December 16, 2011 essays

Bad Philosophy and the Technocratic Nightmare

A Review of Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”

Sam Harris’s book represents a dangerous mode of thinking echoing early Progressivism. Libertarians should be deeply concerned by Harris’s take on morality.

The Moral Landscape, recently released in paperback, represents a mode of thinking that ought to disturb libertarians. In it, Sam Harris exemplifies an attitude toward science that, if left unexamined, threatens to reestablish the sorts of horrific, authoritarian, and profoundly destructive regimes we suffered through during the 20th century. After all, science cannot make decisions or guide the state. Only scientists can do that. And giving scientists the kind of power Harris advocates is no different from concentrating such power in the hands of any small group or individual. The move is deeply unlibertarian to its core.

Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, launched the New Atheist movement and struck a mighty blow against the common belief that religion is the sole source of morality. Now, six years later, Harris offers something to replace faith.

In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris sets out to prove what his title claims. But the book, far from the clarion call of reason Harris takes it to be, is sadly lacking, both in philosophical sophistication and rhetorical punch. Harris leaves us with only a dreadfully weak assertion supported by even weaker arguments.

The Moral Landscape’s thesis summarizes easily: Morally good behaviors are those that promote human well-being. The experience of well-being exists only in the brain’s chemical and electrical makeup and so can be quantified through scientific technique. Therefore, science, not philosophy or religion, points the way to morality. Because science discovers facts about the world, it banishes the moral fuzziness of cultural relativism and religious faith. Harris argues that science allows us to collapse the distinction between facts and values by seeing that values, including moral values, are facts. “If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being—if kindness, for instance, is generally more conducive to happiness than cruelty is—then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning,” Harris writes.

It’s a big claim, though Harris tries to sneak his way to it via minor steps. All values are only experiences in the brain, he tells us, a claim most who reject the existence of souls or other forms of mind/body dualism would agree with. Because the brain is nothing but physical stuff, all values reduce to changes in physical stuff and the electricity that moves through it. Therefore, values are facts about the physical stuff of the world. Because morality is a system of values, morality reduces to statements about facts.

We need to keep in mind that, if Harris’s argument works, it extends far beyond morality. Not just moral values reduce to facts, but all values. This means, for example, science will someday determine the truths of aesthetics, measuring the quantifiable peaks and valleys of music and literature and painting. One is reminded of the famous instance some years ago when a group of researchers discovered, using the tools of science, the world’s funniest joke. Except it decidedly wasn’t.

Harris illustrates the application of this values-as-facts assertion through the book’s central metaphor, the moral landscape. Morality is not a set of sometimes overlapping but often exclusive spheres, as cultural relativists claim. Rather, it should be understood as a topographical map of human well-being. The peaks represent happiness and flourishing, the valleys sadness and pain. Any action or rule that moves us higher on this landscape is morally good. Anything that causes us to descend is morally bad.

Harris likens the moral landscape to the way we already think about nutrition. Moral questions, even when reduced to scientific questions, will frequently allow multiple answers, just as “no one would argue that there must be one right food to eat. And yet, there is still an objective difference between healthy food and poison.” A science of morality mirroring our science of nutrition exposes the first of many problems for Harris’s thesis. The history of the government’s food pyramid shows little of the “very precise claims” we’d like to be assured of before turning our moral intuition over to men and women in lab coats.

But quibbles with the consequences of Harris’s argument jump ahead of the game. Even on its own terms and cast in the best light, The Moral Landscape leaves too many unanswered questions to be worthwhile. For instance, if all morality reduces to doing whatever increases well-being, it’s important to have a solid idea of just what well-being is. Unfortunately, Harris never provides a definition. Instead, he writes, “given the difficulty of defining human well-being, coupled with the general reluctance of scientists to challenge anyone’s beliefs about it, it is sometimes hard to know what is being studied.” In fact, Harris readily admits that well-being is merely a placeholder for “the most positive conditions to which we can aspire.” That’s awfully vague.

He defends this adumbration by lambasting “people [who] consistently fail to distinguish between there being answers in practice and answers in principle to questions about the nature of reality. When thinking about the application of science to human well-being, it is crucial that we not lose sight of this distinction.” A fair point, but it means Harris offers us little, if anything, to work with when we face genuine moments of uncertainty. Analogizing to a debate Harris is quite familiar with: we’d all like to know whether there is life after death. An answer clearly exists and it’s conceivable that someday science will be able to find it. But knowing that an answer exists in principle does nothing to settle—or even provide guidance about—the issue today. Harris certainly won’t give up his arguments about posthumous rewards and punishments to wait for science to someday settle the matter conclusively. Instead, as his prior books show, he rightly engages in philosophical debate—the very same sort of debate he wants to banish from the field when it comes to the arguably more critical question of what is moral.

This means Harris gives us nothing to aim at. Even if we accept the whole of his thesis, we’re left in the dark until that day arrives when well-being gains sufficient definition to become action guiding. It’s as if Harris wrote, “In order to be moral, you must always do what’s good,” and left it at that. Without a sense of what “good” means, we’d stumble in the dark. His moral landscape metaphor—which he assures us means we don’t need a robust definition of well-being because we instead “need only worry about what it will mean to move ‘up’ as opposed to ‘down’ ”—can’t help. After all, “up” on the moral landscape means the same thing as “the direction of greater well-being.”

When Harris does provide a clear case of an action leading up or down, he chooses the easy and obvious. Genocide is down. Feeding starving children is up. Female genital mutilation is down. Caring and cooperation are up. Harris tries to make his thesis palatable by showing that it supports what all of his readers already agree with. Only briefly does he address difficult cases, such as when, in arguing against evolutionary psychology, he writes that “evolution could never have foreseen the wisdom or necessity of creating stable democracies, mitigating climate change, saving other species from extinction, containing the spread of nuclear weapons, or of doing much else that is now crucial to our happiness in this century.” One need only ponder what it means to adopt these policies to see how suddenly ambiguous “human well-being” becomes. Do wars today to promote democracies tomorrow promote well-being? Do nuclear weapons hurt well-being by exploding—or do they promote it by making countries less likely to attack each other in the first place? How much well-being should we give up today in the form of making ourselves energy poorer in order to prevent catastrophic climate change at some unknown point in the future?

To complicate things further, future well-being doesn’t yet exist because the people (and, presumably, animals) whose well-being we’re talking about haven’t been born yet. How do we weigh their well-being when deciding what actions to take today? Is an action I might take that raises my well-being by ten units today prohibited if it lowers the well-being of another person by eleven units a hundred years from now? What about a thousand years? What if, while it lowers that future person’s well-being by eleven units, that person will be, broadly speaking, so much better off than me that he’ll barely notice the loss, but I’ll gain significantly? In short, how do we compare well-being across generations, especially given our ignorance about what the future holds? And does it even make sense to talk about the well-being of “beings” that don’t (yet?) exist?

These questions of the long-term demonstrate another problem in using science as the exclusive moral yardstick. Science can, at best, measure the well-being of a single brain at a single moment—when the fMRI machine is turned on, say. Science gathers statistics, but it is unlikely—and even undesirable—to measure the well-being of all people at all times. Yet isn’t it possible that what produces well-being is contingent upon immediate circumstances, as well as cultural experience and expectations? A woman who thinks her suffering pleases God might genuinely suffer less than one who thinks her suffering is meaningless.

Harris’s system leaves us with two options. We might scan every person at every moment and adjust actions accordingly, but this seems both practically impossible and potentially crippling to our ability to make decisions. Or we might grant that science can answer moral questions by extrapolating from a limited dataset, but recognize that this leaves it answering only the obvious questions, such as “discovering” that starvation causes suffering. Neither proves particularly helpful. Moving beyond Harris’s black-and-white examples shows how complex even the simple idea of “always promote well-being” must be.

But even if well-being were adequately defined, should it be the sole aim of morality? Harris’s moral theory only holds up if we subscribe to the branch of moral philosophy called consequentialism. Harris admits as much and asserts that consequentialism is obviously true, that it comports with our intuitions, and that he is “unaware of any interesting exceptions to this rule.” Harris might, of course, be right—but he misleads his readers, especially those not familiar with the long history of moral philosophy, into thinking that there can be no reasonable debate on the topic. Harris pretends that the complex and long running debate between consequentialists and deontologists either doesn’t exist or isn’t worth our time. And he ignores the rich field of virtue ethics, with its origins in Aristotle.

The Moral Landscape doesn’t tell us what well-being is. It doesn’t tell us how science can measure well-being. It doesn’t tell us how such measurements apply to specific moral questions. Moral questions are difficult when we don’t know what the future holds, when we don’t know all the consequences of our actions, and when we’re facing novel situations. In short, moral questions are difficult in precisely the circumstances Harris’s thesis tells us nothing about. We don’t need Harris’s book—or science—to learn that murder is bad, that curing disease is good, and that cooperation is worthy. What we do need is help with the difficult questions. Harris’s science points only to the easy answers we already have.

The Moral Landscape disappoints not chiefly because of its poor arguments and caustic, imperious style. What dooms Harris’s book is how little it actually offers. Harris has merely explained that, “in principle,” someday, somehow, science will be able to discover the truths of morality, but that we aren’t there yet. It’s unlikely that the religious and the relativists will abandon their moral positions for such a weak promise.

Two other problems plague The Moral Landscape. The first is Harris’s seeming inability to take his opponents seriously or to recognize the power and nuance of positions counter to his own. One hears echoes throughout the book of his debates with unsophisticated theists. Those who disagree with Harris are misinformed, irrational, or under the sway of ulterior motives. This might be an acceptable rhetorical technique when addressing bombastic preachers and wrathful fundamentalists, but it comes across as downright silly when aimed at Harris’s opponents in the philosophy of morals or of mind. Put simply, The Moral Landscape doesn’t demonstrate the level of intellectual depth or sophistication Harris assures us it does; and so his arrogance reminds one of the freshman philosophy major who, upon taking a single class, believes he has figured out the answers to life’s great mysteries.

Far more troubling—especially for libertarians—is the world Harris would have us adopt. He wants us to turn over the definition of “well-being” to scientists with moral expertise, scientists tasked with using their measuring tools and superior knowledge to enforce the truths of morality as they discover or conceive them. Scientists like Sam Harris.

It is impossible not to be overcome with dread when reading lines like this: “The person who claims that he does not want to be better off,” Harris writes, “is either wrong about what he does, in fact, want (i.e, he doesn’t know what he’s missing), or he is lying, or he is not making sense.” If science knows what makes us better off then Harris thinks science should work hand-in-hand with the state to make us better off. This is just a neuroscientific gloss on the old ideology of Progressivism, with its belief that all the bothersome, unsatisfactory messiness of human society can be done away with if only enlightened technocrats are given the power to fix us.

That way lies totalitarianism, a future Harris seems all too eager to embrace.