Saturday, 23 June 2012

Review of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris


Sam Harris is best known as being one of the new atheists and member of the group loosely known as the Four Horsemen (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and the now departed Hitchens). Harris's published books previous to the Moral Landscape have all dealt with the topic of religion. The Moral Landscape breaks from his previous topic matter and is partly based on Harris's postgraduate research which he undertook at UCLA. The book made a great splash when first published in 2010 and received generally negative reviews from the philosophical community. 

The basic and bold premise of The Moral Landscape is that ethical questions can be answered by Science. Harris's first move to equate all questions of morality to be 'really questions about the well-being of conscious creature's' (2010:11). Even though Harris admits that this contention seems bold and counter intuitive he claims that when we really examine our moral sentiments and assertions of value what they really come down to is claims about what increases the well being of conscious creatures. Though Harris does not hold that all ethical or moral questions can be answered by Science but he believes that moral debate will be 'increasingly constrained by facts' (2010:13). Other reviews have questioned whether Harris really does demonstrate that in fact all questions of ethical value are really equivalent to questions about what increases the well being of conscious animals. I think this a fair point and numerous examples can show that in fact when we talk about ethical questions we are in fact solely concerned about the well being of conscious. Harris should take a note from Wittgenstein, and not attempt to define morality in a way which aids his argument but rather examine how we actually talk about morality and ethics. 

It should be obvious by now that Harris has opted to adopt a form of utilitarianism, though no efforts are made to define and state what form of utilitarianism should be adopted. But it seems clear that Harris embraces consequentialism very similar to the utilitarianism Bentham endorsed. Harris skips over the many problems that face utilitarianism, simply ignoring them. Harris states this is because his views aren't based on works within the realm of moral philosophy but arose through his nonscientific research. Again many reviewers have criticized Harris for this and it certainly does lead to me treating the arguments laid out in the book with less respect.    

The Chapters on religion, belief and developments in neuroscience do not offer anything particularly exciting to the book and in fact are slightly disappointing considering the grand claim that Harris makes during the introductory chapters. Though some of the research Harris outlines on the subject does make for some quite interesting. The chapter on Religion verges on an outraged rant at some points and has also been criticized by some reviewers. 

All in all, The Moral Landscape is a disappointing book from Harris and anyone with a serious philosophical background will feel that the book begs the question at many points. It seems to me that The Moral Landscape is not aimed at an academic or particularly knowledgeable individual but rather at the layman who has been impressed by Harris's previous works. Worth a read if one whats to read a controversial view point on morality. 

All Quotes from 'The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris' available at good bookshops and online at Amazon.