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.)
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 Salon.com 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.