Sunday, May 22, 2011

Book Review - The Moral Landscape

I'd mentioned that I was reading "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris some time ago. I finished it last weekend - it was a book to be savored, much like reading the "Return of the King" in high school, I was sad to see it end.

My experience of the book revolves around having heard Harris speak in numerous videos ("Does Good come from God?" and this vid at AAI 2007 - for starters) - his calm cadence, the thoughtful pauses, the sly and very understated humor that he throws in - sometimes undetected by the audience. As I was reading this book, I was hearing it in his voice - it has the same characteristics.

I've forgotten what some of the formal reviews of the book said, which is good, but I believe one criticism was that it was too philosophical. Whether or not anyone in fact criticized it for being too philosophical, I found that aspect very engaging. For example, Harris talks about our ability to imagine maximizing human well-being.

...maximizing human well-being...

I let that sink in, because it's has overtones of both idealism and practicality.

What does it mean to maximize human well-being? Although he doesn't prominently address the political and policy implications of such a project, you can imagine this being a fulcrum around which debate could lever back and forth for centuries ... but it's worth considering now, and Harris makes the case that we can know what it is.

Morality, Harris states, has right and wrong answers that are objectively true, and can be discerned. This differs from a general feeling (in the media, at least) that morality is either relative to people and groups, or absolute in terms of religious texts. He goes on to distinguish "answers in principle" and "answers in practice" - saying that the "answers in practice" may not be possible. I presume this to mean that the political, logistical, efficacy and economics of such a project would be implausible in the present world.

Clearly this is a book worth reading - both for its explorations of human misery and well-being, good and evil, and the direction needed to begin understanding and acting on what he claims are universal questions of morality.

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