Sunday, May 01, 2011


We know [torture] works. It has worked. It's just a lie to say that it has never worked . . .

Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.
Sam Harris
I noted back in November that Sam Harris has written a book entitled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. The latest edition of The New York Review of Books has a review.
Harris is aware that such large claims will invite charges of naive scientism, but he is unfazed. In particular, he is well aware that a long intellectual tradition insists that anything resembling a science of morality is impossible: science trades in facts and ethics trades in values and, according to the tradition, facts can never justify values. So Harris’s project will require him to do battle with some deep, and widely shared, views.

The result of all this is not particularly pretty. Part of the problem is that the book suffers from an awkward structure. While the first half of The Moral Landscape is concerned with the possibility of a science of morality, the second half features long chapters on the neurobiology of belief and the delusions of religion (including a lengthy attack on Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian). Harris ties these chapters only loosely to his main thesis. It turns out that some of this later material is more or less imported from Harris’s earlier scientific publications or from Op-Ed pieces or online essays that he’s written. None of this makes for a particularly coherent presentation and the book seems, in places, aimless. By the end, one worries that Harris has lost focus on the ostensible point of his book: that a science of morality is possible.
A large part of the review concerns itself with Harris' curious idea that Hume's distinction between is and ought, that there is no logical connection between statements of fact ("Daniel is my brother.") and statements of value ("I ought to honor my brother."). Orr notes that Harris muddles certain understandings and definitions. For example, at one point Harris writes the following:
If, from the point of view of the brain, believing “the sun is a star” is importantly similar to believing “cruelty is wrong,” how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?
Orr writes directly:
But of course no one ever said that factual and ethical judgments aren’t “similar” or have “nothing in common.” They’re obviously similar and have much in common. Both are judgments, both are believed by human minds and not by rocks, and so on. The relevant claim is that facts and values are not the same and that statements about facts cannot justify statements about values. It’s hard to see how Harris’s data address this issue.
Quite apart from the philosophical issues, Harris also seems either to misconstrue or be apathetic to what science is, does, and can do, resulting in what Orr calls "naive scientism", which, Orr also says, Harris seems to dismiss by plowing ahead anyway.

Harris' understanding of what constitutes the moral life is simply stated, according to Orr: "It is the well-being of conscious creatures.
Indeed Harris suggests that any other conception of the good either is equivalent to this one or is nonsense: “Concern for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values.” After all, every notion of the good ever offered concerns a putatively conscious creature (either our present selves or, in some religious traditions, our future spiritual selves in an afterlife) and it’s hard to see how concern for a conscious creature could involve anything but concern for its well-being. A science of morality must, then, be concerned with what contributes to well-being: a “prosperous civil society,” for instance, or an atmosphere of “beneficence, trust, creativity,” and the pursuit of “wholesome pleasures.”
I'm assuming, then, that torturing and killing conscious creatures who do not share this rather simplistic and vague notion of the good life, then, is pursuing the good for this conscious creature who is befuddled somehow? Or perhaps it is a "wholesome pleasure" to kill people who think and live in ways different from us?

Help me out here.

Orr does say one thing that troubles me.
In the end, it’s odd that one can share so many of Harris’s views and yet find his project largely unsuccessful.
Which of Harris' views does he share? His belief in psychic phenomena such as xenoglossy? His pimping of Hindu deities and Buddhist meditation practices, all the while insisting that "religion" has done nothing good for society, without ever once glancing at the contradiction? His support for torture and the indiscriminate killing of other human beings - conscious creatures, one and all whose well-being is supposed to be the highest morally scientific principle - because they choose to live and think and believe in ways that differ from other people?

I, for one, cannot take much that Sam Harris says seriously. His scientific work may be intriguing, even interesting, although, as Orr notes, even Harris himself notes the promise of neurobiology lies in the future; even the experiments he has conducted and published with colleagues yield far less in the way any "science of morality" than he initially claims. Harris is as much a fundamentalist true-believer as any jihadi, and far more dangerous. Precisely because he seems to speak in a contemporary idiom that resonates, insists his vision is one of expanding human tolerance and the good-life while his opponents are dangerous throwbacks to the age of religious absolutism, his own lack of fellow-feeling, his glib statement that there is factual support for torture when none exist, and the rather blase nature of his idea that killing some people simply because they exist is preferable to living with them; all this give him an air of reasonableness he has neither earned nor demonstrated.

It is sad, really, that so many otherwise intelligent folks have found in Harris' something with which to agree. Taking his published works as a whole, his many public statements and appearances, I find it hard to understand how anyone could possibly consider Harris as someone who grasps "morality" in any manner fashion or form.

Virtual Tin Cup

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