Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Book review: Sam Harris - The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape (How Science Can Determine Human Values) by Sam Harris

This is the first of Sam’s books I have read but it certainly won’t be the last (in fact I ordered The End of Faith at the start of the week). The book is about the concept of a science of morality based on the well being of conscious creatures, made possible as we begin to understand more and more about everything that happens at the level of the brain. Using a baseline of the worst possible suffering for the longest amount of time (for everybody), we can see that all experience moves up or down this landscape Sam has created (if one does not want to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone for the longest possible time, then I don’t know what you’re talking about, and more importantly I don’t think you know what you’re talking about either). Everything we do that is worth talking about is something that alters our consciousness (mostly very little, other times hugely so) and anything that affects consciousness is happening at the level of the brain.

I had the pleasure of getting tickets for an evening with event that Sam and Richard Dawkins were doing at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in April earlier this year. I hadn’t yet read the book, in fact I only picked it up earlier that same day so I could get it signed afterwards. The talk was filmed and you can watch it here on youtube:

The talk is a good primer for the book (and while some people have attacked his idea as another form of utilitarianism, I think the tour he has done in support of this book shows he is not guilty of this), and of course some of his introduction is almost a direct lifting from it (as you would expect), but the book certainly goes into more detail. If I were to note a slight disappointment then it would be that I was expecting perhaps a bit more on the technical aspect of the brain given Sam’s expertise in neuroscience, though there is plenty about the brain and his FMRI experiments and it's these moments where the book is most compelling. Regardless, the book left me wanting more in that regard (better that way than bore me to tears), Sam writes with a razor sharp clarity and shows the fallacy of religious moral teachings admirably, if religion is ever right, it’s right by accident.

The criticism towards the book comes from a misunderstanding of the matter in my opinion, Sam has not written (or attempted to write) a book that has all the answers, merely opening the door and exploring how and why we should be able to deride moral values from science. Perhaps this humility is disappointing for some people. It’s a liberating idea and not one that should be met with scorn, he makes plenty of analogies towards a science of physical health, when Doctors tell us things like “smoking causes lung cancer”, we don’t picture this as hostile men in white coats telling us how to live our lives in some kind of Orwellian horror show. Indeed, physical health itself is difficult to define but we don’t doubt that a science of medicine is based on physical health, and so we should deal with moral science in a similar way. Sam points out the blurred lines between facts and values as processed by the brain (this is why beliefs matter so much), how we should not confuse a position between not having answers in practice and not having answers in principle, and how there will doubtless be many different ways to travel up and down the moral landscape regarding the same questions. Harris has responded to the most compelling criticisms of his book on his website -

It’s a huge topic that should be taken seriously, in my opinion, and hopefully The Moral Landscape is a means towards a rational dialogue on the matter.


I'd also urge you to read Sam's blog which never fails to make you think.

1 comment:

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