Portrait of The Moral Landscape

For the first time on this blog I’m going to give a book a mediocre review. It brings me no pleasure that this inauspicious record will go to the newest book  by one of my favourite authors.

Sam Harris is best known for his two anti-religious works The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, both of which were beautifully written polemics against the influence of irrational religious belief in the personal and public spheres. When I first read them several years ago I counted them among my favourite and most inspiring books.

But one of the nice things about being a free-thinker is the liberty to move on from familiar topics to greener, if uncertain pastures. So it was with considerable excitement that I picked up Harris’ new book on the relation between science and morality. In The Moral Landscape I was expecting more of Harris’ excellent writing, thorough research and sarcastic wit. I got all of these, to be sure. But what was lacking was the content of a new book worthy of a man with Harris’ talents.

 

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

 

His thesis can be fairly summarized as this: what is ‘good’ for conscious beings depends on the nature of their conscious experience, as shaped by many relevant forces – evolution, genetics, environment, history, etc. As a result, it is reasonable to say that there are better and worse ways for such conscious creatures to live. In particular, the relevant fields that study the features that constitute a creature’s conscious experience have empirically testable things to say about that creature’s well-being. Like ‘health’ or ‘life’, well-being is a constantly evolving term that is nevertheless supported by scientific inquiry, even if the level of science at a given time is not particularly advanced.

Harris’ takeaway argument: in the domain of morality, there can be experts just as there can be in any other field of human endeavour. And these experts are decidedly not the religious readers who frame human morality in terms of myth and imagery. It is those who understand the nervous system, nutrition, early childhood development, criminology, human sexuality and so forth who are qualified to make moral arguments in their given areas of expertise. This is a point well-made, but is it really the stuff of an entire book?

As a would-be philosopher, I have a particular interest in the philosophical implications of this argument, especially in terms of ethics and meta-ethics. Harris has a philosophy degree and accordingly gives this argument some attention.

My diligent readers might recall my emphatic endorsement of the books of Richard Joyce concerning the lack of objective moral absolutes. Our intuitive sense of moral objectivity, Joyce argues, is an illusionary product of our evolutionary heritage. This may seem to clash with Harris’ highly agreeable thesis that there are scientifically testable things we can say about human well-being and thus about our ethical responsibilities towards other such creatures.

I was briefly worried that I had been lead blindly astray by Joyce’s siren song of evolutionary theory. But like any fledgling philosopher, I found a way to squirm out of the problem. Hopefully I have managed to do so with my intellectual honesty intact.

 

Yours Truly...Almost

 

I would argue that Harris and Joyce are essentially arguing for different sides of the same coin:

  • Sam says there are objective reasons for our contingent moral obligations based on subjective feeling.
  • Richard says there are contingent reasons for subjectively feeling objective moral  obligations.

According to Joyce it is wrong to say that any single moral principle corresponds perfectly to all sentient or rational creatures’ moral obligations to each other, no matter how strongly we might feel that it does.

According to Harris this is also wrong, but there are certainly principles that come closer to being ‘perfect’ than others. Whether such a perfect standard actually exists is a different matter. Trying to define it has been a preoccupation of philosophy since it began and has been perennially elusive. A better understanding suggests that there are many peaks and valleys on the moral landscape, and some are higher and deeper than others. These valleys and peaks owe much to their evolutionary heritage, among other factors.

A moral error theory as argued by Joyce does not preclude the type of moral reasoning advocated by Harris. The two fit nicely together given that they are both deduced from roughly the same body of evidence and theory. A nice little synthesis, if I do say so myself.

So why the mediocre review? Apart from a brief and relatively superficial treatment of the philosophy implied in his arguments, Harris can’t seem to resist returning to the act that made him famous: dumping on religion. Harris spends way too long for my taste attacking a particular target, albeit a worthy one indeed.

Dr. Francis Collins is arguably one of the most prominent and powerful scientists in the world, and certainly in the United States. He is in charge of the National Institutes of Health (appointed by President Obama) and the former director of the Human Genome Project. He is also something of a blubbering evangelical Christian. He has written many ridiculous things about the nature of morality and his own reasons for believing in his brand of Christianity.

Harris drags the reader through a sampling of the incoherencies of this regrettably powerful man for many pages, apparently with the sole purpose of reminding us that the task ahead of proponents of a morality grounded in human nature is a pipe-dream well beyond our reach.

But as with any manifesto, Harris includes some optimistic caveats at the very end. Perhaps these caveats come too late – the reader is hard-pressed throughout The Moral Landscape to escape reminders of the grim prospect of the project Harris so eloquently advocates.

Those who are most likely to buy and read this book are also those who likely already agree with its central arguments. Harris gives his fans what they have come to expect but will likely leave those who want more – well – wanting more.

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