The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Read: 22 October, 2010

The basic premise of The Moral Landscape is that the well-being of sentient creatures is the proper measuring stick to determine morality. He convincingly argues that defining morality simply as that which God likes or dislikes is absurd, in the same way as defining it based on the wishes of a king would be absurd. But on the other side of the debate, the idea that morality is a natural offshoot from our evolution as social animals, merely describes an ‘is’ and does not allow us to argue for or against the ‘shoulds’ we may encounter in our navigation of ethics. The well-being of creatures sufficiently aware to care about well-being is the only measure that makes any sense.

In the book, Harris anticipates and responds to a number of criticisms. The greatest of these is the question of whether well-being is even worth valuing in the first place – what makes this, above all others, the concept that ought to be at the centre of this debate? To answer this, Harris compares well-being to health. Why should we value health? None of us would think twice about calling someone insane who argues that health ought to be defined as weight as much as possible, so why do claim that there is no way to say whether a patriarchal system in which half the population is kept under constant bondage is any worse than a society in which genders are viewed as equal?

He also brings up the idea of neuroscience – that we will one day be able to scan people’s brains to determine what truly contributes to well-being, and what people have merely been acculturated into thinking it does.

I’ve been surprised by how poor the book’s reception has been among the atheist community. It seems that many have fallen into the trap Harris anticipated, arguing that there is no reason to value well-being above any other criteria. But for my own part, I’m convinced. Harris challenges his readers to think of any criteria that would be equally valuable in resolving ethical issues, and I’ve been unable to think of any. It seems as obvious to me that well-being is the only foundation that makes any sense at all. Once we accept this premise, it seems obvious to me that ethical questions could potentially be resolved with right or wrong answers.

Find your basis for secular objective morality by buying The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values from Amazon (and support this blog in the process)!

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Read: 4 April, 2010

After years of being told that I absolutely had to read The End of Faith and seeing Harris’s TED presentation on universal morality, I finally took the plunge and bought a copy.

The book is divided into two distinct parts: the first is what doesn’t work, and the second is what Harris believes will work. What doesn’t work is, of course, religion. This part reads like must other Atheist books that have come out in recent years. Harris devotes a portion to each major religion, a little different than some books, perhaps, in that he addresses the Eastern religions as well. Of course, his focus is on the two major troublemakers of recent year, Christianity and Islam. The chapter on Islam includes four pages of Quranic quotes that are racist, anti-tolerance, anti-apostate, xenophobic, etc. That alone makes this book a valuable addition to a debater’s bookshelf!

The second portion deals with spirituality, and a way to integrate spirituality with Atheism. Harris is a proponent of meditation. Unfortunately, many of his assumptions regarding the workings of the brain run contrary to what I’ve learned, some making rather strange leaps of logic and some being downright silly. Harris seems to lose his credulity in his search for “something more.” That being said, I can appreciate what he’s trying to do even if I don’t agree with him (or think he’s gone loony).

He also has the nasty habit of dropping bombs without any explanation. He’s presumably writing for a sceptical audience, so it seems strange that he wouldn’t devote a bit more time to explaining the concepts that would set off sceptical alarm bells. For example, he says that “there also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science” (p. 41). This particular bomb is dropped without examples or explanation, just a list of book titles in the end notes (obscure books that neither my library nor my university has ever heard of).

There were some historical inaccuracies that bugged me. For example, he refers to Isis as “the goddess of fertility, [who] sports an impressive pair of cow horns.” Well, I’ve never seen Isis with cow horns. Her symbol was a throne with an egg on top. The cow horns belonged to Hathor. These sorts of little details really pulled me out of the book and made me wonder how much else he may have gotten wrong.

Despite some carelessness and strange choices, it’s a worthwhile read. I do appreciate that he attempts to ‘fill the gap’ after dismantling religion, and I would like to see more of this in the mainstream Atheist discourse. I simply don’t see his replacement as being any more rational than that which he seeks to replace.

Buy The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason from Amazon to support this blog!