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Reviewing “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris

I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it highly. Though it contains much technical material, from neuroscience as well as philosophy, Harris makes it all accessible.


In recent years, Sam Harris has become a leading figure in the rational scrutiny of religions and religious cultures, earning himself a place as a prominent “New Atheist,” along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

To the extent that the New Atheism is a genuine social movement, Harris deserves much of the credit for it. In 2004, he made a dramatic breakthrough when The End of Faith was published by W.W. Norton. This was a fiercely anti-religious book, targeted especially at Islam, and emphasizing that religious ideas actually matter because religious adherents are motivated one way or the other to act in accordance with the teachings they accept. The breakthrough was in convincing a major trade publisher to pick up a book like this, and then support it aggressively. Other large publishers followed suit with high-profile critiques of religion by Dawkins and others.

Book CoverIn The Moral Landscape, Harris pushes his agenda a step further, examining the nature of morality from a secular viewpoint and offering prescriptions for change. In particular, he contests the moral credentials of religion, argues against popular understandings of free will, and savages moral relativism. He presents an eloquent, passionate, but scholarly defense of his particular take on the phenomenon of morality; he defends moral realism and a consequentialist approach to moral thinking.

Harris argues that science can give us the information we need to critique moral systems and develop public policy. If he has his way, much of our moral thinking in the liberal democracies of the West will change quite radically; in particular, we will reject the detached and quietest attitude taken by many Western intellectuals to traditional moral systems. The Moral Landscape is an ambitious work that will gladden the hearts, and strengthen the spines, of many secular thinkers.

I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it highly. Though it contains much technical material, from neuroscience as well as philosophy, Harris makes it all accessible. He has an enviable gift for vivid phrasing and clear exposition of difficult concepts, and he undoubtedly has much to teach us. Almost anyone could benefit from reading The Moral Landscape. In that sense, I need go no further. Is this book worth obtaining and reading? Emphatically yes.

That said, I have serious reservations. Having now read the book three times, I find that most of the interesting things I could say would be explanations of my concerns and disagreements. Part of the problem, no doubt, is that I would have written a rather different book if I’d tackled the same subject, and of course there is often a temptation for a reviewer to dismiss a book simply for not being what he or she would have written. I’m very conscious of that temptation, and I have no wish to be dismissive, so allow me to emphasize that nothing which follows detracts from The Moral Landscape‘s obvious strengths or those of its author.

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Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.



COMMENTS

Thank you for your review of Sam’s new book.  I recently read “Letter to a Christian Nation” and have ordered “End of Faith” from our local library.  I “Googled” Sam’s book and got your article.  This was my first introduction to this website.  I will be sure to bookmark it!

Sam Harris has responded to your criticisms!

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/harris-responds-to-blackford/

I liked your review, you made some interesting criticisms but I think Sam is far and beyond us in many ways 😊

Thank you for your article Russell. I hadn’t realised that Sam Harris is an advocate of libertarianism. Your use of J. L. Mackie and reference to ‘compatibilism’ were areas that very few make note of these days. Seems to me that neuroscience (with the workings of the orbitofrontal cortex for example) is confirming that the old philosophers were on to something when they always included an ethics in their works (the notable ones at least).

I came to your article from Sam Harris’ site, then to this site. Then I saw a reference to transhumanism on a site that has ‘ethics’ in its title…EEK!!

P.S. Interested to see that Sam Harris has responded to your piece, and it has prompted talk of Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, Shakespeare etc - great stuff! Looking forward to Max Scheler, Levinas, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty coming into the picture (but I won’t hold my breath).

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