The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris – Book Review



The Moral Landscape is Best for: 

Those interested in philosophy, specifically around topics like values, wellbeing, and morality. Also, those interested in science, beliefs, and psychology.

Difficulty to Digest:

The Moral Landscape is somewhat easy to digest. Harris lays out most concepts with solid exposition for those who might otherwise lack the background. Some of the concepts are a bit heavier than others but they’re overall fairly digestible. 

Key Insights of The Moral Landscape:

The Moral Landscape is Harris’ attempt to bring together morality and science using tools from psychology and philosophy to build an argument. The arguments are fairly coherent and concise, though there are some pieces that feel like tangents. At the core, however, Harris argues that morality hinges on well-being and that we can use science to understand which arrangements of individuals and societies constitute peaks in well-being.

Well-being as a Basis for Morality

At its core, The Moral Landscape argues for well-being as the basis for morality. Harris’ idea here is that all acts considered moral are meant to increase the well-being of some conscious being in some way. While this foundation can be argued, Harris produces quite a few examples. Religion, for example, hinges on increased well-being in the afterlife. What are we working toward in morality if not the improvement in the experience of sentient beings? 

Science Can Determine Well-Being Maximums

Assuming we take this argument at face value, the question then turns to how do we determine well-being? This is where Harris injects science, saying that eventually, with enough knowledge, we can determine which configurations of life produce the most well-being. He makes it clear that he believes it’s quite possible multiple peaks exist and there is no one correct answer. 

As for the specifics of well-being, Harris compares science to physical health. There is no exact definition of physical health but we generally get the idea. We know there’s a difference between the worst possible misery and a better life. Accordingly, as we learn more about brain states and how to produce them, we’ll get closer to closing the gap between moral ideals and science – because we’ll have exact answers to what produces well-being. 

Specifically as relates to happiness, Harris mentions the difference between the experiencing and remembering self. Instead of calling them distinct, however, Harris claims the remembering self is simply a mode of the experiencing self (a claim I happen to agree with). Accordingly, we should strive to increase well-being in the present, as opposed to working for the remembering self. 

How Beliefs Influence Morality 

Another major theme in The Moral Landscape is how beliefs develop and how they influence morality. Harris discusses his study that shows how the brain structures morality and truth similarly. He argues, however, that believing something is true does not make it morally good or useful for producing well-being. 

He gives an example of an extremely malevolent group that believes their actions are moral. This belief does nothing to produce well-being. In a similar way, all sorts of psychological foibles undermine our well-being, and consequently morality. Beliefs that feel good but don’t produce wellbeing in the long term are useless.

Harris also attacks religion as a basis for morality. Parts of the brain are pre-constructed to obtain these sorts of beliefs, but can be filled with any number of specifics. When pitted against science as a basis for optimizing wellbeing, religion leaves much to be desired. 

Genetics And Morality

The Moral Landscape also argues against the idea that ‘natural’ means ‘good’ because it does not necessarily optimize for wellbeing. Our psychology works against us in many cases. Cancer, for example, is natural but does not optimize wellbeing. Spousal jealousy over trivial events, while biologically ingrained, also does not optimize wellbeing. 

While we may not control these roots directly, we can work on the cravings and impulses. The ideas we consume have important influences on our actions and can help correct for some of the shortcomings of our genes. 

The Moral Landscape Final Opinion:

The Moral Landscape is an interesting, but somewhat winding discussion of how science can optimize wellbeing, and why that should be considered moral. While there are definitely tangents and holes to be poked in the argument, Harris presents enough substance to keep your attention and share a few novel ideas.

Other Considerations:

Harris constantly attacks religion. Religious folk may find this barrage a bit difficult to handle. In addition, the language can be a bit dismissive or rough on certain points Harris strongly disagrees with. Depending on your position around that particular idea, it can be off-putting. Prepare yourself for a bit more aggressive ideological posturing than you may find in other resources. 

Applicable Content:

  1. How can you use experimentation to optimize your own wellbeing?
  2. How do your beliefs influence your happiness? 
  3. Are any of your natural impulses working against your overall well-being? How might you moderate them?