About Me

My photo
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).

Friday, February 25, 2011

More on how I've confused Massimo

Okay, I've now read this thread, which is pretty interesting. As far as I can work out, Massimo's complaint is that my review of The Moral Landscape in JET contained numerous points of disagreement with Harris but also praised him/the book.

Massimo evidently agrees with much, or at least some, of my critique. In particular, he and I agree that Harris has failed to derive "ought" statements without using any "ought" premises (and without using unhelpful logical tricks or the method that was well-known to David Hume of deriving hypothetical imperatives from the combination of reason and desire). Since Harris relies throughout on a great big "ought" that he essentially just presupposes (something like, "We ought to maximise the well-being of conscious creatures"), he has no claim to have gone beyond Hume here.

Massimo's problem seems to be that I'd have all these disagreements while also finding anything to praise. That's fair enough in itself, I suppose, but I could have done without the imputation of intellectual dishonesty. Surely I am entitled, in good faith, to put criticisms that are not totally remote from Massimo's without having to be thoroughly damning at the cost of having my intellectual honesty called into question. This remark on the thread, in particular, is uncalled-for, and I hope that Massimo will have the courtesy to retract it:
Instead, I thing what we are seeing here is an example of herd mentality. Harris is one of the New Atheists, the New Atheism is good (for some people), so we are not going to criticize anything a NA says too strongly. Not a good example of critical thinking, or even intellectual honesty, quite frankly.

Since I've recently spent a fair bit of time rather relentlessly arguing about the problems with the book, as I see them, I find this a really left-field comment. A few points need to be made here:

First, as a reviewer I tend to assume that I am dealing with books that are worthwhile and to look for their strengths and weaknesses. So maybe I'm congenitally less inclined than most to give out entirely damning reviews. I like to think - but of course I may be wrong - that I produce more interesting reviews as a result of taking this attitude. That's not to say that I never find it necessary to rubbish a book. Sometimes that happens, but this was far from being one of those times.

Second, I did say quite a lot about the strengths of The Moral Landscape. E.g., I praised its general lucidity, its clear presentations of complex ideas, the fact that, passage by passage, much of it is impressive and persuasive, and its strong, timely plea that we not adopt a quietist attitude towards the value systems of other cultures. I mentioned the book's discussions of crude relativism and libertarian free will, which I basically agree with, and I supported its general approach of using science to inform policy debates. All of this is stated pretty straightforwardly in the early part of the review where I not only praise the book but also spell out specifically what I'm praising it for.

Furthermore, as I said in a couple of recent interviews, Harris is making an important point: we'd do better (by standards of "better" that most of my readers will share) to judge moral norms and systems of moral norms by their consequences for those who follow them, and for those who are affected by the actions of those who follow them, rather than by looking for their grounding in an authoritative source (such as religion or cultural tradition).

I should add that I don't actually think that Harris does any damage to any more sophisticated moral relativist theories such as those which we've seen over the years from Gilbert Harman, Neil Levy, Stephen Finlay, David B. Wong, and others. The kind of relativism that Harris shoots down is a crude one that is - I agree again with Massimo - rather silly when you think it through. Still, that is the kind of "relativism" that people, including philosophers, usually have in mind. Or so it seems to me. There was no real reason for Harris to devote time to attacking the views of, say, Harman, which are unlikely to be doing any social and political harm.

Third, it's true that I'm not a great fan of slapping the label "scientism" on views that I disagree with. I think this is an approach that is more prejudicial than probative. Massimo thinks that some kind of tendency to scientism lies behind aspects of The Moral Landscape that he and I both criticise. Fine, but I'd prefer to isolate points on which I disagree and to explain why.

One problem about "scientism" as an accusation is that a reason has to be given as to why scientism is a bad thing. If it's defined in such a way that it's a bad thing - e.g. as "an improper or overreaching reliance on science" - then of course no one will own up to it. Scientism, so defined, is not a position by which anyone actually self-describes. If it's defined in some other way that many of us will nonetheless agree is a bad thing - e.g. believing that the methods of science, narrowly conceived, are the only methods of rational inquiry and must be used to approach all questions - again, few serious thinkers will self-describe as adherents to this form of "scientism". Maybe someone will turn up here and make a comment accepting this as a description of their epistemological position, but Harris has not done so.

If, on the other hand, "scientism" just means something like "having a high regard for the authority of science" then it's not obvious that scientism is a bad thing.

I'd prefer to get by in these discussions without throwing around a label like "scientism". I tend to distrust people who use it, which is not to say that I'm accusing Massimo of bad faith in using it. He presumably thinks he can sense a general "scientism" distorting the way Harris approaches things. Who knows, maybe he'll turn out to be right ... but as I say, a claim like this is more prejudicial than probative, and it's also somewhat speculative. Better, in a case like this, to look at the ideas and forget the labels.

Or if Massimo really wants to devote himself to some kind of campaign against the evils of "scientism", he can at least not complain if I don't want to sign up and join in.

Update: Now see my (pleasing) exchange with Massimo Pigliucci in the comments below.


Anonymous said...

FWIW Russell, I had a quick glance through the comments, and when I read the comment about herd mentality, I took it to be referring to the great unwashed, or as you like to call them, the folk. As I recall, it was a response to the commentor Ian, and his comment was very much about the layman's reaction rather than the "in house" reaction.

I may need to read it again.

David M

Blake Stacey said...

I've seen "scientism" used to label all sorts of intellectual sins. Sometimes, accusing someone of "scientism" seems to mean implying that they believe "the methods of science, narrowly conceived, [...] must be used to approach all questions". On other occasions, "scientism" appears to mean holding a Whiggish view of science history, viewing all figures of the past as heroes who advanced knowledge or villains who tried to hold the cause back (out of some medieval love of mysticism, no doubt). These are not the same thing, even though both tendencies might coexist in the same person, and we'd be better served if we forsook the label "scientism" and instead used words which actually meant something.

Blake Stacey said...

(You could try to argue that "scientism" is an appropriate umbrella term covering a variety of intellectual sins: techno-utopianism, presentism and so forth. However, in these sorts of arguments, the very definition of science is often part of the contest: is the word science being used to refer to a set of techniques, a body of knowledge or a community of people? Is its domain being taken broadly or narrowly? Which human activities, back through recorded history and before, are partly or totally within its scope? And so forth. We should identify instances of fallacious argument by breed and species before we try to draw the cladogram of the entire phylum of Intellectual Error.)

Russell Blackford said...

You may be right, David, but I sort of looked at that comment up, down, and sideways. From here, the "what we are seeing" appeared to refer to the subject matter of the original post. If that wasn't the intention, it would be nice if he at least clarified it.

Deepak Shetty said...

For what its worth , I found your review as interesting as the book itself.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. Maybe you've "herded" me Russell ;), having now read that again, a bit more closely, I think your initial reaction is on the money. At the very least, a clarificationis in order.

Massimo's first para in the comment is an "I see what you're saying.." The second is a "but I think you're wrong, what I think is happening is.. [insert insults for Russell here]."

I think Ian's point, whether I want to call TML a "bad" book is on the money, speaking as a layman is about right. I have found it a very useful introduction to the finer points of all manner of complex discussion of morality, largely because you, and Massimo, and everyone else, has had stuff to say. The criticism has been as interesting and informative as the book itself. And yes, I'll freely admit that Sam gets some slack for having said lots of interesting stuff that I agree with for a few years.

I recommended the book to someone in this thread at the forum I haunt (posting as Facewon: http://forums.next-gen.biz/viewtopic.php?t=10044&start=6800) I basically recommended it on the proviso that the reviews were part of the "experience" as it were.

(And if you want to see some laymen butchering meta and philosphy, we do a bang up job, IMHO. ;))

David M

axxyaan said...

As far as I understand, Massimo seems to have fallen into the trap of thinking that people who agree on the facts, will also agree on their appreciation.

He doesn't seem to consider that people can agree on the facts while giving different weights in evaluating these facts and so in the end come to a total different appreciation of these facts.

Darrick Lim said...

Good reply, Russell. I'm about two-thirds through TML (almost at the end of the 'Religion' chapter) and in both your review and this post you've articulated my thoughts on Harris's arguments. To be honest, I find Pigliucci's opinion of TML (and Harris) rather harsh, vicious even. Somehow Harris's ideas don't seem to warrant that level of condemnation, IMO.

Re scientism, I admit to being tempted on occasion to subscribe to a sort of 'strong' scientism. But the more I read on the philosophy of science, of mind and epistemology, the less certain I am that science is the be all and end all.

But this I can definitely agree with:

"If, on the other hand, "scientism" just means something like "having a high regard for the authority of science" then it's not obvious that scientism is a bad thing."

Bruce Gorton said...

As someone who writes game reviews Massimo's whole stance puzzles me. There is a word for a review that is wholly positive or negative - boring.

Its boring to write and boring to read.

Further, something doesn't have to achieve its aims or be entirely agreed with by the reviewer in order to be good.

Interesting is far better than agreeable.

Anonymous said...


A serious question: what audience would be a good one for Harris' book?

For those who don't know much -- or anything -- about the philosophical issues, I find that TML wouldn't be appropriate because 1) He's not all that careful about being fair to his opponents' positions and 2) As the book is meant to advocate for his position, it's might be hard for less informed readers to get an overview of the positions and what the concerns are. An introductory text would be a better starting point.

But for people who have some knowledge and so can get into more technical discussions, there are books that say far better things -- even about the positions Harris takes -- and go into the issues far deeper than Harris does. TML isn't the right book for them.

So it's hard for me to think of an audience where reading TML would be as good as or better than reading something else.

JustAGuy said...

I think Massimo's biggest problem with Harris is that Harris justifies his lack of familiarity with the literature on ethics by saying that he thinks it's boring and not necessarily for what he's doing even though Harris is writing a book in this field. And to me, that is a very valid complaint. It seems like a very anti-intellectual attitude. It also doesn't seem like a very respectable attitude.

MH said...

Scott Atran wrote damning review of The Moral Landscape here:
I understand they've had some beef in the past, but this was pretty extreme.

Kirth Gersen said...

"There's only black and white. You're either with us or you're against us."

It's the New Philosophy.

Unknown said...


well, I think apologies are in order here. I actually, most emphatically, did *not* mean to call *you* intellectually dishonest. I have a high esteem of your writings, and this particular response by you has certainly not changed that fact.

But the passage you quote was one in which I was broadening the fire from my specific disagreements with your review of Harris to the general field of New Atheism. Moreover, I wrote "or even intellectual honesty," which I meant as calling to the possibility of intellectual dishonesty, not as stating a fact. If that wasn't clear, I apologize.

Of course, being increasingly skeptic of the New Atheists' rhetoric, I wonder why Dawkins gets away throwing accusations of intellectual dishonesty right and left and people simply cheer him on, even though I doubt he has the facts to back up those accusations any more than anyone else.

As for scientism, I think that's our big disagreement. My view is that *that* is the primary problem affecting much of the skeptic and atheist movements, it's a subtle and pernicious ideology that doesn't do much good and potentially undermines our efforts and credibility.

But of course we can have reasonable and honest disagreements with each other on that one too. Cheers.

Paul W. said...

I don't know about scientism, but the more anti-"scientistic" philosophical rhetoric I hear, the sicker I am of simplistic philosophism.

J. J. Ramsey said...

As a game reviewer, Mr. Gorton, what would you think of a review where the reviewer found the game storyline incoherent, the controls awkward, the character designs amateurish, and the software buggy and prone to crashing, only to give the game a middling-high score on the ground that the packaging looks nice and there are a few good-looking cutscenes?

That's a pretty good analogy for our blog host's review of Harris' book. He damns Harris with faint praise, and if he didn't outright say that the book was worth reading, we'd conclude that he thought just the opposite.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, Massimo - that's appreciated. Thanks.

Russell Blackford said...

As for the audience for the book. I'd say a general educated audience with an interest in issues. It could be read by the same people who'd read, say, Simon Blackburn's Being Good.

Paul W. said...

Funny, I was just reading Blackburn's Being Good yesterday, and I came across what seemed to me a pathetic and irresponsible misrepresentation of a Gnu's position.

Blackburn disses Dawkins for taking a hyper-reductionist stance on morality, assuming that if genes are selfish, they'll simply make people psychologogically selfish---he gives Dawkins The Selfish Gene as a "notorious example." He says that Dawkins repudiated the idea later, but the idea "has a life of its own."

The problem is that Blackburn, like Mary Midgely, apparently never read the book---just the title, which he completely misinterpreted or at least overinterpreted. In the actual book, Dawkins says right off the bat that that's not what he's saying, and the main theme of the whole book is that simplistic idea is profoundly untrue---"selfish" genes may make people selfish, but may also make them sincerely self-sacrificing, because the genes' "interests" are not the same thing as the individual's psychological interests.

It's not just Harris and Gnus who haven't done as much homework as we might like, and aren't as fair as we might like to opposing views. Professional philosophers do it all the time when writing for a popular audience. (And too often when writing for a professional audience.)

IMHO, includes many criticisms of Gnus by turf-defending professional philosophers like Massimo. Harris's book isn't the one I'd have written, but it's a lot better and more philosophically respectable than Massimo lets on.

Ophelia Benson said...

That's where I part company with you, Russell - and where I startled Massimo by agreeing with him! I mean yes, people who read Being Good of course could read TML, but I think the former is worth reading while the latter isn't. I think TML is misleading while BG isn't - which is to say, Blackburn's book is much better for non-philosophers (like me) to read than Harris's book is.

BG is a lot shorter, too. :- )

Russell Blackford said...

Ophelia, do you really think that TML is so bad as not to be worth reading? Fair enough, if that's what you think, but yes it is a bit startling.

Ophelia Benson said...

Well Russell I think it's misleading enough to be not worth reading. It could be the only book on the subject a lot of people will ever read, and I do think that would be unfortunate. There are already a lot of people who think he's saying something startlingly new, and also definitive. I do find that a bit maddening.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, yes - I agree that it would be a Bad Thing if lots of folks only read TML and took it as the official Gnu Atheist, scientifically-informed view on these matters. They'd do well to read, ahem, my review of it (whether the long version or the shor version that the ABC published), which is, of course a lot more than a review. And they'd do well to read, say, Blackburn's little book (even though this contains some things that are problematic such as the discussion of the selfish gene concept, and calling Epicurus a Stoic at one point - say what?). And it'd be nice if some went and read some of the other books that are around that are better than TML, while covering a lot of the same territory, such as Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.

As a matter of fact, people could do a lot worse than read Hume's An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, which is still way ahead of almost any recent books on the subject.

All the same, TML does have the strengths that I described in the post, as well as being timely. I think the onus is really on the rest of us to do better if we're critical of some of the arguments and conclusions.

Ophelia Benson said...

Well the onus may be on you, and other gnu atheist philosophers, but I don't think it's on all of us. I don't think it's on me, for instance, because I wouldn't dream of considering myself qualified. (I could get qualified, but that would require a lot of time and money.) I don't think I'm at all the right person to write a would-be definitive book on gnu atheist metaethics (or a provisional one either).

I could write a definitive book on gnu atheist etiquette though! Hahahahahahachoke

K said...

When I hear "scientism" it's usually "You're wrong to use science to slaughter my sacred cow". Most of the time it's not even using science; recently I got accused of it after being careful to make an almost entirely philosophical argument because I dismissed the concept of the supernatural.

As far as I can see, the term is pretty much a slander that might have meant something originally, but like reductionist is a rebuke of a methodology without carefully considering the position.

K said...

I read Being Good recently, I didn't get the impression that Blackburn was saying that Dawkins was arguing that hyper-reductionist stance, but that there were those who thought that way and took the idea from Dawkins. (I'm still not sure how people can misread The Selfish Gene that way, it's pretty clear in its ideas)

Felix said...

Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong by J. Mackie

£3.49 at Amazon UK with free delivery!!!

Well, I've ordered it! You'd have to be mad, bad, or on the wrong blog, not to.
(And Being Good too since it would be environmentally irresponsible to get the delivery van to make the trip twice.)

I was going to ask, Russell, what I should read after, Levy & Singer, but now I won't need too for a couple of months.

flies said...

in context, i think it's fairly clear what pigliucci means by scientism. he quotes blackford's review, "thinking that all problems can be solved by science", and then restates this issue in his own words, "a major problem with the whole project is precisely the stubborn attempt to overextend the reach of science which is properly labeled as scientism."

Cogito said...


This is another take on The Moral Landscape.