Lost in Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape

Brad Lecioni of Killing Common Sense has recently commented on my post entitled “The Other Presumption of Atheism” and has challenged me to “wright an essay which honestly demonstrates both his gratuitous smugness and where his arguments are faulty. (Sam is a pretty honest and rational guy, so good luck.)”  I’m more than happy to oblige, Brad.

Now, Harris doesn’t radiate smugness like Dawkins or Hitchens, but even his cool bed-side manner is not sufficient of a counter example to cast doubt on the claim that the New Atheists and many of their initiates on the Internet are belligerent and intellectually arrogant and SO ARE MANY THEISTS.  Harris, however, is still susceptible to the charge of putting forth poor and unpersuasive arguments as I hope to demonstrate.

One of the “Four Horsemen” Sam Harris and his bestseller The Moral Landscape

I’ve chosen to tackle Harris’ thesis in his latest book The Moral Landscape that science can answer moral questions and some of his responses on his website to criticisms similar to mine.  In general, my biggest gripe with Harris is his failure to clarify his points and definitions and string them together into a comprehensive argument.  For example, in his 2010 TED lecture advocating how science can answer moral questions, he rambles on about interesting yet not pertinent topics like cultural relativism and the evils that constitute religious morality, while spending little time on the advertised big-ticket item.

He defends his TED presentation on the Huffington Post religious blog thusly:

I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “anti-realism,” “emotivism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing my book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful.

That’s all fine and dandy, but claiming to have a solution to one of the most vexing ethical riddles ever posed creates an expectation that you were going to enlighten us, Sam.  Furthermore, I’ve watched the presentation twice, and only metaethics was relevant and necessary to define, especially because asserting science can answer ethical questions is specifically a metaethical matter.  If one’s to dive deep in ethical waters at methaethical depths and wants to bring his findings to the surface where the laypeople float, one has to find a way to make the technical vocabulary, which exists for the good reason to identify certain abstract concepts that come up during such sophisticated inquiries, accessible to them.  Defining the terms seems likes an advisable way to start.  This really shouldn’t be such a tall order either given you’ve figured out how to derive an ought from an is.  Also, if your audience, Sam, understands the is/ought gap you’re claiming to cross, words like “metaethics, deontology, noncognitivism, anti-realism, emotivism and the like” aren’t too far of a stretch for your audience if they don’t understand them already.  For those who don’t know what the is/ought gap is, I’ve unpacked it here.  Honestly, I’ve written too many words on this particular quibble.  It’s time to slay a dragon.

As it turns out, however, Harris’ dragon-of-an-argument is rather fangless, incapable of breathing fire and has more in common with Mushu from Mulan than the legendary lizard from lore.

Formidable, right?

As far as I can tell, Harris has two main ideas he proffers, none of which are terribly original let alone paradigm altering.  On his website, he argues his the first point likewise:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science.

Lets now formulate this as an actual argument with premises:

1.  Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds-and specifically on the fact such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe.

2.  Forms of well-being and suffering are mental states.

3.  Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of nature.

4.  The laws of nature fall within the purview of science.

Conclusion:  Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science.

The argument is clearly invalid.  Even if all the premises were true, the conclusion isn’t forced from logical necessity to be true.  Harris’ error comes  in smuggling “morality and values” as reducible to the mental states of “well-being and suffering.”  The predicate, “depend on the existence of conscious minds” does not magically make morality and values mental states.  For a concept to depend or be contingent on something else does not mean the concept is reducible to that something else or is made up of the same substance.  The second premise simply doesn’t follow from the first.

Ironically yet not surprisingly, this is a textbook example of falling into the is/ought gap that Harris has supposedly bridged.  Now, it’s arguable Harris meant morality and values are physical constructs of the mind, available to neuroscience.  Yet, this move does Harris no good as he is defining the oughts of morality and values as descriptions or is-statements, which would be ultimately begging the question.  Furthermore, Harris, himself does not seem to want this interpretation as he writes on his website, “not because I am bent upon reducing morality to ‘physical’ facts in any crude sense, but because I can’t see how we can keep the notion of moral truth within a walled garden, forever set apart from the truths of science.”

Then what is Harris “bent upon?”  What kind of moral truth is hidden within a “walled garden,” whose walls can be breached by science?  From what I can gather, Harris never provides clarification.  Admittedly, I have not read The Moral Landscape and am aware that Harris could do just that.  My experience of Harris otherwise suggests differently, hence my irritation.  He asserts the claim, science can answer moral questions yet offers little in the way of support or elucidation of what he means.  Instead, he blathers and bashes religion’s disastrous and undeserved stranglehold on morality and instead contends science can do better.  Unfortunately, many mistake this rhetoric as a compelling style of argument.

Here is what science can tell us about morality: the chemicals activated in the brain or other physiological responses occur during moral discourse and when we as a species started to appear to behave morally.  These, however, are descriptions and are no closer to closing the gap than before.  Moreover, if this is what Harris was referring to when he asserts that science can answer moral questions, this is hardly worth the hullabaloo or notice it’s getting as it’s not insightful or exclusively Harris’ brainchild.

What is worthy of attention and acrimony is Harris’ particular reply to critics, many of whom are atheists, in regards to the all too familiar charge of deriving an ought from an is or taking a value from a descriptive statement.  In Harris’ case, a descriptive enterprise (science) pertains to a prescriptive (morality and values) one.

As I point out in my book, science is based on values that must be presupposed—like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence, etc. One who doesn’t share these values cannot do science. But nor can he attack the presuppositions of science in a way that anyone should find compelling.

Harris essentially justifies and attempts to cross the is/ought or solve the value problem by writing science  inherently has presupposed values or oughts within its practice.  This claim is patent nonsense.  “The desire to understand the universe” and “a respect for evidence and logical coherence” are not values.  Harris phrases them like they are and again tries to sneak in oughts where there are none.

It’s true scientists do have a curiosity toward understanding the universe and realize evidence and logic are helpful in that endeavor.  They would claim these prerequisites are even “good” but not in the moral sense Harris is disguising them as or in regards to his overall grand thesis.  They don’t even have to be valued to do science.  A sophisticated machine could empirically gather data, organize it and then form conclusions.  It would have no “desire to understand the universe” nor “respect for evidence and logical coherence.”  Rather, its “respect” would amount to nothing more than programmed parameters it must operate within.  Interestingly, that is another instance of a descriptive fact that Harris can’t escape from.

You’ll see this trend resurface again with Harris’ second major point that the maximization of human well-being or flourishing is what is the moral good.  Many others prior to Harris have defined normative good the same way, so once more time, Harris doesn’t get any brownie points for originality.  This also means Harris inherits his predecessors’ problems.

Would you please do that, Sam?

Firstly, Harris’ flair for the unclear is again on display as human well-being is difficult to define, though this issue won’t be my main route of assault.  Instead, I would like to continue to identify Harris’ continued strategy to squeeze oughts into where they don’t fit.  Namely, well-being doesn’t necessarily equate to being good.  I grant they seem related, but claiming that the two are the same thing is again fallaciously deriving an ought from an is.  Moreover, why ought we flourish?  There is nothing implicitly good about it.  To define is as such is to once again begs the question.

Another of Harris’ responses seems to substitute health for well-being, claiming this solves the is/ought problem. But’s it is yet another description masquerading as an ought or value.  Health is empirically accessible and another description.  Hopefully, by now you see Harris is banging his head against a brick wall.

My father told me the difference between a mistake and failure is that a mistake happens once, a failure is the repetition of the same error.  In this context, Harris is failing.  He repeatedly tries to traverse the is/ought gap and ends up falling into it.  His attempt to climb out is to continually beg the question by positing a descriptive statement as a value or ought, which sends him crashing back down into the same problem.  Simply put: Harris can’t escape the valleys in his own moral landscape.  What’s worse is that Harris allegedly is well-versed in these pitfalls, or so he claims:

…a disclaimer and non-apology: Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy…while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind.

So Brad, in light of Harris’ obstinate refusal to acknowledge and engage with the previous work done in metaethics that would be relevant to his metaethical thesis, I have no sympathy for him when he commits fallacies he should have avoided.  I believe that is what people call smugness, and I realize I was a bit too charitable to claim he didn’t exude it like Dawkins or Hitchens.

Here’s to putting square pegs in round holes,

Modus Pownens

Works Cited




8 thoughts on “Lost in Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape

  1. Oh, and check out Brad’s blogs. I don’t think we agree on much, but he is grappling with tough questions with others that many people feel are taboo. For that, he should be commended. I also probably came off harsher and unnecessarily patronizing than I ought to in our exchange. Unbeknownst to Brad, he triggered one of my pet-peeves and most likely his intent wasn’t malicious, and I felt compelled to respond emphatically. I hope he doesn’t take offense.


  2. Thus far, I’ve introduced two things: the concept of consciousness and the concept of well-being. I am claiming that consciousness is the only context in which we can talk about morality and human values. Why is consciousness not an arbitrary starting point? Well, what’s the alternative? Just imagine someone coming forward claiming to have some other source of value that has nothing to do with the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. Whatever this is, it must be something that cannot affect the experience of anything in the universe, in this life or in any other.

    1. I don’t know if this is a pingback or whatnot, but Harris has not “introduced” the concept of well-being. Try Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill 150 to 250 years prior. The same applies with consciousness as Harris isn’t the first to put forth this thesis. So my charge still stands: What’s the big deal, Sam?

  3. I did read his book, though regrettably pretty lazily. I did pay enough attention to get the impression that he would have ‘fallen into the is/ought gap’ at some point. But, I also got the impression that he didn’t care (please link me to something he’s said that shows he does though). We’ve appreciated the problem of deriving an ought from an is for a long time. .. I think it’s possible he might be trying to step away from it. I think, whether he actually ever said or not (he didn’t), his thesis in reality was actually something like: “.. we obviously can’t objectively establish any given ‘moral’, or value. Forget that (the is/ought problem). What we can do, is agree that suffering is bad and that other things are good (on a whim, from intuition, or whatever – we can basically agree) [and for the record, I’d give more credit to the idea that to practice science we need to hold certain arbitrary (in the sense that we can produce no argument to defend them, other than that they work: Hume’s problem of induction etc) values, in the same way that we must hold certain arbitrary values to have morals]. And we can agree that given that certain things are now either “good” or “bad”, we can concede the whole point of his book. Namely that, science (and in particular neuroscience) can help us be ‘moral’ – i.e. can help us to identify those things which ARE bad and which ARE good in terms of suffering and happiness/whatever. (he gives examples in his book – e.g. we perceive + remember pain in unintuitive ways, so to reduce suffering in the universe (i.e. in prostate examinations) we need neuroscience/that sort of thing. .. He used the analogy of, literally “A Moral Landscape”, with peaks and troughs. Science can direct us towards the peaks, by finding out what increases suffering and what reduces, from ensuring that there is a period of low intensity pain after the peak pain during a prostate exam (summat like that, don’t ‘member the example exactly) to (kind of tangentially) bringing an end to organized religion, because of their (arguable) tendency (he focuses on Islam, naturally) to ‘not promote movement towards peaks’ (gist-quote).

    I think if you’d read his book (which I recommend you do if you have the time) you’d see what I mean. I’m sure he doesn’t think he has resolved the problem of deriving an is from an ought – I don’t think that was even his intention.

    -Oh, and I think I may have answered the “What’s the big deal, Sam?” question in a comment above. It’s not a big philosophically interesting deal, but as he implies in his book, his ‘deal’ is as philosophically unimportant yet as practically important as medicine. …. I’m hope I’m right, ’cause it makes sense of the motivation behind his book and of the fact that it wasn’t very persuasive in the way many of those philosophically-inclined might have (as half of me had) expected. – And I like Sam Harris.

    Again, just for the sake of understanding what he meant in this book, I do suggest you read it.

    1. That’s fair to say I should read the book. I just don’t have time. But I’m familiar with Harris’ rhetoric and especially his popular defense of the Moral Landscape. And he is never as succinct or clear as you were here. He spends a great deal of time bashing various religious institutions’ moral failings–mind you this isn’t doesn’t falsify that religious ideologies don’t apply to morality–which is ultimately irrelevant.

      He’s also never clear in these contexts that’s he making certain metaethical assumptions that pleasure is “good” and suffering is “bad.” He also presupposes utilitarianism. Science appears to be able to inform what causes suffering and pleasure, and especially convenient for Harris, it can inform of neurological causes. So if I understand correctly, he is basically arguing can inform regarding practical ethics?

      Again, this I’m still under the impression that this isn’t earth-shattering. Secondly, unless he goes into this in his book, there are other factors in ethical decision making behind pleasure and suffering he doesn’t take into account in his metaethical dichotomy. Given his thesis, I would still contend, that the logical progression was to attempt to the cross is/ought gap, not just ignore it and assert good and bad ultimately amount to pain and pleasure, which is in contention. The controversial tenets of his argument ultimately depend on whether utilitarianism is true, so he inherits the position’s problems. To discount philosophy here is the exact opposite of what he should be doing.

      1. In the book, he basically just says “if you don’t think suffering is bad, well just.. fuck off”. In the same way that a doctor, if questioned by philosophers as to whether the saving of someone’s life was truly a good thing, would tell them to “fuck off”. I think he does make this point pretty clearly. He also talked about Utilitarianism and it’s problems. -He isn’t the person to solve these. What Harris does is simply say that there are ways to move up or down in the moral landscape, and we generally know in what direction we are going. Yes there are still ethical puzzles, but so what? Why does that mean we can’t have a Science of Morality? (which is all he’s really advocating).

        I think you misunderstand the intention of his book.

        1. The term “science of morality” is controversial. It’s unclear what exactly Harris means by it. It’s extremely broad. It could be interpreted that he thinks the is/ought gap can be bridged via science. This isn’t to say experience or science nothing to tell us about morality. It does, but Harris seems to start from a philosophical presuppositions of suffering = bad–again not original. He’s doing philosophy instead of science. Sure, science shows certain stimuli increase or decrease suffering, but it does not follow science can give a comprehensive account of morality. For instance, the atoms that comprise said stimuli that decrease suffering are not good in of themselves. Harris needs to delineate what this “science of morality” is, and that is one of my big criticisms. He is sloppy because he doesn’t take the time to define and explain what this “science” is beyond bashing religion. Maybe he does in the book, but in other popular media, he makes no effort I can discern.

  4. “He is sloppy because he doesn’t take the time to define and explain what this “science” is beyond bashing religion” .. Dude, read the fucking book. You’re just wasting your breath.

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