Sam Harris and the Incredible, Shrinking Idea

I’m going to do something I rarely do. I’m going to recommend that you NOT buy a book. That’s because there is no there there, no beef on the bun of Sam Harris’ already bestselling The Moral Landscape.

Harris throws 191 pages of text and 84 pages of footnotes and references at a handful of thin ideas. He leaves so many pesky questions unanswered and glosses over so much that you don’t have to read the book to get his point. Watch Harris’ TED talk or read the Q and A or Harris’ defense of his ideas on his website and save the $26.99 for another book.

Here are Harris’ ideas in a nutshell:

(1) There are definite and universal answers to moral questions.

(2) Religion is awful and can’t help us find the answers.

(3) The goal of morality must be to enable humans to flourish.

(4) We must create a science of human flourishing to find those moral answers.

Harris also offers one metaphor: We live on a moral landscape, he says. There are many peaks on that landscape and many valleys, and thus, there isn’t just one way to be good (or bad). Peaks = human flourishing. Valleys = human awfulness.

Here is what I think is missing from Harris’ book:

(1) On the topic of moral answers and the evils of moral relativism.

Harris gives scant attention to the many philosophers, writers, moralists, theologians and  ethicists who have already embraced the existence of moral truth. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his New York Times review:

You might suppose, reading this book, that this anti-relativism was controversial among philosophers. So it may be worth pointing out that a recent survey of a large proportion of the world’s academic philosophers revealed that they are more than twice as likely to favor moral realism — the view that there are moral facts — than to favor moral anti-realism. Two thirds of them, it turns out, are also what we call cognitivists, believing that many (and perhaps all) moral claims are either true or false.

By ignoring all those thinkers, Harris also robs us of perspective, history, a line of thought, and the ability to avoid the mistakes of the past. We can’t avoid the mistakes if we don’t know they happened. We can’t build on the work of past thinkers if we don’t know they existed.

(2) On the failings of religion.

Harris’ chapter on religion is the intellectually thinnest in the book. He rehashes his other two books. He ignores moderate or even progressive branches of faith, as if the only religious leaders are the Fred Phelps of the world and the Pope. He fails to even attempt to engage religious thinking on morality. Neither Harris nor I may agree with the moralists of the big three faiths, but a book about morality – and the inadequacy of religion to resolve moral issues – can’t pretend that such thinking doesn’t exist. (Harris appears to believe that all religious moral thought boils down to: God said so, and you’ll go to heaven if you do what the pastor says.)

Florida State University Philosophy Professor Michael Ruse writes:

Perhaps Harris would reply that he is arguing for a secular approach to ethics, one based on science, and that hence it is appropriate to attack the main rival to the secular, namely the religious. But apart from the fact that philosophers from Socrates to John Rawls have been offering secular moralities, why does Harris not actually engage those (like Saint Thomas Aquinas) who have offered religiously-based systems of ethics?

(3) On human flourishing as the goal of morality.

Human flourishing is a great idea. I’m all for my own flourishing, thank you, but what exactly does Harris mean by human flourishing? Whose flourishing? Everyone’s? Mine? Yours? All of us together? Do we average that out for a medium, not-so-exciting flourishing for all, or seek to enable one person, or a select few, to flourish? Wall Street is back to flourishing these days, while Main Street continues to founder: How does a society deal with that kind of inequality, or should it? What about these issues: Is flourishing equal to having a lot of money? Peace of mind? Many children? No children?

Harris’ answer to all of these questions appears to be: I know human flourishing when I see it (and you do too, he adds). He then battles mightily against the idea that we can’t define human flourishing. For the record, I’m not saying that we can’t. I’m only saying that I want to know his definition. Isn’t defining that term – or stating how we could find its definition — rather important for a science seeking to enable it?

(5) On creating a science of human flourishing.

At first Harris seems specific. Such a science will determine human flourishing by studying the brain. The newest scanning technologies will be employed.  But Harris ignores questions about how that would work, what such a science would do and, even more importantly, how the results would and should be used. In this case the devil really is in the details. How would this information be employed in creating public policy? Would my right to believe and behave differently be curtailed?

The only information I could find on these important questions didn’t come from Harris’ book, but from an interview with him that published on Oct. 17:

Let’s say scientists do end up discovering moral truths. How are they supposed to enforce their findings? Would they become something like policemen or priests?

(Harris): They wouldn’t necessarily enforce them any more than they enforce their knowledge about human health. What are scientists doing with the knowledge that smoking causes cancer or obesity is bad for your health, or that the common cold is spread by not washing your hands? We’re not living in some Orwellian world where we have scientists in lab coats at every door. Imagine we discovered that there is a best way to teach your children to be compassionate, or to defer short-term gratification in the service of a long-term goal. What if it turns out to be true that calcium intake in the first two years of life has a significant effect on a child’s emotional life? If we learn that, what parent wouldn’t want that knowledge? The fear of a “Brave New World” component to this argument is unfounded.

Well, I’m relieved! Harris doesn’t have totalitarian intent, but he argues in his book for the importance of what he calls science’s 3rd project:

We can convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behavior in the name of “morality” to break these commitments and to live better lives … I happen to believe that the third project – changing people’s ethical commitments – is the most important task facing humanity in the twenty-first century.

Who defines “silly” and how? Who defines “harmful” and how? My silly and harmful patterns of thought may be your bliss. How do we resolve the differences if our goals are to convince people and change their ethical commitments?

I’d feel much better about Harris’ intentions if science had never harmed people in the name of good. (Journalist John Horgan touches on some of these not-so-great hits in a Scientific American blog post.)  I’d also feel far better about Harris’ ideas if he even once took note of the fact that some scientists, as well as some religious leaders, have committed horrors.

I do appreciate Harris’ effort. I applaud him for his moral landscape metaphor, which enables us to remove our one-size-fits-all blinders from issues of morality. I congratulate him for bringing a secular discussion of morality to the public square. I continue to remain intrigued about the role that science could play in determining morality.

But when I finally finished all of Harris’ thousands of words, I couldn’t help think that what he had actually created wasn’t a book or a call to arms for science, but a late night bull session. Suitable for a dorm room and a lot of beer, Harris’ arguments are loud, bold and lacking in substance.  The real work of creating a 21st-Century morality is going to have to wait for other writers and thinkers.

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10 Responses to Sam Harris and the Incredible, Shrinking Idea

  1. Well, I’m glad you saved me the trouble of reading the book! Even though I do not believe in God, and even though I tend to think highly of science, I am a bit skeptical that science alone can lead to a theory of goodness.
    (I have more thoughts on this subject, but it’s just been too long a day and I can’t make my brain work properly. I shall come back to this.)

  2. Early on, humans invented gods to explain an otherwise inexplicable world. About the same time, they also came up with the beginnings of science: exploration, observation, even experimentation. Of course, early science did not come close to explaining everything that people had to face, so they relied on gods.

    At this point in our history, science explains enough that we can understand the world without magical explanations. We may not know everything, but we can project from our current knowledge the possibility of finding a rational explanation. So — imho — we no longer need gods or God to explain the world.

    Harris appears to be arguing that we should replace God with science, but I suspect the worship of science has as much potential for misuse and abuse as the worship of God has demonstrated over the years.

    A lot of science has a tendency to get stuck in the present, to assume that our current understanding of the world is absolutely accurate, even when good scientists know that, with more information, some of that will change. You see this in the hard science fiction crowd, who reject any stories that use something that is not possible under our current understanding of physics.

    The flaws in this reasoning are obvious if you go back and look at 19th Century science. For example, meteorologists in 1900 were firmly convinced that they understood hurricane patterns, and built their weather advice around the theory that a hurricane would never strike directly at Galveston Island. Based on this advice, no one ordered an evacuation of Galveston in the fall of 1900, and 6,000 people drowned in the hurricane that hit directly at Galveston. (My source is the excellent book, Isaac’s Storm.

    Of course, we think we’re much smarter than people were 110 years ago, but current science constantly finds flaws in earlier theories. That’s one of the great things about science — it changes. But the worship of anything seems to lead to a certain rigidity of mindset, which I don’t think is good for science or for humankind.

    It seems to me that the search for goodness, for right livelihood, for the real moral path, requires much more than science or religion. Certainly we should look at what we’ve learned from religion in the past — and also at what went wrong with religion. You don’t have to believe in God or that Jesus was anything other than a human being to accept “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” as a core rule for a good life.

    Science is important, but so is philosophy. History might be even more important — looking at what we did at various times and how it turned out can inform our current actions.

    And then there are stories. I was just opining over on the Book View Cafe blog about how some of my ideas about how to live my life were shaped by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books. Amazing how much truth one can find in fiction, and how the made up story can show us so much.

    Which leads me to imagination, which I frequently find lacking in religious people of the fundamentalist persuasion and atheists who are convinced the only truths are the physical ones they can actual prove (I think that’s a materialist pov, but the word materialist is often used to mean a person who buys lots of stuff, and I don’t want to confuse the issue).

    I don’t think it’s possible to figure out goodness without a little imagination thrown in.

  3. dianesilver says:

    Imagination, stories and not getting stuck: These prescriptions sound right to me. On the topic of the impact of stories… I remain fascinated by the fact that the respect for Islam I read in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land 45 years ago continues to influence me today. It helped inoculate me against anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11.

  4. Pingback: Goodness By Any Other Name | In Search of Goodness

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  7. I read The Moral Landscape and I highly recommend it, especially to those new or unfamiliar with secular moral philosophy. I think you may have missed the point of the book. I don’t think Sam intended to single handedly solve many or even address any complicated moral problems. The book is Sams attempt to counter moral relativism among secular liberals (read, non-philosophers) by proposing the basis for a science of morality. By intentionally suspending judgement on philosophically complicated or scientifically uncertain positions, he’s better able to persuade people to condemn what we already know to be obviously wrong.

    It’s also a jab at biblical literalism and dogma in general. I imagine this is actually what you dislike about the book, but I could be wrong.

    Furthermore, Sams particular flavor of consequentialism is so all encompassing that it neatly bypasses many criticisms of other consequentialist systems. By rooting the qualifications of a consequence in a loosely defined catchall (wellbeing) he moves any vigorous philosophical and scientific challenges one step back. This, as Sam mentions in the book, is analogous to what the science of health does to ongoing debates surrounding medical discovery and psychological issues. Also, buy merging the language of values with the aforementioned notion of wellbeing, he turns moral questions of the rightness and wrongness of prioritizing consequences into moral truisms and self contradictory propositions (respectively). The book presents a genuinely interesting set of ideas that aren’t the least bit vacuous.

    All sciences make axiomatic assumptions. In The Moral Landscape, Sam has simply provided the fewest possible axiomatic assumptions on which to found a science of morality. Then he applies them to unambiguous cases to demonstrate their veracity. The fact that you think the book is “Suitable for a dorm room and a lot of beer” just speaks to its readability and Sams trademark ability to reason honestly and clearly. The “substance” you assert the book lacks, was not intended to be present in the book in the first place. If I went around telling people that I recommend they not read the bible because I found it uninspired and lacking in content, you’d probably think I was a bit of a twat. Guess what I think of you?

  8. dianesilver says:

    You wrote:
    “It’s also a jab at biblical literalism and dogma in general. I imagine this is actually what you dislike about the book, but I could be wrong.”

    Ah, yeah, you’re wrong about my motivation for disliking the book. You might want to check out Wherein I Confess To My Christianity Problem.

    • My mistake. However, the tone of my reply is still as I intended it to be, baring the pretensions of those two sentences. I also kind of regret the last two sentences – I always try to close with something intentionally incendiary when addressing dogmatic people.

      I think you were looking for a (1) brief history of western philosophy followed by (2) a tie-raid against reformed versions of otherwise obnoxious religious doctrines and closing with (3 & 5?) him arbitrarily pulling concrete scientific findings that don’t necessarily exist at the present time out of thin air to nail down some definitive concept of wellbeing (contradicting a crucial part of his thesis).

      The history of consequentialism seems irrelevant to The Moral Landscape. If you’re interested and haven’t already read The History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell, or Justice, by Michael J. Sandel, I would recommend starting there. Sam has said on the record that his primary concern is people holding ideas that contradict a scientific world view on faith. If his primary concern was robbing unfounded spiritual beliefs from people who were jumping through hoops to not contradict known science then I’d agree with you that his criticism of religion is comparatively light in those instances. He did, however, have an interesting debate with Deepak Choprah on ABC if you’re interested (Michael Shermer and some esoteric new-agey lady were their debating partners respectively). The whole thing can be found on youtube.

  9. dianesilver says:

    Mark, Thanks for the follow-up comment. Sandel’s book is on my to-read list, and I’ve always meant to read the Bertrand Russell, so perhaps now is the time. Thanks for the recommendations. I still disagree with you, but I do appreciate you taking the time to comment on my blog.

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