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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Early reviews of The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape , by Sam Harris has now been out long enough to attract some reviews. Here's a disclaimer - I haven't yet read the book (although I did go and buy a copy, which is calling to me from the shelf over to my left), so I can't comment much on the reviews. Not much.

Here's Kwame Anthony Appiah in The New York Times.

A review by Troy Jollimore for Barnes and Noble.

And a review by John Horgan in Scientific American.

All three make some points that sound plausible, based on what I know of the views that Harris has been expressing. But I'll need to read the book for myself. Horgan makes a point that struck Jerry Coyne as silly - and I agree with Jerry on this. You can't argue, as Horgan more or less does: lots of scientists have acted in ways that we all now regard as immoral; therefore questions of morality cannot be scientific questions (or questions with scientific answers). Surely Harris is not arguing that the actual scientists of any particular era are moral exemplars. He is saying something like the following:

P1. All questions about morality are questions about what actions make sentient beings happy.
P2. All questions about what actions make sentient beings happy are empirical questions.
P3. All empirical questions are open to study by science and have scientific answers.
C. All questions about morality are open to study by science and have scientific answers.

This is a valid argument, so it is sound and leads to a correct conclusion as long as its premises are true. Premises P1. through to P3. are pretty damn controversial, and I doubt that P1. is true without qualification even if the others are, but you can't dismiss the argument simply by claiming that various actual scientists have acted immorally. You need to explain which premise is false, and why.

Even if it's true that all ethical questions have scientific answers, it doesn't follow that the scientists concerned had those answers (or that anyone yet has those answers). Even if the scientists concerned did have the answers - which is vanishingly unlikely - it's not obvious that they'd have understood their application in specific circumstances or that they'd be motivated to apply the answers to their own circumstances. Note that if the Harris sort of argument goes through - or rather, if its premises are true - this tends to imply a theory in which morality is not the sort of thing that intrinsically motivates people. Horgan can't help himself to the absurd idea that "All questions about morality have scientific answers" entails the plainly false and absurd "All scientists are morally exemplary" or "All scientific theories, once believed, have morally good consequences."

So, I put no weight on this line of argument from Horgan. But I do fear that Harris ends up begging some of the most important questions about what morality really is. We shall see: I'll comment on the book here, when I've read it, and I'll be writing a more substantial review for The Journal of Evolution and Technology.


josef johann said...

I eagerly await!

I still feel like however credible the objections to Harris' definition of morality, the level of confidence we are insisting on is higher than the level of confidence we actually have when we make our own morally consequential choices.

Not that the criticism is wrong, but, well, this is hard to say. It's that critics attempt to cash-in this point for more than its worth.

There is a real world where we already care in a way we think is moral, with behavior that is captured by Harris' definition.

NewEnglandBob said...

Read Harris' book, Russell. All the 'if's in your second to last paragraph are dealt with in the book, in my opinion. He states often that no one has answers to many questions and states often that there can be many right answers (that is why it is a landscape). I will not try (and can not) to sum up the book in a few sentences.

Charles Sullivan said...

Premise 1 also seems suspect to me. It's not clear that happiness is all morality is about.

The peeping tom who photographs women in the nude for his own private happiness seems morally problematic.

Even though it involves an invasion of privacy, as long as no one but the peeping tom ever knows of the photos, then this action would be morally acceptable according to any ethical theory that makes maximizing happiness its only principle.

And often, doing one's duty, such as fulfilling one's promises, is not necessarily about maximizing happiness, although sometimes it could be.

Russell Blackford said...

The little argument that I put is just to show roughly how the case might run and why Horgan's criticism fails against it. As it happens, I think P1 and P2, as I've presented them, are probably both false, and certainly unlikely to be true simultaneously (if you define the terms to make one of them true by definition, you'll probably make the other false). I think P3 is also potentially controversial, but I'm prepared to accept it for the sake of any argument.

To be clear, though, I'm not arguing here against Harris or suggesting that his argument is anything like this simple. I've said nothing to refute the argument as I've put it or any related argument that Harris might actually use. I'm only arguing against Horgan at this point.

Any criticisms of Harris will have to wait until I can get to the book itself, which is just one in my current pile.

John R. Vokey said...

Why do you doubt P1, at least in the negative? What else does moral or ethical mean? If it doesn't *matter* to *someone* (which, after all is what sentient means, no?), then how can it matter at all?

Charles Sullivan said...

I'm gonna buy Sam's book. We may have problems with the naturalistic fallacy.

Perhaps Sam Harris has found a way around the naturalistic fallacy in its various incarnations.

Even if he did, what would W.D. Ross and A.I Melden say?

I'm not willing to dismiss them out of hand.

Russell Blackford said...

I think it's obvious that there are many moral questions that are not, on their face, anything to do with the happiness of sentient beings. E.g., "What are my moral duties of ritual purity?"

It's possible to answer that question coherently in many ways without thinking even for a moment of anyone's happiness. On its face, it's not a question about happiness at all, but it certainly looks like a moral question ... at least to me.

Someone, let's say Schmarris, may claim that all moral questions, including the one above, are somehow ultimately reducible to questions about happiness or that the only rational criteria for answering these questions involve issues about happiness, or some such thing. But he'd need an argument for it, and in fact he'd probably need to defend a whole substantive moral theory grounded on some independent considerations.

If Schmarris tries to make it true by definition that any possible moral question is "really" about happiness etc, he runs the risk of simply begging the question if he narrows what gets counted as a moral question. Or he'll create new problems if he broadens the concept of a question about happiness. If he goes down the latter path to try to make P1 true, he'll be in all sorts of trouble defending P2. Lots of questions about happiness that we might be interested in are not empirical - or certainly don't seem to be on their face. E.g. "Should I worry more about my brother's happiness or my sister's happiness?" certainly doesn't sound like an empirical question.

This is even before we consider such questions as whether we're going to count metaethical questions as moral questions.

But remember, I'm not attributing the argument in the post to the actual Sam Harris. I have no idea whether Harris uses such an argument, since I haven't yet read the book. In the post, I'm saying that Horgan is wrong, since even a simple argument such as I set out as a toy example is not vulnerable to his line of attack.

Please try not to get too bogged down at this stage in whether the premises of the toy argument are defensible unless you're convinced that it's actually the argument Harris uses. That wasn't my point. Hopefully Harris actually has a much better argument than this.

NewEnglandBob said...

"Well being", not "happiness". Harris' book is NOT about happiness.

Clive said...

I haven't read the book, either. But this 'happiness' thing doesn't sit too well with my own experience of what I take to be moral choices. If I saw someone being beaten up by a gang in the street, I think it would be morally right to come to their aid, even though in all likelihood the result would be both of us beaten up. (I don't know if I'd *make* that choice, but I think I should). The gang would probably be quite happy about this result. But...

Or is this an amateur's banal misunderstanding?

Blake Stacey said...

Nice post.

Supposing that C is true, then it's still not the case that any scientists, past or present, have all the answers to moral questions, any more than we have all the answers to questions about biochemistry. Let C' be the significantly less controversial assertion, "All questions about biochemistry are open to study by science and have scientific answers". Past scientists spoke in error about the chemical reactions within living cells, because they had incomplete information (and, with the technology of their time, could not have obtained the information we have now — not that our knowledge base is anything near complete, either!). But their errors do not argue against C'.

tildeb said...

Kudos, Russell. Harris mentions you and a specific criticism you made about his TED talk. You can find it in Notes, Chapter 1, #24. It's far longer than most.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, I know it's about "well-being", whatever that is (people have been arguing about it for centuries). That's one reason why I said "something like". Presumably, what Harris actually argues is more sophisticated than the toy version I offered. The point is that Horgan's criticism fails even against the toy argument.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I think you might be reading too much into the Scientific American review (or perhaps I too little). My impression from that review was that it was more of a cautionary note to readers to be on guard against moralizing scientists. This seems like a key quote to me:

"Some will complain that it is unfair to hold science accountable for the misdeeds of a minority. It is not only fair, it is essential, especially when scientists as prominent as Harris are talking about creating a universal, scientifically validated morality. Moreover, Harris blames Islam and Catholicism for the actions of suicide bombers and pedophilic priests, so why should science be exempt from this same treatment?

Clearly, some bad scientists are just greedy opportunists who care about only their own well-being. But those who fervently believe their own rhetoric about saving humanity may be even more dangerous."

What that review left me with was that we shouldn't trust scientists to know what's moral just because they claim to have be able to discover it. In other words, we need to be shown the goods first, and I suspect (though I haven't read the book, I've read many reviews, as well as seen the TED talk, criticism, Harris' reply, etc) that we won't be shown them by Harris, or any other scientist.

Anonymous said...

Your "duties of moral purity" are nil, because they do not impact "human well-being" in any way.


March Hare said...

Human flourishing, conscious well-being and all the other nebulous terms Sam Harris uses are no more meaningful than the woo that religion (New Age or not) spouts.

Sam Harris accepts that well-being is different for individuals (we have thousands of metrics that make up well-being and their order of preference is different over time as well as in each person) yet somehow believes that he can not only aggregate this but seek to design public policy on the basis of that aggregation. And have it scientifically 'proved' that this policy is the best.

I know he doesn't go that far, but that is the ultimate outcome when we assign a subjective internal state to the objective realm.

The simple fact is that each person has an individual morality and we, as a society, judge morality based upon the common agreement of what is moral. What we actually need, and kudos to Australia for trying it, is more ethical teaching in school - not teaching by rote, but learning how to think independently about what is ethical and what is not. This would feed back into society so we'd have a more reasoned morality/ethics that would move further away from religion all the time. That's my hope.

Richard Wein said...

I agree with you, Russell, but I'd like to make a point that might help when you come to review the book.

>If Schmarris tries to make it true by definition that any possible moral question is "really" about happiness etc, he runs the risk of simply begging the question if he narrows what gets counted as a moral question.<

When I read Harris's online articles a few months back, it seemed to me he was equivocal on whether his basic moral formula (something is moral to the extent that it maximises well-being) was (a) a substantive claim about what kinds of things are moral or (b) a definition of the meaning of the word "moral". Though I haven't read the book, someone has told me that the same equivocation can be found there. So I suggest you look out for that.

Moral naturalists often claim that such utilitarian formulas are definitions. My reply is to argue that this is simply not what the word means. If they are really using the word with the meaning given by their definition, then they are not speaking the same language as the rest of us. In fact, I'm pretty sure they don't normally use the word in the defined sense, and so are equivocating between two senses.

This is related to your criticism that such definitions are "begging the question". But I think my version gets to the deeper issue. What do people actually mean when they make moral claims? That's the empirical question which is (or should be) at the heart of metaethics.

Mark Sloan said...

In my opinion, Sam Harris is being criticized in part for failing to deliver, and even failing to see the need for, the moral philosophy equivalent of a flying unicorn that can provide justification, beyond rational choice, for his proposed science based morality. By a flying unicorn, I mean any source of justification beyond rational choice for adopting a morality and accepting its burdens.

My guess is Sam’s thinking goes something like this:

1) There is no logical error in groups or individuals adopting and accepting the burdens of a morality based on rational choice (the choice expected to best meet their needs and preferences).

2) A morality whose goal is to maximize human well being is a likely candidate for a morality that will better meet people’s needs and preferences than any secular alternative. (Sam might say it is the obvious winner though I disagree.)

3) No source beyond rational choice has been convincingly demonstrated to justify the adoption and accepting the burdens of any morality. Until such a source has been convincingly identified by moral philosophers, rational choice is the only justification for adopting and practicing any morality.

Perhaps a lot of the communication problems Sam is having is because he doesn’t believe in the moral philosophy equivalent of flying unicorns. It doesn’t occur to him that some people think they are vital as is demonstrated when people keep asking things like “But why ought we try to maximize human well being?”

An alternate related question is sensible: “Why will a morality based on maximizing human well being be our rational choice (the choice expected to best meet needs and preferences)?” I expect Sam would be glad to answer, but I don’t hear people asking it.

March Hare said...

A decent summary by Mark Sloan, but it ignores the fact that Sam leaves so many doors open:

Well being - define that!
Flourishing of conscious creatures - how could we weigh a penguin vs a camel?
Maximise (total?) well being - some people may prefer increasing minimum, others maximising median and others maximising mean. All valid and with no objective way to select between them.
Maximise well being (again) - now or in the future? How do we determine the preferences of people yet to be born? Is it moral to allow/force suffering this generation to increase well-being for the next?

Sam keeps mentioning human flourishing (somewhat at odds with the well being of ALL conscious creatures) but keeps talking about situations as they are now (e.g. East vs West), not what they might become naturally, albeit through struggle and suffering.

Whatever crystal ball Sam has I want it before placing my lotto numbers.

Richard Wein said...


Sam Harris is being criticised (at least by some) for claiming that there are "moral truths", i.e. answers to "questions about right and wrong and good and evil". Such claims are normally understood to mean that there can be true statements/beliefs of the form "X is morally right/wrong". If this isn't what he means, he needs to be a great deal clearer.

What do you mean by adopting "a morality"? Do you mean accepting some set of beliefs of the form "X is morally right/wrong"?If Harris is saying that it's rational to adopt a morality in that sense, but he's not arguing that such beliefs can be true, then he's saying it's rational to adopt a set of such beliefs even if they're not true. Now, that's not unreasonable, because it could be practically rational (pragmatic) to adopt beliefs which are untrue. But it doesn't sound to me like that's what he's saying.

I think the basic problem here is that Harris's writing on the subject is vague and ambiguous.

NewEnglandBob said...

It is unbelievable how offbase these comments are. Harris is being attributed here for all kinds of nonsense that he doesn't proscribe. Harris brings up Many of these problems in his book which does not propose fixes. Read the book. Meanwhile I unsubscribed to this noise.

Anonymous said...

Jack of all trades and master of none.