We told you so

When Sam Harris first broached the topic of his latest book in a YouTube video, Sean Carroll made a thoughtful criticism of the talk, and Harris replied via Twitter: “Please know that I will be responding to this stupidity.” He did reply, though never successfully addressing the arguments offered against his position. He’s studiously ignored the most salient criticisms of his thesis since then (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here, and here), perhaps hoping no one would notice the giant hole in the middle of his argument.

Now that his book’s come out, it turns out he didn’t address those obvious criticisms. The New York Times review notes the biggest problem:

how do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.

This was at the center of what a lot of people were complaining about, and Harris never addressed it before. Apparently his book doesn’t either. And it seems that the other obvious problems with the short version we got before are not addressed in the book either.

Reviewer Kwame Anthony Appiah continues:

In fact, what he ends up endorsing is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?

It’s not that Harris is unaware of these questions, exactly. He refers to the work of Derek Parfit, who has done more than any philosopher alive to explore such difficulties. But having acknowledged some of these complications, he is inclined to push them aside and continue down his path.

That’s the case even with something as basic as what’s meant by well-being. Harris often writes as if all that matters is our conscious experience. Yet he also insists that truth is an important value. So does it count against your well-being if your happiness is based on an illusion — say, the false belief that your wife loves you? Or is subjective experience all that matters, in which case a situation in which the husband is fooled, and the wife gets pleasure from fooling him, is morally preferable to one in which she acknowledges the truth? Harris never articulates his central claim clearly enough to let us know where he would come down. But if he thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact.

Harris was a philosophy major at Stanford, but he is inclined to scant most of what philosophers have had to say about well-being. There is, for example, a movement in contemporary philosophy and economics known as “the capabilities approach,” which takes seriously the question of identifying the components of well-being and measuring them. But neither of the two leading exponents of this approach — the philosopher and economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher and classicist Martha Nussbaum — gets a mention in the book.

The most compelling strand in “The Moral Landscape” is its unspooling diatribe against relativism…

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. And Harris himself concedes that few philosophers “have ever answered to the name of ‘moral relativist.’ ” Given that, he might have spent more time with some of the many arguments against relativism that philosophers have offered. If he had, he might have noticed that you can hold that there are moral truths that can be rationally investigated without holding that the experimental sciences provide the right methods for doing so.

…a real contribution to the old project of a “naturalized ethics” would have required a fuller engagement with its contradictions and complications. Instead, the landscape that the book calls to mind is that of a city a few days after a snowstorm. A marvelously clear avenue stretches before us, but the looming banks to either side betray how much has been unceremoniously swept aside.

I’m sure this will also be dismissed as “stupidity,” which will only validate the view of those who think Harris is a crank. A lot of us tried to point out the basic, obvious, trivial flaws in Harris’s logic, and he blew off our concerns, calling them stupid and treating anyone who disagrees with him as if they have no credibility or insight. But we do, and the more widely he repeats the same crankish arguments, the more widely he’ll bring discredit upon the range of views he’s trying to advocate, including his atheism.

To paraphrase St. Augustine: even a non-[atheist] knows something about morality, and science. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a theist to hear an atheist talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in an atheist and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of non-theists think our writers hold such opinions, and nontheists in general are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find an atheist mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions, how are they going to believe us in matters concerning science, metaphysics, and morality, when they think atheist writings are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of atheism bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not atheists.

Harris, the reviewer notes, stakes out a strong position in favor of truth, which is good. But it leaves me wondering why he’d be so cavalier about the accuracy and validity of the arguments he makes. Does he think errors obvious to people watching his talk and his posts on HuffPo and his own website will not be obvious to folks reading his book? Does he think there’s no truth to the arguments of the many philosophers he dismisses? Does he think it’s honest and truthful to omit any mention of philosophers who he disagrees with (rather than engaging obvious ripostes from their philosophies, and showing people why he rejects them)?

I’m sure there are lots of people in his general camp (even beyond the New/gnu/Extreme/Affirmative Atheist camp) who would like him to be right. How awesome would it be to say to an anti-abortion activist: “sorry, your moral system is scientifically disproven, like geocentrism”? But talking about abortion gets to the core of Harris’s problem: to whom we accord moral status (is an 8-cell embryo morally equivalent to an adult human?), how much status we accord to sentient non-humans (we accord chimps fewer rights than humans, but where does an 8-cell embryo fall on that axis?), and how we balance different people’s needs (must we let a woman die to protect the life of an embryo?) are all questions that are fundamentally about values, and that are not ultimately scientific, and however much Harris wishes otherwise, he can’t answer them.


  1. #1 IanW
    October 6, 2010

    You know, I always thought it was scientifically possible to determine when an embryo/fetus develops a nervous system and a brain, but after reading your blog I realize that I must immediately start accommodating those who, whilst they cannot show if, how, or when an embryo/fetus grows a soul, nonetheless have blind faith that it does. They’re so obviously right, and we new extremists are so obviously wrong….

  2. #2 Zachary
    October 6, 2010

    “…and however much Harris wishes otherwise, he can’t answer them.” When does he ever make the claim to personally be able to answer these questions? Harris’s ‘The Moral Landscape’ is not a book of answers; only an argument of where we could be looking for answers: science. Does an 8-cell embryo morally equivalent to an adult human? I don’t know, Josh? Is it capable of conscious thought? Is it capable of feeling pain? Is it aware of it’s own existence? Are these not questions science can answer?

    I understand the dilemma of “ought”. But, can we flip it for a second? Why does Sean Carroll behave the way he does? Last I checked he wasn’t a murder, rapist, or driven primarily by self-interest. What reason does he choose to make apparently “good” and “morally sound” decisions in his daily life? Perhaps he is right, even if we create a moral landscape with science, the question is still there – why should we ought to peruse it? But, why does he?

  3. #3 Josh Rosenau
    October 6, 2010

    IanW: When you finish with that straw man, I’m curious what you thought of the actual blog post you’re commenting on. I never said anything about souls. Lots of things possess nervous systems, and some we accord moral status as humans, some we don’t, so that scientific measure you’re describing only addresses moral questions about abortion given certain values.

    Zachary: Again, the issues of conscious thought, etc., are interesting, but are not value questions. The relevance of consciousness, pain, self-awareness, or whatnot, are only relevant if those are the matters one values. There is no obvious reason that feeling pain should be the standard we adopt in this moral context. The issue I’m raising is that the questions you ask me are not actually the same as what I asked: “Is an 8-cell embryo morally equivalent to an adult human?” Your questions require certain untestable value claims in order to get to “ought.”

    Saying that something (like “ought”) is worthy of study does not mean that it’s capable of scientific study. Harris is right to find these questions interesting, but wrong to try to wedge them into science.

  4. #4 abb3w
    October 6, 2010

    Josh Rosenau: are all questions that are fundamentally about values, and that are not ultimately scientific

    Exactly. Science is about answers IS questions (or other “to be” forms). Values, like all OUGHT questions, inherently involve an ordering relationship as to preferences among choices; that’s the job of Engineering, not Science.

    The most science can do is figure out what is-to-ought bridge someone IS using, not whether it is the “proper” bridge they OUGHT to use.

  5. #5 Ophelia Benson
    October 6, 2010

    Hey thanks for the links, Josh!

    I sure hope (for his own sake) Harris doesn’t blow off Appiah as “stupid” – since he isn’t, to put it mildly.

    Harris didn’t do all that well talking to Jon Stewart, who seems to have a better understanding of why morality can’t just magically be made into a scientific question with a wave of the hand than Harris does.

  6. #6 harrync
    October 6, 2010

    I can’t believe Harris wasted a whole book on what seems to me a problem that can be addressed in a few sentences. ALL morality is based on science (i.e., experience and logic – though the logic is often subconscious). It is just that the analysis varies. Example one: I believe what my mother tells me, and she said to believe the Bible. It says “Do not steal”, so I don’t steal. Example two: I observe that if I don’t steal from other people, they don”t steal from me. Thus I don’t steal. I leave it up to the reader to decide which analysis works for them.

  7. #7 Daniel J. Andrews
    October 14, 2010

    I saw Harris’ book in the bookstore. Given his previous writings and dismissal of what I thought were very valid points, I wasn’t even tempted to pick up the book to read the publisher’s blurb. I just figured his argument would have some gaping holes that he was blind to.

    btw, loved your paraphrase of that Augustine quote. :)

    And in one of your linked posts (Correct, Crank, or Crazy?), loved the paraphrase from the Princess Bride. I really need to drop by here more often.