Rod Hilton's Reviews > The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
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's review
Oct 20, 10

bookshelves: audiobooks, science
Read from October 11 to 20, 2010

Sam Harris's book, "The Moral Landscape" is a very interesting book. I consider myself nonreligious, but I've always had a hard time explaining to religious folks why I'm not a moral relativist. I believe in objective morality, but I'm never able to define it to the satisfaction of those with whom I talk, or even really myself. I picked up "The Moral Landscape" hoping to have a better understanding of this issue.

The book is very good. The prose is excellent, the arguments are reasonable, and the book is overall fascinating from start to finish. The problem is that it is somewhat incomplete.

I was expecting the book to make a case for a specific form of objective morality, a universal moral code informed by science. Harris starts the book by saying such a thing exists, but that he first must convince the reader that it's something that CAN exist. Fair enough. Harris then takes us though argument after argument that science truly can make judgements about morality, and he makes a very good case for it. The problem is that, once he convinces the reader that science should not be silent on the subject of morality, the book stops.

Harris essentially spends the entire book arguing that an objective moral code can exist, but he never explains what it is. He even concludes at the end of the book that he has done this. I felt like this was a let-down.

The closest he comes is by arguing that science can speak on the matter of morality because we can consider moral acts to be those that help increase the well-being of conscious beings. He often argues that the measurement for immorality is if it causes "human and animal suffering."

This seems like a decent starting point for a code of morality, but it seems to suffer from a few flaws. Because Harris never really expands on this morality as a concept, merely content to argue that he and other scientists should feel comfortable talking about it, he never answers my questions about his proposal.

For example, if an act is moral if it increases the general well-being (intentionally left vague) of conscious creatures, I have a conundrum. Imagine someone is sexually attracted to 10-13 year-old-girls. This person has been working night shift in a morgue for 15 years. As a result of a car accident, a 11 year old dead girl is brought into the morgue. The employee is alone at night, and has been working long enough to know there are no cameras anywhere. He could not possibly be caught, so he decides to have sex with the girl's corpse.

Now, this act is morally repulsive. It's clearly wrong. However, I see no part of Harris's moral framework that would make it wrong. The girl is dead, so no conscious beings are harmed by the act. Arguably, this act satiates the man's desire to have sex with living 11-year-old girls, so the act very slightly increases the overall well-being of humanity. It would seem that this act is moral. How can this be so if it's so repulsive?

Harris may argue that my total repulsion with this question proves that the moral code to know it's wrong is inherent to me as a human being, but this is insufficient. This would only describe "is", and doesn't get us to "ought" (a classic problem that Harris devotes a great deal of the book to discussing).

Another bit of hand-waving is how Harris groups animals with humans when he refers to "human and animal suffering". He generally refers to the well-being of "conscious creatures" but how can someone argue that animals are conscious? There is no way to prove that animals are self-aware, so why include them? It seems possible to take a stance of increasing human well-being while ignoring animal well-being, but this makes animal torture morally ambiguous. By the same token, if we include animals, are we all obligated to become vegetarian? Harris is very cloudy here, which was disappointing.

Overall, it's a very good book. It takes the content of "The Science of Good and Evil" quite a bit further. While "The Science of Good and Evil" essentially argues that humans are inherently moral creatures as a byproduct of evolution (morality as descriptive), Harris argues that our moral views can be informed and altered by science, bridging the gap from "is" to "ought" (morality as prescriptive). He does a good job of this, but spends most of the book essentially arguing for the legitimacy of the existence of another, as-yet-unwritten book. While I enjoyed this one, I would much prefer to read that one.
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