Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Today’s book review is a guest post from Darren McKee. Darren is a contributor to the Ottawa Skeptics’ podcast, The Reality Check. Interesting in contributing your own book review? If it’s related to scientific skepticism, we’re interested. Get in touch with us at skepticnorth@gmail.com or @skepticnorth on Twitter.

The Moral Landscape is an intelligent and well-researched work that challenges the reader to question if notions of fact and value are really that different. However, this landscape is not without its pitfalls.

Sam Harris is well known for his best-selling books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. His newest book explores morality, and argues that science can and should be used to determine human values.

Harris describes the moral landscape as having positives (peaks) and negatives (valleys). I’ll review The Moral Landscape using the same analogy.

Peaks

1) Conscious well-being – Harris argues that this is the only thing one should and could care about. All notions of happiness and suffering are contained within the phrase “well-being” and we want more of the positive than the negative. It is “conscious” because that is all we experience. It is true that subconscious events affect us, but that really means that they have an effect on our conscious well-being. Although I’m not 100% convinced, there does seem to be a lot of truth to this and this is likely what we care about most often.
2) The Moral Landscape has peaks and valleys – Harris tackles head on the fact that some ways of living are better than others and we can investigate these discrepancies further to better understand ourselves and better ways to live. This message may seem obvious to some and challenging to others, hopefully more people will admit to the former.
3) Fact & Value – Many think these must be different because not everyone agrees on moral issues. Harris rightly points out that we rarely use mass consensus to determine other issues (look to polls about scientific or any other type of knowledge), but we can all admit that some ways are better than others (…so he argues). Restated, it is important to draw parallels to other areas of knowledge and ignorance and how such discrepancies don’t force people to abandon notions of objective X.
4) Clarity – Harris is quite clear about what he is arguing, what he means and what he doesn’t mean, and provides responses to anticipated criticism. While this is how all books should be, not all authors seem to agree or can write that way.
5) Interesting – For those who like philosophy and science, there are many interesting things in The Moral Landscape. Aside from the main content, one reads about different selves, (the illusion of) the illusion of free will, psychopathy, recent findings in neuroscience and various tidbits (mainly from psychology) along the way.
6) Thought-provoking – Harris forces the reader to clarify their own positions in relation to his argument. If you disagree, you should be prepared to say why.

Valleys

1) Disagree? Dismissed – Harris wants you to agree with him about his notion of well-being, and if you don’t, then he says your opinion doesn’t count. Additionally, if you disagree it is about conscious well-being, then your opinion doesn’t count. Further, if you disagree that extreme horror isn’t worse than tranquil delight, then your opinion doesn’t count. I am sympathetic to many of these points, but not to the degree that I can fully support his stance. (See below)
2) Arguing Extremes – (Straw man; Slippery slope fallacies)
Throughout the book I was continually disappointed by Harris’ reliance upon an extreme example to try to prove a point. It was if he had a strategy of “One, Two, Extreme” and wasn’t afraid to use it. He begins by describing an issue, then providing some analysis which almost makes you agree with him, and then instead of further analysis he provides you with some extreme situation or example that you can’t disagree with.
The example I made up below isn’t quite the same, but it gives the right idea (the third part is actually real content from the world, not the book):
One: Different cultures have different practices.
Two: Some people think all these different practices are equally valid.
Three: If you agree with point two you are crazy because then you validate things like this: “Generose Namburho [is] a 40-year-old former nurse [who lives in the Congo]. Namburho is a stocky, self-assured woman who led us down a mud path, using a crutch to replace her missing right leg. An extremist Hutu militia invaded Namburho’s home a few years ago, killed her husband, raped her and then hacked off her leg with a knife. Then the soldiers cooked the flesh from her leg and forced her children at gunpoint to eat it. When her beloved oldest son refused, they shot him in front of her.”
Surely you don’t think children should be forced to eat their mother’s leg, do you?!
I think such argumentative structures are counterproductive because they do not address the all important middle case (and typically raise emotions which do not help with reasoning).
3) Science can’t really determine human values(?) – The subtitle of the book is “How Science Can Determine Human Values” so one is given to thinking that most of our moral questions will be answered. The problem is that so far there are only general answers. Harris wisely admits that there can be equivalent peaks on the moral landscape, where there are alternate ways of achieving a similar good, but, problematically, there is little way to figure out which path to take. Additionally, Harris states that quite often there might only be answers in principle, not in practice. Harris believes this is an important point, and it is, but not to the degree he ascribes. To say that whatever is the most reasonable way to calculate collective well-being will be the most reasonable way to do it, is both true and unhelpful. True, it does follow from other premises about the nature of what we value and our notions of well-being, but because of the complexity of moral systems (i.e., us), how are we going to do this? Harris readily admits that it may be impossible for science to figure these things out. So then what is so new here? Near the end of the book (p. 183) Harris says we don’t need science to tell us many of the things we already know about having better lives. Cruelty and being tortured are bad; nearly all agree. What we all (probably) wanted is more detail on the gray areas, but there isn’t much to be found in this book on such important issues. Knowing what is wrong and knowing what is right are different things (i.e., it is easier to point out how not to live than to say how to do so).

Additionally, near the end (p. 189) he uses the phrasing “the claim that science could have something important to say about human values…” and that is far more modest than science determining them. This is exactly why the Is/Ought distinction is so important. Harris seems to be saying that science cannot determine specific moral actions in practice. If that is true, then there isn’t much to disagree with. This particular topic probably warrants the most discussion (and has also received it thus far – see responses to his TED talk).
Perhaps the subtitle should have been “Science could, perhaps theoretically, determine human values, but not what we should value, unless you agree with my other arguments.” Granted the length makes it a poor subtitle, but something less misleading could have been picked.
4) Disagreement is met with condescension – While it is understandable that moral issues are of grave concern, I do not think that people should be denigrated (at least in public) for holding different (modest) views. Someone might disagree with you because they are informed and disagree, not because they are confused or stupid. All too often Harris sees his opposition as intellectual bankrupt or baffled (when they might be neither).
5) Interesting, but lacking coherence – The content of the Moral Landscape was indeed interesting, but most of the bits after the first few chapters didn’t seem to flow as well, nor was a strong case made to tie the content back to the overall thesis. I think Harris could have filled things in a bit more. For example, how does our lack of free will impinge upon our ability to even recognize a moral landscape?

If you have made it this far, you probably know if you should read it or not. I think it was worthwhile but I can’t say I’ll recommend this to many who are not already in the science/skepticism/atheist world.

One Response to “Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris”

  1. Chris says:

    While I haven’t read this book, I’ve heard many of his arguments presented in other media (videos, blogs, TED). Given your review here, it doesn’t sound like any new information has been presented in the book than what I’ve already been extensively exposed to. I may be over simplifying, but I feel like Sam’s arguments can be boiled down to:

    “Your values cannot ignore facts.”

    As you’ve said many times, the scientific method is without a doubt the most successful method of inquiry humans have devised in sorting out facts, therefore science (and many of the methods deployed by science) have a fundamental role in determining our values whether we like it or not. While that simple statement above may feel obvious to many in the skeptic community, it has been my experience it is far from obvious outside the community. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a “moral hazard” argument only to find data that should completely lay to rest any “moral hazard” concerns, and have the “moral hazard” proponents still hammer away at that argument, well I’d be as rich as many of the woo peddlers this sight criticizes.

    A very real and non-straw man example of this is the Vatican’s stance against condom use in Africa where AIDS is running rampant. Science can clearly show that their stance is having a very negative impact on Africans (precisely how much is up for debate). Therefore this is a real world example of how science can conclusively show the Vatican’s value against condom use is wrong and actually quite immoral.

    I think the problems and concerns regarding Sam’s position (one I wish he’d actually face head on instead of dancing around it in the abstract while being annoyed by those questioning any part of his thesis) is what happens when science does not provide clear and conclusive evidence either for or against a value? The value of home-ownership comes to mind. There’s little clear evidence as to whether or not home-ownership (well at current levels in the US) acutally does anything to advance our well-being. Yet owning your home is equated as a moral value by easily >50% of Americans. How can science help us cut through that fog or is Sam’s position that science doesn’t have an answer so do what you want?

    I too am very sympathetic to Sam’s position. It’s how we handle that so-called “gray area” where we have no strong evidence where the problems lie. Sam would do himself and all of us a great service if he took that on with real world examples. Then again, in the meantime, we still have millions of people exposing themselves to life threatening diseases as a direct result of Vatican policies based on their moral qualms with contraception.

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  • Darren McKee

    Darren McKee is concerned with the promotion of critical thinking. He is a co-host of the weekly skepticism podcast The Reality Check and also blogs with CFI Ottawa. He thinks skeptics should incorporate more morality into their explorations and thinks everyone should read (more) Daniel Dennett and Peter Singer.