To which she replied, ‘It would depend on why they were doing it.’Harris did not respond favourably to this person’s reply. I hardly doubt that if the issue were discussed further, the two of them would be able to find common ground. Maybe the scenario flashing through her mind was that of a technologically-advanced civilization, capable of replacing ordinary human eyes with superior bionic ones. Surgical methods, performed under anaesthesia, with all the modern equipment at hand, often involve procedures that can still be crudely described as ‘plucking’ something out. The issue that sometimes trips up conversations between thoughtful people is that one is often inclined to play the devil’s advocate, to make contrarian pronouncements and to throw open the gates of the imagination in an understandable attempt to advertise one’s creativity and open-mindedness. We naturally tend to bask in our hyper-awareness of the fact that our individual understanding is limited, and thus there exist states of which we know little, and which render us leery of passing snap judgments. And the problem, I always find, with these ‘hypothetical scenario’-type gedankens (whether or not they’ve to do with morality), is that they’re often cloyingly predicated on limited, restrictive assumptions, and are so impoverished in detail that one struggles to find hooks upon which to hang substantial arguments. (Searle’s annoyingly pointless and irrational ‘Chinese Room’ and the ‘Throw a person onto train tracks to save many lives’ “quandary” are examples that pop insufferably to mind. Or heinously formulated essay questions along the lines of, ‘Money cannot buy happiness. Discuss.’) Their queries are phrased in such an over-simplistic, self-consciously provocative way- bleating to be construed in exactly the flavour that the poser of the question intended it, despite their lack of detailed qualification- that one cannot help but tease slightly when giving a response. We let loose with non-committal, politically saccharine replies, burnished with the sarcasm of “Let’s see whether our questioner really believes that I’m as small-minded and absurd as that.”There must be some prevalent but oft-overlooked, rarely-discussed difference in the way individuals mull over such questions- or in the way the particular context of a discussion is able to elicit a variety of reactions. Some people respond strongly and decisively with clear-cut opinions, using commonly-cited arguments that rely on immediate acceptance of certain underlying assumptions, whereas others have a tendency to exploit their contrary streak. Empathy, playfulness, argumentativeness, and scope of the imagination are contributing factors. If there’s a wealth of literature out there on ‘What gives rise to a contrarian mindset?’, I need to get acquainted with it.2.'Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures- and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain.'I find this an unnecessarily narrow definition- imagine that you are responsible for setting public policy that relates, for example, to nuclear proliferation. You are faced with a decision that potentially leads to one of two outcomes: all human beings are wiped off the face of the planet, as well as all life as we know it, so that only 'inert' materials such as rocks remain; or: all life is destroyed, AND the earth is obliterated, so that not even rocks remain. In either case, humans become extinct, and life as we know it vanishes. But I would argue that there still exists a moral obligation to choose the second option, which accommodates the preservation of the non-living components of our planet. Life and consciousness, and therefore meaning and morality, emerge from non-living, unconscious matter; as such, our considerations of what constitutes morality should take non-sentient beings into account. Perhaps this is so broad a definition that it is pointless for all reasonably conceivable intents and purposes. If so, I back off.Favourite quotes:'...morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.''...not knowing what is right- or that anything can ever be truly right- often leads secular liberals to surrender their intellectual standards and political freedoms with both hands.''Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures- and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain.''...the division between facts and values is intellectually unsustainable. especially from the perspective of neuroscience.''We have recently emerged- some of us leaping, some shuffling, others crawling- out of many dark centuries of religious bewilderment and persecution, into an age when mainstream science is still occasionally treated with overt hostility by the general public and even by governments. While few scientists living in the West now fear torture or death at the hands of religious fanatics, many will voice concerns about losing their funding if they give offense to religion, particularly in the United States. It also seems that wealthy organizations like the Templeton Foundation (whose endowment currently stands at $1.5 billion) have managed to convince scientists and science journalists to split the difference between intellectual integrity and the fantasies of a prior age.''...people consistently fail to distinguish between there being answers in practice and answers in principle to specific questions about the nature of reality.''Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. Doe this make science itself unscientific? If so, we appear to have pulled ourselves down by our bootstraps.''Is there some brilliant idea that no one has thought of that would make people want to alleviate the problem of homelessness more than they want to watch television or play video games?''It seems to me that we already know enough about the human condition to know that killing cartoonists for blasphemy does not lead anywhere worth going on the moral landscape.''It is quite clear to me that given the current state of my mind- that is, given how my actions and uses of attention affect my life- I would be happier if I were less selfish. This means I would be more wisely and effectively selfish if I were less selfish. This is not a paradox.''Our belief in free will arises from our moment-to-moment ignorance of specific prior causes.''How has the ability to speak (and to read and write of late) given modern humans a greater purchase on the world?...I hope it will not seem philistine of me to suggest that our ability to create fiction has not been the driving force here.''It seems to me that few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems.''...the moral stigma that still surrounds disorders of mood and cognition seems largely the result of viewing the mind as distinct from the brain.''...the internet has simultaneously enabled two opposing influences on belief: On the one hand, it has reduced intellectual isolation by making it more difficult for people to remain ignorant of the diversity of opnions on any given subject. But it has also allowed bad ideas to flourish- as anyone with a computer and too much time on his hands can broadcast his point of view and, often enough, find an audience. So while knowledge is open-source, ignorance is, too. It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for. Conversely, those who are more knowledgeable about a subject tend to be acutely aware of the greater expertise of others. This creates a rather unlovely asymmetry in public discourse- one that is generally on display whenever scientists debate religious apologists.''...arrogance is about as common at a scientific conference as nudity.''In 2006, Collins published a bestselling book, The Language of God, in which he claimed to demonstrate "a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony" between twenty-first-century science and Evangelical Christianity. The Language of God is a genuinely astonishing book. Reading this book, I was quite sure that I had witnessed an intellectual suicide. It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: The body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now- and yet polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man's health.''It goes without saying that if a frozen waterfall can confirm the specific tenets of Christianity, anything can confirm anything. But this truth was not obvious to Collins as he "knelt in the dewy grass," and it is not obvious to him now. Nor was it obvious to the editors at Nature, which is the most important scientific publication in any language.''What is irrational, and irresponsible in a scientist and educator, is to make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the structure of the universe, about the divine origin of certain books, and about the future of humanity on the basis of such experiences.''...the most powerful societies on earth spend their time debating issues like gay marriage when they should be focused on problems like nuclear proliferation, genocide, energy security, climate change, poverty, and failing schools.''...I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics," "deontology," "noncognitivism," "antirealism," "emotivism," etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.'

  • Greg
    2019-06-16 13:44

    I thought that this book was a brilliant follow up to End of Faith. I've always thought that End of Faith was somewhat of a misnamed book and that with a slightly different focus could have been truly masterful. What I really appreciated about that book was the nuanced exploration of the nature of belief, belief formation, and the role belief plays in behavior and how all of this relates to and affects our states of consciousness. This book was a continuation of that theme in the moral sphere. And for the most part it was fantastic. I thought Harris made a strong case for accepting the strong role science can and should play in moral considerations. I thought his chapter on belief and his section on free will were brilliant. And I was even impressed with his discussion and acknowledgement of many of the problems and difficulties that come with utilitarianism. I found his chapter on religion somewhat pointless though and think the book would have been better simply leaving it out. Especially because his chapter on religion didn't even focus on what I considered might be the obvious and more relevant way to discuss religion. Maybe he's just written so much on religion that he didn't want to rehash the same arguments, but then it just felt like he felt he needed to throw a bit of religion bashing in there, and anything would do. On the whole though I found it marvelous. But rather than continue talking down that path, I thought I'd paste a recent blog post I made discussing some issues I find with Harris' argument. It's because I so strongly agree with the majority of his writings, that rather than focus on everything that was good, it'd actually be more valuable to the conversation to point out where I think he hasn't been careful enough or possibly wrong. These aren't insurmountable obstacles (at least I hope not), but rather holes waiting to be filled. -------------------------------------Sam Harris is one of most vocal writers around today promoting the strong relationship between scientific knowledge and morality. Not only does Harris believe that scientific knowledge can inform moral decisions, but he asserts that science can determine moral values. He’s not the only figure making these claims, but he’s definitely the most prolific. And with an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, he’s certainly well situated to make and defend these sorts of claims.This is a pretty controversial claim to make though, and Harris is often attacked both by religious figures AND scientists. Ever since David Hume put words to the notion that you can’t derive values from facts, that you can’t derive what “ought” to be from what “is”, philosophers and scientists have behaved with this idea as a presupposition in all their dealings. Science describes facts about the world, science cannot tell you what is important or how to live your life. Some of the biggest names in moral research have concluded that all science can do is describe and explain the moral behavior of human beings, but is overstepping its bounds when it attempts to prescribe what to do, or to determine values.Harris argues that this is-ought distinction is fundamentally mistaken, and I actually agree strongly with him in that. And while I agree with a vast majority of Sam Harris’s arguments, they are not problem free, and they are themselves based on some assumptions that need to be made explicit if we’re to make an informed decision about the quality of his overall argument.Harris’s basic premise is this: If ethics is about anything, it is about the conscious states of organisms able to experience consciousness. Any other definition is meaningless. Any action that has no actual or potential affect on the conscious state of an organism is by definition valueless. I think we can accept this claim as long as we are responsible about thinking about the broader affects that stem from our actions. If my action isn’t immoral to me, or you, or anyone else in the world, or anyone that may ever come along, if it causes no pain or suffering to any creature able to experience those states of consciousness, if there is no one around to care one way or the other, then what could possibly be immoral about anything?Harris’s next point is a simple small jump. If ethics is about the conscious states of organisms, then this must by definition translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world. This also seems uncontroversial. Assuming conscious states have a neurophysiological correlate (an extremely grounded assumption), then it’s obvious that science can give us a complete account of the ever evolving dynamic states of consciousness, the very thing that ethics is about. It’s worth pointing out that when Harris uses the word “science”, he is not talking about double blind research carried out in labs by people wearing white lab coats. Harris is defining science in the broadest way imaginable, as a process with respect for the scientific method, incorporating reason and logic and proper justification for beliefs (I sometimes think his definition of science is just "philosophy", a label and pursuit he tries to keep himself separate from). Agree or disagree with his definition, just keep it in mind when evaluating his assertions, since many who disagree with him tend to ignore his encompassing view of science.But this can’t be it right? Ethics isn’t simply about conscious states; it’s about a certain type of conscious state. And here is where we start running into some conceptual problems, which to some degree I hate myself for having. Sam Harris’s next point is that ethics must specifically be about maximizing the well being of conscious organisms. On the one hand, this also seems uncontroversial. Moral concerns about the well being of other people very obviously translate into facts about how our thoughts and behaviors affect these people. Science can thus describe the result of this endeavor, and based on our goal of maximizing well being, determine what it is we ought to do.Did you see the problem? Science can determine moral values if we accept three assumptions.1) Ethics is about the conscious states of organisms. (okay)2) Conscious states of organisms are within the realm of science. (okay)3) Ethics is about maximizing the well being of conscious organisms. (hmmmm)I think you’ll see why I dislike even having to question this last assumption, since generally I agree with it. But is this statement itself something that can be determined by science or not? And if it is, can science determine the specific nuances that go into it? Sam Harris, true to form, again defines “well being” in the broadest way possible. He does not mean simply physical health. And also doesn’t simply mean “happiness”. Sam Harris is using a definition of well being that itself is, or would have to be, the result of a very nuanced philosophical argument through this process of scientific exploration. This would involve taking into account the motivation for being kind and caring towards others, understanding the affect it would have on their mental states, on your mental states, and on the mental states of others. This is not a simple one to one relationship. This is a convoluted story that needs to incorporate the affect behavior may have on broader social, political, and economic systems, and how those systems themselves affect other people, and the resulting mental states of those people due to those changes.How to balance various issues like civil liberties, individual privacy, free speech, and the importance of keeping citizens safe to maximize well being, surely has an answer, even if the complexities of it lay forever out of our reach. Harris is quick to point this out often. Harris isn’t arguing that science has all the answers, but that science can conceivably determine all the answers with enough information and enough time. But even accepting this we find ourselves in a dilemma, because this pursuit depends on a definition of well being that is itself part of the pursuit, and how those factors discussed weigh in a well being scale. How we define well being, how our conscious states change for the better is not solely dependent on biology, on genetics, it is also dependent in a very strong way on our values and beliefs (some of which are there for evolutionary reasons, yes). And as human beings who are prone to error, we know we can wrong about values and beliefs. If you’re neighbor believes they are the reincarnation of Jesus, we’re likely to assume they’re wrong. Someone might value money above all else, someone else might value respect for authority above all else, and someone else might value open mindedness above all else. Whether we can objectively determine which of these values should be preferred over others and by how much isn’t necessarily the point. The point is that as it stands, people currently value those things in different ways, and their conscious states will change differently based on the presence or absence of those things.If somehow science determines that free speech should be weighed above the safety of the citizenry as a means to maximize well being, but the majority of the population values safety over freedom, their conscious states will not be maximized, because of the nature of their neurophysiology and psychology. Is the right thing to then disregard the scientific data? Or implement it regardless? What if science determines that the wearing of Hijabs by women in the Islamic faith is in fact a practice not conducive to maximizing well being, what do we do? A woman who has grown up in this culture and with this belief and value system believes this is the right way to live. Do you force her to take it off? Wouldn’t that objectively lower her well being since her entire psychology is geared towards reacting negatively to that? What if we found out that by immediately murdering half of the current population of the planet, 3 billion people, countless trillions and trillions of our descendents would be able to live lives where their well being was maximized? If we don’t commit this act of mass genocide, only 25% of those trillions of descendents will have their well being maximized.How can we go about answering these questions through the process of science and empiricism? One problem is inherent in Harris’s espousement of utilitarianism (morality lies in the consequences of an action). Where is the point of evaluation of a utilitarian argument? Is it how the action will affect the recipient immediately? Is it how the action will affect everyone alive on the planet through the vast web of interconnectedness that the nature of cause and affect necessitates? What time frame do we judge by? Immediately? One year? 100 years? A million? Imagine I criticize you in some way that has the immediate affect of lowering your state of well being. But then after two weeks and some reflection you realize it was actually a good thing and it has helped you out and it raises your level of well being. But then a year from now it turns out this criticism and the changes it has made in you have actually drastically lowered your well being. How do we evaluate something like this? And how do we evaluate all the people you affected during that time with the mental states that I helped create? Further, how do we compare various forms of well being and suffering against each other? How do ten headaches compare against one broken bone? Ten jailed innocents vs. the hunger of 1000 children? I’m skeptical whether these are questions a utilitarianist approach is capable of addressing due it's sole focus on outcomes. No matter how much consideration for outcomes a person takes into account, a decision can only be made in the now, with insufficient information. And well being is a temporal process, as is consciousness, and neither exist as snapshots in time.Even had Sam Harris chose a different moral theory, we can argue that whichever theory is chosen relates to his other points about science in the same way. My argument is that whichever theory we choose will have the same problems for his argument. Science has to determine the rightness of the theory itself. A theory is only as good as the facts it's based on, and so this topic strays into what philosophers call epistemology, or theory of knowledge. How do we know anything about the world, and what warrant and justification do we have for believing things. Part of this process involves determining what is right and good to value, and providing justification for the very goal of morality. I don’t think this is impossible. In fact, using Harris’s broad conception of science I’ll even grant we can provide good reasons for being able to do this, since this endeavor of defining what is worth valuing will itself undergo a process that must respect the scientific method and rationality. What we value, how we act, and towards what ethical goal we are progressing is all intertwined, and arguably should not be separated in pursuit of morality. The problem is that Sam Harris doesn’t focus on this, and it leaves what I find to be otherwise impressively strong arguments with a hole waiting to be blog: Cognitive Philosophy

  • Hinch
    2019-05-23 14:09

    I greatly admired the first two books by Sam Harris. It was therefore with eager expectation that I started to read The Moral Landscape. The basic premise of the book is as follows: morality is synonymous with values; our values, unsurprisingly, constitute that which we find valuable, which ultimately, pertains to human well-being; and as human well-being is entirely defined by the intersection of our environment and our mental state, both of which fall under the purview of science, it follows that morality can be studied by science. To put it another way, if our well-being depends upon the interaction of events in our brain, and events in the world, it should be possible to study these events, with the intention of understanding the most optimal ways to secure our well-being. If this premise is true, it would seem that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, and those answers can be illuminated by science. It's important to note that this premise does not preclude the possibility of many correct answers. Just as there are many healthy food choices, so there are many choices that can improve human well-being. And to continue the analogy, as the science of nutrition is the basis for informing our food choices, so too a science of morality could help to define how we seek to raise our position on the "moral landscape".It should be noted that the sub-title of the book, How Science Can Determine Human Values, is slightly ambiguous. The intention, it would seem, is not to determine what we should value, at least not in a general, or traditionally philosophical sense, for it is granted in the book's premise that what we value is self-evident, and amounts to an improvement in our well-being. Instead, the sub-title can only be taken to mean that given this premise, science can inform us of the most effective means of achieving this goal - i.e. it can guide our specific values, or choices, as we walk the path to human betterment.It must be said, that the book starts our poorly. A great number of the arguments end with subjective sentiments of the form: "it would seem clear", "it would appear obvious", "there is little doubt", etc. In some respects, I acknowledge why this approach may have been taken: Harris may recognise that the answers to some of the more philosophically aligned questions of life really are self-evident, at least to those not wrapped within the cloak of moral relativism. He may even purport that to methodically defend each of his self-evident claims would be to allow the book to spiral into a philosophical quagmire (as books which tackle such subjects invariably do). It could be argued that Harris is cutting away at the bullshit, and calling a common-sense spade for what it really is. It could also be argued that his arguments are simply weak and under-formed. And yet, as an advocate for atheism, he must surely know that appealing to others on the basis of self-evidence is anything but helpful. In fact the absence of argumentative rigour, particularly within the first half of the book, is a significant disappointment, and a serious slight against the book's credibility.A section toward the end of the book focuses considerable attention on Francis Collins, a respected geneticist, former lead of the Human Genome Project, and current director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States. Collins is also a Christian, and hence a prime focal point around which to discuss the potential conflicts of faith and reason. In short, Harris lambastes Collins for his religious beliefs, effectively claiming that these convictions render him unsuitable for his current appointment. Although I suspect Harris is right when he argues that if Collins were to demonstrate similarly "unscientific" sentiments by advocating belief in tarot cards, or astrology, his credentials would be considered in a radically different light. However, it would seem the greater point is whether his personal faith actually impedes the specific activities required of his role. If one extends that scientific advocacy is a core responsibility of the position, than indeed, his appointment may be inappropriate. And yet, when it comes to addressing an explicit conflict between Collins' religious belief, and his scientific aptitudes, I was reminded of the extraordinary human talent for holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, without any apparent source of conflict. This is a universal human trait, and by itself, does not render any of us, Collins included, unsuitable for positions of power and authority.The book raises a number of interesting ethical points, discussing how context, expectation, memory, and emotion can taint our judgement. In fact, the dialog surrounding these ethical dilemmas are perhaps the most compelling sections of the text. The book could only have been strengthened by further reflection on such issues, particularly as they serve to highlight the difficulty of delivering on anything but a highly generic scientific understanding of morality. It may be possible for science to unequivocally demonstrate the universal good that would arise from the expulsion of sexual abuse, a truth on which we can agree without the need for science, but I suspect it will prove significantly harder to speak definitively about the effect of subtler scenarios. I also found myself wondering how Harris would respond if science were to discover that behaviours he decries as self-evidently wrong, such as wearing the burqa, or slavery, were on the whole, actually positive contributors to society? Would this evidence cause a change in his opinion? And how is science to differentiate between singular and collective good? How do we compare the well-being of one against that of a multitude? Would we be justified, scientifically, in carrying out any activity that may increase the suffering of one person if we could demonstrate that it would also alleviate the suffering of ten? For those intrigued by this idea, I suggest you read When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro. To be fair, Harris recognises the complexity of the issues at hand, and he understands that some answers may never be forthcoming. But this does not render the exercise as futile. We don't yet fully understand the fundamental forces of the universe, or the intricacies of global economic theory, nor do we have cures for cancer, or an inoculation for malaria, but this does not mean we stop seeking answers, and stop thinking critically about the questions. Harris implores that we apply the same rigour to the moral sphere. It is perfectly acceptable to label ideas about magnetism, or horticulture, or medical practice, as good or bad. Why can we not also think critically about moral issues? Why the double-standard? Even if all the answers are not obtainable, surely progress is possible, and any causal improvement in our well-being universally desirable.There is much to commend in this book. The aim is admirable, and the premise sustainable. It is also beautifully written - Harris is an incredibly dextrous wordsmith. Unfortunately, many of the arguments are weak, or seriously incomplete. The book was also unfocused, and in many respects read like a first draft in need of greater restraint in parts, and further polish in others. However, it is still a thought provoking book, with a frank and earnest plea which deserves consideration.

  • Mike
    2019-06-07 19:57

    Sam Harris starts off his book stating that he has the modest mission to convince the reader that neither divine command theory nor positivistic emotivist theory is a sufficient account of morality. But then he goes somewhat further: His actual mission, as he lays it out, is to show how maximizing human wellbeing--defined as a subjective neurological state of wellbeing--can form the basis for moral reasoning, and that scientific inquiry into neurology and effects of different acts can form the basis for such a moral system. The scope of his argument is therefore rather limited; however, his writing betrays a lack of the education and clear, analytical thought that would be necessary to make a broadly persuasive or powerful argument.Pinning down exactly what Harris is arguing in any bigger context is difficult. He is frankly hostile to religion; therefore it seems he is looking for an account of morality that is based on some combination of naturalism and pure reason. He is not at all clear about the distinctions between morality, ethics (he identifies morality and ethics), politics or public policy, and jurisprudence or legal philosophy. It seems that at different times in the book, he addresses all of these issues, without making clear when he's dealing with which. Given that these are usually considered different areas of academic inquiry, and there is a large literature about their similarities, differences, and overlaps, this presents in itself a significant flaw in his book.A second flaw that makes analyzing Harris difficult is that he is not clear about what "wellbeing" is. On the one hand, he is honest about this; he frequently uses the analogy to health. He points out that health is a poorly-defined concept that nevertheless can be discerned. However, where his analogy becomes a problem is that he does not seem clear about whose wellbeing is being discerned. Is it the wellbeing of the moral actor, or the aggregate greatest wellbeing for the greatest number? He seems to vacillate on this point. At times, he seems at pains to show why helping others is pleasurable to the individual moral actor, and at times he sounds almost like a utilitarian. Either way, he seems to slip in between the two paradigms without signaling or justifying his moves.He senses his first task is to deal with the problem of question-begging. Both David Hume and G.E. Moore identified a problem in consequentialist moral philosophy: If, as Harris says, the objective of his system is to maximize human wellbeing, then it isn't really a system of moral philosophy. It's a system of wellbeing philosophy, not moral philosophy, because there is as yet an irreducible leap between any state of affairs and the good. In other words, just because something leads to wellbeing, has no bearing on whether it is good; and there is no guarantee, either in principle or practice, that any particular instance of wellbeing is actually "good," unless you simply fiat that wellbeing is good and close your mind to further inquiry. Harris rightly senses that this is a devastating objection that he cannot answer head-on. Hume, Moore, Kant, and others all found more or less convincing ways around this question-begging, but Harris doesn't even try. Instead, he simply says: You don't really believe that. You can identify a better or worse life. And he uses some examples to show that in fact we can identify "good" or "bad" lives and that in many cases, good or evil acts are more or less intuitively clear. And his argument is fairly convincing, even if it is basically special pleading. But this is a insurmountable problem for Harris that I will return to later in my review.Closely related to his confusion about whose wellbeing he is talking about, Harris seems to have difficulty taking individuality seriously. This shows up in two ways. First, he assumes that everyone wants wellbeing. Either this is meaningless, or it is an unclear statement. If it simply means that even if you do something that objectively harms your wellbeing, you clearly meant to do it in order to increase your wellbeing, then it is a tautology and adds nothing to the discussion. On the other hand, if there is some objective way of measuring wellbeing, then we can at least start making some moves toward thinking about what wellbeing really is and how to get there. But he never really closes that gap. More profoundly, Harris has no answer to the issue of the oppressed minority. Imagine if 80% of the population would have their average wellbeing level go from 75 to 85 if some act were done--with sufficient attenuation to make it not tantamount to slavery, etc.--that would cause the other 20% to have their average wellbeing level go from 75 to 55. Clearly, the aggregate wellbeing of the society has increased; and clearly some individuals are very badly hurt. Harris attempts to deal with this problem three times, and fails every time. First, he simply denies it, when he mentions Rawls' statement of the issue; then he says that the subjective wellbeing of the 80% would be harmed because their neurological state would be harmed; then he says that it just doesn't work that way. But of course all he has to do is look at his native United Kingdom (or my native United States) to see a society where a real-world scenario similar to this has happened over the last decade, and it seems no one is much bothered by it.It barely deserves mention that Harris's overt hostility toward and determination to misrepresent religion whenever possible mars his arguments. He is a New Atheist, which is to say he's regurgitating some Hume and Voltaire as if he thought of it himself. That will tell the reader of this review all you need to know.I am also ignoring the philosophy of science issues that using scientific inquiry to get at morals raises. Suffice to say they appear huge on first glance, but I'm not smart enough to suss them out fully.Very closely related to the Hume issue is the Brave New World issue. Ultimately, because he has no philosophically adequate account of what the word "good" means, he cannot explain why World Controller Mustafa Mond was not correct that he had created the best of all possible worlds, or why the Savage might have had a point. He also, of course, cannot deal with the problem of the suicidal person, except to say (and to his credit Harris is honest about this) that he is wrong about his own wellbeing, unless he takes of course the Vatican-ish position that a life in being, no matter how unpleasant, is always per se infinitely more valuable than a life not in being, which I doubt he would do.In short, what Harris has done is written an excellent apologia for a particular variety of early-21st-century vision of human wellbeing. He has not written a book of ethics. It is helpful, interesting, and probably is grounds for public policy research and a reasonably good guide to personal action a lot of the time. But it isn't a book about morality.

  • Socraticgadfly
    2019-05-21 19:49

    Presumably the last Sam Harris book I will ever readWhat's wrong? Harris is a Platonic idealist in drag. He also engages in scientism. And, his Islamophobia seems to largely come straight from the neoconservative playbook.Read on for the details!Sam Harris tries to draw a hard-and-fast dichotomy between science-based morals and ethics and religious-based morals and ethics in this book.However, this is the real world, not a Platonic idea (Harris comes off as quasi-Platonic in more than one way in parts of this book), and so, it's not totally amenable to Harris' bifurcation.Take abortion. Many religious people support at least some right to abortion, but noted atheist Nat Hentoff is 100 percent prolife. Ditto on end of life issues. And, if I looked a little bit, I could surely find atheists and agnostics with less enlightened views on gay rights than many religious people.Now, as to the science part ... the idea that we can have a science-based morality? Harris offers little in the way of actual neuroscience studies on the brain processing moral issues. We may well get oodles more such studies in the future, but that's not today. Harris also doesn't address the issues of what MRIs measure, how well this correlates with thought output, etc.Likewise, he discusses little in the field of well-done evolutionary psychology (to distinguish it from Pop Evolutionary Psychology).Beyond that, he simply ignores that the study of the human mind, whether from the POV of cognitive neuroscience or evolutionary psychology, is at best in the Early Bronze Age and is arguably, at least on the matter of morality and ethics, still in the Neolithic.So, while science may at some point (far?) in the future offer us significant oversight on specific moral issues, it doesn't today because it can't. And, per the specific moral issues I listed above, it may never be able to.Indeed, with reference to that, Harris' approach to science and morality smacks of a fair degree of scientism. And, I write this as an irreligious, skeptical naturalist.That said, there's several other problems with this book.I'm going to address several overview issues first, before making any page-by-page critique of the book.First is the matter of Harris' Islamophobia. Since Islam is in general cited regularly for examples of immoral behavior and beliefs, we need to examine this.First of all, it seems much of Harris' Islamophobia comes from the neoconservative political playbook. He favorably references an off-the-wall neocon writer, Bat Ye'Or, whose book on Islam's alleged takeover of Europe was one-starred by me.Secondly, he's confusing a static historic snapshot of history with a moving picture. If we went by snapshots, 900 years ago, Christian Crusaders would have been the poster boys for immoral behavior. 750 years ago it would have been pagan/animist Mongols. 600 years ago, polytheistic Aztecs.Finally, if we confine ourselves to today, the Hindu Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka killed 30,000 in their civil war, far more than al-Qaeda has killed.Second, whence comes Harris' moral stance, ultimately? I believe he is not just a moral objectivist, albeit a consequentialist (a stance more often associated with moral relativism but compatible with objectivism too), but a moral absolutist -- specifically a Platonic Idealist moral absolutist. There's irony there in spades, since the early and middle Platonic dialogues were devoted to Socrates, deconstruction of other people's definitions of moral issues such as justice. (Of course, Socrates usually doesn't offer his own idealist definition back; such things arise only in later dialogues.)Third, what of Harris' claims to be examining morality and its foundations from a scientific perspective?First of all, he's not the first to do so. He didn't invent sociobiology or evolutionary psychology. (Let me be clear here -- much of what passes for science in alleged evolutionary psychology is actuallly the pseudoscience of Pop Evolutionary Psychology. However, unlike a P.Z. Myers, there is legitimate work being done in this field, albeit little and far between.) So, Harris isn't new in his effort and he's certainly not new in his hope.That said, for someone who wants to be scientific, he seems often lacking. (No shock here; I saw the same problem way back in "The End of Faith." First, from an evolutionary standpoint, Harris doesn't address issues of individual vs. group selection. Now, I'm not as bullish on group selection as, say, David Sloan Wilson, but I do think it deserves more consideration than many evolutionary biologists give it. Second, Harris doesn't devote any scientific examination to cultural evolution. Admittedly, there's not a lot to really nail down ant this intersection of biology and sociology, but Harris doesn't even get into what is out there.Beyond what I mention above, for someone with a graduate degree in neuroscience, he spends about ZERO time referencing actual neurological study of the brain. No V.S. Ramachandran here, folks! Not even close.Fourth, Harris and philosophy, not just the "is-ought" issue, but certainly including that.First of all, for people who have read previous works of his, and not embraced him as a bundle of light, his arrogance in dealing with the philosophical background should be of no surprise. But, it still needs quoting.Page 197, footnote 1: "Many of my critics fault me for not engaging with the academic literature on moral philosophy. ... First ... I did not arrive at my position ... by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continual progress in the sciences of the mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of (academic terminology) directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. ... (T)he professional philosophers I've consulted seem to understand and support what I'm doing"Let's unpack what's wrong with this quote.1. Harris might actually have learned something by engaging with other moral philosophers either of today or the past. That would include wrestling more with Hume's is-ought; that would certainly include a provocative AND nontechnical book like Walter Kaufmann's "Beyond Guilt and Justice."2. Is Harris saying he's either too dumb or too lazy to "translate" language of academia to a general audience? Or a too-arrogant mix of both? One of the best classical philosophers on moral issues was Hume, precisely because he wrote in a way for the general public (of a certain educational level) to understand.3. Neuroscience is a "hard" science with plenty of its own technical language. That doesn't stop Harris from wanting to focus on advances in scientific discovery, albeit while, rather than discussing them in a nontechnical level, not discussing them at all. I smell a HUGE steaming pile of hypocrisy here.4. In light of what I noted above about Socratic dialogues, Harris never discusses what happens when two big moral issues, like "fairness" and "compassion," collide. This is one of the brilliancies of Kaufmann's book mentioned above.In light of all that, let's look at Hume's famous is-ought issues.Hume discusses the problem in book III, part I, section I of his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):>>In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.<<Hume calls for caution against such inferences in the absence of any explanation of how the ought-statements follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can an "ought" be derived from an "is"? The question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. This complete severing of "is" from "ought" has been given the graphic designation of Hume's Guillotine. issues here:1. "Ought" is multivalent. Sometimes, most notably in ethics, it has an explicitly moral tone. Other times, far from that. For instance, in late 19th-century physics, scientists said the ether, the luminiferous ether, "ought" to weigh a certain amount, even though experiment rebelled against that.2. In the case of ethics, to worry about "is-ought" is to approach the issue the wrong way. Rather, staying within Hume, one can ask what ethics can be naturalistically devised and supported. In this case (contra what Harris seems to say) we turn to evolutionary psychology **properly done** (and not Pop Ev Psych), as well as evolutionary biology of non-hominids. We can, through cultural anthropology, partially reinforce hominid ev psych findings. That then said, we would note that often, there is not one "right" ethical answer to some issues of ethics. We also should note, per someone like Walter Kaufmann, sometimes there is no right answer at all, or that a "right" answer may be culturally determined, or that a "right" answer for an individual may be the "wrong" answer for society. In this last case, no science gives us "the answer" as to whether individual needs or societal needs should prevail. And, for that matter, different religions may give us different answers, or the same religion may give us different answers at different times, as they do on other issues such as collective guilt.That said, this is a serious book. If you want a great modern philosophic study of ethics, read the book I mentioned above - Walter Kaufmann's "Without Guilt and Justice."

  • Andrew Langridge
    2019-05-24 16:08

    Although Sam Harris would deny that philosophy prior to the age of science has anything worthwhile to teach us, The Moral Landscape falls squarely within two long traditions of philosophy that could be said to include Aristotle; namely utilitarianism and naturalism. I find it admirable that Harris dispenses with philosophical jargon in making his book accessible to the general reader, but I also find it rather disingenuous to pay no regard to these traditions.Harris’ utilitarianism starts from the premise that there may not be one perfect way to organize society, but there are clearly better and worse ways of doing it, and he envisages an ethical continuum (or ‘landscape’ of peaks and troughs) in which we are able to rank our moral beliefs in terms of their positive or negative impacts on human well-being. So our values are always expressible in terms of our well-being as conscious individuals and reducible, in principle, to facts about our brains and our environment. Thus, Harris’ naturalism reveals itself as a demystifying worldview in which all human values and ethical positions are explainable in terms of scientific concepts. If defining and objectifying them in this way is not always possible in practice, owing to the complexity of human society, then Harris thinks it is bound to be possible in the future with developments in neuroscience.There are some aspects of this book about which I am not going to take issue, such as the centrality of consciousness in morality and the difficulty in separating facts about our lives from our moral values. I also agree that religious prescription is superfluous in moral discourse and often damaging, although I would not want to dispense with concepts such as ‘authority’ and ‘power’ altogether when analyzing the origin of moral terms such as ‘ought’. The key question is whether what we care about in life is actually measurable; whether moral terms are really susceptible to objectification, as Harris believes. I agree that moral relativism is wrong as a metaphysical position, but the relativistic aspect of moral argument is not so easily swept under the carpet. Moral reasoning always seems to involve an open-ended ‘stepping back’ process. Hence, it is impossible to simply state “murder is wrong”, since murder is typically permitted in the case of a ‘just war’; which in turn forces a consideration of the meaning of ‘just’. Most of us would agree with Harris that the moral beliefs of the Taliban are condemnable, and yet every member of the Taliban must surely be worthy of respect as a human being, whatever his or her beliefs. It is very easy for moral approbation to become a pretext for imperialism and domination of those deemed somehow less than human. The very notion of ‘human rights’ is capable of being used as a weapon for the strong to control the weak. This moral complexity is clear on an individual level, and even on a political level moral assessments are never unproblematic, as evidenced by the fact that the USA initially supported the Taliban on grounds of their opposition to Iran.As I see it, there are two major problems at the heart of Harris’ arguments. Firstly there is a lack of appreciation for the limitations inherent in the scientific method and, secondly, there is a lack of acknowledgment of the role that historical contingency plays in social and political analysis. I think that these two problems are related, but let me start with science. There are, of course, some basic empirical facts impinging on any analysis of the human condition such as our requirement for food, drink and shelter. These isolated facts are not very interesting from an ethical point of view, and they gain their significance from the context or hypothetical structure in which they appear. In physical science we rely on abstract rationalization to reduce any natural phenomenon to a few definable and repeatable variables; so for example, Newton's second law says that the gravitational force acting on a falling body is proportional to its mass, but is independent of the size, material and shape of the body. By contrast, in any moral or political analysis, the historical and social context in which decisions are made is always relevant and so abstraction is not effective. We must endeavor to leave out as few variables as possible and try to synthesize all the available information. I disagree with Harris that adding this layer of complexity leads to a moral relativism in which we are impotent to judge. It simply means that owing to the ‘accidental’ contingencies of history, there are an excess of possible reasons and reason is never sufficient to make judgments. We rely on something besides our rational faculties when putting ourselves in the position of another individual; a difficult empathy that is generally understood to be what morality consists in (“love thy neighbor as thyself”). The closer our proximity in space and time to the subject, the easier it is for us to pass judgment. Thus, we are much more comfortable judging the practice of slavery wrong in contemporary western society than in ancient Greek society; more comfortable judging a friend wrong to divorce his wife than someone with whom we have no connection. Even if empathy is ultimately reducible to a brain process (which I doubt), the historical content of empathetic attention is not.Harris wants to replace all appeals to abstract moral values by a grounded empirical analysis of consciousness and environment. We certainly cannot afford to ignore the latest scientific findings in evaluating the human condition, but this book manages, somehow, to ignore history, and that is equally unaffordable. Rather than trying to objectify consciousness in natural terms, Harris would be better advised to acknowledge Kierkegaard’s dictum that we become who we are and have no essential nature. Things happen to us as individuals, and it is how we react and cope with them that forms the basis of our morality.

  • Michael
    2019-06-07 18:45

    Ironically, Harris's latest can best be described as a sermon that will appeal only to the choir. Its angry tirades will only convince those who haven't already committed themselves to every jot and tittle of his world view that Harris has spent his entire conscious life seeking to justify his own visceral hatred anything and anybody religious--without realizing that his efforts to do so have only led him to invent his own peculiar religion. (I think calling Harris's uncompromising "New Atheism" a religion is consistent with Harris's own understanding of the concept of religion: in his last book, "End of Faith"--which lays all evil at the feet of a phenomenon he labels "religion"--Harris felt comfortable calling even communism a religion. It might, however, be argued that "religion" is simply Harris's term of choice for any system of thought that differs even an iota from his own.)The subtitle of the book promises much more than Harris delivers. First, Harris's belief system rests on the proposition that the measure of all actions is whether they conduce to something Harris calls the "wellbeing of conscious creatures". Harris never acknowledges that this axiom is unproven (and unprovable) by any scientific method. Second, even Harris acknowledges that science hasn't--and may never--provide us with definitive answers about human happiness. The point Harris is really trying to make is that nonbelievers should embrace the same moral absolutism that has traditionally been the province of those who believe in gods or the supernatural. Though he doesn't say so explicitly, it seems that the reason this is important to him is that it can justify his desire to wage war upon the religious.One example of the single-mindedness of Harris's attack: As an example of a society that he supposes everyone will agree does not function properly, he discusses at some length the culture of the Dobu, residents of an island now part of Papua-New Guinea. Examination of the books extensive notes and bibliography reveals that in forming his opinion Harris has failed to examine any of the ethnographical literature on this group--a subject not free from controversy. Instead, Harris has apparently relied on a quotation and discussion found in a collection of essays dealing principally with neuroscience.Thus, Harris's book is best read as a cautionary tale about the power of the non-conscious part of our minds to subvert and control the conscious. Indeed, since the evolution of those parts of the mind preceded the conscious, it is unsurprising that the conscious is generally their servant and not their master.

  • Marvin
    2019-06-16 13:45

    I find Sam Harris to be the most interesting and least abrasive of the so-called new atheists, a group that is comprised of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. But in his earlier The End of Faith he was taken to task by atheists and believers alike for suggesting that what we call Spirituality may exist, although not in the sense of the supernatural, and may actually be measurable by scientific means. Harris takes a similar stance in The Moral Landscape regarding morality. He criticizes both the religious idea that moralality comes from God but also the common scientific viewpoint that morality had no scientific basis and is culturally relative. He sees morality as a concept that is ripe for scientific exploration. That there may someday be science based guidelines that will help us know what is right and what is wrong. A few ideas...1. Morality is the responses and actions that lead to our well-being and happiness.1. Some ideas lead to happiness and well-being better than others and these may exist in the realm of scientific inquiry.3. Religion is a poor arbitrator of guidelines for morality as they are based on fictitious ideas. For instance, if it is true there is a heaven full of virgins for martyrs of the faith, then suicide bombers are immensely moral people. Almost all of us would disagree with that, but it is unarguable that their erroneous belief justify the act as moral in their minds. In other words, our concept of morality may be based on myths and lies.4. Therefore morality constitutes a landscape of behaviors and actions that can be determined by logic, reason, and the discovery of scientific evidence for how to live in a a moral way.I've probably over-simplified Harris' basic thesis yet I believe Harris has a good idea. You are not going to find too many answers in this book. The author is mainly setting up the foundation to why scientific exploration of morality is plausible. Yet there is plenty of research information, and more footnotes I've ever seen for a layman's book..slightly under half the book is appendixes...that bolster his arguments. While Harris does remain critical of religion, you will find little sniping and rudeness in these pages. I found this book to be informative and though-provoking. It will be interesting to watch where the discussion takes us.Three and a half stars.

  • Ben
    2019-05-22 20:41

    Let's ask a simple question: "Is it wrong to torture children?" The only possible answer, it seems, is yes, of course it is. And yet, as Harris argues, link such torture with the "cultural traditions" of a particular religion , and the respondent will hum and haw about the relativity of morals and freedom of religion. My example is not that outlandish; consider how hesitant many are to criticize the practice of female genital mutilation: an unequivocally barbaric practice, yet not universally condemned lest one would offend certain religious sensibilities.Harris’s thesis is simple and eloquently argued. There is a real thing called “well-being,” which can be a measure of the quality of one’s life; generally speaking we should encourage those practices which improve well-being, and condemn those which reduce well-being. Nuance is not lost on Harris; certainly, there can be debate about what constitutes well-being, and about whose well-being is more important; in principal though, these are questions that can be answered based on actual empirically derived data. In other words, we can link our values to what we know about the world, and not be beholden to this or that ancient book.In postulating this theory, Harris anticipates pissing off the two groups who currently monopolize moral discourse: religious conservatives and multicultural liberals. The first group insist that morality can be realized within the confines of one’s own religious doctrine; the second puts forth the feeble and self-contradictory notion that “all values are relative,” thereby refusing to challenge religious dogmatists, even as the latter espouse such lovely practices as child abuse and domestic violence, and actively oppose the basic human rights of homosexuals and minority groups. As Harris points out, we can achieve a real conversation about the “good life,” but we first have to discard notions that religious doctrines are beyond criticism.

  • Merilee
    2019-05-24 20:01

    Harris attempts to show that one can define good vs bad scientifically, and we will be able to do so even better as brain scanning tools become more sophisticated. For him good means providing the most well-being for the most people (and most defnitely leaves religion out of the equation). There is not usually only one good way of doing things, there being "many peaks on the moral landscape." Much of the book is a bit vague, but this may be my inability to follow all his philoso-speak. His 24-minute talk at Ted is a terrific summary of his ideas.

  • Kevin Kelsey
    2019-06-17 20:44

    Terrific. The main concept is that although moral questions are often very difficult to answer, and there are usually many satisfactory answers to each one, we can use the principles of science to eliminate the obviously bad answers to those questions.

  • Elyse
    2019-05-28 13:42

    This book is amazing!!!!!!! It keep me awake at night--turned me upside down-and back around!This just might have been the most valuable book I've read in years! My husband is going to read it now, too.

  • Hadrian
    2019-06-01 21:05

    Extremely interesting paremise - neuropsychology and science as a basis for objective morality. Incomplete, but the author admits his ideas are just a beginning.

  • Robert
    2019-06-10 19:41

    In this work, the prominent critic of religion, Sam Harris, argues that a comprehensive morality can be established using the well-being of conscious entities as the single normative value. "Good" is whatever contributes to this well-being. And "Science" is the arbitrator of what constitutes that well-being. It is the final arbitrator, the judge of what actions, behaviors, serve this goal. And there is no absolute good. As science's understanding of human well-being deepens, becomes more complete, all value judgments, all political systems, economies, societies, cultures, will be continuously reassessed and modified, fine-tuned, to ensure that they produce the optimal "well-being". This is not a new idea. Is just a variety of consequential utilitarianism: "The most good for the greatest number" but with the "good" to be verified experientially by its actual beneficial results. This is more of less conventional, common sense ethics - the way most people determine what to do - what is best. But this is not formal academic ethics. Harris makes no effort to theoretically establish this "well-being" as the highest value - beyond making the simple statement that he can think of nothing better. Nor does he consider how such a general goal could possibly motivate compliance - that is, why anyone would act according to this norm - why anyone would pay a price, no matter how slight, to serve this vague end. His implication is that they would just recognize it as the right thing to do and do it. This is arguing in circles - i.e., there is a deeper norm, the "right thing", and "increasing well-being" serves this deeper value. However, an even greater problem with Harris' argument is that he radicalizes his concept of "well-being" by insisting that it is to be restricted to "the level of the brain" - to the physical level, the level of the neuron. This is odd, unusual. It turns ethics into biology, into neurology. Perhaps he does this out of a desire to foreclose the application of "well-being" to minds, to souls, to things that science is unable to evaluate, whose well-being it cannot measure. Perhaps, he fears that otherwise there may be an opening for religion, for spiritual values. Course, at the "level of the brain", where everything is reduced to the physical level, to chemical and electrical properties and processes, everything is determined by scientific laws - therefore predetermined by natural laws. There is no "free will". And Harris embraces this. To him, thoughts and memories and images are not the product of volitional minds. They are phenomena produced by chemical and electrical processes. The consciousness is not in control - is completely dependent on the material actions of the physical brain. Hence has no independent volition. Has no free will. But if this is true, then ethical thought has no purpose, and Harris' book is useless. So why did he write it? He has, as his previous books prove, a great antipathy towards religion. Perhaps here he is attempting to strip religion of its value as a positive ethical force, to show that it is not necessary by providing an alternative ethics, one without any appeal to spiritual values - to remove completely from moral thought any concept of "soul" . But with that gone, man is only a material entity. His individuality is reduced to his DNA. He has no intrinsic worth. His only value is whatever he contributes to the general well-being. Human rights disappear - the individual is no longer a Kantian end - but a means. Once respect for each individual is lost, the door opens to "scientific" theories on how to make things better - opens to clever "rational" ways "to increase the general well-being". Folks tried this in the last century - some with attempts to create a communitarian, classless utopia, while others wanted to form a more perfect world by removing the unhealthy, by creating a superior humanity, a "master race". These attempts did not work out well. No ethical system that ignores the human spirit can. Harris regards man as a body, a physical entity, with his mind, his soul, only an unimportant phenomenon created by that body. This is mistaken. Science itself is the mental phenomenon - a construct - valuable, indispensable - but still a construct - something we use to explain what happens, what we see. Our true core reality is our conscious minds and the minds we encounter - the other spirits we meet. These are all that we can truly know - they are the loci of all value - the ends of all ethical thought. The "scientific" ethics Harris proposes in this book is closer to animal husbandry - a "how-to" book on keeping the herd healthy and content.

  • Bob Nichols
    2019-06-05 18:06

    Harris starts out strong. He argues that we can have a science of morality. Just as there is a general definition of bodily health, he argues that science can tell us how to interact with others. Just as we ought to promote our own welfare, we ought to maximize the welfare of others. Of course, this bumps into the argument that science can't tell us how we ought to live. Harris sidesteps that criticism by, in effect, stating that critics can fiddle with that line of thought all they want but he's going to stipulate the obvious: promoting survival and well-being is not only an obvious good for most, it is also consistent with evolutionary theory. He makes a helpful distinction between "answers in practice" and "answers in principle" to emphasize that while we may disagree about what "well-being" (our own and others) means, that concept is valid as a principle for morality. We can study "subjective" facts objectively, he writes.Then Harris goes astray. He largely dismisses evolution's relevance to our moral life. What Harris wants is a science of morals, which is a one-hundred percent intellectual enterprise. Harris has the mind take control of our beings so that we leave our "apish ways" behind. "Most of what constitutes human well-being," he writes, "escapes any narrow Darwinian calculus." Of Pinker, Harris writes that, "if conforming to the dictates of evolution were the foundation of subjective well-being, most men would discover no higher calling in life than to make daily contributions to their local sperm bank." There are a few problems with Harris's approach. Evolution is more than depositing sperm. In fact, there's a strong body of evidence indicating that cooperation is fundamental to the viability of our species, probably because individual survival depends on the support network of the group. Second, evolution most likely designed all sorts of other-oriented emotions and behaviors (love, compassion, empathy, fairness and loyalty) conducive to restricting the self in deference to others. Third, Harris makes an iffy leap when he states that one should maximize the well-being of others and that "we genuinely want fair and just societies." That flies in the face of the evidence of a good part of history and contemporary life. If we're excessively self-oriented, why should we care about others? If we're loyal to our group, why should we care about the welfare of other groups? Evolutionary theory is relevant here as well. Those who are nurturing by nature may have a natural inclination to respect others; for those who are not, they may nevertheless respect the interests of others because they see such behavior benefiting their own interest in the long-run (as a utilitarian calculus). Fourth, in dismissing the animal side, Harris seems to be arguing that reason alone can transform our natures to accord with his scientific view of things. That leaves too much deference to "reason" versus, say, the observation of Hobbes that, in the end, power is essential to preserve order and some semblance of justice. Reason alone cannot do the job. Finally, Harris's faith in reason and science has a hint of arrogance and intolerance about it. In response to criticism of "Orwellian moral experts" telling people what to do, Harris writes revealingly that "If there were a way for you and those you care about to be much happier than you now are, would you want to know about it?" Happiness is such a subjective thing and is most likely highly variable among individuals and groups. Harris's criticism of veiled women may not be as offensive to the women themselves as it is to Harris.Harris is right to argue that the standard of morality is our well-being. His argument about why we should restrict the maximization of our well being out of deference to others and affirmatively promote their well being is weak. We do that because either we are naturally inclined to be that way, or because we make the utilitarian calculus that it's in our own interest to promote the good of all. The latter translates into a golden rule type of principle that says that it's in our interest to respect the interests of others. What that principle means in practice is where the real challenge lies and where a hefty dose of tolerance and humility is needed.

  • Dan
    2019-05-20 12:49

    I must first admit, I was skeptical that science could answer questions about morality but I was hopeful that Dr. Harris, with a degree in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, might be the one with a sound argument as to how and why science might be the answer.I was hopeful because I agree with him that there is [currently] no such thing as Christian or Muslim [or other religious] morality… that “the mere endurance of a belief system or custom does not suggest that it is adaptive much less wise,” that it is possible for people to believe and to value the wrong things… that science and religion are antithetical and will “never come to terms,” and especially, that “the chief enemy of open conversation is dogmatism in all its forms.”I also think Harris is right to make the distinction between pleasure and well-being.  Perhaps most important is Harris’s assessment that “this faith in the intrinsic limits of reason is now the received opinion in intellectual circles.”  “There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States… few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult that an attachment to religion” he tells us. Although I believe this assessment is correct, I find it to be a frightening characterization of todays “intellectuals.”Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced with the argument made by Sam Harris. He tell us very clearly that his argument is that "questions about values - about meaning, morality and life's larger purpose - are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures... and therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood." And he states that understanding of the brain will give us "the right and wrong answers to questions of human values."He then tells us the alternatives: "to invoke God; [or] to give voice to ones apish urges, cultural biases, and philosophical confusion. Of course, he is correct. Today's values are determined almost exclusively by culture, tradition, and interpretation of the Bible, Koran, the Tanakh (and other documents of the Jewish faith). I would argue, as I believe the author implies, that the "values" these latter provide are, in fact, also derived from culture and tradition. To his last alternative - "philosophical confusion" he is also right. But this one, I believe, can and should be corrected and it is due to an epidemic of philosophical ignorance. Harris is right to look to science for answers to this problem, but we should not give up on philosophy either.It is the clearly articulated premises that I believe is incorrect: "human well being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain." "Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it [which will] "force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living... judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical."I believe this premise to be wrong on several levels. Foremost is his conviction that "well-being" is the goal. This begs the question. Well-being of what? He tells us: "questions about values... are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.He then argues that the ultimate value can be determined "if only we can obtain facts about how the brain responds."But a brain that is in a state of drug-induced euphoria may provide scientific indicator that jumping out of an automobile traveling at high speed is a sensible thing to do. Or it may show that rats on LSD light up the indicators like nothing else. Does this prove that the ultimate value is rats on LSD? Or, if we are convinced that 'man' is the ultimate value - the standard of reference for all decisions about what we ought or ought not do - does this example prove that anything, including drugs, that create a state of euphoria, is the correct measure of this "ultimate value."?

  • Book
    2019-06-16 20:47

    The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris Sam Harris is fast becoming one of my favorite authors and that is with just three books under his belt. In the Moral Landscape, Sam Harris makes a much needed statement for our time: Morality should be put under the scrutiny of science. Sam Harris a neuroscientist himself, states "that once we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values." I couldn't agree more. This book is important for many reasons. Religion has failed to provide the proper moral guidance that it claims to make. Steps in Sam Harris and provides the proper approach to take: these questions of morality...we know where the answers are, in our brains. It is his contention that morality must relate to facts about "well-being" of conscious creatures, and off he goes in a world where science can tackle the most important questions about our world in an objective and scientific manner. Morality needs and can be studied scientifically, and no one can explain it better than Sam Harris. I bought the Kindle version of the book and I must say that Amazon did a wonderful job of making sure that all the links work properly. It's a good thing too because the author makes a lot of great references. The book is broken out into five chapters and an excellent introduction: Chapter 1 - Moral Truth. In this chapter Sam Harris really lays the ground work for his main proposition of the book: we need a science of morality because it will enable humans with an objective tool to better our world. As a freethinker, I can be swayed with compelling information and the author does exactly that. I always considered myself a moral relativist, I guess in large part to make it perfectly clear from my point of view, objective morality can NOT be achieved with a non-existing supernatural entity. In particular because there are many supernatural entities to choose from. So morality at that point would be relative to the "God" of your choice and hence relative. Of course, Sam Harris alters my thinking in a positive way. Science can establish the framework to an objective morality. Chapter 2 - Good and Evil. This chapter deals with the understanding of good and evil in scientific terms. It also includes the necessary coupling of philosophy and science. "This is where a science of morality could be indispensable to us: the more we understand the causes and constituents of human fulfillment, and the more we know about the experiences of our fellow human beings, the more we will be able to make intelligent decisions about which social policies to adopt." This captures the essence of this chapter. Chapter 3 - Belief. In this chapter Sam Harris introduces some neurological terms such as: medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) that helps better understand the workings of the brain and how it relates to beliefs. Many great examples of how we obtain our beliefs , "feeling of knowing", and religious beliefs to name a few. I also enjoyed his explanation for scientific validity. Chapter 4 - Religion. In probably my favorite chapter, Sam Harris tackles religion. Great discussions in this chapter: an explanation of religion and how the brain is predisposed to religious thoughts, delusions, the soul (this brief section alone is worth the price of the book) , also a good discussion on altruism, and how religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning . Chapter 5 - The Future of Happiness. In an uncharacteristic manner, Sam Harris provides an optimistic outlook for the future. A future in which science can lead morality grounded in reason to a better future. In summary, this is a well researched book by a great author. I highly recommend it!

  • Steve Van Slyke
    2019-05-21 14:52

    It's not often than one gets read something about a genuinely new theory that has far reaching implications for all of mankind (think Einstein/Relativity, Newton/Gravity, etc.). It's also unusual that someone develops such a theory and then has the courage to put themselves and their reputation on the line in the world spotlight. It seems like Sam Harris has done that with this book.Whether you buy into Harris' thesis or not I cannot see how one could help but admire his courage for putting it out there, knowing that some of the big guns of philosophy, religion, and even science would begin shelling him with heavy artillery.The analogy of well-being-is-to-science as health-is-to-medicine (in the Afterword), really helped convince me that he has a theory that should be seriously considered and attacked in the time-honored methods of good scientific practice. It will be interesting to see which scientists and philosophers jump on board. Putting out a theory like this one is a big risk, but if it slowly gains support and leads to further inquiry, Harris might live to be rewarded by one day seeing his name in history books as the person that initiated a new branch of scientific endeavor.One of the parts that I struggled with was the section on Free Will. This is not the first time I have read about the various theories of Free Will, and unfortunately this one also failed to make it crystal clear for me what the argument is about. I am still looking for something like “Free Will for Idiots”. Whoa, I just discovered that Harris has a new book coming out next month titled....”Free Will”.It ended rather abruptly for me. I was hoping for and expecting some kind of road map for what the next steps should be to test and validate or invalidate the theory, but perhaps that is the topic of another book.When someone like Deepak Chopra trashes the book in a review without even having read it that tells you something has certainly struck a nerve and may be worth checking out. It seems as if some of the criticism aimed at Harris and the book are based more on a dislike of the messenger than a dislike of the message. If Harris was not the vocal critic of the three great monotheisms that he is, I wonder if the rhetoric in some of the reviews might have been a little more reasoned and softer in tone

  • Bakunin
    2019-05-26 16:41

    Yet another believer in objective morality. To Harris morality, to be crude, is any set of rules that maximizes wellbeing of the largest possible number of people on the planet. I'm not positive if he thinks that this is objective morality, because it is obviously not. Morality is subjective like most things and it is usually justified by expression of power. I'll give a hypothetical example. Let's say that a horrible virus started spreading around the globe and humans are dying rapidly. There is a cure but to utilize it we must take radical measures. Let's say that scientists had discovered a cure but to create one cure for one person you need, let's say two human livers. So in other words to save one life you must take two. If you don't do this, everybody dies. If you do it few survive and not the majority. You can't just save the children because without adults they'll be lost. So children must die too. How can these two choices be justified as moral? I'm not sure.If you go with morality everybody dies. If you renounce it, few survive but at tremendous cost. The example is extreme, I realise that, but Harris doesn't address it. At least I can't recall any such example. What's happening in the book is what happens in every book written by a person that believes in objective morality(Ayn Rand). You have a person that is trying to subjectively set what moral behaviours is and try to convince as many people as possible that their way is the right way. Then, when or if they manage to get the mob on their side, they would proclaim their subjective morality as objective one. This is done in religion, where morality is a set of rules given to us by god. In this book morality is a set of rules given to us by science or by Sam Harris. I agree with Harris when it comes to trying to maximise wellbeing of the global population because this way you are creating healthier and more productive society. But there will be times when this doesn't apply. And to claim that this is moral is simply trying to proclaim that your idea of morality is "right" and noting more. If he went another route and claimed that we should look at things from what works and what doesn't perspective, in other words rely on practicality and not morality I might of have bought the "wellbeing" concept; otherwise one star.

  • Alan Johnson
    2019-05-28 20:03

    Since at least World War II, the social “sciences” have followed the “hard” sciences in insisting that “facts” can be known while “values” cannot be known. Indeed, following Max Weber and others, values have long been considered to be merely subjective preferences that cannot be demonstrated to be true or false (or valid or invalid) by either philosophy (inductive and deductive reasoning) or science. This view necessarily implies moral or cultural relativism. A few twentieth-century scholars in the field of philosophy or political philosophy (notably Leo Strauss) and at least one twenty-first-century scientist (neuroscientist Sam Harris) have insisted that the traditional fact-value dichotomy is incorrect. Rather, “values” can be determined rationally or scientifically and are not relative to culture or individual preference. We can say, for example, that cannibalism or genocide is wrong without merely expressing a subjective preference. In articulating this position from a scientific perspective, Sam Harris has expanded the concept of science beyond testability to mean rationality in a more philosophical sense. See Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press, 2010). Is Harris correct? Is this where science and philosophy meet?I do not necessarily agree with Harris on all issues. For example, he seems to me to contradict himself on the question of free will (we apparently don't have free will except when liberating ourselves from religion), and I'm not too sure about the ease with which he moves back and forth between individual and collective well being (a difficult question involving both ethical and political philosophy, including but not limited to means and ends issues). But I find his rejection of the fact-value dichotomy quite interesting, even though I might have a somewhat different way of approaching the issue.Harris has been harshly attacked by left-wing academia for rejecting cultural relativism (see his "Afterword" to the paperback and Kindle editions of The Moral Landscape). He has long, of course, been attacked from the right for being a proponent of the "New Atheism." I tend to think that both critiques are misguided, though, again, I don't necessarily agree with the entirety of his analysis.