The Moral Landscape

I'm awfully looking forward (is that English?) to Sam Harris's book The Moral Landscape, which is coming out next week. It's already #247 at Amazon and #1 in both ethics and philosophy. 

Harris has an excellent sense of timing.  The End of Faith (2005) was a necessary book, after 9/11--and a good book, I might add! If there's one thing that makes people think religion is indispensable, and atheists untrustworthy, it's the idea that morality depends on religion.  You can't just reject that--you need to say what morality does depend on, if not on religion, and that's what Harris is trying to do in the new book.

As a prelude to discussing the book in the next week or two, here's something I wrote about Harris a while after his TED talk in the spring. (On a more skeptical note, there was also this.)


Brett said...

I have watched that fascinating and skilful TED Talk by Sam Harris a few times now (the last time was with my Theory of Knowledge students in class) and while I find plenty in it to agree with, I have also become a bit more unnerved by it each time.

As you point out in a previous blog, Harris argues that science can answer moral questions (yes, sometimes scientific thinking methods will help) but he goes further than just that.

By suggesting that there should be 'moral experts' (presumably he counts himself as one of these) he is suggesting that representative democracy is flawed. It is hard to dispute this but if we allow unelected moral experts to make our laws then we have moved towards a Taliban-ish way of making decisions for the society that we are part of.

Our parliamentary democracies are deeply flawed but nobody has yet offered up a better way of governing ourselves. We just have to make very sure that we get our lawmakers being more moral in their actions and decisions. The bigger problem is that making politicians consistently act from an ethical basis has become near impossible.

The "wise" oligarchy cleverly hinted at by Harris is becoming more and more tempting as an alternative.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm more and more worried about the subtitle--"how science can determine human values." "Determine" could mean "find out"--uh oh, that sounds implausible, and worrisome in the way you say. I don't think scientists on their own are going to find out human values, and true--there aren't clear-cut "moral experts" either. But maybe he's going to paint a nice, subtle, complex picture of how we discover moral values. It's possible!

Faust said...

"But maybe he's going to paint a nice, subtle, complex picture of how we discover moral values."

Nope. I predict this book is not going to help Sam Harris out much, and further isolate him in a particular ideological subgroup.

Having said that, I'm going to buy it, just so I can polemicize against it (though I'll be happy to be suprised).

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Polemicizing is always fun...we'll see!

Did you once tell me I HAD to see the movie Surrogates? Maybe I'm remembering something else. Saw it last night. Interesting as ethics, not so great as movie. Today: Never Let Me Go.

Faust said...

No that wasn't me, but I agree with your assessment. Not a good movie in general, but some items of interest.

Brett said...

A related problem is that science has had a mixed history when it comes to determining moral questions. (Was the atomic bomb a moral invention? And Nazi scientific experiments on concentration camp prisoners were still conducted by scientists, after all. )

I am a big fan of scientific and rational methods of inquiry but science is conducted by humans...and humans are ultimately fallible - morally and otherwise.

We would have very little in our everyday lives without the fruits of science. It offers human progress. It also ensures that humans will use occasionally use these fruits to poison each other.