Sam Harris has discovered that most people, from secular scientists to religious fundamentalists, agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, science's failure to address questions of meaning and morality has become the primary justification for religious faith. The underlying claim is that while science is the best authority on the workings of the physical universe, religion is the best authority on meaning, values, morality, and leading a good life. Sam Harris shows us that this is not only untrue; it cannot possibly be true.
Bringing a fresh, secular perspective to age-old questions of right and wrong, and good and evil, Harris shows that we know enough about the human brain and how it reacts 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.
Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of the cultural war between science and religion, Harris delivers an explosive argument about the future of science, and about the real basis of human relationships.
©2011 Sam Harris (P)2011 Random House Audiobooks
The central (and highly thought provoking) proposition behind this audio book is that as a race we should seek to give primacy in decisions about human morality and values to neuroscience and the scientific method. The assertion is that by doing this, as opposed to following the dogma of organised religions and other irrational beliefs, we will be creating a better society.
Whilst this is not an "easy" listen, the author does an admirable job of dealing with the science, logic, philosophy in order to make his case, whilst technically the recording and the reading are very good. I found listening to it a deeply engrossing, thought provoking and enjoyable experience and will certainly listen to it again in the near future.
So why four stars.
Well I think the authors assertion is almost certainly correct; we would be much better of removing religion from the equation. However for my money I think the book could have communicated this more effectively to a wider audience, if it had focused more on its own ideas and rather less on a sustained sniping at organised religion and its excesses. (The downside of this negativity is that there is unfortunately likely to be more people put off reading and understanding the excellent ideas in the book than will be attracted to it).
In summary, an excellent thought provoking listen, possibly flawed in a counter productive antagonistism towards religion and its adherents, otherwise very highly recommended.
An excellent book, very listenable, packed with the kinds of scientific details and statistical observations that make Harris so popular. I'm not (as yet) sure whether I agree with Harris' central thesis, there's some complex ideas in the book that request and require some detailed, analytical thinking that are not always the priority of a first hearing, but - gladly - it's short enough to allow for multiple readings without any major innconveniance.
Many people (including myself, prior to listening to this book) think that either your moral opinions come from some dogmatic ancient book (the Bible etc) or else they are completely arbitrary ("moral relativism").
In this book Sam Harris puts forward an alternative that I find to be a helpful way out of this seeming dichotomy.
If you liked 'The God Delusion' then I think you'll like this.
There are many statements that Harris makes in this book that I ended up disagreeing with and hence I do not agree with his conclusions. But to date, I have not read a better discussion of how we should define what is moral and I feel indebted to Harris for having provided the discourse that allowed me to refine my own views.
I should point out that my disagreement has been strengthened when reading further on the science that Harris is referring to. In my view, like many Neurologists today, I think that the conclusions that are made from the existing experiments are far too broad given the limited scope of what we can really measure.
Having said that, Harris is excellent where he shows how screwed up the public discourse on morality really is and he is offering a valid "arena" in which we could have a meaningful discussion about how we should define morality within society.
Judith Corstjens Author of: Xtensity, Why 5% of Dieters Succeed; Storewars: The Battle for Mindspace and Shelfspace; Strategic Advertising
I was a bit disappointed. This is a great subject, but I don't feel SH has the historical and intellectual firepower to do it justice (Steven Pinker should take it on). SH thesis is that science should take on moral philosophy and not leave it as a 'separate domain' (NOMA). Well, in France we have been living for a couple of centuries under a social contract with a moral code worked out through logic (rather than revelation) and enforced by police (for antisocial behaviour) and tax collectors (for redistributive charity), so SH seems a little behind the game. He does not properly recognise the key problem of 'ought', but assumes it from his 'axioms' - that consciousness exists and conscious beings suffer. He says, 'We know we should eat less, but often we fail' and, 'We know we should be good, but often we fail.' This is not analogous. Nor does he manage to draw out any startling conclusions from his axiomatic system e.g. that imposing confiscatory taxes on (saved) wealth is wrong, or what proportion of our income we 'should' redistribute. So, I was challenged by no new ideas.
PS: poor old SH also reads in a rather monotonic voice (and says 'human beans' like the BFG) - he should have employed a professional reader to give more expression to his content. That might have helped.
Having been overawed by the the works of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, I have now very much enjoyed my introduction to Sam Harris, the third of the four so-called "Horsemen" whose works I have now begun to consume (the fourth being Daniel Dennett). Speaking from his expertise in neurology and philosophy, Harris makes a powerful argument in favour of the existence of an objective standard for determining good and evil. His argument is illustrated by the moral landscape, in which there are peaks of human flourishing and valleys of human suffering. It follows that as a society and individuals ascend the peaks. Crucial to Harris' argument is the idea that science is the only way to determine good and evil in this context; and religion must be left behind.
Whilst I am not yet convinced by his argument that good and evil can be objectively determined, the case he makes is persuasive. He presents his evidence in detail and he considers the contrary arguments of others and thoroughly rebuts them. Along the way his argument is furnished with fascinating scientific case studies, and a good dollop of lambasting of the suffering caused by religion.
His narration of the audio-book is clear and engaging. I'm glad to have heard him present his argument in his own voice. This is an unmissable six hour lecture in science and morality.
Regardless of whether you find yourself in total agreement with Sam Harris at the end of the audiobook, I am willing to stake any reputation I may have garnered on the promise of it's having a profound impact on the way you think. There is simply no justification for not engaging with The Moral Landscape. I would also point out that generally the skills of being a truly unique philosopher and being strong with analogies are close to mutually exclusive, however Mr Harris hits the proverbial nail on the head. A glorious, seismic work.
An interesting concept is raised in this book but Sam Harris fails to give me much enthusiasm for it. He also speaks very quickly and uses a lot of jargon which can make it difficult to follow unless you have studied this topic before.
Harris' combination of neuroscience and philosophy worked wonders to convince me even more of the broad reach and importance of science.
Morality is typically thought of in the educated west in pluralistic terms that renders reasoning and discernment impossible on issues with real consequence. Sam Harris' thought on this subject, a method of reasoning related to wellbeing, is sorely needed.
"The most important thinker of our time"
Probably the most elucidating book ever. The very idea that science can contribute to and has something to say about morality is eye-opening. I recommended this book for my brother who just entered medical school. Harris's arguments are overwhelmingly persuasive and if, God forbid ;), he died today, his contribution to society would have equalled 50,000 lifetimes of ordinary men. Bravo, Mr. Harris. I'm still speechless.
"Science is the closest thing to finding what moral"
It's one of the top books I've listened, and will enjoy repeating the experience again.
Realizing that we have more power, knowledge and vision now to discover and understand fundamental truths about our lives, such as morality, values and spirituality. We're underestimating ourselves and let people from 3000 years ago decide what's wrong and right for us.
"the book that changed my life"
a wonderful refutation of moral relativism, and the belief that there is a bright line between science and philosophy
"The most important book I've encountered!"
The Moral Landscape, written by Sam Harris, offers context on subjects which are often ignored in daily society. The landscape he presents explores the peaks and valleys of the psychology behind human understanding and interaction, exposing fields of thought which may otherwise have been occluded.
Another beautiful demonstration by Harris that intellectual honesty is the foundation of progress. Truly enlightening.
"A philosophical position delivered with great simplicity and scientific accuracy"
This is an important book. Read it if you want to unpack a challenge to beliefs that are widespread. As always with Harris, his message is delivered in a fashion that is precisely as hard hitting as the facts allow.
"An important exploration on morals for our future"
This book provides a useful insight into how we should view the world and our place in it.
There is beauty in the language and the well-reasoned, logical arguments, which address the core topic. They provide some clear guidance on how as a society we need to think about, address and consider changing our thoughts about what things are right or wrong (good or bad) for the planet and its inhabitants.
It is refreshing to hear someone cast aside the politically correct soap box, prepared and able to assert that there are some things in any society may just be plain wrong, and that no culture should be immune from scrutiny, just because that is "culturally insensitive".
I was pleasantly surprised as a new reader of Sam Harris, to hear that he is not just a modern philosopher, but a scientist, with a significant body of published research in relevant areas. Further, it is always pleasing to see an author bring together the thoughts, research and efforts of others, rather than just relying on his own opinions. For sound argument it is also important to see specific opposing arguments raised and addressed, rather than just being ignored.
With clear, rational and evidence-based argument, Sam Harris legitimately posits that looking (only) to religion for moral guidance is a blinkered and flawed way of determining how we should live.
As both author and reader, Sam executes his dry wit as only the author of a work truly can. Some of the concepts and logical arguments are somewhat long and complex, and his use of pausing, emphasis and humour ensure the intended meaning is conveyed.
Everyone will find different parts of the book salient to their frame of reference. Most significant for me is the verbalising society's hidden and sometimes open assumption that science has no place in assisting with defining and learning about morals. While this may be clear to some, for many it is a hidden assumption; a meme, that insidiously pervades many hidden aspects of society's thinking and social constructs.
While the author makes reference to "conscious beings" and our role in how we interact with the whole planet, I would have liked to see more emphasis or exploration of our role in the world other than how it affects the happiness of humans. The author does, however, make reference to others who have done more work in this regard, such as Jared Diamond.
The chapter on Psychopathy is clinically and objectively articulated. I believe it is intended as a rounded and scientific exploration of exceptions and their relevance to moral standards. While valuable, some examples (such as murder and rape) are not G rated and can be difficult to listen to.
If you are happy with well reasoned, rational argument and are open to the idea that religion may not be the font of (all) truth on morals, then it is a inspiring and provoking read. If you are not prepared to accept the possibility of this, then maybe this book is not for you, but maybe you could at least understand a little more of why not all share your view.
"A refreshing account of moral rights and wrongs"
In one of the most memorable examples in The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris reflects on his own thoughts after his wife told him that another man had openly flirted with her in the gym, even though she had said she was a happily married woman. Sam Harris imagines how men in certain cultures would have reacted to this information. The first thing a man should do if he want to keep his pride is to beat the rivaling male, perhaps kill him too. In some cases it would also have been culturally appropriate to punish the wife for.... well I don’t know... sub consciously tempting the man to approach her? In extreme cases it would have been appropriate to also kill the wife, just to emphasise the way in which your property is not to be meddled with!
Sam Harris admits that he initially did feel hostility towards the other male (something which I think men world wide will sympathise with). He felt that his behavior was wrong. However, having been brought up in a western society he did not follow through on these feelings. He realized that killing the other person would not lead to positive outcomes for anybody, and he realized that it was certainly not his wife’s fault. In addition, he also thinks that his wife is attractive and can understand that another man finds her attractive too.
The main thesis of Sam Harris book is that just like statements about the world can be right or wrong (for example, it is wrong to say earth is flat), moral statements can also be right or wrong. What makes an act/policy/moral guideline right or wrong? Well according to Harris this is determined by the degree to which it increases/decreased the well being of humans. For those who remember their philosophy, this is in essence a utilitarian argument. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that there are no categorical imperatives (as Kant said). Whether something is good or evil depends on the consequences. Thus it can be good to lie if it prevents sadness in a lot of people. To calculate the effect of a certain act on the well being of the rest of the world is of course more or less impossible. For example, frequent lying can ruin relationships leading to divorce, leading to depressions etc etc...
Harris acknowledges that there is large gray area where it is hard to say if a certain action or moral guideline aids general well being or not. This does not mean however, that anything goes. However, some acts, such as killing another man and your wife because of minor flirtation is really unlikely to lead to greater well being. It is comparable to arguing that the earth I'd merely 6000 years old - not entirely impossible but really really unlikely.
Simply put, some moral guidelines or cultural norms are more conducive towards human well being than others.
Still many people (perhaps mainly academics living comfortable lives), would argue that cultural norms are merely cultural and that we should not criticize other cultures for holding certain values, because values are subjective etc. However, even among cultural relativists there are few people who argue this way when discussing terrible acts. Can people who consider themselves to be cultural relativists abstain from judgement and condemnation when they hear about say Josef Fritzl or the genocide in Rwanda. Would they be indifferent to whether their children were raised in Josef Fritzl's basement, or in a Tutsi family experiencing mutilation from Hutu militia. Are these alternatives merely an interesting cultural alternative? What sane parent would not prefer their child to grow up in a western society with individual rights and a police force that protects their citizens?
Can we not say that the genocide in Rwanda was wrong? Can we not deplore the ethical code of the catholic church when they excommunicate a doctor for performing an abortion on a girl raped by her father and pregnant with twins, while not excommunicating a single Nazi? If we can it follows that we can say something about which norms are good and bad.
"Enlightening and informative."
I've already listened to this book twice and think it will get another couple of run throughs. There is a whole new level of clarity to this books subject matter, it has given my general assumptions I make about life a good shake up. I feel like I know myself and the world better for listening to this book.
I'm not usually too keen on the books that the author narrates themselves but Sam Harris does a good job. It possibly would have been improved upon by a professional narrator but it does not detract from the book.
"Good Intellectual Discourse"
Sam Harris provides a comprehensive view and does not shy away from controversial topics. I've watched videos of him and this book portrays his typical style of confronting and sharing of information. Style is not lost as it also read by him. I strongly recommend this title.
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