On to Chapter 1 on moral truth.
As with last time, the structure will be: summary of main points, agreements and disagreements, evaluations of specific points, and evaluations of general points.
The Moral Landscape, Chapter 1: Moral Truth, p. 27-53.
Harris states that moral relativism has become common over the past few centuries, and that the educated elites seem to have adopted this belief with particular fervor (27).
Thesis statement: “I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics…” (28)
Science can help us determine where to invest our money for maximum return on well-being, maximizing “happiness for the greatest number of people” (28).
Subjectivity vs. objectivity. We can have objective facts about subjective experiences, e.g. morality. Answers in practice vs. answers in principle: we can get moral facts in principle, even if not in practice (30). Truth has no relationship to consensus. (31).
Why ought we to value the well-being of (“actual or potential”) conscious creatures? Consciousness is a fact. There is no other possible source for value than the experience of conscious beings. (32)
Consciousness is the focus, well-being is the value, and morality relates the two (32-33). There is no point in following laws for their own sake, we follow them for the sake of happiness, whether in this life or the next. All moral systems boil down to well-being, explicitly or not (33).
What about people who have different “values” like Jeffrey Dahmer or creationists? Well, they are wrong (34). The Catholic Church, for example, excommunicates women for attempting to become priests, but not priests for raping children. It excommunicates doctors for performing abortions, but excommunicated no Nazis for genocide (35).
Analogizing morality with medicine, no one questions what “healthy” really is, despite not being able to define it well. Intuitive physics yields to the science of physics, intuitive morality will yield to the science of morality, run by moral experts (36).
Hume’s is-ought problem is not the last word on morality. In fact “ought” is just a Judeo-Christian leftover. The Bible says we ought to kill children for talking back (38).
If we can’t argue for “well-being,” then how about misery for everyone? (39) This is “bad” if words are to have any meaning. Well-being is better than misery; that is all we need to know to have moral truth (39).
“Human and animal well-being” mentioned (41).
How to balance autonomy and the common good, individual rights and collective interests? (42)
Recounting a conversation with an academic relativist (42-44).
Moral relativism is self-contradictory because it holds relativism as a moral absolute (45). Relativism ruins liberalism and opens up morality for the religious. This book is the third way between relativism and Jesus (46).
Some will call this scientism (46) or utopianism (47).
I am not promoting an evolution-based ethic (49).
Three projects to not confuse: 1) an explanation of why people behave as they do (descriptive project); 2) what we should follow in the name of morality (normative project); 3) convincing people to change their behavior to lead better lives (persuasive project) (49). The third project is the most important, every important goal falls within its purview, but it relies on project 2, so that is where I am starting (50).
Some other guy tried to pick up my wife at the gym (51). But I did the right thing. To maximize well-being, I did not kill anybody (52).
Many people have wrong conceptions of morality, and we can discuss this problem and shape our morality and public policy for the future (53)
Points of Agreement:
We can agree that morals are not relative.
We can agree that moral truth exists and is knowable.
We can agree that science can help us in this task, just as strongly as Harris states in his thesis.
We can agree with what he says about subjectivity and objectivity.
We can agree with what he says about answer in practice vs. answers in principle.
We can agree that truth is not a product of consensus.
We can agree that laws are not followed for their own sake, but for their sake of their purpose: to aid the common good.
We can agree that there is a reasonable balance to be struck between individual rights and the common good.
We can agree that moral relativism is self-contradictory.
We can agree to the formal structure of his three-part descriptive-normative-persuasive project (but not the content).
We can agree that promoting moral behavior can be the objective of public policy in many cases.
Points of Disagreement:
We cannot agree that the only focus of morality is happiness for the greatest number of people.
We cannot agree that the only focus of morality is consciousness
We cannot agree that Harris knows much about the Catholic Church, especially the proper uses of excommunication (hint: Harris gets it wrong).
We cannot agree that Harris knows much about the Bible, especially on whether it recommends killing children (hint: Jesus didn’t recommend that).
Evaluation, Specific Points:
1) Harris has a serious problem on the existence and definition of consciousness. Later in this book Harris denies the existence of free will (102-6). But in this part of the book his argument hinges on consciousness. How are these two mental phenomena distinct, and how does one have reality while the other does not? Can we separate the phenomena in any sense? Harris gives no help at all.
Consciousness might just be a sensory monitoring system, but then why does it have “qualia,” that is, why is there any “quality” to experience, any feeling of it, why are we not just robots with no need to feel, just react? The qualia question is a serious one in philosophy of mind. Why do we feel like we exist and are experiencing things? Robots do not do that, and materialist reductionism says we are machines. Same with free will: why do we feel like we are free? If we are robots then we are not free, so why do we have the sensation of freedom? Why the illusion, and how could such a state ever come about? Harris needs answers here, without them his position is weak at best, internally incoherent at worst.
The value of “actual or potential” consciousness is another interesting remark. In the comment thread of Part 1 we got into a little discussion about this, and here Harris comes down on the side of extending moral concern to even potential consciousness. That is good, I think. I agree that potential consciousness ought to be protected too.
But Harris thinks there is nothing more to root morality in than consciousness, that there could be no other place to ground morality. Harris seems to lack imagination as to where else moral value might lie. The clear answer is in life itself, which is inherently purposive (as I also explained in the Part 1 comment thread).
In any case, Harris neither defines consciousness nor explains why consciousness is valuable. I would like to know the answer, especially if consciousness is just a complex chemical reaction (i.e. ultimately an illusion) like Harris claims free will is. Why does that chemical reaction have any more value than a plant or test tube? Why all the fuss about morality if we are just bags of fancy chemicals? Why not moral nihilism?
2) Morality is not about maximizing happiness. It is about maximizing goodness, which produces happiness as one side-effect. If you want the surest way to unhappiness, try to pursue happiness directly. You will likely run straight into hell. That is because happiness is an effect of being good, not an effect of obtaining pleasure (or whatever else you think causes happiness). If you want to be happy, help people. Love people. Do good things, develop virtuous habits, fulfill your human life and talents excellently. Then you will become happy. There is plenty more to be said on that – for another time.
3) “Ought” is a Judeo-Christian left-over? Why does Harris bring this up? His entire point is to say what we “ought” to do: improve the well-being of conscious creatures. Why is he sabotaging himself?
Interestingly, Harris seems to be channeling the English Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe who actually says the same thing. In her essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958, Google Scholar (well cited!), PDF here), the same essay where she coins the word “consequentialism,” which Harris ought to know since he is a consequentialist (one who thinks moral value is in consequences, not intentions, see pgs. 62, 67-73), she says the “moral ought” is a leftover from divine command ethics. Harris doesn’t cite her, or list her in his bibliography.
Anscombe’s whole point in bringing this up, by the way, is to say that utilitarians/consequentialists (like Harris) can’t use the “ought” because without God the rationale of the moral ought falls apart. It is taken out of context and therefore has no force. The solution instead is to revive Aristotelian virtue ethics, where goodness is about becoming a virtuous human. Harris seems to be arguing in favor of Anscombe’s point, when her point is directed at destroying his position. After raising this problem Harris quickly diverts to calling Jesus an advocate of killing children, which I suppose is for the purposes of distracting from a problem that he finds interesting but cannot solve.
4) Criticizing the Catholic Church concerning excommunication in these cases is deeply misleading. In other words, it is a lie. He combines four true things (the four cases he cites) into a falsehood through his use of false analogy and a misrepresentation of the purpose of excommunication (pg. 35).
The purpose of excommunication is not to somehow protect the Church from being associated with bad people. The purpose of excommunication is to separate in a public, physical way that which has already been separated in spirit; that is, the sinner in question being cut off from the body of Christ (which has a physical, communal meaning, and a spiritual, Eucharistic meaning). It serves as a public warning that a Catholic community member is in serious spiritual danger and needs to publicly repent.
Excommunication can be automatic, as in the case of involvement in schism or an abortion, or through church legal channels, as is usually the case when excommunicating national leaders. Please note, any mortal sin prevents any Catholic from taking communion. Excommunication reinforces that, in a public way for a public sin, emphasizing that you are no longer a member of the community – you are barred from participation. Here’s Wikipedia and the Catholic Encyclopedia on the matter.
How about the specific cases of female priests, molesting priests, abortion, and Nazis? Please bracket for a minute your own thoughts on these subjects and just look to them for logical coherence with the concept of excommunication.
For women trying to become priests, they are in schism (being ordained illicitly through a disobedient bishop, they effectively set up their own hierarchical community), and are therefore automatically excommunicated, by their own act, by definition (schism being the act of separating yourself from the hierarchical community).
Abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human life, hence it yields automatic excommunication.
As for child-molesting priests, their deeds were done in secret, so how could they have been excommunicated publicly if they were not even known? Once they were discovered, the hierarchy, of course, completely bungled a lot of cases and shuffled some predatory priests around, thus allowing them to continue their evils. That is inexcusable. (I AM NOT defending the hierarchy on protecting offending priests. They messed up.)
But excommunication makes no sense in this context. The molestations were crimes and sins, but not excommunicable unless defiantly and publicly persisted in, which didn’t happen. Excommunication is a public act to call a public mortal sinner to public repentance and reconciliation.
As for Nazis, first of all, is Harris advocating some kind of retroactive excommunication? You don’t excommunicate dead people: they are already kinda outside the community. (By the way, I’m being facetious here, I’m not saying Harris wants that.)
As for Hitler himself as the paradigm case, after his childhood Hitler was not a practicing Catholic (see Wikipedia for a start) and therefore would not have been affected by excommunication, so there would have been no point. However, Hitler was quite eager to attack anyone who offended him (including a dog in Finland! Funny aside in a serious topic), which excommunication probably would have accomplished. In other words, it would have accomplished nothing except making Hitler mad, which for a genocidal maniac is not helpful for anyone.
This whole passage of TML is wrong on so many levels. It is an obvious ploy for emotional manipulation of the reader. I myself read it and felt rather confused, until I realized I was being lied to. These comparisons are false equivalencies built on ignoring the basic facts of the cases. Four truths are combined into a false framework. Very clever. He even uses his endnotes to prop up his disgust-inducing rhetoric with more disgust-inducing rhetoric. The referred note is not an example of the Church not excommunicating molester-priests, but rather an explicit and grotesque example of molestation. If you have no logic, turn on the disgust-response even higher. Maybe the emotional brain-noise will cancel out the lack of facts.
When confronted with this kind of lie, the natural response is confusion. But look to the objective, not the data. The data are being manipulated. Why? To persuade you of something. What is the “something”? Look to the objective: this is a chance for Harris to slander one of his opponents in the fight for defining morality. Emotion triumphs over reason. Mission accomplished.
5) Does the Bible advocate killing children? Here Sam Harris’s misunderstanding of the Bible should embarrass him. (These are the verses in question: Ex. 21:15, Lev. 20:9, Deut. 21:18-21, Matt. 15:4-7, and Mark 7:9-13.) Harris gets completely wrong Jesus’s point in bringing up “killing children for talking back.”
Jesus was making the EXACT OPPOSITE POINT. He was effectively saying “You’re criticizing me for not washing hands, but you guys don’t kill your kids for speaking evil, so buzz off. You are hypocrites; you don’t follow those rules anyway, you are just using them for excuses.” The point is that the law is superseded, and if on big points, then on small ones too.
Note that Jesus never killed anybody, and the few passages where death is involved Jesus repeals the sentence or reverses the death, even his own! That is the point of Christianity, restoring the dead to life, not legalism.
Now with regards to the Old Testament, there is a good question as to why these laws ever would have been created in the first place. They seem crazy to us. But in the desert, wandering about as nomads, what are you supposed to do with someone who is trying to beat you up, cursing you, betraying your family, disturbing everyone with drunken defiance, and so on? There is no jail. You are already on the edge of survival. The only legal system is the community and its families.
The person in question – who is likely a teenager or older, a “child” in the sense of “offspring,” not “youth” – is a menace and nomads have limited options for hopeless cases, especially hopeless since the person in question would know he or she is courting death, yet is acting this way anyway. The person could even be psychopathic, as Harris brings up in the next chapter (and mentions 1% of people might be, pg. 97), where he says some psychopaths are hopelessly dangerous, like grizzly bears and hurricanes (100, 109).
Now, in bringing up this idea that the Bible says to kill children, what is Harris trying to do? Seeing as the practice of killing children is not a part of Christian tradition – not something Christians actually do – he must know he is giving a non-standard Biblical interpretation.
“And to what end?” we might ask. We should already know… to make religions (particularly Christianity), which possess competing worldviews and moral systems, look bad, so that Harris can jump in and can replace them. Harris is spouting political rhetoric, “persuasion” in his words (50), not philosophy or science.
Evaluation, General Points:
As with the Introduction, Chapter 1 contains many things that Catholics and other religious people can with agree Harris on. But once again they are formal agreements and not agreements of content.
We can agree that moral relativism is unacceptable, and that morality and moral truth are real. We can agree that science can help us in the quest for the natural foundations of morality. We can agree that the descriptive, normative, and persuasive projects are important. We can agree with many other of the basics that Harris lays out. In fact in this chapter there are really only two things I want to pick out to strongly disagree on: Harris’s lies about religion and his political use of ethics.
In this chapter Harris has already begun to run off the rails on religion. Two brief, flippantly delivered misrepresentations stick out in this chapter, one with regards to the use of excommunication in Catholicism, and one with regards to Biblical law. It’s hard to believe Harris would even write them.
This is where Harris’s ethics – his ends-justify-the-means ethics – should make us all worry. Harris has definite political goals he is pursuing (50), he freely admits that, and only the results count. So that makes lying for political gain just fine – which might be, I think, exactly what he is doing.
And therefore we should not trust Harris. In this book, scattered in snippets here and there, he’s basically admitting that he wants to use us, his reading public, for his own purposes. We’re just bodies to prop up his political movement. This book is an attempt to rewire your brain to think like Harris. And since he thinks free will does not exist, he assumes you will just fall for it.
This is a political book, not a work of philosophy or science. The objective is to change human behavior through government legislative action, and religious people are in the way of that goal, so they must be eliminated. How to eliminate them? Well, Harris could just convert us all through books and the internet; that is one way. But if you read Harris’s book The End of Faith, you know he has other methods in mind as possibilities, if necessary. Controlling religion may necessitate killing (52-53), torture (194, 198-9), nuclear first strike (129), dictatorship (151, 230), and a world government (151).
No joke. “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (TEOF 52-53). That’s just one. You can read it on Google books (though of course much of the book is missing, the above page is there). And it sounds oddly like the justifications given by all sorts of religious fundamentalists justifying murderous actions. Funny how the mentality works even for atheists.
This is serious evil. I mentioned evil in the introduction to my previous review, and then didn’t say much specifically about that evil last time. This time, as Harris’s project becomes clearer, the evil becomes clearer. Personally, when someone starts talking about how it might be okay to kill other people over their beliefs, I get a little worried. In the next chapter Harris gets even worse. Stay tuned.
Also, in a previous version of the above text I made an error. Harris does not explicitly attribute to Jesus the command to kill children, though he could be construed as implying it. I have corrected the text and I apologize. I have also adjusted some other language.