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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) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Monday, November 01, 2010

Sam Harris on a science of morality - throat clearing

I'm currently reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. I'm only halfway through, and I'll probably need to read it twice before I can comment with the sort of confidence that I'd like. A bit down the track, I'll be publishing a full review in The Journal of Evolution and Technology; however, I'll be wanting to comment on some specific things, even over the next few days.

I'm generally on side with what Harris is trying to do, and though I am finding things throughout where Harris is not handling issues the way I would, I keep trying to remind myself that (a) it's best not to criticise an author merely for not writing the book you would have written, no matter how dear the subject matter is to your heart, and (b) all of this stuff is difficult.

It's not just that the subject matter is hard, as if that could be used as an excuse for writing a bad book. The point is more that there are many, many things that I want to quibble about, but of course if I'd written a book on the same topic (which I may do some time) there'd be many, many difficult choices about what to deal with, what tack to take on such-and-such an issue, what to set aside, and so on. There could be lots of quibbling from others that might not be all that salient to the overall point. It's best when reading a book like this to try to avoid mere quibbles and to try to get the big picture.

The good news is that the book has a lot more detail than anything we've seen to date on this subject from Harris, and he does deal with points that he's skipped over in earlier presentations, short articles, etc. I'm not so sure that he's dealt with them convincingly in all cases, but, hey, it's too early to have a considered opinion about that - as I said, I'm only halfway through.

Before I go much further, here are a few of my earlier posts on Harris, which give an indication of where I'm going to be coming from. They show me saying that Harris is, as I see the world, approximately right on what really matters - but at the same time I have reservations about the way he tries to ground the theory down at the meta-ethical level. Part of the problem is that he could get almost the same substantive results while leaving open that one of the more sophisticated relativist approaches (that of Gilbert Harman, say, or that of Neil Levy) might be correct. The substantive points about morality that he wants to make, by which I mean the ones with political bite, are, insofar as they seem correct, probably overdetermined - you could reach them via various meta-ethical positions.

But enough for now; I'll get back to reading the book later today.


NewEnglandBob said...

I was waiting for you to see it in the book. I also need to re-read it, but I gave it out on loan before my second reading.

Peter Beattie said...

probably overdetermined

Is that a bad thing? Can it even be avoided?

Russell Blackford said...

Not a bad thing at all - though it may be a bad thing if paths A, B, and C, all of which are at least arguable, all lead to something like conclusion X, but someone adamantly insists that only path A is righteous and that paths B and C are of the devil.

That's an exaggeration of how Harris writes, of course, but there is a sense that he's not interested in giving a fair run to views that he disagrees with. E.g., moral relativist positions can be far more sophisticated than the crude positions he wants to attack, and the sophisticated relativist positions on offer may not be that greatly different, in their implications, from his own brand of moral realism.

The book would be better if he acknowledged points like this.

Richard Emmanuel Jones said...