Daily Archives: February 7, 2011

Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, Part 1

My Introduction

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, by Sam Harris, is a very bad book, and it is bad in complex ways.  It is a mixture of good and bad ideas, and for the book to be properly evaluated they must first be disentangled.  It at least has that much (being bad in a complex way) going for it.  But it does mean that writing a review requires a lot of justification – and that takes time to organize.

I have been trying for a long time to write this review, so I have decided to break it up and post it in parts.  This is the first part.  Since this will be in installments, any feedback that you have will be much appreciated, and I will do my best to respond to your questions and comments, both below and in future posts. (Part 2 and Part 3 are here.)

I care enough to write this review because TML could have been good.  I was honestly excited to hear that Harris was writing about ethical naturalism, my own field of study.  I had been badly disappointed by his previous two books (they are much worse), which I read to see if he might have some new insights that could convert me back to atheism.  Instead I read a totalitarian vision of atheism run amok, with no justification for itself.  I am always hopeful that people can improve, and this book is a relative improvement (over complete insanity), but it is still very bad.

Due to the problematic nature of TML, I have decided to make this book review extremely structured.  I will go through Harris’s book chapter by chapter, and for each one first summarize it, then enumerate the points of agreement and disagreement I have with it, and then evaluate it for specific points and then general points.  I will do this for the notes as well.  At the end I will give an overall evaluation.  This structure is not particularly exciting, but it will be a highly detailed analysis of Harris’s book.

Before going on I ought to articulate my biases.  I am a Roman Catholic philosopher (an adult convert from agnosticism/atheism) specializing in ethical naturalism and natural law.  These two fields have the same subject, with one exception.  Ethical naturalism attempts to derive ethics from nature without reference to God: it is atheistic.  Natural law, on the other hand, is a traditional Catholic method of moral investigation and argumentation, and does the same as ethical naturalism except that God is assumed to be the creator of nature and the confirmer, via revelation, of the ethics found therein.  But nevertheless it is secular, arguing from experience and reason, not revelation to make its points.  Revelation confirms natural law, it is not assumed by it.  The Catholic Church picked up this type of ethics from the Greek and Roman philosophers, and has stuck with it, because (among other things) it allows dialogue with secular culture and non-Christian philosophy and theology.  The Catholic Church, of course, also accepts the Bible and sacred tradition as another source for ethics.  Some of what I say here will be of greater interest to Catholics and/or Christians, but most is applicable more broadly.

My motivation in writing this review is that I hate lies.  The reason I got into ethics is that I love justice and the reason I got into education is that I love knowledge, and lies destroy both.  The Moral Landscape is full of lies, spreading ignorance and doing injustice towards philosophy and religion.  This is not minor stuff; this is the meaning of life we are talking about, the difference between good and evil.  This book advocates evil.  So I must speak. Continue reading