Book Review: The Moral Landscape

Book Review

This was a fascinating read. I am not going to pretend to have understood everything within this book, I also haven’t read a fair few of the footnotes (over half the book is footnotes), but the general idea is fascinating and will have me thinking for years to come.

Mr Harris makes the argument that as humans we have facts and values, and that these facts and values can be scientifically viewed and tested. This isn’t something that I have heard of before. More often than not we are told that different cultures have different ways of doing things, but we are not in a justified position as a humanity, to say one way is better than another way in regard to different cultures outworking morality.

The well-being of conscious creatures is the objective attribute that Mr Harris hangs his morality arguments from. When it comes to defining it, he says ‘the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition and yet it is indispensable’, and so avoids a clear definition that is easy to work through. Mr Harris believes that we can know things about right and wrong in regard to well-being. There are obvious statements about well-being, for example it is harmful to my children’s well-being to poison them, but it is good to feed them a balanced diet.

The problems come in when the aspect of well-being we are looking at becomes more and more nuanced. For example, I think there is a moral argument for veganism, but living on one wage and only being able to feed a family of four when shopping at Aldi or Lidl each week makes purchasing vegan only products almost impossible (until they come down in price). I want to make sure my children have balanced meals, and I know they can get this from vegan meals, this would also improve the well-being of conscious creatures that won’t be killed or used to provide humanity sustenance. But I know that I can’t provide a fully balanced meal and live within a budget for food shopping each week.

So do I:

A) Only buy vegan foods and not feed my children enough food or possibly not provide fully balanced meals due to not being able to afford enough food, or the right foods.

B) Only buy vegan foods, feed my children enough food to provide balanced meals but enter debt due to the tight budget we are one.

C) Buy as much vegan food as possible, and allow none vegan products to enter when finances won’t provide enough, or the right kind of food, without entering debt.

Now I am not saying those are the only options, but they are the realistic conversations I am having with my wife who is slowly joining the vegan band wagon as we learn more and watch more informative documentaries or read more vegan articles.

This could also be linked to politics. For example, to improve the well-being of all sentient beings, should I adjust my voting rights to align with what I can see as best for everything now and in the future. For example, I am thinking more and more about voting for the Green Party (in the UK), because I believe in what they are talking about as highest priority for now and the future.

I am sure you agree, veganism and political parties are explosive subjects, and it becomes more and more clear that these are extremely complicated subjects. Mr Harris believes there are objective right and wrong answers on these topics, hung from his definition of objective well-being for conscious creatures. But he makes it clear that we may never be able to fully understand or discover the right and wrong answers for certain areas, somethings might just be outside our abilities to reason or prove.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try though. Why settle for throwing our hands in the air and shouting, ‘well I guess I will just live as I want’? We need more conversations, more debates, more information and more scientific analysis of the data that we are bringing in to fully understand how to enable well-being effectively.

Mr Harris also explains that there are many moral peaks and moral valleys. Because there are many peaks it can be hard to see which one is higher or provides the best possible level of well-being for all. It is also hard to see which valleys we need to traverse to enable us to reach the right peak for all. He breaks this down by looking at the ‘Good Life’ and ‘Bad Life’, I don’t need to explain to you what the differences are, we all know when we see the ‘Bad Life’ expressed on TV, or hear it on the radio or read it in articles and books. We are on a scale, consistently trying to move from the ‘Bad Life’ to the ‘Good Life’, but how we move there and what the ‘Good Life’ is that is best for everyone is where the conversation stops, and the future begins.

I think the big question mark for me in all Mr Harris says is to be found around objective and subjective well-being. The well-being argument seems to make a lot of sense, but I am not convinced by its objectivity yet. I will link a few videos at the end of this post for you to watch or listen to during the week, they break all of this down really well and help to highlight the tensions between the objective and subjective difference of well-being and our reality.

I usually want to give you a few great quotes and break them down. But this subject is far too big for me to do any justice without allowing you to read the book for yourself. So rather I will put two great quotes from the book below and allow you to read the whole thing in your own time.

This is a massively important subject, and Mr Harris is right on the cutting edge of our understanding. This could go down in history as one of the foundational books to a naturalistic understanding or morality based on well-being. It’s worth a read for that alone.

‘I am simply saying that, given that there are facts—real facts—to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice.’ Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape (p. 30). Transworld. Kindle Edition.

‘The answer to the question “What should I believe, and why should I believe it?” is generally a scientific one. Believe a proposition because it is well supported by theory and evidence; believe it because it has been experimentally verified; believe it because a generation of smart people have tried their best to falsify it and failed; believe it because it is true (or seems so). This is a norm of cognition as well as the core of any scientific mission statement. As far as our understanding of the world is concerned—there are no facts without values.’ Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape (p. 144). Transworld. Kindle Edition.

Below are some very interesting videos (which I think are well worth watching regardless of having read the book or not) around The Moral Landscape, explaining what Sam Harris is putting forwards and what two well-known YouTube atheists (CosmicSkeptic and Rationality Rules) think about objective and subjective morality. I found them extremely helpful in understanding and thinking through what Mr Harris puts forwards in his book. Let me know what you think as well.

Sam Harris talking about Morality before he published his book
CosmicSkeptic and Rationality Rules talking about their issues with what Sam Harris puts forwards in his book.
CosmicSkeptic talking about Morality a year later: Part One
CosmicSkeptic talking about Morality a year later: Part Two
CosmicSkeptic and Rationality Rules landing on an agreed understanding of morality.

_End of Blog Blurb_

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. It has taken me a few years to get to a place where I am able to share my loss of faith and to start writing about the journey that I am still on for you all. I hope you find it useful.

Podcast: If you like what you read then you could always check out the podcast ‘When Belief Dies’, it is available on all major podcasting platforms or you can listen via YouTube. Dave and I upload and publish via Anchor FM each Wednesday at 7 am.

Grammar, spelling, capitalisation and punctuation: I am massively dyslexic. It has taken me years to get to the level I am currently at with writing and I have done this mainly through reading. I want to be better and ask you, reader, to please forgive any errors in my writing. I hope you notice improvement upon improvement over the coming years.

Time Frame: This blog is roughly six to nine months behind where I currently am at in my journey out of religion. It’s important to remember that when reading and commenting.

If you want to connect with me, then you can get in touch via any of the social media links that can be found at the top of the page. If you want to get every post straight to your inbox then you can do that by either following directly via WordPress or with your email address, whichever you prefer – the links are to the right.

I’ll see you back here at the same time next week 🙂


Farewell For Now When Belief Dies

It's time to stop, even though it breaks my heart. This episode serves as my reason why.   -Sam
  1. Farewell For Now
  2. When Belief Dies #100 – 'Psychedelics, Philosophy & God' with Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes
  3. When Belief Dies #99 – 'Open and Relational Theology' with Thomas Jay Oord
  4. When Belief Dies #98 – 'The Take Over' with Daniel Kelly & Roger Bretherton
  5. When Belief Dies #97 – 'The End?' with Daniel Kelly

2 Comments. Leave new

  • Whether it is coincidence, I have come more to care about – and often grieve over – the suffering of animals since I deconverted from Christianity. But I am not a vegan, not yet anyway. I do enjoy my carnivorous nature And here’s a thought: if we were to stop eating animals, it’s not like all these cows, pigs, sheep and chickens would live out their normal life-spans, fed and cared for by humans as pets, and eventually die peaceful deaths. They would simply not be bred at all. They would cease to exist, largely. So is it better that an animal never be born at all, rather than live for months or years before being slaughtered for meat? Would it be better to instead make their lives and deaths as humane as possible? I don’t know.

  • whenbeliefdies
    December 11, 2020 5:11 pm

    There is no way to kill something humanly. If something doesn’t want to die, and you kill it, then it isn’t humane.

    Ethics has been a big part of my journey and I will be talking to a good friend in a few weeks time for the podcast to talk specifically about veganism.

    I’ve been very influenced on this Alex (also known as Cosmic Skeptic) on this subject. might be worth watching:


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