Sam Harris Doesn’t Get Morality

17 01 2011

It’s all in Russell Blackford’s illuminating and comprehensive review of Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape.

Harris’ big mistake is his utter contempt for metaethics. Now, I’m on record as stating that doing metaethics is a dreadful way to spend one’s time. And so is doing your tax. But, sadly, there are few metaethicists who bill by the hour to whom one can outsource one’s metaethical labours.

Harris’ broader project – one to which I’m sympathetic – is done a disservice by his refusal to engage with moral philosophy and metaethics, at least beyond engaging to the point of skimming the surface and dismissing it out of hand (although one could claim I’m doing the same with Harris’ work – but hey, if I’m wrong, someone’ll tell me – it’s the internet, after all).

Metaethics has a propensity to get bogged down in minutia, and to argue around in circles about questions of arguable import. But the very difficulty of meteathics is suggestive that morality is a more complicated phenomenon to understand that it appears at first blush. Harris would do well to pause to listen to philosophers before disagreeing with them. In fact, some philosophers, such as Blackford, are trying to help advance Harris’ programme.

Ultimately, as Russell says, Harris’ book will be a Good Thing because it’ll advance the discussion about morality. Even if Harris’ work is flawed, he makes some good points, particularly about encouraging a productive engagement between philosophy and science when it comes to morality. Hear hear.

Hopefully, The Moral Landscape, will inspire a second generation of books that respond and build on Harris’ ideas. Blackford has suggested he might pen one himself (go for it man!). What does seem clear is that we’re emerging, slowly, from the miasma of 20th century metaethical debate, and we’re gaining momentum towards developing a robust, functional and empirically-aware secular moral framework. And that is possibly one of the most important things humans can work on right now.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

10 responses

18 01 2011
Nick

My question is of little philosophical or ethical interest. I am wondering what you mean by capitalizing the first letters of “good thing” in the following sentence.

“Ultimately, as Russell says, Harris’ book will be a Good Thing because it’ll advance the discussion about morality.”

I did not take this as a mistake. I took you to mean something by it. If it is unintentional, then I would be understanding about deleting my comment. If not, I would be educated to hear your response. Thanks for the post!

18 01 2011
James Gray

I don’t see this as a scathing review. I think people are taking his book a little too seriously. He wrote it for the public, not for philosophers. He never claimed to be the definitive authority on meta-ethics.

18 01 2011
James Gray

From the review, “Harris presupposes that we should be motivated by one very important value, namely the well-being of conscious creatures, but he does not claim that this is a scientific result (or a result from any other field of empirical inquiry).”

The reviewer misses the point again. Harris never claimed natural science could do this. He use the word “science” loosely.

If your main point is just, “Sam Harris is not a philosophical authority” that is true. However, that was not what he wants to be. He wants to actually get intelligence to do something in the world.

18 01 2011
Nick

James:

I find your last comment comment-worthy.

“‘Harris presupposes that we should be motivated by one very important value, namely the well-being of conscious creatures, but he does not claim that this is a scientific result…’. (…) Harris never claimed natural science could do this. He use the word “science” loosely.”

Could it be that Harris simply said what was already common-sensical to professional scientists and philosophers?

I ask because I am left wondering, after considering Harris’s thesis, if all he accomplished was the stating of something that would seem controversial enough to sell a book (say, that science can deduce moral value) but is, in reality, not so controviersial. As you point out, he uses the term ‘science’ loosely: something that includes what most people include in the term ‘science’, but also philosophy, even moral philosophy (even economics).

If he has said that moral philosophy and science can deduce moral value, then I fail to see how he has said anything remotely ground-breaking. (I admit that it really could be my failure to see it, in which case, I would be obliged to the person who helps me see what I fail to see).

18 01 2011
Tim Dean

@Nick

A Good Thing is a better thing than a good thing. It’s just a bit of vacuous rhetorical flourish on my behalf, turning an adjective and a noun and turning them into a proper noun.

On your second point, if the choice is between Harris saying something controversial but wrong, or something trivial, then he still doesn’t impress me much – at least philosophically.

@James

Is there a piece by Harris I can read that illustrates how he uses the word ‘science’? I’d be interested to see what he says, because it seems to me he uses it in a fairly conventional sense.

Also, I actually hold books written for the public with to least as high a standard as books written for academics. The language might be different, but the argument must be just as rigorous. Harris tackles many philosophical questions in a book about a philosophical topic, and he does so poorly. He’s clearly not a philosophical authority, but given the topic of the book, he’s perceived as such by many.

18 01 2011
James Gray

If he has said that moral philosophy and science can deduce moral value, then I fail to see how he has said anything remotely ground-breaking. (I admit that it really could be my failure to see it, in which case, I would be obliged to the person who helps me see what I fail to see).

This isn’t supposed to be a “ground breaking” philosophical theory to compete with other moral theories. It’s supposed to be an argument for secular ethics. He doesn’t want religion to be our “religious authority.” He might have moral realist assumptions, but defending moral realism isn’t his main concern.

Here’s the quote on defining science:

Some of my critics got off the train before it even left the station, by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms. Many think that science is synonymous with mathematical modeling, or with immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/moral-confusion-in-the-na_b_517710.html

19 01 2011
Nick

R: James

“It’s supposed to be an argument for secular ethics.”

I see. Then it would seem, to me, that this book was not exactly important. I agree with Tim when he says it is trivial (and philosophically unimpressive). That moral thinking can be done and applied without the existence of a God is no news.

Harris’s ‘Science’

Also, another description of science by Harris at “The Great Debate” at Arizona State University is this (from Harris, paraphrased): all academic fields from economics to biology…and there is not even a distinction between science and philosophy. It seems that Harris might mean by ‘science’ something like what ‘natural philosophy used to mean.’

19 01 2011
Tim Dean

@James

Harris’ definition of science seems characteristically vague and unsophisticated. You call it “loose,” I call it “sloppy.”

Even disregarding the ambiguity in his writing and taking “science” as “reason,” he still needs to do more work to address the concerns of Blackford and others to make it a robust theory.

Again, the project is going in the right direction – in the sense it’s moving away from supernaturalist morality – but it’s just let down by some patchy philosophy.

19 01 2011
James Gray

Tim,

You said, “Even disregarding the ambiguity in his writing and taking “science” as “reason,” he still needs to do more work to address the concerns of Blackford and others to make it a robust theory.”

I think he knows that. He said he thinks we should start “working out” something. He didn’t say we have to agree with all his ideas. Why should the morality of science require a single theory when we simply don’t understand everything about science yet?

19 01 2011
Mark Sloan

Russell Blackford linked to Jerry Coyne ‘s review of Blackford’s review. If you have not already read it, I thought Jerry summarized the problems with Harris’ approach well.

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/blackford-reviews-the-moral-landscape/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: