Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Moral Landscape

Right off the heels of Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters I decided to jump into fellow “New Atheist” Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape. I found his last book The End of Faith to be an excellent and quick read, and thus had high hopes for his new book. So let’s put the good old tl;dr out there for people not interested in the possibly longer rundown and get reviewing:

The Moral Landscape is a great read but shoots itself in the foot whenever it gets bogged down in the times when it ventures away from its author’s specialty areas (e.g., neuropsychology, atheism).

Let’s justify my previous one-line summary of the book with a bit of detail. The thesis of The Moral Landscape is that while we typically consider morality to be outside of the realm of science, it in fact should be considered to be within that realm. This does not mean that science today can be used to automatically assign numerical “morality values” to acts that people perform, but that we possibly could some day down the road if we had an arbitrarily powerful piece of technology that could measure brain states (and thus happiness or sadness) and thus the change in well-being of those affected by a given act. Harris is pretty straightforward in that we may never have this piece of technology, but that simply placing morality inside the scientific realm removes it from its current realm, which is fairly arbitrary right now. That is, our culture selects a number of values that are not arbitrary (e.g., don’t kill or steal) as well as many that are arbitrary (e.g., only true believers will be saved) from the point of view of making a cohesive society.

Harris argues that we need to eliminate the arbitrariness that religion has thrust into morality by judging actions based on the net change in well-being it causes compared to the alternatives, and he more or less makes a good case that we should do so. That is, I accept his thesis, and the book starts off with some great momentum, but it hits a snag about halfway through when it gets into evolutionary psychology world. Like in Sex and War, a number of interesting anthropology questions come up and a number of very far-reaching conclusions are thrown out there. Let’s take an example: “Human beings may be genetically predisposed to superstition.” Harris is trying to find out why religion has survived so long if it has caused so much suffering through persecutions, hate towards outgroups, and so on, and this is one possibility that he explores. In this case, however, he explores what it would take to make this statement true via a thought experiment, doesn’t resolve anything (since we don’t seem to have any evidence either way yet on this), and simply moves on. Thus we don’t really learn anything – I like the food for thought this provides but there’s no real value to me since there’s no evidence to back it up. And as there are quite a few of these in the book condensed in one section towards the middle of the book, it really killed my momentum and made me a lot more critical of the last half of the book. To Harris’ credit, he does qualify all of these statements with “it MAY have been this way” and “we MIGHT think of it like this”, but it’s just fluff and really weakened his argument to me.

I gave that last part a bit of a beating because the other parts of the book are really solid. The rationale seems clear: the other parts focus on Harris’ talents: neuroscience (which he has a Ph.D. in), and atheism (specifically shredding religious arguments like a heavy duty paper shredder). Like I said, these parts of the book are great: Harris’ own research in neuroscience comes in at the last half of the book and his first-hand knowledge of the material really shows. It’s very clear for what is really a new and daunting field (although here and there a MAY or MIGHT shows up), and as I learned from reading The End of Faith, Harris is first-class when it comes to telling religious people why they’re irrational and where the disconnects with reality (or their own viewpoints are). There are a ton of quotes I saved on my Kindle just because they’re awesome – here’s one I particularly liked:

It is worth noting in this context that the God of Abraham never told us to treat children with kindness, but He did tell us to kill them for talking back to us (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13, and Matthew 15:4-7).

The whole context of that quote makes it even better, but I think it’s a good snippet to pique your interest. And again, the good stuff shines so brightly that it makes the “bleh stuff” I mentioned earlier seem unusually egregious – I’d love to see a second edition that chopped all that stuff out. The book isn’t that long, surprisingly – it looks long but more than half of it is notes. Interestingly, I got through to the last five pages in a few days but that “bleh section” killed my momentum so bad that I almost didn’t finish the book. My Kindle showed it as 46% done and was afraid that I was going to have to suffer through a return of the MAYs and MIGHTs periodically like Sex and War did, and didn’t realize that the last 50% was notes. So, if you were a previous version of myself picking up this book for the first time (or a later version of myself re-reading this), my advice is: get this book, read the parts that are Harris’ specialties, and skip everything else.