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

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
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's review
Oct 09, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 2010-books-read, kindle, atheism-religion, science, cultural-studies, ebook
Read from October 09 to 11, 2010

Actually, I’m on chapter 4, but I’m eager to write some of my thoughts on this book before I finish it.

I was eager to read this book because I like Harris’s writing and analysis. So far I think The Moral Landscape is a good follow-up to Harris’s previous books, because he‘s saying that science can no longer afford to be neutral or silent about moral values and issues, which have largely been framed and addressed by religion. He argues that values and ethical issues "are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on the human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.”

As you might guess if you haven’t read the book, he’s having to develop some heady arguments--from a point of view that we don’t often hear these day. However, something keeps gnawing at me as I read the book. I think Harris proposes too many extreme dichotomies to make his arguments. For example he asks an obvious question: which would we prefer, the bad life of Jeffery Dahmer or the good life of say an Oprah Winfrey? (he doesn’t use her name, but I give it as an example.) He’s arguing that most sane people know that factually what is ethically good and what is ethically bad; we don't have to use religion and other superstition to draw these conclusions. Okay that’s correct, but almost every other page he’s proposing these extremes to make points, but these dichotomies don’t represent grey areas--the grey landscape if you will--that we confront on a daily basis. Perhaps this is the way you argue issues philosophically, but they’re often a distraction when reading and navigating his main thesis.

I do think he’s correct in saying science can contribute to understanding of what is morally right or wrong; but the question is, how do scientific facts and conclusions play out in the political landscape? If science for example proves that there’s nothing immoral about homosexuality and that it’s ethically sound and even biologically-based, okay what is to be done with that from a scientific point of view? These issues largely get played out in political struggles and the courts.

In chapter 3 he talks about the future possibility that we can live in a society in which scientific methods can truly determine when people are lying. If that becomes possible, it definitely would have a dramatic effect on the world. It could alleviate lots of suffering and misdeeds. On other hand, though, real lie detections could lead to a sort of perfection in society that many people may not be comfortable with, and it could lead to a lot of hurt and pain. For there may be many reasons why people need to lie in order to protect themselves and others. So just because science can do certain things, it doesn’t mean it ought to.

Anyway, I think The Moral Landscape is worth reading, but he tries to cover way too much in a limited space. Harris is of course is not the first thinker or intellectual to address issues of morality and the well being of humanity. Karl Marx, Frederick Engles, Paul Tillich, Martin Luther King, etc, etc, spent their lives writing and speaking about issues of fairness and justice. They didn’t spend a lot of time raising hypothetical arguments about how we should treat one another as human beings. They were pretty clear on it, and acted accordingly.

If we want to get serious about the well being society, i.e. the world, then yes scientists, as well as atheists, need to speak out about values-- particularly in regards to the factual basis of some values, but also to mutability and complexity of values and behaviors (take for example real issues such as pornography, abortion, poverty and homeliness. There are factual claims that can be deduced about these issues, but that doesn’t mean most people will agree with conclusions about certain facts. Nor will particular facts change our behavior for “good” or “bad” just because it’s been proven by science. We’re complex beings, just as nature itself is complex. Sure, most of us want a fair and just world; most of us live by a set of values that we were either raised with and/or acquired through reasoning and sense of compassion. However, our individual and group experiences and our physical, financial, and moral capacity to live and do certain things are limited. These limitations influence our moral constructs for both “good” and “bad.” We can say for example, overall marriage is a good thing, but it’s also “bad,” because it’s based constructs that have changed over time, and in many ways as an institution, marriage can be very limiting and oppressive to both men, women, and children. I’m using this as one of many examples.)

Finally, I would say that though The Moral Landscape is a must-read book, I would also suggest perhaps reading a less well know writer David Eller, the author of Atheism Advanced and Natural Atheism who addresses these arguments, but not quite with the flair that Harris does. Eller definitely offers advance analysis about atheism and religion.

Oh, and one more thing that gnaws at me as I read the book. Harris’s critique of moral relativism and multiculturalism is seriously misleading. I really hope qualified writers address the arguments he makes against these schools of thought and analysis. He portends that some people would argue that all cultural practices must be respected in their historical and cultural context. Well, that may have been argued in many cases, but that is not all of what moral relativism and multiculturalism have to say. And in fact, these domains came about partly because of Western European cultural arrogance that I think Harris uses at times in making his arguments. So there are many issues that need to be addressed in this book. I can see several other books being written in response to it.


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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Steefen Sam Harris is not a great thinker nor a great writer. He's a pop sensation. I don't like his mindset, the base from his arguments flow. He isn't objective and fair-minded in his thinking and writing. I noticed this with End of Faith. You're disagreeing also with the way he's handling this subject matter.

message 2: by Bakari (last edited Oct 16, 2010 12:12PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bakari Steve, since I don't view Harris as some guru, I'd be interested in how you conclude that he's not a thinker or great writer. His first book definitely has helped advance the debate around issues of religion, science, and atheism. If you say he's not a great thinker, whom are you comparing him to? The last time I checked, which is like 15 seconds ago,, I don't think there are great thinkers in huge supply these days. Sure, Harris is shrewed in his delivery and often subjective in establsihing his arguments, but i wouldn't say he doesn't have anything to contribute to the issues and topics he writes about.

But again, I welcome your analysis. I don't totally agree with the man, so it would great to read your critique of what you have read by him or heard him say.

David Bakari, you raise some interesting points here. I am particularly interested in your points about the extreme dichotomies and moral relativism. I think he is reacting to extreme moral relativism which sometimes pervades liberal societies. He and I are both liberal and value diversity (he says you have peaks and valleys of human flourishing, and there is no 1 way to do it). But--to walk us back from shrugging our shoulders at certain heinous cultural practices he has to first get us to admit that there are some very clear things we can agree on (opera vs dahmer). Once we agree that we agree we are in a new conversation. Does this make sense? Thoughts?

David Steve can you give more specifics? It sounds like you don't "like" Harris-- but don't have any specifics or concrete reasons for it. To call him a pop sensation is an empty attack unless you have more serious quibbles than he is not a great writer.

Bakari David, thanks for your feedback. Yes, I can see what you mean about the “extreme moral relativism,” but I’m not clear about who is exactly supporting these extremes? Who supports the actions of a Dahmer. At best, one might say that we have to understand what motivates actions of Dahmer, instead of just writing him off as a madman, which he is.

Plus, I also think that when we talk about “morality,” it often gets mixed up in our ideological views about human nature. Liberalism may support moral relativism, because much of liberalism is about trying to work with the social and historical differences between people and societies, instead of forcing some rigid demand that everyone conform to the standards set by the so-called status quo, and particularly so-called religious "morality" and rituals.

And yes, we can reduce morality down to facts, I agree; but this can also be complicated.

For example, Harris talks about the “good life” that many of us possess. Well, sure that’s true, but the “good life” at whose expense? Many people throughout the world have the good life, but this we know comes at the expense of many, many others living in poverty. The U.S. is most admired because of material resources, but yet we know that it has exploited something like a third to two-thirds of the world’s natural resources, while its population is relatively small compared to many other nations of the world. This is both a moral and political issue that can’t be neatly framed as in an Oprah vs. Dahmer. Oprah is a definitely a good person. She attempts to use her wealth for the good of many people. But there’s something structurally (dare I say, morally wrong) when we have an economy that enables individuals to possess as much wealth as that of entire small nations or even communities. That doesn’t seem like a good moral choice to me. But see, Harris can't address that issue because it’s not a neat, politically correct one to talk about.

Does this make sense? I guess in a nutshell, I’m saying that issues of morality are often (no, typically) ideological, and in the end when it comes to enforcing moral demands on people, it’s becomes a political issue, which is something also that Harris doesn’t directly address.

David Yeah this is a good point. He doesn't get into the economic or the political all that much. I guess he because he is so focused on religion and science. It would be a very different book if he were to get into those realms, and I am somewhat glad he does not, but I do wish he discussed them a little more. I think to venture into those realms would be prescriptive and that is not his goal in this book.

Bakari Well, if he’s going to pursue this line of argument—which he should—then he may very well have to address the economic and political connections. Because, we know, for example, that abortion is a moral issue that can be reduced to facts, but then it also comes down to an ideological/political issue when laws are enacted so that women have (or don’t have) the right to choose what they want to do with their own bodies.

However, I do agree that Harris had a different goal in mind for his book. I think he is largely addressing the scientific community. While general readers can certainly benefit from that debate, I got the feeling that as I read the book, that many of these issues he was debating emanated from the scientific community.

To be serious about his issue, Harris would need to write several books to further develop his thesis.

David Agreed. I would like to see much of this unpacked in further books. And I agree with you economics and politics are as much at play as religion.

Daniel I hope Harris is pointing in the right direction. As the book Smarter Than Us explains, artificially intelligent entities may become too smart for their human inventors to control, and we will effectively be at their mercy. If science determines human values, and AIs are better at science than we are (as they would have to be to pose a threat), then they should converge on the best possible moral code, by using science, even faster than humans could.

Daniel "The well-being of conscious creatures" seems a bit narrow to me. What about the well-being of plants? Is there nothing morally wrong with, say, deforesting an entire continent, as long as no conscious creature objects? And what about abusing a corpse? It doesn't bother the corpse, yet most people view that as wrong.

A fundamental problem of morality is deciding whose happiness matters more when two or more conscious entities have conflicting goals. If I enjoy eating a chicken, does my pleasure outweigh the pain of the chicken's grim existence in the battery farm? I'm sure that science could determine what makes each creature most happy, but I don't know how science could prioritize our happiness. And then there is the Tragedy of the Commons, in which each individual participant gains a benefit to self, with the collective result that everyone is worse off in the long run. How does merely knowing that motivate the selfish individual to sacrifice a certain benefit when it won't stop everybody else from wrecking the shared commons? A prime example is man-made climate change. The individual gains benefits by making tiny individual contributions to the problem - for example by flying off to an atheism conference to hear Sam Harris speak. The net result is that billions of people inadvertently work together to destroy civilization.

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