"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

In this climate of political contention--of attack ads and incendiary rhetoric, of uncertainty and mistrust, of "birthers" and "9/11 insiders" and "blame-America-first types"--it's satisfying to just sit back and celebrate the one thing we can all agree on as Americans: Atheists are just the worst. Am I right? With their tweed jackets and their gluten-free lattes and their This American Life podcasts. Oh man! Just the absolute worst! And I'm not saying that Sam Harris is the Antichrist for sure. But it's hard to deny the physical similarities.*

I've never read anything by Harris before, but I'm a big fan of his role in the Religious Debate circuit, much more than Dawkins, Hitchens or even Dennett, the other so-called "Four Horsemen" of "New Atheism." (I think Ringo is the cutest.) I became interested in his newest book after hearing his TED talk earlier this year, in which he introduced the thesis. Essentially, his argument is this: Contrary to popular belief, science can and should have something to say about morality, which is reducible to concerns about the well-being of conscious creatures, which is (at least in principle) a measurable phenomenon.

It's a simple enough conceit, but the lecture left me absolutely floored. Despite the fact that I still had opinions about the rightness or wrongness of certain behaviors... I deferred to the tide of otherwise-intelligent thinkers who maintained that morality occupied the sphere of Religions, and that in a material universe all actions were equally morally neutral. It never occurred to me to notice that though Morality may have no spiritual source, the concept need not be rendered meaningless. One could make claims about the morality of an issue by appealing to nothing more than the likelihood of it altering the well-being of those involved. Harris correctly points out in the book that this is essentially what we all do anyway, however we may choose to actually frame the idea.

I watched the video several times, shared it with friends, and posted it to my Facebook--twice. So it's an understatement to say that I was eager to begin the book itself.

Unfortunately, I was somewhat disappointed. In a way it's my own fault. As Harris notes, the central claim is a philosophical one (not itself a science claim, that is), and I understood it and was convinced the moment I heard his talk. Frankly, the concept seems fairly self-evident now. So, when passages in the book attempted to explain or elaborate on the thesis, I found myself thinking "DUUUH," and when it meandered across the more general topic of morality, I sometimes wondered when he'd return to the specific claim at hand.

It's a short book, 191 pages, not including notes and references, and a quick read. The material is interesting, and Harris has a refreshing, clear non-fiction style. He does not--yet--seem interested in making any particular moral claims. Instead, his goal seems to be to allow us to discuss the morality of our world using a new vocabulary. So, while I have no doubt that he would appreciate the book sale, in some sense he is advancing his goal every time someone simply reads the dust jacket (or browses a review on a hip new blog!).

I doubt I will often return to the book, but it's already changed the way I think about morality. Or, no. That isn't true actually, because I (like everyone) have always thought of morality in terms of the well-being of conscious creatures. But the book has changed the way I think about thinking about morality. Whoa.

*I'm kidding. We can have experiences that are mysterious and humbling and emotionally powerful. And the contexts of ritual and fellowship may add special meaning to these experiences. But, duh, that does not mean that the universe is run by some guy (it probably isn't), and it doesn't mean that Jesus or Mohammed were any more divine than you or I (they weren't), and it doesn't mean that the Bible is the word of God (it aint). Sorry!

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