Sam Harris's Guide to Nearly Everything

February 23, 2011 Topics: EthicsReligionTechnologySociety Regions: United States

Sam Harris's Guide to Nearly Everything

Mini Teaser: Contrary to Harris’s latest screed, there is no such thing as a science-based universal morality. And abolishing religion will do nothing to rid mankind of its ills.

by Author(s): Scott Atran

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 304 pp., $26.99.

[amazon 1439171211 full]FOR SAM Harris morality is “an un-developed branch of science” that is all about separating lies from truth. Evil stems from lies, willfully blind to facts and reason. Good comes from rational, evidence-based standards for debunking lies and evaluating truths about the human condition. In this worldview, “Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals.”

But here’s the rub: the road to redemption is blocked by religious conservatives who “believe that values must come from a voice in a whirlwind.” Then, seeping from “the ivory tower,” come “secular liberals,” with their “multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness” borne of collective guilt “for the crimes of Western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism,” which leads to cowardice in the face of dogmatic bullies. So blow ye the trumpet and sound the alarm: if we don’t act soon in the ways this man suggests, then Western civilization could well succumb: “The juxtaposition of conservative dogmatism and liberal doubt . . . has hobbled the West in its generational war against radical Islam; and it may yet refashion the societies of Europe into a new Caliphate.”

Over the last few centuries, many scientists and scientifically minded thinkers have expressed the hope that science might lead to a more peaceful, prosperous and happier world. In The Impact of Science on Society, Bertrand Russell wrote:

There are certain things that our age needs, and certain things that it should avoid. It needs compassion and a wish that mankind should be happy; it needs the desire for knowledge and the determination to eschew pleasant myths; it needs, above all, courageous hope and the impulse to creativeness.

Science, Russell argued, could help determine what is needed for happiness and what should be avoided. Religion, especially Christianity, should be shunned for the great harm it has done humankind and because it “encourages stupidity.”

Harris believes that recent advances in understanding the human brain now more reliably point the way to a “science of human flourishing,” that is, “a global civilization based on shared values” where religion and other forms of false and irrational beliefs that are responsible for cruelty and injustice in the world are banished forever. Today, though, Islam is Public Enemy Number One.

Perched on high with a “privileged view of the ‘culture wars’” in the wake of his religion-bashing best seller, The End of Faith, and armed with a freshly minted PhD in neuroscience, Harris leads the charge in ways that Russell, a scientific thinker of great insight and nuance (albeit with a fundamentally flawed view of how children learn language and knowledge of the world), would not likely have ventured.

For the method of good science is doubt; the religion of the sanctimonious is certainty. Yet for Harris, “the primacy of neuroscience and the other sciences of mind on questions of human experience cannot be denied.” And neuroscience, or rather Harris’s own two dissertation experiments on a few dozen people who live around UCLA, tell us that (in all times, places and contexts) “the division between facts and values is intellectually unsustainable.” One neuroimaging study purportedly slam-dunks the conclusion that religious beliefs are simply false beliefs about “the nature of reality.” Since “it seems clear that as societies become more prosperous, stable, and democratic,” the more they stop promoting religion, then “contrary to the opinions of many anthropologists and psychologists, religious commitment ‘is superficial enough to be readily abandoned when conditions improve to the required degree.’” And “clearly, religion is largely a matter of what people teach their children to believe about the nature of reality,” so unlearning religion just requires reeducation.

Despite expressions like “clearly” and “cannot be denied,” which here obfuscate complicated matters that Harris deems irrelevant, ridicules or simply ignores, this work contains precious little science. There is, however, much playacting at science to justify a peculiar sort of Brave New World where atheism will help do away with female genital mutilation and lie detectors will preclude pleading the Fifth Amendment.

There is also much that is politically pernicious here: you don’t have to read Machiavelli to understand how Osama bin Laden and Glenn Beck seem to need one another to rile audiences to their sides, and now Sam Harris means to bring even the more sober and saner members of our society squarely into the ideological fray by pretending to be heavens above it. There is, however, one consolation: because the hysteria around 9/11 has abated a bit, this book is not likely to have the enormous success of Harris’s earlier effort (it is also not as lively and more plodding in its preaching).

HARRIS BELIEVES that experts who think like he does can guide the way to the greatest good for mankind. He thus pretends to refute Enlightenment thinker David Hume’s famous distinction between what is, which is the province of science, and what ought to be, the province of morality. To do this, Harris adopts a version of utilitarianism (specifically, hedonic utilitarianism), a philosophy made influential over two centuries ago by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, an early advocate of gender equality, welfare economics, animal rights, and the “principle of utility” or “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

From Bentham’s vantage, if grown men kicking around an inflated pigskin gave more pleasure to more people than poetry or participating in politics, then society should devote more of its resources to kicking inflated pigskins around than to these other pursuits. British social theorist John Stuart Mill redubbed the principle of utility “the principle of greatest happiness.” Mill also thought that one ought always act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But only “within reason,” meaning that the opinions of educated intellectuals—like scientists and moralists—should be given more weight than the pleasures of the masses.

But even forgetting over two millennia of unresolved philosophical debate about morality, there are huge problems with utilitarianism, none of which Harris seriously addresses. How, even in principle, should we maximize utility, for whom and for how long? By considering foremost our own pleasures and preferences, some average of everyone’s or those decided by moral experts? Should strangers have equal weight with family and friends; should minorities be compelled to accept the decisions of a majority; should concern for the nation be subject to concerns voted for at the United Nations; should we seek to maximize global respect for human rights? And which rights: to bear arms and hunt (no, for Harris), to health care (yes), to abortions (yes), to extramarital affairs (no)?

As economists, political scientists, game theorists, psychologists and philosophers have long noted, there are intractable problems with any general standard of happiness. Harris does not have an answer to these utility-maximization quandaries, however much he may protest to the contrary. He just cites some easy cases of bad behavior—Nazis, mutilators of female genitalia, child abusers, suicide bombers—waves his hands, and assures us that only fools or those ignorant of his neuroimaging experiments could deny that morality is measurable and that goodness can be objectively determined with the help of analogies to health and chess.

Nobel Prize–winner Daniel Kahneman studies what gives Americans pleasure—watching TV, talking to friends, having sex—and what makes them unhappy—commuting, working, looking after their children. So this leaves us where . . . ? For Harris, like “good health,” it may be hard to pin down “well-being” precisely (and standards can change over time), but most people know it when they experience it, so that a scientific community of (honest, unbiased, Harris-like) “moral experts” can safely provide society with a consensus on how well-being may be best achieved. You can bet the bank that Harris’s committee of moral experts would not come down on the side of the French or Mark Twain. (“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”)

Also, like in a chess match, depending on previous choices and developments there may be several good or bad strategies (“peaks and valleys” in Harris’s moral landscape). But, the author warns, the varying objective contexts that lead to different moral equilibriums mustn’t be confused with cultural traditions and preferences, which Harris generally ignores or derides as fodder for “moral relativism.”

MORAL RELATIVISM is the notion that there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others: that we should tolerate the behavior of others if it makes sense relative to their cultural traditions, no matter how counter to our own moral standards. Moral relativism is obviously a bad thing for Harris, and he closely allies it with “cultural relativism,” another taboo that accepts the inherent value of less modernized societies. As Harris explains, it is largely the fault of American anthropologists:

Robert Edgerton performed a book-length exorcism on the myth of the “noble savage,” detailing the ways in which the most influential anthropologists of the 1920s and 1930s—such as Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict—systematically exaggerated the harmony of folk societies and ignored their all too frequent barbarism.

Hogwash. Boas instituted a “four-field” regime of science in anthropology (linguistics, archaeology, human biology, social science), and his students, Benedict and Mead, were implacable foes of fascism and Stalinism as well as of brutality in any society. Like British social anthropologists who worked for the colonial regime, these American cultural anthropologists believed that each society had its own moral system, which kept the group together as a functioning whole (there are theoretical problems with this organismic view, but that’s another story). Unlike the British colonial anthropologists, whose knowledge aimed, in part, to allow the British Empire to better manage cultural diversity, American anthropologists argued that understanding cultural diversity better allowed the world community to make informed moral choices. After all, other cultures could have moral values that might help us better understand the consequences of our own actions. You can see where Harris is going. By buying into cultural relativism, soft-sided intellectual apologists are excusing religion’s horrors and many other evil belief systems to soothe their politically correct souls.

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