Sam Harris is writing his name into a historical line of individuals that includes Auguste Comte and Sigmund Freud. Auguste Comte was a French philosopher of the early 1800s who came up with social physics and positivism. Social physics grew up to become our modern sociology. Positivism had a lot of influence on some rugged political policies and in some ways championed the scientific method as the “best, most predictable source” for understanding how to live a human life in the world. Sigmund Freud is an icon for his own contributions — psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind. Our everyday language is now heavily steeped in psychological consciousness. Self-analysis and group analysis are possibly the most popular pastimes, easily out-distancing bowling and baseball, and putting a (more) legitimate stamp on our tendency to gossip.
We are still feeling the effects of both of these men today, despite how little their stories are used by the disciplines they initially constructed. But each of them decided to begin a conversation, start with definitions they could defend, and then push ahead into new visions or new fields of study. And they did this despite criticisms, roadblocks, or potentially dangerous directions.
Sam Harris wants to begin a conversation in which science can find the best understanding of human values.
Before going too far, I should make a note to show that Harris is not the first start this conversation. For example, Joseph Daleiden wrote a book called The Science of Morality (1998), which examined the nature of morality under the lens of the scientific method. I suspect he did not have the same P.R. forces as Harris (I should also note my personal lack of rigor and integrity — I haven’t sought out or read Daleiden’s book either…) .
In truth, a whole history could be outlined in which we have tried to look at morality more systematically. Religion certainly holds no monopoly on morality since it is clear we take moral lessons from everywhere. We have a knack for learning as many moral lessons from our children, or from watching someone else stub a toe on a rock, as we do from God.
The Moral Landscape is a metaphor Harris uses to illustrate his vision for systematic moral understanding. He does not dive too deeply into the pools or valleys of his metaphor, or climb the heights. This book is short, only about 190 pages, and is intended more as an opening question, or compass check, before exploring the wilderness. And that being said, Harris doesn’t really get anywhere, in my opinion.
His writing is clear and lucid. His arguments are practical and his comparisons inspire deep consideration. Even his personal asides are illuminating while remaining professional. This book felt like a combination of academic care, practiced reservation and confident opinion. It left me with a feeling of hopeful boredom. He is looking down the road a mile and asking for it, but he’s only taking an inch.
Harris states that if we were to define morality as “the well-being of conscious creatures,” then values would translate into facts that can be scientifically understood and examined. He openly declares his premise — human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. As his metaphorical landscape would suggest, there is a range of peaks and valleys and mid-grounds to moral living. However, these ‘places’ are interdependent with conditions of the world, which we experience each day, and the states of our brains, which we are studying more and more each day.
His clearest comparison deals with how we use the word ‘health’. There is no one food, for example, that everyone should eat. And the healthy lifestyle of one person may in fact be dangerous or impossible for someone else. But the concept of health is still vibrant and useful. We can use it to guide our measurements of healthy living, to discuss what it means to be healthy, and to value the healthy choices of ourselves and others. Just as important, we can say what is unhealthy. And according to Harris, we can use science to guide our measurements of moral living, to discuss what it means to be moral, and to value the moral choices of ourselves and others. As well, we should be able to say what is immoral too, and not have to hide behind the delicacy of moral relativity.
The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled… As with all matters of fact, differences of opinion on moral questions merely reveal the incompleteness of our knowledge, they do not oblige us to respect a diversity of views indefinitely. (p. 10)
The book has five chapters — Moral Truth, Good and Evil, Belief, Religion and The Future of Happiness. Like any good New Atheist, he spends more time than I think is necessary laying out barbs against the religious standpoint on morality. For the philosophers out there, Harris does give his own brief dissections for some of the big questions. When it comes to David Hume‘s is vs ought distinction, Harris offers what I think might be called a softer ought.
…to say that we ought to treat children with kindness seem identical to saying that everyone would tend to be better off if we do… the person who insists that he is committed to treating children with kindness for reasons that have nothing to do with anyone’s well-being is not making sense. (p.38)
Concerning good and evil, Harris dives into some research on psychopathic behavior and on our tendency to empathize with individuals rather than with small groups or wider populations. On determinacy vs. free will he gives a few highlights on what MRI machines are telling us about our brains and behavior.
And like any good academic, Harris uses this book to voice his opinions and objections on other people in the field. In particular, he questions Jonathan’s Haidt’s research which organizes morality into political categories. He takes some exception to Joshua Greene’s moral skepticism. In the chapter on religion, Harris voices his thoughts on Barack Obama’s choice for the director of the American National Institutes of Health — the Evangelical Christian Francis Collins.
The one inch Sam Harris takes in this book is quite simple really. There must be something we can know about meaning, morality and values in principle, whether or not we get there in practice. But defining morality has been a large part of the problem when it comes to systematically understanding it. The courage or brashness Harris demonstrates in his new definition is admirable but likely won’t stall his opponents. That being said, I think the next inch Harris takes might have to be more provocative than this one.
I have taken a lot of pleasure in the past in saying the New Atheists are just selling a new brand of fundamentalism. It’s one of those simple reversals, a weak attempt to shake people out of a mindset. But this small book from Sam Harris has changed my mind. I have hope for at least two of the New Atheists now (Dan Dennett won my heart long ago).
In a few passages, Sam Harris refers to an emerging global consciousness and community. He seems genuinely worried that if we don’t have a reliable way of telling right from wrong then we might not achieve the world he wants for his daughter. If we don’t think about it with systematic methods and reasonable conclusions, we might not be able to trust ourselves or the world.
This book was unsatisfying in that it wasn’t revolutionary, but it wasn’t really intended to be. The book can be dry and boring unless you are really interested in moral arguments. However, it was endearing in that Harris does seem to believe we can have a moral system based on something of this world, and he seems to have faith that we can all be rational participants in our communities.
However, I think his definition for morality may stand up as well as Comte’s formulation of social physics, or Freud’s narrative of the unconscious. When it comes to contributions to human history, no one escapes the editing process or the long years of proofing.