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Review of ‘The Moral Landscape’ by Sam Harris

June 21, 2011

This review appeared in the June edition of the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s ‘E&T Magazine’.

Sam Harris argues for the relevance of science to questions of morality, and in doing so investigates a number of important intersections between the two that have been neglected by both scientists and ethicists.

Harris’s main thesis is that ‘morality’ can only have its basis in assessments of the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Given that such wellbeing must be represented as states of the brain, science should (at least in principle) be able to help answer moral questions. He also uses evidence from neuroscience to inform discussion of such morally relevant subjects as free will, responsibility and belief formation.

The aim is to convince us that the rational methods of science can find purchase on moral questions and to urge scientists to try to answer them, rather than taking refuge in misplaced agnosticism or relativism. He argues eloquently that a clear distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values’ is unsustainable in either scientific or moral enquiry, and that rationality underpins them both. This also serves as a call to moral philosophers to pay attention to the insights that neuroscience can offer their subject. These are important and often neglected questions and this book should be applauded for how it addresses them.

However, it is not without its flaws. When arguing for his view of the ‘moral landscape’ Harris takes a particular moral position, whereas his later discussion focuses on promoting rational argument in general. This change of focus is not made explicit, and hence the book reads like a collection of related thoughts rather than a consistent and clear thesis. A related issue arises since in the later parts of the book Harris sets the idea of ‘rationality’ against the notion of ‘faith’ that underlies religious moral pronouncements. Given this championing of rationality it is not clear enough how, in arguing for the moral position he favours, Harris can so easily reject the position of philosophers such as John Rawls whose arguments explicitly appeal to rationality.

Perhaps most frustrating are the challenges that Harris raises for his theory but then passes over with little comment. For example, even if we accept all his arguments we will still be no nearer knowing what morality requires in situations that involve trading one person’s wellbeing against another’s, or where benefiting one person a lot would harm a lot of people a small bit. To say that morality relates to the wellbeing of conscious creatures may be significant in the context of getting scientists to renounce relativism, but it is hardly a revolutionary idea in the context of moral philosophy.

There is much to recommend in this book, but the reader will be left feeling that there are important questions left unanswered.

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