Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Book Review: The Moral Landscape

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 2, 2011

I recently finished reading Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape. It was a fun book to read and made an interesting case.

Sam Harris rejects the common notion that science has nothing to say about morality, and that the fact/value distinction is a false distinction: values are really just facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. Therefore, according to Harris, it is possible to science to answer questions about morality.

This review is divided into two parts. In the first part, I will address the book itself, how interesting it may have been, and why you should or should not read it. In the second part I will discuss the arguments it puts forward.

Part 1

The Moral Landscape was an engaging and interesting read. Before getting the book I read some of Sam Harris’ essays about the fact/value distinction and watched some interviews. He made essentially the same case each time. The book differs from the other media I absorbed in that it goes into much more detail in support of Harris’ argument and spends a large chunk of time discussing conclusions.

Of the five chapters, the first two are easily the most valuable. They explain Harris’ position and provide supporting evidence. I also found those chapters to be the most enjoyable. The last three chapters did not seem to add much to the core of the argument and could just as easily have been left off; still, they were interesting and added some additional branches to the book’s line of reasoning.

This book was worth reading and I very much enjoyed it. If you’re in a hurry, you can skip the last three chapters without missing much.

Part 2

Most people would agree that if the purpose of morality is to enhance the well-being of conscious creatures then science can say how to do this. The weak point is where Harris claims that that is indeed the purpose of morality. He actually does a remarkably good job of making that claim, but his argument is not watertight.

When Harris makes the case that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures, some respond by saying that his valuation of well-being is subjective. Harris argues that the well-being of conscious creatures is the only thing that can reasonably be valued. I agree on this point, but I disagree that everyone must value everyone else’s well-being. I suspect Harris would argue that it is morally wrong for me to murder someone, even if it makes me happy. However, if it increases my well-being, who is to say that the victim’s well-being is more important? He may think it is, and some objective measure may say that the total well-being he lost was greater than that which I gained. But I see no objective reason why I should care about that. It happens that I do care, because I see no reason to limit my maximization of well-being to only my own; however, Harris did not convince me that there is some objective reason why I should value others’ happiness.

Harris effectively ties his argument into a number of real-world examples, and I found most of this book convincing. My only objection is that he assumes that everyone’s well-being matters, but never supports this assumption.

3 Responses to “Book Review: The Moral Landscape”

  1. phynnboi said

    I read this book a few months ago, but sadly didn’t make any notes for it. The main thing I remember is being disappointed that a book purporting to champion blending science with moral reasoning had so very little science in it. I thought Jonah Lehrer’s /How We Decide/ gave the subject a better treatment, and IIRC devoted only a chapter to it!

    • That’s true. However, I do not think it was meant to say *what* activities increase well-being, but that science can determine what those activities are.

      • phynnboi said

        Some examples would have made for a much stronger book. I can imagine, e.g., fundamentalist Christians pointing to the book as-is and saying, “Look at this foolishness! He says science can take the place of God’s law, yet doesn’t even show that it has done so! Because it can’t! More wishful thinking from the atheists!” They’d actually have a point there. (Unlike if it had examples and they just said, “God already did it” or “God did it better,” which would come off more as a retreat than an advance.)

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