Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

I admittedly have a weird relationship with Sam Harris' work. On the one hand, I really liked Letter to a Christian Nation (which I'll be reviewing next). On the other,  The End of Faith left a bad taste in my mouth for reasons I don't care to get into here (they boil down to me not being a fan of the whole "religion is the root of all evil" drum that Harris and Hitchens tend to beat overmuch). Fortunately, I wound up enjoying The Moral Landscape quite a bit. I tend to be an atheist of a philosophical bent, so I really enjoy books about the philosophy of science.

The essential premise of The Moral Landscape is that the demarcation between so-called science questions and moral/philosophical/religious questions constitutes a false dichotomy and that there is no reason why science shouldn't be used to address metaphysical or moral questions. The notion that only religion can be used to address moral concerns is patently wrong, Harris argues, pointing out that many moral advancements that have occurred since the Enlightenment (such as the banning of slavery in England and the US, female suffrage and other rights, etc.) have occurred despite the influence of religion, often in direct contradiction with the original texts in question, and not because of it.

Furthermore, he continues, using religious standards as a measure of human well-being is problematic in light of the fact that many religious dictates cause human suffering rather than alleviate it, and that using the carrot-and-stick afterlife trope only worsens and confuses moral considerations further. Our main concern, claims Harris, should be whether a given thing will enrich humanity or cause suffering. Rather than viewing morality as a series of laws and rules, he envisions a topographical landscape, in which certain events correspond with peaks, or things that bring happiness to people, and valleys, or things that bring suffering. This view allows for the existence of multiple goods, rather than singular ones, and a multifaceted approach over a one-size-fits-all worldview that ultimately fits no one.

This is an idea he touched on in his other works that was also addressed at length by Richard Dawkins in both The God Delusion and The Greatest Show On Earth, but had never had a stand-alone treatment until now. I'm not entirely convinced it was a necessary endeavor, though, as it doesn't require a lot of explanation or justification (after all, soft sciences like psychology and sociology have been hard at work quantifying the unquantifiable for over a century now) and The Moral Landscape contained a fair amount of superfluous filler, including what appeared to be an extended hashing-out of a personal dispute between Harris and an appointee of the Obama administration (for that it's worth, I agree with Harris on that subject, but didn't think the whole bloody affair needed to be gotten into).

All said and done: solid and interesting, but not really novel. Could have done without the filler, as well. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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