10/6/10 Are Liberals Relativists?
Why do we need this foray into the nature of moral truth? Harris's explanation isn't quite what I'd been expecting. He says religious conservatives believe in big "T" moral truth, grounded in God's commands. That invigorates their pursuit of conservative policies, like George Bush's ban on new stem cell research. Liberals and academics are relativists who don't take moral truth seriously, Harris thinks. As a result, they're more wimpy champions of their own (more often correct) policy preferences. Harris wants to "start a conversation" about moral truth, and how it's really no different from scientific truth, and it's independent of religion. Thus, he hopes to bolster the liberal side of our society's moral debates.
If a shot of moral realism would bolster liberals, I'd get behind Harris 100%, but here's the thing--I think most liberals are already moral realists. Just read the op-ed page of the New York Times. Columnists like Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, and Frank Rich make moral pronouncements without hesitation, and with just as much fervor as Ross Douthat and David Brooks. They say it's right for there to be universal health care, right to prevent global warming, wrong to start a war by lying about WMD, etc. etc. Academics take stands on myriad moral issues, too, and emphatically. Like the vast majority of people, liberals and academics are "naive moral realists"--they're moral realists even though they never think about the nature of moral truth.
Harris might be confusing moral relativism with liberalism (in the philosophical sense). A relativist thinks there is no moral truth independent of...and now the view varies. The extreme relativist thinks there's no moral truth independent of each decision-maker. We each "make" a morality for ourselves. A cultural relativist thinks that moral truths exist for whole cultural groups, but don't transcend cultural boundaries. So for people in Saudi Arabia, it really is wrong for women to leave the house unescorted by a male relative, but for us it isn't.
Liberal political thought sometimes sounds a bit like relativism. Justice, on a liberal conception, requires (among other things) that everyone must have the liberty to pursue their own vision of the good, their own "plan of life." Laws and institutions have to leave it to citizens to make certain judgments for themselves. That's "to each his own"-ish, so sounds a little like relativism, but no: if you say "justice requires this...period" you're no relativist. In fact, you could think there are truths about the good life, and truths about the rightness of many actions and choices. As a liberal, there will simply be areas of life in which you think the individual ought to be sovereign.
Here's the interesting thing. Liberals are typically at their most confident when they say superficially relativistic sounding things, like that each woman should think and choose for herself about abortion, and people should have freedom of speech, and gays should decide about their own lifestyles and relationships. Are they less passionate in defense of individual liberties than religious conservatives are in defense of what they think God wants? Well, that's an interesting claim, but let's not just say it. I'll believe it when I see the empirical evidence.
Is Harris all wrong then? Are liberals in no way real relativists, whether cultural or extreme? Here's where I think Harris has a point: when liberals think about other cultures, they sometimes want to extend to them the same "personal autonomy" they think each individual is entitled to--effectively equating groups and persons (which is problematic). So some will accept Saudi Arabia's policies on women, in much the way they might accept an individual American having an abortion or a gay relationship.
But even here, it's simplifying too much to say this hands-offishness must come from relativism. Apart from card-carrying anthropologists, most of us (us liberals, that is), do make judgments (and should--I'm all for it), but try to make them cautiously, and open-mindedly, and without knee-jerk "we know best" ethnocentrism. They also think that interference, as opposed to mere judgment, is usually unwise. We should step in when the worst human rights abuses are involved, and when we can do so non-violently, and after forming the proper alliances. In other words, it's OK for Greg Mortensen to build schools for girls in Afghanistan, because he builds local support for the schools, and does the work non-violently. But it wouldn't be OK for us to invade Saudi Arabia to liberate the women.
So I think Harris is wrong to think liberals need to be saved from their own disempowering relativism, which is for the most part really their belief in personal autonomy--which they believe in passionately; and their reluctance to impose American ideals on the rest of the world mindlessly, and with force. But that doesn't mean we don't need Harris's book. It's useful to to think about what right and wrong are based upon--that's got to help us avoid moral error and get our hands on more moral truth. So...on with the book.
(Jesus, it's #3 at Amazon!)
10/9/10 Morality Denialism
Being outraged is what Sam Harris does best. His angry indignation is what made The End of Faith so captivating, and in that book it was appropriate. Harris was angry about 9/11, and about the crazy religious ideas that were in the minds of the 9/11 terrorists, and about unwillingness to look at religion as a cause of violence, and about other religious ideas that have caused other forms of violence. In The Moral Landscape, he's still outraged. Partly it's the same outrage, at the same things, but in the first chapter he's outraged about something new--morality denialists, as he might call them (considering his outrage). Harris thinks there are a lot of them--
It seems me ... that most educated, secular people (and this includes most scientists, academics, and journalists) believe that there is no such thing as moral truth--only moral preference, moral opinion, and emotional reactions that we mistake for genuine knowledge of right and wrong.Because of all this rejection of moral truth, these people make bad relativistic judgments, Harris says. For example, he thinks it's because "educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values" that they're excessively tolerant of practices like female genital mutilation, and excessively intolerant of people like Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the Danish cartoonists. The answer? We should understand that there are "right answers to moral questions for science to discover." The answers are going to be based on scientific facts about human well-being.
In principle, I should be receptive to Harris. I actually wrote a book about well-being (or "the good life"), and in the book I argue that we should use our understanding of well-being to evaluate the rightness and wrongness of real-world practices (like FGM), whether or not they take place within other cultures. I have a chapter arguing against moral relativism, and defending the idea that there are moral truths. I'm all for drawing on science to illuminate what well-being is, and what increases it and decreases it. So what's the problem?
Problem #1--I think he's wrong about the prevalence of moral skepticism. I've talked to lots of people about the nature of moral truth: mainly students in ethics classes. When they discuss metaethics, they do often embrace skeptical positions like relativism. However, this is essentially epiphenomenal--their relativism has no effect at all when it comes to the way they think about moral issues. All students, including the morality skeptics, think it's right for me to grade their papers fairly, wrong for me to assign them grades randomly. They can reject moral truth when metaethics is the subject, then adamantly argue for the death penalty (or against abortion, or for stem cell research, or whatever) in the next breath.
The shallowness of moral skepticism is a lot like the shallowness of mathematical skepticism. If you ask people if math is a body of truths that we discover, or invent, many people will say "invent." They just don't see how numbers, and the relationships between them, can be part of the fabric of the world. Numbers are weird things, and mathematicians don't operate like the classic fact-finders, empirical scientists. But just minutes after expressing skepticism about mathematical truth, all skeptics will act as if it's deeply rooted in the nature of things. They want the bridges to be built according to "normal math," not some other invented system. They want to get the right change from cashiers and the right interest on their bank accounts.
Real, functioning moral skepticism is rare, and I don't see it much, whether in students, journalists, or academics. Even when people are tolerant about goings on in other cultures, it shouldn't be assumed that the basis of that is genuine relativism. It could be, rather, that they are reasoning from a different notion of well-being than Harris favors, or notions of personal or cultural autonomy that Harris would reject. It's downright absurd to think that no moral principles could be appealed to in any conceivable argument challenging the Danish cartoonists, or even Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Salman Rushdie. Note to Mr. Harris: all moral conclusions you disagree with do not come from moral relativism. They can proceed from a package of moral principles and factual assumptions some parts of which you reject.
But sure. There are some genuine moral relativists, who really do arrive at a refusal to make any judgments, no matter how horrendous the horror, from relativism. But why (on earth) pretend that "most educated secular people" think like this?
Problem #2. The "right answers to moral questions" are (surely) not simply "for science to discover." If scientists start announcing the discovery of moral facts--future headline in New York Times: SCIENTISTS DISCOVER STEM CELL RESEARCH IS MORALLY REQUIRED--no sane person will go along with it. To get to a headline like that, you need moral premises. They may be true, fact-stating, robust, maybe even as solid as mathematical truths; but the moral premises aren't going to be drawn directly from science itself. We're going to have to have rational, philosophical conversations to find these truths.
OK, so I don't care for chapter 1, but I'm still hopeful about chapter 2.
10/10/10 Good and Evil
Message of chapter 2: don't think morality comes from religion, and don't think morality is relative, but rather think there are moral truths. Most philosophers will find this a respectable but unexciting message, since it's what they already think. The same arguments, with less neuroscience and "style," are made in standard ethics 101 textbooks--e.g. James Rachels and Russ Shafer-Landau (who are both excellent).
Right and wrong are real, says Harris, because they are really all about maximizing well-being. All about? Most philosophers will find the story here far too simple. I'll grant that every problem for consequentialism, and all the alternatives, don't have to be dealt with in a book of this sort, but Harris overlooks even some very basic problems. There are other things that might matter besides happiness--for example fairness and equality. No problem, Harris says. The perception that something is fair makes people happy, and seeing something as unfair is upsetting. So fairness has indirect importance.
But wait: if morality is all about maximizing well-being, then people who think in terms of fairness are not thinking right. When we're done teaching everyone the true theory of morality ("Johnny, right actions maximize well-being"), they won't have those reactions any more. So then fairness will stop being important in any sense?
Don't think this is fanciful either. In reality, people aren't as worried about matters of justice as you might think. Research about well-being makes this clear, as I discussed here back in March. For example, Carol Graham shows (in the fascinating book Happiness around the World) that wealthy liberals are the only group in the US who are bothered by economic inequality. Other Americans aren't bothered by the existence of rich people, and believe one day they'll join their ranks.
Even the science in Chapter 2 strikes me as being sloppy. In a section about the nature of evil, Harris treats us to the first person testimony of a child-rapist. Neuroscience, he says, can tell us what's wrong with such people. Maybe so, but the bit of neuroscience he presents doesn't explain the testimony. The neuroscience says psychopaths are bad at detecting the fear and anxiety of their victims. But the rapist plainly says he's a sadist--he positive enjoys his victim's suffering. He therefore must be able to detect it.
So...moving right along to chapter 3... I'm still hoping to find something interesting in here.
10/12/10 Can New Atheists be Utilitarians?
The story so far: Harris wants to persuade us that science can discover moral truths--which are (basically) truths about well-being. He defends a scientifically informed sort of utilitarianism (with details yet to be ironed out). This is supposed to overcome the rampant (?!) relativism of secular liberal academics and the irrational, religion-based morality accepted by everyone else. Harris is trying to put us in a position to say that honor killings and public stonings and laws forbidding gay marriage are all wrong--really, truly wrong.
I have objections to his take on liberal academics, as well as his story about the line between science and ethics (see my earlier posts on the book); but OK. I want to say that honor killings (etc) are all really, truly wrong; and I agree that the reason has to do with consequences for human well-being. So let's move on.
Unfortunately, moving on means moving into a fairly loose collection of topics. The primary argument of the book is really over by the end of chapter 2. I don't really see the point of chapter 3's discussion of belief. (Is it aimed at someone who can't imagine that beliefs are in people's heads?) Then we get to a percussive discussion of religion in chapter 4, and wrap up with a chapter on happiness.
So it's time for a final assessment. Here's what worries me about this book. Harris defends a science-based utilitarian ethics, but doesn't actually employ it consistently. It's employed in the service of standard new atheist positions, but otherwise ignored.
Take what he says about the infamous Danish cartoonists. Several times, he says, uncontroversially, that it's wrong (really, truly wrong) to riot because of cartoons. Of course it is--because the riots caused scores of deaths. They reduced well-being.
But what about the cartoonists themselves? Utilitarianism forces you to ask the question whether it was right to publish them. You have to look at all consequences to answer the question--including those due to other agents, like rioters. It's complicated. You could reach different conclusions. But Harris doesn't even acknowledge the question.
Another example is the way Harris looks at Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum. If you recall, Francis Collins is a good ally for science educators, they think, because Collins reassures Christians that one can accept science and evolution without losing one's religion. Collins' life story is proof of that. Harris accuses them of trying to "get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them." The lie is not saying that Collins's science-cum-religion outlook is fraught with difficulty.
Lying is the wrong term for just not saying something, of course, but besides that, it's a term drawn from the wrong moral vocabulary. So is "intellectual honesty." The goal, according to the moral theory Harris is pushing, is increased well-being, and what's important is doing whatever it takes to succeed at that. Surely there's a case to be made that Francis Collins is good for science literacy, and that science literacy is good for well-being, because it enables people to make better informed decisions on critical, life-affecting public policies (on matters like stem cell research, climate change, sex education, vaccinations, etc).
Harris's attitude toward impure alliances contrasts markedly with Peter Singer's--Singer the well-known utilitarian (who's also an atheist). In The Life You Can Save he explicitly appeals to religious outlooks as support for very strong obligations to the poor, even though he himself has major problems with those outlooks, and even sees them as a serious barrier to progress on some moral issues (like animals).
Another example. Throughout the book, religion is a constant topic. Harris wants us to recognize the existence of moral truth so that we'll say the right things about honor killings and the like, not so we'll take a sound approach to the full spectrum of moral issues. That's OK--religion is what he cares about. But then, shouldn't he care about the whole phenomenon? How can it make sense to highlight religious practices that reduce well-being, without thoroughly considering whether in some respects religion increases well-being? The awkward thing (for Harris) is that a great deal of positive psychology says it does--that's what we're told by Martin Seligman, Jonathan Haidt, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Carol Graham, and many others.
It could be that if Harris gets really serious about the moral theory he's promoting, he's going to soften up a bit on religion, and part company with the other horsemen. For now, he's mostly still an anti-religion polemicist, and just using science-based consequentialism to reinforce previous arguments, not following it wherever it may lead.
Should you read this book? If you're interested in metaethics, you will get much better guidance from other authors. I hate to sound like a snob, but there are experts who do this stuff, and I don't think this book establishes Sam Harris as one of them. But if it's new atheist polemic you're looking for, he's "the one." He's a good writer, and this is certainly a quick and exciting read.