Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape continues a pattern I’ve noted in the last two books of his I’ve read, Letter To A Christian Nation and The End Of Faith (my review here). Harris is a very capable thinker and a fearless, lucid, forceful writer; at his best, he’s the most accessible of the group he calls the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christoper Hitchens and himself). I generally find myself in strong agreement with the general thrust of his arguments – and yet, I find he sometimes fails to ground them properly or follow them through completely.
So it is again in this book; the flaws are minor, comparatively speaking, but more than the partisans of rationality can afford in putting forward a case both so important and so certain to be met with stubborn denial.
Harris’s main point is sound and soundly expressed. What he’s contending against is the notion, long since solidified into a kind of dogma among most Western intellectuals, that normative moral claims can never be derived from the sorts of facts accessible to science – in Hume’s phrasing, you can never turn an “is” into an “ought”. As he did in The End of Faith Harris argues, both correctly and persuasively, that this dogma reduces a lot of otherwise intelligent people to uttering astonishing nonsense (cue Stephen J. Gould babbling about “non-overlapping magisteria”), and that it concedes far too much ground to religions and other peddlers of irrationalism. But in this book Harris goes further and tries to develop a positive account of how science can inform debates about morality.
The part of the book that’s demolition is nearly flawless. Harris is particularly eloquent in arguing that thinkers who hold forth the lack of universal agreement about moral claims as evidence for moral relativism are applying a double standard. When people disagree about scientific claims, we do not interpret this as evidence that there are no scientifically accessible universals, we take it to mean that some of the disputing parties are objectively wrong. Harris asks, quite properly, why supposedly intelligent people dismiss the possibility that one can be objectively wrong about moral claims as well.
Harris then goes on to argue that moral claims must of necessity be about the well-being of human beings (and, potentially, other sorts of experiencing beings as well). Well-being is a measure that can be studied by objective means in spite of our lack of a completely generative understanding of well-being (he compares this to the concept of “health”, for which the corresponding claim is universally accepted). Moral claims can be viewed as testable hypotheses about what sorts of behavior will increase well-being, and thus studied consequentially and scientifically.
So far this is all excellent stuff, but it is after this point that Harris’s argument starts to lose some of the compelling force he could and should have given it. The problem isn’t that he’s wrong, it’s that he fails to cover his flanks against some rather obvious spoiling attacks. Yes, if you’re going to make a case for objective moral truth without just handwaving about the mind of God there is nowhere else to land other than on some form of consequentialism and utilitarianism – but having done that, failing to meet the classic attacks on utilitarianism head-on is just begging to be rubbished by a triumphant religious apologist. Nobody is going to finish this book believing that Sam Harris would torture one child to death to bring about the Millennium…but since Harris halfway acknowledges that difficulty without ever actually making a tight consequentialist case against such atrocities, his whole argument is weakened.
It’s not like covering that flank would have been difficult, even. All Harris had to do was point out that the means of human action shape its ends – a world in which people torture children to death in order to bring about paradise is one in which “paradise” is very likely to be a hideous charnel house. But he never does this; instead his talk of “increased well-being” becomes abstract and disconnected at exactly the points where it has the strongest criticisms to answer. He leaves openings to attack his utilitarianism that he didn’t have to.
There are other curious lapses. When Harris says on page 109 that “The urge for retribution, therefore, seems to depend on our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior,” I felt gobsmacked. How can Harris have missed the justification of retribution as a forward signal to potential wrongdoers in the future? In this account it doesn’t matter whether or not we ascribe intention to those we punish, because the purpose is to deter others in similar circumstances to the retributee from doing the wrong thing.
Similarly, on page 111: “Clearly, a full account of the causes of human behavior should undermine our natural response to injustice.” Huh? Supposing we have a “natural” response to injustice, it’s going be “natural” because it’s shaped by two million years of successful adaptation to living with other hominids. That’s a lot of field-testing. While it’s certainly possible in principle that our “natural response to injustice” has wandered into a maladaptive cul-de-sac and gotten stuck, that’s not a bet I’d care to cover and it’s a claim Harris badly needs to justify rather than leave hanging as a big fat target.
The problem here seems to be that Harris has an emotional aversion to the idea of punishment which he allows to cloud his thinking. Conservatives will land on him with both feet about this, and they’ll be right to do so even though the conservative attitude that willingness to inflict punishment is a mark of virtue doesn’t stand close examination very well either. It is worthy that Harris is trying to be rational on all levels, but to be fully convincing he needs to examine his own premises a bit more closely than he sometimes does.
In a different sort of error, Harris’s attachments sometimes prevent him from following his own insights as far as he ought. He writes on page 5 “Multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance–these are the familiar consequences of separating facts and values on the left.” He develops the theme that these consequences create a moral vacuum to be filled by zealots, or by tyrants operating from an amoral will to power. He notes correctly that this a deep sickness that may yet prevent us from coping with Islamic fascism, unless we can cure ourselves of it. But because he has the emotional commitments of a left-liberal, he doesn’t take the last step to recognizing that the same large portions of the western Left that sided with Communism during the Cold War years are pushing these toxic ideas precisely because they have enlisted on the side of today’s enemies of Western civilization.
There are also odd minor factual glitches that make Harris look bad. He tosses out “some people will die if they eat peanuts, for instance” – but it’s actually material to his analogy that what’s toxic is a fungus that lives on the nuts, not the peanuts themselves. That’s exactly the kind of pertinent fact about well-being that he asserts is the proper basis for argument! (UPDATE: Harris may have this right after all. I had read that what had been mistaken for allergic anaphylaxis is actually aflatoxin poisoning, but have been unable to verify this or recover my source.)
Harris is on much sounder footing when he responds (page 173 and following) to criticism of himself and the other New Atheists for daring to take the anti-scientific claims of religion seriously in public. When he points out that prominent American secularists tend to suffer from both moral cowardice and a deeply condescending attitude towards the reasoning capacity of the average American, he is dead on target.
But that indictment, justified though it is, also exemplifies a structural problem with the book. In particular, Harris spends more time and verbiage on this particular topic than he ought, creating some appearance (I think a false one) that he’s more interested in the dispute than the underlying issues. In general, the book seems too long and too digressive – both prose and ideas have a tendency to sprawl. A leaner, more disciplined presentation would have served Harris’s purposes better.
Still, despite these minor problems, this is very much a book worth reading. It is too bad that, as with The End Of Faith, those who need its instruction most badly are the least likely to read it.