Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

In many ways a rehashing of many ideas in philosophy, I think Sam did a good job of bringing some longstanding ideas and debates to the fore without requiring a degree in philosophy. The section on religion can be skipped, since he rehashes old theses from End of Faith (oh yeah, hobby horse!)

The overall thesis is that the well being of conscious entities is of supreme importance, and that morality is all about optimizing that. Intuitively, I agree that this is a good, pragmatic, and secular definition. I am less interested in the philosophical debate around it, but I don't think Sam adequately addresses the other side of the argument adequately. Debates between utilitarian ideas and other branches of philosophy have been raging for centuries, and with all due respect, I don't think Sam is the guy to put them to rest.

Despite well being's illusive nature, Sam draws a parallel to health, which is also difficult to pin down precisely. While the analogy is illustrative, health is easier to define, and has been done out of practical necessity with metrics like QALYs. Though flawed, a QALY-like metric that includes all aspects of well being seems out of reach in 2016.

With that said, Sam hedges heavily against this reality, and repeatedly says that we may not know what the best collective course of action is, but that one (or in fact many) must surely exist. These many local maxima are the peaks of The Moral Landscape.