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.