About a month ago I bought a copy of ‘The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values’ by Sam Harris, a book which has stimulated discussion and debate across the blogosphere. It is an interesting and thought provoking book which has met with resistance from a number of quarters.
The basic contention of the book is that science can guide us in determining what is moral behaviour, and what is not. Many opponents argue that science cannot assume this role. My question to them is what is the alternative? For centuries many have looked to religion for moral guidance, and religion has failed — using fear to control their followers, and with a damaging history of slavery, child abuse and misogynistic and homophobic behaviour. Given that many religions base their teaching on fallible writings from antiquity this is not surprising.
Dr Harris uses the idea of a ‘moral landscape’ as a metaphor for moral behaviour, an idea I find both creative and elegant. The idea of a moral landscape is that there is no one position of absolute moral behaviour. Rather there are behaviours that can be considered moral (peaks on the landscape) while there are others that can be considered immoral (valleys on this metaphorical landscape).
The crux of the argument then becomes ‘how do we decide what is moral, and what is not?’ Dr Harris has linked morality to the identification of what are the beliefs and behaviours that will enhance human well being. While opponents argue that this concept is difficult to define, in my opinion Dr Harris makes a convincing effort to do so. Some philosophers claim that Sam’s arguments are simply utilitarianism, which I believe is an overly simplistic interpretation of his work. It is interesting to note that in challenging Dr Harris on his writings, no one actually suggests a viable alternative.
Dr Harris also strongly and quite rightly criticises moral relativism, a position that has been used to condone appallingly immoral behaviour such as female genital mutilation, slavery, rape and child abuse. He also incorporates some of his preliminary work in neuroscience to lend tentative support to his ideas.
Sam Harris’s book, ‘The Moral Landscape’ is articulate, intelligent and thought provoking, a book I am likely to read over and over again in order to fully appreciate his ideas and their many nuances. This is definitely a purchase that I can highly recommend.