The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, by Sam Harris, is a very bad book, and it is bad in complex ways. It is a mixture of good and bad ideas, and for the book to be properly evaluated they must first be disentangled. It at least has that much (being bad in a complex way) going for it. But it does mean that writing a review requires a lot of justification – and that takes time to organize.
I have been trying for a long time to write this review, so I have decided to break it up and post it in parts. This is the first part. Since this will be in installments, any feedback that you have will be much appreciated, and I will do my best to respond to your questions and comments, both below and in future posts. (Part 2 and Part 3 are here.)
I care enough to write this review because TML could have been good. I was honestly excited to hear that Harris was writing about ethical naturalism, my own field of study. I had been badly disappointed by his previous two books (they are much worse), which I read to see if he might have some new insights that could convert me back to atheism. Instead I read a totalitarian vision of atheism run amok, with no justification for itself. I am always hopeful that people can improve, and this book is a relative improvement (over complete insanity), but it is still very bad.
Due to the problematic nature of TML, I have decided to make this book review extremely structured. I will go through Harris’s book chapter by chapter, and for each one first summarize it, then enumerate the points of agreement and disagreement I have with it, and then evaluate it for specific points and then general points. I will do this for the notes as well. At the end I will give an overall evaluation. This structure is not particularly exciting, but it will be a highly detailed analysis of Harris’s book.
Before going on I ought to articulate my biases. I am a Roman Catholic philosopher (an adult convert from agnosticism/atheism) specializing in ethical naturalism and natural law. These two fields have the same subject, with one exception. Ethical naturalism attempts to derive ethics from nature without reference to God: it is atheistic. Natural law, on the other hand, is a traditional Catholic method of moral investigation and argumentation, and does the same as ethical naturalism except that God is assumed to be the creator of nature and the confirmer, via revelation, of the ethics found therein. But nevertheless it is secular, arguing from experience and reason, not revelation to make its points. Revelation confirms natural law, it is not assumed by it. The Catholic Church picked up this type of ethics from the Greek and Roman philosophers, and has stuck with it, because (among other things) it allows dialogue with secular culture and non-Christian philosophy and theology. The Catholic Church, of course, also accepts the Bible and sacred tradition as another source for ethics. Some of what I say here will be of greater interest to Catholics and/or Christians, but most is applicable more broadly.
My motivation in writing this review is that I hate lies. The reason I got into ethics is that I love justice and the reason I got into education is that I love knowledge, and lies destroy both. The Moral Landscape is full of lies, spreading ignorance and doing injustice towards philosophy and religion. This is not minor stuff; this is the meaning of life we are talking about, the difference between good and evil. This book advocates evil. So I must speak.
Introduction, TML pgs. 1-25
Harris states that questions about values are questions about the well-being of conscious creatures (1). Values are a kind of fact involving happiness or suffering, etc. These facts can transcend culture because they are rooted in the brain.
Because well-being is rooted in brain states, we can have scientific knowledge about it. This is objective, allowing us to judge societies as better or worse by their effects (2).
Both the religious and the secular lack sufficient belief in the power of reason (4). This makes the religious turn to God for morals and the secular turn to relativism. This is a lopsided dichotomy; it hobbles secularity against religion (5). Rational inquiry is the only source of insight; faith is only ever right by accident.
Science has defeated religion for centuries. Morality is the last holdout and science has restrained itself to the benefit of religion (6). But the holdout will fall.
The moral landscape is a metaphorical terrain of flourishing peaks and miserable abysses. Different ethics will result in different movements across this landscape. There may be multiple peaks and valleys (7). Movement across the landscape can be measured by brain states (8). Culture is a vehicle for moral development, and culture affects our brains (9).
Knowledge and values can no longer be kept apart. Science and religion are antithetical and cannot be reconciled.
Hume’s is-ought problem and Moore’s naturalistic fallacy… Moore’s open question argument “but is that really good?” is a verbal trap that can be avoided if we just look to human well-being (10). Positive psychology has a lot of good data on what causes happiness, yet they then refrain from making recommendations. This field is progressing and will run afoul of religion, just like evolution did, because the fact-value divide is illusory.
Is well-being too hard to define? We do the same for physical health (11). What Harris advocates is an ethics “fully constrained by our current biology” (13), but not reduced to our instinct (14).
For his argument to work, we need grant only two points: (one) some people have better lives than others; and (two) these differences are related in some lawful way to states of the brain and the world (15).
Some people will say all such differences between “good” and “bad” are just talk, a language game. But they themselves don’t live that way (17). If we found a new tribe we would not assume they were in perfect health, but we would assume we could not correct their morality (19). Enduring traits are not necessarily adaptive; they just didn’t kill everyone (20). Because memes are communicated, they are not dependent on conferring benefit to their hosts. Ignorant people can undermine their health, why can’t we accept that they can undermine their well-being too? (21).
Improvements, whether personal or social, are inconvenient and can cause suffering. This does not negate that progress is good.
Religion is a problem (22). Dogmatism blocks science, and because science is reluctant to get into morals, dogmatism there reigns (23). Religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with regards to facts and values, so faith and reason cannot compromise on morality. Most intellectuals think it is okay to sedate the masses with delusions (24). They fail to see how condescending they are. Many think that starting a war of ideas will lead to science losing. Harris thinks they are wrong, and also thinks we have no choice: zero-sum conflicts tend to become explicit. People are dishonest about the “invidious gulf between science and religion” and about moral progress. How we speak about values and study them in the brain will influence our future (25).
Points of Agreement
Much of what Harris says is perfectly acceptable to Catholics, most Christians, and some other religions. They are, perhaps, most acceptable to Catholics since natural law ethics is one of the twin cores of Catholic morality. Here is a list of points upon which Sam Harris and (most) Catholics can agree:
We can agree that facts and values can be united.
We can agree that science can help us understand morality.
We can agree that we can have confidence in the power of reason.
We can agree that moral relativism is bad.
We can agree to the metaphor of the moral landscape.
We can agree that there may be multiple peaks on this terrain.
We can agree that culture is important for moral development.
We can agree that Hume and Moore are wrong.
We can agree that positive psychology is giving us good data on well-being.
We can agree to an ethics constrained by human biology.
We can agree that some lives are better (i.e. have more well-being) than others.
We can agree that there is a lawful relation between better (i.e. having more well-being) lives and states in the brain and the world.
We can agree that we can judge other cultures and their moral codes.
We can agree that sometimes suffering leads to personal growth.
We can agree that dogmatism can prevent learning.
We can agree that it is not nice to be condescending.
These points of agreement are all good things. Harris and Catholics could agree to work together against relativism, for example. But this agreement would be very hollow because the content of the moralities that each side would like to inject into the vacuum of relativism would be incompatible. The agreement is largely a formal one, not an agreement of content, though there are some specific points of agreed upon content, such as the power of reason (and I would argue that the Church actually has more confidence in reason that Harris could).
Points of Disagreement
Harris includes a lot of bad ideas in this introduction. Catholics, most Christians, and some religious people will not be able to agree with Harris on a lot of issues (complete anti-religion being the primary one). I’ll list the ones that are incompatible with Catholicism.
We cannot agree that all religions are the same.
We cannot agree that consciousness is the only criteria for inclusion into the realm of moral consideration.
We cannot agree that religious morality, “faith,” is only ever right by accident (this is also false in an evolutionary and pragmatic sense: if cultural selection occurs, then cultural practices are not by accident, though their justifications may be).
We cannot agree that God has no role in ethics.
We cannot agree that science and religion are in a zero-sum game with each other.
We cannot agree that science and religion are incompatible.
We cannot agree that “faith” and “reason” are automatically opposed to each other.
We cannot agree that brain states and neuroscience are the primary means to determine well-being (We can’t just ask people? We have to scan them in MRIs? More on that later; this, I think, relates to his denial of free will in Ch. 2).
We cannot agree that parasitic “memes” only refer to religion and not atheism.
We cannot agree that “dogmatism” only applies to religion and not atheism.
We cannot agree that the “condescending intellectual elites” consist only of those Harris names as such.
We cannot agree that morality progresses. (See here for some brief remarks I’ve made on this subject in another context.)
These disagreements are more substantive than the general points of agreement listed above. Agreements on abstractions and generalities are great, but disagreement on particulars will stop discussion cold. Notice that several of the disagreements are on double-standards that Harris tries to impose on the conversation, e.g. that parasitic memes do not include his own philosophy, that “dogmatism” is the exclusive province of religion, or that if one is religious one is therefore by definition against reason.
Evaluation, Specific Points:
Here are a few specific points of evaluation, then a few broader critiques.
1) Religion is treated monolithically. This is incorrect. Religions are not interchangeable phenomena, just read some anthropology. “Religion,” I would argue, encompasses the major meaning-making aspects of culture, i.e. the aspect of culture that gives reasons, motivations, and justifications. It also acts to bind groups (which is extremely odd, if you think about it). As such, everyone has religion in some way, even atheists. If Harris wants to treat religion monolithically, he needs to include atheism too; he can’t parse the category to suit his rhetorical needs.
2) Religion is never defined. What is religion? Belief in gods? One God? Nirvana? Reincarnation, the supernatural, the Force, the sacred and profane? Pure irrationalism? The only definition I can pick up from Harris is that religious = irrational, and therefore faith means something like “love of the irrational.” Well, that kinda stacks the deck when trying to discuss things, doesn’t it? No wonder Harris seems to win every argument with this as his straw-man.
3) Emotional, arrogant, glib rhetoric. Harris’s approach to writing is to make it amusing, readable, and emotional. Harris almost always appeals to emotion, not reason, despite how much he doth protest. He knows reason isn’t how people work. People want something to hate and something to love. All he has to do is find the loves that the reader already has, and then link them to his own point, and he has made his case. Then he just links reader hatreds to his opposing positions and voila, he has made his case again. And because we share a common cultural background he already knows what most people love and hate. All he has to do is name-call over and over and produce anecdotes of bad religion and he has drawn the reader to his side. After all, who wants to be on the same side as a bunch of irrational perverts? Exactly. This is in-group/out-group politics. By setting himself up as the crusader against evil, Harris automatically attracts followers. It is pathetic, in the classical Greek sense of evoking emotion, and certainly not rational. It is a form of rhetorical persuasion to create political unity, not philosophy or science. I will point out more of these as we go.
4) Relatively empty concept of well-being. I know this is only the introduction! But this is an important critique because this work of filling the concept of well-being has been done in other places (e.g. everybody from Aristotle to Martha Nussbaum and Cristina Traina). Harris would do well to read it. This will be further addressed later.
5) Which bring up another point: on page seven he says he’s doing this because in order to achieve “a science of human flourishing” we must first admit that it is possible. But these questions are as perennial as philosophy itself (and Harris notes this on pg. 195). This is what Aristotle was attempting 23 centuries ago. Auguste Comte, the logical positivists, the utilitarians, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, positive psychology, the Catholic Church! Most religions! (They just define knowledge differently.) This is old stuff. The reason philosophers “love-wisdom” is because wisdom is supposed to make people happy. What is perhaps most interesting here is that in TML Harris is basically advocating a “thick-vague” natural law theory, like Cristina Traina (who borrows the phrase from Martha Nussbaum). Harris is (almost) doing a kind of contemporary Catholic natural law. Welcome home!
6) Science and religion issues. Harris sees science and religion as existing in a zero-sum conflict for all facts and values. That is only possible if his conception of science is such that it includes all facts and values. Well, the bad news is that thinking that science has all the fact-values in not, in fact, a scientific statement – it is a statement of faith. There is no test or observation that could show it to be true, it is, rather, a metaphysical axiom, a faith statement itself, not science. This position where science is believed to answer all questions is called scientism and it is one of the most annoying belief systems because it is founded on a contradiction that a “rational” person ought to be able to see. It is a faith that states that there is no need for faith. But Harris, of course, keeps this very implicit; he only says there is a zero-sum game going on. How loaded a statement could that possibly be? But in that statement is a falsehood that must not be overlooked because it collapses his project.
7) Fact-value issues. Harris is correct that facts and values are inextricable. The barest of facts is a value, and the barest of values is a fact. The word “fact” has the value of “truth” built into it: that is why we value facts, because we value the goodness of truth. And every value has facts that it is based on, e.g. I value gold because it is a fact that people will pay ridiculous amounts for it, and that will buy a lot of food if I’m hungry (and I value not being hungry because it is a fact that hunger is unpleasant).
Which brings up another issue… Harris states that the nonexistence of the fact-value split will cause science and religion to collide (11). That is non-sequitur. He’s assuming something else first, i.e. that science will not find the same values (all or any) that (any and all) religions have already found. A bold assertion, and quite improbable. But it is certainly investigable, which is a good start.
8) Utopianism. There is a scientific utopianism underlying The Moral Landscape which should be exposed. Is our world messed up? Yes. Should we try to make it better? Yes. Can science help us? Yes. So what then is wrong here? Goals and overconfidence. Utopias have been tried before and they never work. Usually they turn into Hell, because if the ends justify the means (which is always their ethic, for some reason), and the value of the prize is ultimate perfection, then that makes justifiable the payment of any cost, often in blood. In other words, utopian schemes are best avoided.
9) Question: Is neuroscience actually relevant to this book? Why? Why are fMRI scans so much more useful for determining well-being than just asking people how they feel after good or bad things happen to them, or after they do good or bad things? As I mentioned above, I have a theory on this and it is tied to Harris’s materialistic determinism and denial of free-will, but that will come up when we get to Ch. 2. Or it could just be that neuroscience is trendy right now, so what else would we expect a trendy author to say?
10) Does Harris really solve the is-ought problem, or defuse the open-question argument (OQA, the “but is that really ‘good’?” question)? No. On p. 12 Harris says the infinite regress of the OQA stops because the idea of “well-being” really does just stop it. That shows Harris either does not understand the OQA, or is intentionally lying to cover up a sleight-of-hand. Harris makes “well-being” a synthetic norm, which is a norm defined upon being “good,” just like murder is always “bad” – that’s by definition. Guess what? You can just ask again “but why is that good?” and then Harris will get rather frustrated at you, no doubt.
The point here is that the OQA is a trap. It is a self-contradictory statement because it actually prevents the definition of anything at all, including the words it is composed of. “But what is ‘is’?” … “But is that ‘is’?” The question destroys itself. Mary Midgely called it “an all-purpose blunderbuss for shooting down every kind of argument… not so much anti-naturalistic as anti-thought,” and she’s right (The Essential Mary Midgely, 176). The correct solution to the problem is to argue that Moore is being irrational, not that you solved his problem. And by the way, this is not the same as Hume’s is-ought problem, which we will get to later; this is only the introduction, after all.
11) Double standards for his own beliefs. Religion is dogmatic, but not atheism. Religions memes are parasitic, but not atheistic ones. Relativistic intellectuals are condescending, but not Harris himself. This is straightforward intellectual dishonesty.
12) Random jab at the Templeton Foundation (24). All the new atheists (NAs) attack Templeton because it threatens their delicate atheistic worldview, apparently. They say it is because Templeton is polluting science with religion, but if that were the case then the “bad” science ought to be obvious and worthy of rejection no matter how much money is thrown at it, right? (Templeton does NOT fund creationist research, by the way, and they fund a lot of atheist researchers too, like David Sloan Wilson.) Why not encourage Templeton to throw its money away on research that is substandard and will never do anything? Do the NAs not think that “good” science can stand on its own; does it need to be propped up by hobbling competing theories in the free-market of inquiry and ideas?
It is very telling that the supposedly “pro-science” NAs should try to prevent scientific research. I think that betrays an important point. The NAs want double-standards to protect their atheistic conception of science. They dislike free inquiry and free competition of ideas, which shows they are not speaking as scientists at all, but as ideologues. Templeton funds some very interesting research, and that is good for science, not bad for it. If they think it’s bad, let it be done and fall flat, don’t try to prevent the research in the first place. The scientific community knows how to ignore bad research, doesn’t it?
Evaluation, General Points:
Overall, I think Christians can accept that science is important for morality, even contributing to our understanding of what is good and evil. We should embrace new data in moral psychology, positive psychology, developmental psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, studies on the evolution of morality and religion, and so on. Christians should be confident that science is not going to harm our faith; fear of science doing that shows lack of faith on our part. We can be more confident than that, our faith is reasonable; Christianity has weathered worse than a few people poking fun at it. We have resources in our tradition to deal with science and religion issues, such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, not to mention immense contemporary resources. And because science is an offspring of the monotheistic worldview, getting this data back should really cause us joy, not fear. I sure like it. Gaining this data is wonderful for natural law, and integrating the two is a lot of fun (at least for me… it’s what I do).
That said, sometimes individuals like Harris will appear and try to distort science for the sake of their own ideological agenda. Harris has a political and metaphysical agenda driving his philosophy and interpretation of science. His atheism is the obvious, assumed ideology here. Addressing the deficiencies of atheism is beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say, I think it can be shown that atheism is irrational, or at least less rational than Catholicism. I used to be an atheist and I left it because I found it intellectually impoverished. I suppose I’ll have to post on that some time too.
Harris’s politics are the other side of this, and I daresay they drive his atheism (in other words, I think (and I might be wrong) his politics came first, then he chose his metaphysics to support his politics, which is the backwards and wrong way to think about truth). Harris is an anti-traditionalist, he would like to direct society towards, as far as I can tell, something like JS Mill’s libertarian utilitarianism. I think this is a bad moral path to take because it disregards thousands of years of cultural evolution (which has a logic of its own) in favor of a system which at its core vitiates group cohesion and turns people into atomistic hedonistic self-seeking free-riders. In other words, a morality that will likely kill any group that accepts it, at least in its extreme form (talk about parasitic memes). That is a strong statement, but I think it is the logical limit to which Mill can be taken. This is a more complex subject because Mill’s libertarianism is in tension with his utilitarianism, but this review is already getting long so for now I’ll settle for brief and brutal.
Perhaps the best response to Harris’s morality is “who cares?” Nietzsche found utilitarianism offensive for precisely this reason: who cares about the happiness of the masses? The little people don’t matter if there is no Christian God (or other entity) that demands it. This is the Nietzschean response: Harris is just doing atheistic Christianity. He has taken the Christian ethic and kicked out the metaphysical underpinnings and said “let’s do this because we get to decide what good means, and I like this.” This is a serious error. Retaining Christian morality while removing God yields a nonsensical system, the theology and the ethics are inseparable.
In this lies a broader critique of the “New Atheists.” The old atheism failed: it never really became popular. Existentialism burnt out. Communism fell. Nietzsche is abhorrent. They failed because they didn’t sugar-coat the bitter pill. So the New Atheists have tried a PR trick: get a new image. “Atheism is good! We atheists are the moral ones! We have the moral high ground; it is religion that is evil! Never mind that we have stolen their ethics and called it our own… ignore that…” The new atheist image is live-free-of-gods and be moral. That’s fine. Being moral is good. But the morality they are espousing is leftover Christian love-thy-neighbor and goodwill towards all. Materialist atheism does not justify that. As an atheist, one can hold that belief by faith or opinion, but not reason. And if you want to argue that point, please do in the comments, I will respond. Maybe you can convince me otherwise!
This was only the introduction! There are five chapters and all the notes still to go! I hope you will continue with me. Till then…
I have also adjusted a few minor inaccuracies in this post. I apologize for them and they have been corrected.