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Sam Harris’ first two books were commercial successes and intellectual failures. Riddled with basic factual and logical errors, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” served as little more than godless red meat snapped up by unthinking atheists around the English-speaking world. His third book, “The Moral Landscape,” is also a challenge to established wisdom, but it is a much more sober, serious and interesting book than its predecessors.
The basis for the book is Harris’ own neuroscience experiments, in which he tested his hypothesis that when hooked up to an fMRI scanner, the human brain would produce an observable difference in its activity when contemplating non-religious beliefs than when considering religious beliefs. As it happens, the hypothesis was found to be incorrect, as the same responses were elicited from both the believing group and the non-believing group for religious and nonreligious stimuli alike. (Full disclosure: I was one of the Christians asked by Mr. Harris to review the religious stimuli to ensure their theological verisimilitude. In my opinion, the questions utilized were both reasonable and fair.)
In “The Moral Landscape,” Sam Harris courageously attempts to address the Problem of Morality that has plagued atheist philosophers since Jean Meslier failed to realize the obvious consequences of his declaration that every rational man could imagine better moral precepts than Christianity possessed. As Harris notes, in the absence of a morality derived from a religion, scientists and other secularists have concluded that all morals are relative and there is therefore no objective basis for preferring the moral precepts asserted by one individual to those put forth by another, regardless of how monstrous they might appear to a third party. This is why, aside from few irrelevant rhetorical flourishes and one inexplicable personal jihad, Harris’ arguments in the book are predominantly directed against his fellow non-believers rather than theistic targets.
To his credit, Harris explicitly recognizes that he is making a philosophical case, not a scientific one. This is a significant improvement upon the first wave of New Atheist books, including Harris’ own pair, in which the various authors presented their intrinsically philosophical cases in pseudo-scientific guise. However, there are three argumentative flaws that pervade the book. Unfortunately, Harris appears to have adopted Richard Dawkins’ favorite device of presenting a bait-and-switch definition in lieu of a logically substantive argument. He repeatedly utilizes the following technique:
1) Admittedly, X is not Y.
2) But can’t we say that X could be considered Z?
3) And Z is Y.
4) Therefore, X can be Y.
For example, in an attempt to get around Hume’s is/ought dichotomy, Harris readily admits that “good” in the sense of “morally correct” is not objectively definable and that what one individual perceives as good can differ substantially from that which another person declares to be “good.” So, he suggests the substitution of “well-being” for “good” because there are numerous measures of “well-being,” such as life expectancy, GDP per capita and daily caloric intake, that can be reduced to numbers and are therefore measurable. After all, everyone understands what it means to be in good health despite the fact that “health” is not perfectly defined in an objective and scientific manner. Right?
However, even if we set aside the obvious fact that the proposed measures of well-being are of dubious utility – life expectancy does not account for quality of life, GDP does not account for debt and more calories are not always desirable – the problem is that Harris simply ignores the way in which his case falls completely apart when it is answered in the negative. No, we cannot simply accept that “moral” can reasonably be considered “well-being” because it is not true to say that which is “of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong” is more than remotely synonymous with “that which fosters well-being in one or more human beings.”
Harris’ second habitual flaw is one that was seen in his previous books. That is to act as if admitting that a problem with his reasoning exists is somehow tantamount to resolving the problem in his favor. He appears to grasp that his philosophical consequentialism suffers from the same democratic problem that caused philosophers to abandon Benthamite utilitarianism as a prospective substitute for morality – nine out of 10 individuals agree that gang rape enhances their well-being – but he simply chooses to ignore the problem. In the notes, he justifies this gaping hole in his argument by declaring that the conceptual developments that have taken place since John Stuart Mill died in 1873 “are generally of interest only to academic philosophers.” That’s likely true, but it doesn’t excuse such a blatant evasion of a known criticism nor does it help the self-confessed consequentialist deal with the potentially nightmarish consequences of utilitarian totalitarianism.
The third pervasive flaw is what after three books has become recognizable as Harris’ customary intellectual carelessness. Time and time again, he makes statements of fact that are easily disproved by the first page of a Google search. For example, in an attempt to explain that all opinions need not be equally respected and that not all competing responses to moral dilemmas are equally valid, he brings up the subject of corporal punishment:
“There are, for instance, twenty-one U.S. states that still allow corporal punishment in their schools. … However, if we are actually concerned about human well-being, and would treat children in such a way as to promote it, we wonder whether it is generally wise to subject little boys and girls to pain, terror, and public humiliation as a means of encouraging their cognitive and emotional development. Is there any doubt that this question has an answer? Is there any doubt that it matters that we get it right? In fact, all the research indicates that corporal punishment is a disastrous practice, leading to more violence and social pathology – and, perversely, to greater support for corporal punishment.”
– Sam Harris, “The Moral Landscape”
But “all the research” shows nothing of the kind. Sweden’s rate of child abuse increased nearly 500 percent after spanking ban was instituted in 1979 and is significantly higher than that of the United States. In Trinidad, a paper titled “Benchmarking Violence and Delinquency in the Secondary School: Towards a Culture of Peace and Civility” concluded that a ban on corporal punishment in school had led to indiscipline and even physical attacks on teachers. Dr. Robert E. Larzelere of Oklahoma State has even published annotated studies showing that what little scientific evidence has been produced to support anti-spanking bans is not sound. One need not have a position on corporal punishment to recognize that Harris did not, in fact, actually look into the relevant research he cites so blithely. This failure to correctly establish a factual premise and build from it is found throughout the book; Harris makes a habit of beginning with a conclusion and belatedly attempting to support it with a statement of fact that is often dubious and occasionally downright in error.
Still, Sam Harris is to be lauded for taking the moral bull by the horns and bravely attempting to make the case for the possibility of a secular and scientific morality. “The Moral Landscape” raises some interesting questions and provides the reader with more than a little material for thought. On the downside, Harris’ repeated attacks on Dr. Francis Collins are unseemly as well as irrelevant to his topic; one wonders what his editor was thinking to permit such a lengthy tangent that is more indicative of a Victor Hugo novel than a serious scientific work. And in the end, the reader is forced to conclude the argument for a science-based morality presented in “The Moral Landscape” is even more demonstrably incorrect than was the scientific hypothesis that served as the original inspiration for the book.