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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On reviewing Sam Harris

I've written a long review of The Moral Landscape for The Journal of Evolution and Technology, and it will soon appear there, the Glitch Gods willing.

I feel that this is something of a masochistic act. I agree with Harris on a lot of things in this book and elsewhere, particularly when we get down to the practical level. In fact most people who are critical of Harris will find my views even more appalling than his! At the same time, I won't endear myself to fans of Harris, since I have a lot to say that's critical of his fundamental views on metaethics and normative theory. In the end, alas, I'm probably not going to endear myself to anyone.

Even Mackie-style moral error theorists - the group with whom I most identify - will probably think that some of my views are subtly, or not-so-subtly, heretical.

So, if I knew what was good for me ... I'd probably leave well alone. "What have I done?" I ask myself.

On the other hand, The Moral Landscape is an important book and merits close examination - and not just from people who are totally out of sympathy with Harris. Also, the book is written for a popular audience: many of the people who read it will probably want to take Sam's word for various criticisms of philosophical positions that actually have a lot more going for them than he conveys. Because it's a very polemical book, he is not into examining the strengths of positions that he disagrees with - he sometimes tends to treat opponents with scorn, and someone who reads the book and likes it, without reading contrary views, may think the scorn is justified even where it really isn't.

I suppose, too, that I want to do what I can to make one very important point. It's not necessary to adopt the theoretical positions that Sam Harris does - a kind of commonsense realism about the status of moral claims, combined with something like utilitarianism - to be critical of cruel moral traditions, horrible practices such as female genital mutilation, and the like. Although I don't consider myself a moral relativist, it's not even the case that all relativist positions lack the required resources. There is, of course, a crude and popular form of moral relativism that wants us to tolerate just about everything, no matter how harmful. One more rebuttal of it, especially by a popular author, can't be a bad thing. To be fair, though, we should acknowledge that there are some much more sophisticated moral relativist theories around. Some of them are fairly close to my own metaethical position - in the end, many of the sophisticated metaethical positions are going to have a lot in common.

(This also applies to legal philosophy: it's often observed that the most sophisticated and plausible kinds of natural law theory and the most sophisticated/plausible kinds of legal positivism don't look all that different from each other.)

Anyway, for better or worse the review is done. There are many arguments that I haven't tackled - I have answers in my head to lots of the book's specific passages, especially in the long endnotes, but there was no room to include them without (1) unbalancing the review even further, and (2) making it even longer than the 6,500 words that it reached. Doubtless there will be more opportunities for me to wrestle with the issues, perhaps at even greater length.

For better or worse, as I say, the review is done; and I'll provide a link soon.

6 comments:

Axxyaan said...

I would think that, your views being heretical, is part of what makes them worthwhile. Even in the end it should turn out you are wrong, the fact that you made points others had to think through makes your contribution of value. So I will gladly read your heretical views.

Tony Lloyd said...

I look forward to reading the review.

One thing to float before I've read the review is your contention that "one more rebuttal of (relativism), especially by a popular author, can't be a bad thing."

I think it can be if the rebuttal is bad. Especially if it is very bad in very obvious ways. A bad rebuttal will re-enforce arguments that relativists can make against non-specialists (like me). "Non-reltivism relies on obviously wrong argument X, so you must accept relativism" etc.

NewEnglandBob said...

What Axxyaan said.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't really have any problems with his rebuttal of the crude kind of relativism that many people seem to pick up in school, and which seems to be popular in, for example, anthropology departments. He does a good hatchet job on it in The End of Faith, too. And really, this is the sort of relativism that can lead people to an excessive tolerance of harmful practices.

What he doesn't acknowledge is that people like Gilbert Harman have much more sophisticated views that can't be rebutted so simply.

Richard Wein said...

Given the multitude of different metaethical positions, criticism from many sides is almost inevitable!

strangebeasty said...

You're one of very few people I've seen write anything interesting about morality, and I very much look forward to reading your review.