Two new books

February 28, 2010 • 8:32 am

Well, Sam Harris is now on Twitter, and his latest “tweets” (God, I hate that word) mention two upcoming books

1. His own, called The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.  Sam says this will be out “10/5”, which seems to mean October 5. Here’s a description of its thesis,  guaranteed to spark huge controversy:

In his forthcoming book, Harris proposes that answers to questions of human value can be visualized on a “moral landscape”—a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks and valleys correspond to states of greater or lesser well being in conscious creatures like ourselves. Different ways of thinking and behaving—different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.—translate into movements across this landscape. Such changes can be analyzed objectively on many levels—ranging from biochemistry to economics—but they have their crucial realization as states and capacities of the human brain.

2. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Nomad, described by Amazon as a “philosophical memoir,” out May 18.

22 thoughts on “Two new books

  1. Although I will certainly wait to read the book before passing judgement, I’m not sure this is a clear approach to the subject. Or even one in the right direction. Perhaps It wasn’t explained very well but he seems to imply that the states and capacities of the human brain are better at explaining our morality or even more important than real word outcomes. In truth, I’m not even sure what the hell that means and I seriously hope that it’s explain somewhat better with in the book itself.

    Oh well! The Christians will just put it all down to God anyway.

    Blessed Atheist Bible Study @

  2. That is a meager description indeed. At first glance it reads like a phase space elaboration of the philosophy of utilitarianism.

    As philosophies goes this happen to have some correlation with reality, there is no doubt that some human behavior is geared towards happiness rewards.

    But I seriously doubt what I would define as moral behavior, roughly what people tend to do in societies, is predictable by looking at our reward system in isolation.

    [More precisely, I loosely define moral behavior as a mass centered approximation of societal behavioral distributions, arbitrarily cutting of behavioral extremes. Say cutting of those non-pervasive behaviors that harm others.

    No, religion isn’t moral by that definition, as its behaviors aren’t all pervasive and they do hurt others, say by repressing sexual behaviors. Go figure! :-D]

    “tweets” (God, I hate that word)

    “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!”

  3. Harris’s thesis does not sound promising. I heard him talk about it on some podcast a while back, and it sounds to me like a bunch of empty jargon with no real world applications. Maybe his book will prove me wrong, but so far I’m not impressed.

    Also, it sets off alarm bells in my head, because he’s using the language of natural selection to make ethical claims. Such applications of natural selection have a less than stellar history. I realize he’s not proposing eugenics or anything like that, but he’s definitely treading territory has has resulted in some real nastiness in the past. Combine this with the fact that he supports the Iraq War and is willing to consider torture as a legitimate possibility under certain circumstances, and I start to get uneasy.

  4. So which god are you invoking? Either way, I guarantee it will do nothing.

    Harris’ book sounds interesting. I see morals in culture as individuals voluntarily curtailing activities which are harmful to the group. Some individuals would rather not act according to the group rules and the group punishes them for that – or at least in principle the group should punish them.

    1. So which god are you invoking? Either way, I guarantee it will do nothing.

      I don’t know if this was directed at me, but if it was I can assure you that I’m a thorough-going atheist and wasn’t invoking any gods at all.

      There’s a big difference between saying natural selection explains the origins of morality and saying natural selection leads to moral prescriptions. The form is a scientific matter, the latter a philosophical confusion. By describing morality in terms of adaptive landscapes, Harris seems to be treading dangerously close to committing the is/ought fallacy and trying to use natural selection as a source of normative moral claims.

      Obviously, I haven’t read his book yet, which is why I say “seems to”. I’m open to being wrong on this topic. But I am EXTREMELY skeptical, largely because my acquaintance with Harris’s past work make me very suspicious of his abilities as a thinker. He’s a great polemicist, but rather bad as a philosopher or a scientist.

  5. I stopped taking Harris’s views on morality seriously when I read his defence of torture. Morality like that, I don’t need – even if tarted up with some fancy topology. Now it looks like he’s abandoning the real world for dome form of idealism. No thanks.

      1. Yup. Shatterface rejects Harris’s arguments, which means he must be closed-minded. There’s no other explanation, such as the fact that Harris’s arguments are completely bogus. That couldn’t possibly be the case.

        Shatterface is wrong in saying that Harris defends torture. He doesn’t explicitly defend it, rather he allows for the possibility that it is sometimes the right thing to do, and argues for this using the incredibly dubious “ticking time bomb” scenario.

        But Shatterface is right that this should make us very suspicious of Harris’s capacity for ethical philosophy. He has an undergraduate level understanding of philosophy (which is no surprise, since his only philosophy degree is a bachelor’s from Stanford). Any well-trained ethicist could pick apart his arguments for the permissibility of torture relatively easily.

      2. Actually, Harris’ “defense” of torture is that it would be better to torture an Islamic extremist than causes massive collateral damage to hundreds of thousand of innocent citizens. And how can you and Shattermind claim that Harris’ theory of morality is bogus when you do not yet know what it is? That–by definition–is a closed mind.

      3. You need to read my post more carefully. I specifically disagreed with Shatterface on the claim that Harris defends torture. Harris doesn’t. You and I agree on this matter.

        But Harris’s discussions of torture are extremely flawed. I’m not an ethicist (my specialty is history and philosophy of science), but even I can see the gaping holes in his reasoning. Harris really isn’t a good philosopher at all.

        One problem is that he uses the ticking time bomb scenario. This is an extremely unrealistic and artificial scenario. I’m not familiar with a single historical instance where this actually occurred.

        Another problem is that his argument is predicated on the notion that torture is a good, reliable way to get true information. But from what I’ve read by experts in intelligence gathering, this is not the case. Information gathered from torture is actually highly suspect. Torture is a great way to get a person to say what you want to hear, but it is not a reliable way to get to the truth.

        So, in the highly unlikely scenario of a ticking time bomb, I would say that we need to use the best interrogation methods. And torture is not the best. Once you reject this premise that torture is a better way to get information than other interrogation techniques, pretty much everything Harris says on the topic crumbles.

  6. Actually, Harris’ “defense” of torture is that it would be better to torture an Islamic extremist than causes massive collateral damage to hundreds of thousand of innocent citizens.

    Don’t think that’s quite right – it seems to me his argument is more evasive. It’s that if you accept collateral damage, how can you oppose torture? Precisely what he’s proposing is unclear.

    But what if you reject both?

  7. Sam Harris’ thesis is basically that moral realism is true, and that the basis for all morality is happiness. Since I’m a huge fan of Sam, I’m sad to see that he’s so intent on embarrassing himself on the topic of morality, and by writing a whole book on the subject, no less!

    Sam has correctly understood a big part of the nature of morality. As he says, it is a fact about reality that certain values, beliefs, and actions are more likely to bring about the desired consequences than others. In that sense, morality is real and objective. However, he screwed up when he jumped to the conclusion that because the mental state of happiness is so important to human psychology, therefore it must be a kind of transcendental basis for morality. For one thing, there is no transcendental basis for morality. For another, there is obviously a lot more to human morality that a mere desire for happiness.

    Sam is absolutely right about torture, though.

  8. “…and his latest “tweets” (God, I hate that word)…”

    Then call them Twits. What else would it be?! Don’t let this adolescent fad twit you….

  9. I hope Sam would do the due philosophical research on this. He is an extreme utilitarian, and there are arguments against utilitarianism that he needs to face if he’s to be taken seriously.

    I think there are two big issues his “energy/happiness landscape” seems to be missing. One is that there is a cost to moving in certain ways, not just to being in certain states. So, e.g., killing everyone on earth and replacing them with happy folks is a no-no.

    The second is that the whole structure seems removed from a serious metaethical consideration of what ethics is. I believe any serious naturalistic contemplation of this leads to some version of subjectivism, and therefore makes his rather abstract, “all happiness counts equally”, structure fallacious.

    There are other problems, like the Abhorrent Conclusion (it is better to have a few million mildly happy cockroaches than a flourishing human community of a few thousand happy folk – all happiness sums up, remember, and the are LOTS of cockroaches…).

    I may be mistaken, but I doubt Harris will face up to the problems of utilitarianism in his work. I hope to be surprised, however, and that he’ll actually come up with a good book.

  10. The book by Harris sounds good.

    I think individuality and group dynamics are a complex and interesting subject, I will tell my cousin about your blog.

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