The Moral Landscape …

I got Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” recently — I needed something else to get free shipping from Amazon for a book I needed for my class — and started reading it yesterday.  I’m about part way through the second chapter, and I have some comments already:

1) Harris really doesn’t understand the is/ought distinction and how it’s used in philosophy.  He basically says that it leads to relativism and that it’s outdated.  He never really argues for the latter, and the former is odd since ignoring the is/ought distinction often leads to relativism, as people look at the moral views people hold and argue that there cannot be absolute moral truths because we do disagree about them so much.  Harris does, in fact, try to address that point … but since that follows from saying that is can determine ought his dismissal of the is/ought distinction seems a little hollow.

2) Harris spends little time arguing, and much time asserting his positions.  Thus, his claims are weak because much of the time he’s relying on intuitions, and even being sneaky at times by stuffing less morally objectionable things in with things that everyone pretty much agrees are morally objectionable and relying on that association to make his case.  I have no doubt that he really considers them all equally morally objectionable, but the point of the criticisms against his view is that others don’t, and he should be more explicit about that.

3)  He dismisses intutions on the one hand, and in another quote flat-out says that he thinks his view is good because it aligns with our intutions.  You can’t really have it both ways.  About the best that the “it aligns with intuitions” argument can do is reduce the number of bullets you have to bite.

4) He sets up some false dichotomies.  Either we have a morality based on faith and religion, or based on reason and science.  So, what about moral philosophy?  Hard to say that philosophy isn’t the path of reason there, chum.  He also basically claims that you have to accept his view because the world is relevant to moral decisions.  Well, yes, but that we might have to refer to science and that science might say interesting things about morality doesn’t mean that what is moral is defined by those things.  The precise same argument is made about well-being, by his arguing that most if not all moralities refer to well-being in some way.  Putting aside that he seems to be reaching for some of them, and that the Stoic view of morality overturns his “conscious beings’ welfare” ideas of well-being, it may well be the case that a good moral code will increase the well-being of conscious beings without it being the case that increasing the well-being of conscious beings is all it means to be a good moral code.

5) He’s very vague on well-being; there is a sense in which the Stoics promote well-being but it wouldn’t fit neatly with his own personal view.  But he allows this to allow multiple “peaks” so that the differing ideas don’t impact his overriding principle.  But this only raises the question of how to identify these peaks.  Harris, so far, seems to be saying that we don’t know yet.  To which the best reply must be “Get back to us when you have an idea that we can evaluate, then.”

6) It would be best before appealing to the common person to hammer it out with the educated moral experts first.  Harris does not seem to have done so.

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