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The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values | [Sam Harris]

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a "moral landscape".
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Publisher's Summary

Sam Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people—from religious fundamentalists to nonbelieving scientists—agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to "respect" the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors.

In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a "moral landscape". Because there are definite facts to be known about where we fall on this landscape, Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of "morality"; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.

Bringing a fresh perspective to age-old questions of right and wrong and good and evil, Harris demonstrates that we already know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply false—and comes at increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.

©2010 Sam Harris (P)2010 Simon & Schuster, Inc.

What the Critics Say

“Sam Harris breathes intellectual fire into an ancient debate. Reading this thrilling, audacious book, you feel the ground shifting beneath your feet. Reason has never had a more passionate advocate.” (Ian McEwan)

“A lively, provocative, and timely new look at one of the deepest problems in the world of ideas. Harris makes a powerful case for a morality that is based on human flourishing and thoroughly enmeshed with science and rationality. It is a tremendously appealing vision, and one that no thinking person can afford to ignore.” (Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate)

What Members Say

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  •  
    gerald Amarillo, TX, United States 10-31-10
    gerald Amarillo, TX, United States 10-31-10 Member Since 2007
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    "The book says what many feel, but fear to say"

    I was expecting an anti-religious dialogue; however, I found myself repeatedly saying, “I feel the same way”.

    The author clearly makes the point that religions have so many contradictions in their message that thinking people cannot understand what the message really is; while others pick and choose what they believe from the contradictions. These people often become a part of the religious fringe that drives so many others from the good things that many religions offer.

    I enjoyed and learned much about religions that I had not known. I also found the Mr. Harris had done his research well when I checked his statements.

    30 of 32 people found this review helpful
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    Paul Seattle, WA, United States 11-23-10
    Paul Seattle, WA, United States 11-23-10 Member Since 2008
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    "Read it"

    This will probably go down in history as a sentinal piece of literature. Harris is extremely capable with the English language and introduces many ideas and arguments in this book that require quite a bit of thought to digest fully. I am about to start the audiobook again. In short, this is a must listen.

    Having said that, there are a few warnings I would add to temper ones expectations. First, I think he would have been better off to give the narration over to a professional reader rather than do it himself. I have heard Sam Harris give public speaches, and he is a fine speaker. However, he is a bit monotone here and at times comes across a little lifeless when it would seem to have been easy for him to be more entertaining. Second, some of the material is so intellectually dense, that you will feel like stopping the tape to ponder and think. Third, his overuse of "etc" is maddening.

    Minor quibbles with a ground breaking book. Listen to or read this book!

    21 of 23 people found this review helpful
  •  
    04-23-11
    04-23-11 Member Since 2010
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    "My Second Epiphany"

    After reading Christopher Hitchens "God is not Great" I had an epiphany about the realities and contemptibility of dogmatic religions. It was like taking blinders off. Now I have had that experience again after reading "The Moral Landscape". Of course, morality should be looked at objectively and be allowed to develop in the light of empirical analysis and thinking.

    12 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Prairie Prairie du Sac, WI 11-20-10
    Prairie Prairie du Sac, WI 11-20-10 Member Since 2003
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    "Right On"

    Sam Harris is spot on. As I listened to ???The Moral Landscape???, I cannot help but think of the frustration that so many intelligent people throughout history have felt when confronted by the masses that refuse to listen to simple fact and reason. Whether trying to convince people that the world is round or that skin color does not matter, changing the minds of the majority has never been easy - or popular. Thankfully there are people like Sam who challenge us and aren't afraid to try to sail around the world.

    21 of 24 people found this review helpful
  •  
    F. J. Romero Miami, FL 10-25-10
    F. J. Romero Miami, FL 10-25-10 Member Since 2005
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    "It will soon become a sociology classic"

    Brilliantly written, brilliantly delivered, this book will become as relevant as the works of Kant, Descartes or Rousseau some day. Life-changing.

    19 of 23 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Stephen Moroni, UT, United States 05-18-11
    Stephen Moroni, UT, United States 05-18-11 Member Since 2002
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    "A book that more need to read."

    I wish that everyone could read a book like this. The world needs to start thinking for themselves and not relying upon age old myths and stories. We all make up our own morality. It doesn't take magic or a God to make us moral. We all choose to do what we do.

    7 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jared Prosper, TX, United States 02-04-14
    Jared Prosper, TX, United States 02-04-14 Member Since 2010

    Software engineer and avid, lifetime student. I like deep, thoughtful non-fiction, and fiction that compliments and enriches it.

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    "Throws down the gauntlet against Kant's Is/Ought"

    I'm writing this review because I'm stunned anyone (other than a devout theist) has rated this book poorly. Everyone should read this book! Let me explain why by addressing others' critiques.

    1. "There's nothing new here." Reviewers that say this are like someone who goes to a Mozart symphony, then walk out declaring, "It's all the same instruments all over again. Bach, Schmock, Mozart, Shmozart!.... There's just no more originality! I've already heard all those notes before!" It really is that absurd. Yes, there isn't much that is "new" here, as Sam is assembling a profound recipe from the ingredients of dozens of the world's greatest thinkers. Like all "not so new" ideas, the "new" idea is (merely?) incremental. This does not mean there is nothing profound about the idea! Is Sam Harris the first human to ever think this idea? Surely not - but is he the first to write such a well-developed, widely-accessible explanation of an answer to one of the most polarizing questions in the history of human thought? In my opinion, YES!

    2. "Thesis is not thought-out/explained." Several reviewers complained that Harris did not address his thesis. His thesis is possibly best explained by relating one of the author's motivating experiences: at a an academic conference, a woman serving as a US presidential adviser on bio-ethics responded that science has nothing to contribute toward improving the well-being of a (hypothetical) tribe that plucks out the eyes of every third child because they believe doing so appeases the volcano gods. That is, the presidential adviser says that whether or not science has anything useful to relay to the tribes-people would, "depend on what they believe."

    This science adviser subscribes to Kant's is/ought distinction, as Harris explains throughout the book at numerous levels, that "science" (the practice of establishing what is objectively true) can only tell us what "IS," not what we "OUGHT" to do. Harris' thesis is that Kant was clearly - obviously (in the hindsight of two centuries of scientific advance) - wrong - and so is the presidential adviser. As Harris explains here and for many other cases, there is no actual difference between what a person believes "is" and what a person believes they "ought" to do - because all of our perceptions about what we "ought" to do our ultimately based on what we believe "is" the case.

    In the case of the hypothetical tribe, any sane, modern (educated) person would find themselves inextricably drawn to try to explain to the tribes-people that, actually, the volcano spews lava for reasons that have nothing to do with gouging out their children's eyes! Harris makes the comically simple - yet "academically" (in some circles) novel argument that those who persist in advocating this ethical divide - or as Stephen Jay Gould put it, "Non-overlapping Magesteria" - between science (what is objectively true about our reality) and moral compulsions (what we subjectively feel we ought to do - or ought to judge what others have done) is now an ethically bankrupt position, given what we now know from modern neuroscience.

    In this reader's opinion, the only people who will not like this book, find it (at least!) very stimulating, or will come away unclear what the author was trying to say are the people who:

    A) do not actually read it
    B) do not want to understand it (such as devout believers in religion - the kind of people who will perpetually choose to believe that there just, must be some divine arbiter of what is right and wrong, despite all the discussion points that undermine this position).

    That is why I think *everyone* should read this book - or at least come to learn the thesis via the increasingly large number of other voices joining the chorus.

    Finally, my review has not shed any light on why the book uses "landscape" in the title. One of the more novel ideas Harris explains is that we will surely find that a (new) science of human morality or ethics will not be so simple as to identify one or more "best" ways of being or not being.

    Rather, Harris proposes that modern neuroscience will increasingly be able to simply say that this or that way of being (or thinking) is better or worse - and there may well be multiple "peaks" of well-being. This isn't new to religious accomodationists who, for instance, may say that it isn't important whether you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim - it's all the same, one God and three different paths in your life - that none of these lifestyles is empirically better or worse than any other, in the God's-eye view of things.

    Harris, of course, does not advocate any of these religions. However, he does propose that something like this kind of religious equivocalness will surely exist for some time, since we do not (ie "science does not") know everything. He uses the useful analogy of health. Through science, we know lots of different ways to be "unhealthy," and science has similarly informed us a great deal of ingredients for being *more* healthy. Yet does it even make sense to speak of "perfect health"? What would that be, exactly? The concept is very unclear to us - at least for now - but as Harris points out, this ambiguity about "pure health" has *zero* bearing on our ability to objectively discover that drinking Arsenic is bad for your health!

    ...and that Arsenic example, my friends, is "SCIENCE" establishing new boundaries wherein an "is" (arsenic = bad drinking water) has become transformed into a crystal clear "ought" (don't drink it unless you choose to die), and the basis for moral judgements (if you knowingly give a person arsenic water in place of pure water, you have done a thing that is not conducive to the well being of your two personages, all other things being equal.)

    Some people may find his thesis inanely obvious. As Harris explains, so does he. But Harris does a thorough job of explaining why all of us should be a lot more concerned about the fact that many people still unknowingly - or knowingly - cling to the Kantian position and even regard those who disagree as simpletons. This is why everyone should read this book. This disagreement is old and has crept in to many of our most divisive debates, crimes, and wars.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    deborah Palm Coast, FL, United States 01-01-12
    deborah Palm Coast, FL, United States 01-01-12 Member Since 2011
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    "A "New" Atheist makes a prescient argument"

    Sam Harris is considered one of the new atheists, beside Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins, in that they try to scientifically prove the failings of religiosity. Harris goes in a different direction and tries to frame morality in terms of fairness, personal and community well-being, and best choice scenaries. He succeeds. He does not berate those who are religious believers; he just makes different analogies: not good and evil, but fair and unfair, selfishness and caring for others.

    Though he succeeds in not offending those who are faith believers, he does speak out on the premise that religiosity has no place in the study or leadership of science, especially where it intersects with bioethics regarding stem cell research. I agree. Well written, brief enough to sustain my interest, and well narrated, I would recommend this book to all but the most evangelical readers.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jim MOUNT DORA, FL, United States 08-30-11
    Jim MOUNT DORA, FL, United States 08-30-11 Member Since 2008
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    "Five Stars for Content"

    I admire Harris' philosophy, research and writing. But this book could benefit from a professional narrator.
    In an interview, Harris claimed that "read by author" was desirable because one can hear the writer's inflection and intent. IMO, that's quixotic. "Read by author" has always been a red flag for me and this book proves my point. Harris is a brilliant man and this audio book is well worth having but he doesn't sustain the narrative the way a pro could. After a while, he's just reading aloud. He's not really telling us what he wants us to know. His narrative lacks the passion of his words and ideas. Alas. I, nevertheless, recommend it.

    6 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    William Seattle, WA, United States 10-18-10
    William Seattle, WA, United States 10-18-10
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    "Mind-blowing"

    Although very tough on Catholics, I find the book makes compelling arguments and begins great conversations.

    13 of 19 people found this review helpful
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