Monday, November 8, 2010

Against the Moral Theorizing of Sam Harris

When I first saw Sam Harris’ most recent appearance on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, I wanted to respond. I had first become aware of the existence of Sam Harris in 2006 when Ryan sent me an article from Newsweek entitled “The New Naysayers”.

A couple of weeks after I saw the Daily Show interview I happened to see a clip of Bill Maher and this led to a discussion with Ryan regarding Bill Maher’s and Sam Harris’ peculiar brand of moral elitism in which I mentioned the interview and his new book, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Values”. Since I hadn’t read the book (and still haven’t), the information I used in the discussion about Sam Harris’ theory about a scientific basis for morality was at that time entirely from the Daily Show interview. After the conversation, I wanted to learn more about Sam Harris’ theory and to that end I found Sam Harris’ TED speech. What follows is a response to both the Daily Show interview and the TED speech, both of these were afterward supplemented by several reviews I read of Harris’ book from an Atheist point of view.


Morals concern what one ought to do in a given situation; how one ought to behave. The question is, why ought one to do one thing rather than another?

Therefore, the word “ought” is most often found with “if” or “because”, as in, “I ought to do this if…” or, “We ought to do this because…”

By one rationale (the most common rationale among secular non-religious people) morals depend for their values on preferred outcomes. This is known as Consequentialism. In Consequentialism, the ends are what matter and so, according to this theory, the ends always justify the means or, put another way, the means are always justified in the end.

And though Sam Harris’ theory seems to be consequentialist in that he believes human behavior is moral or immoral insofar as it does or does not contribute to the promotion of a previously defined outcome or effect, i.e. Human Flourishing, it seems apparent that Sam Harris absolutely DOES NOT wish to believe that some behaviors like rape, torture, or slavery, are value neutral in and of themselves. Rather, it seems that he desperately wants to believe that some behaviors are always wrong even when the intention of those engaging in such behaviors is ostensibly to promote Human Flourishing.

Harris does this by supposing the concept of Human Flourishing to be an objectively quantifiable concept. But though both terms in that generic phrase "Human Flourishing" are rather more vague than we would like, it is the word “human” rather than the word "flourishing" which is in the most desperate need of clarification.

We may choose to agree with Mr. Harris and presume the near possibility of measuring brain wave patterns in order to determine what "Human Flourishing" looks like on the individual human level, but once we get above the level of the individual we find we have competing and conflicting interests among a diversity of individual humans. Even if neurology is a hard science, sociology is not, and the concept of Human Flourishing will certainly be a thing more accurately quantified at the micro level than at the macro level.

But let us plunge forward with Mr. Harris to a not too distant future when all the brain’s waves have been scanned , all its regions mapped, and to where it’s been determined once and for all what Human Flourishing looks like in the individual human brain. And let us continue on to when conditions have been arranged in the life of some one individual so that, as far as brain wave patterns and the individual’s own opinion were concerned, he flourished. Day and night, week in and week out, this one individual flourished.

Now let us, multiply it out, block by block, city by city, region by region, nation by nation, and say that conditions have been so arranged so that every human being on the planet could scientifically be said to be flourishing. What leap of logic allows us to believe that the occurrence of this great mass of individual humans flourishing can be directly translated as a real representation of the concept “Human Flourishing”?

And assuming for the moment that such a leap can be made and that the occurrence of Every-Individual-Human-Being-Flourishing at once CAN be translated into Human Flourishing in Mr. Harris’ sense, (and assuming that this is indeed the goal towards which human activity is meant to be directed), does it follow that ANY human activity discovered through scientific methods to promote that preferred outcome is therefore moral? On the consequentialist model, the answer would have to be “yes”.

What sort of activities might we be talking about? Earlier, I used the phrase “conditions could be arranged”, but nobody really has any idea what those conditions might look like. How are we to arrive at a scientific knowledge of the necessary arrangement of conditions needed to stimulate optimal Human Flourishing at the macro level--the level of all individual human beings flourishing in community? Won’t this proper arrangement have to be arrived at through the slow and arduous process of experimentation by trial and error? And isn’t it likely that there’ll be many failed attempts at finding the proper arrangement before the right one is finally worked out?

And what of all the failures? The phrase, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” shouldn’t much concern a devout atheist like Sam Harris but it might at least cause him to question the sufficiency of his arguments concerning a scientific basis for morality. If thousands of experiments were conducted to find the right arrangement of conditions to promote Human Flourishing but human misery was the result hundreds of times before the optimal arrangement was finally hit upon, how would such a process be seen from a moral point of view?

And what if after all that experimentation the arrangement most conducive to human wellbeing in the aggregate was found to be one in which the majority of humans flourished at the expense of a small minority of humans who didn’t. Or what if the project to achieve universal wellbeing succeeded but only by reducing the human experience to drug-addled dependency or grey matter in jars?

In other words, what if the optimal arrangement included by necessity attitudes, activities, and behaviors that Sam Harris would like to believe are obviously immoral?

Indeed, what if it turned out, much to Sam Harris' chagrin, that the ideal arrangement was life under a worldwide Caliphate and under the strict administration of Sharia Law? What if this were the arrangement, discovered through an exhaustive process of experimentation under the most uncompromising laboratory conditions, that most perfectly resulted in world peace and real, universal Human Flourishing in the aggregate? After all, it may be that science will reach as deeply into the human experience as it possibly can and find that that sort of universal homogeny, unity of purpose and belief, and single-minded zeal for something beyond and “other than” our material existence is absolutely necessary to our human wellbeing. Sam Harris may stamp his feet and declare that nothing beyond the material world exists and that such fairy stories are a dangerous delusion. Only in this case, if it were a delusion it would nonetheless have turned out to be a necessary one. If, for the sake of argument, humans are nothing but the products or our genes, evolved in such a way as to render us the greatest potential odds for survival, then the human tendency to direct our actions towards the service of things we can’t materially verify is certainly a product of that struggle for survival and may be something as necessary, natural to, and indistinguishable from the healthy flourishing human psyche as light and laughter. It may be as natural and as necessary as the alternation of night and day.

Science must take man as he is and what science discovers is that the majority of men throughout recorded history and right up to the present have exhibited a need to order their life in the service of religion, that they finds reasons for ritual, and that most of them demand to offer back something to someone or something they can’t perceive merely for that Something’s sake. That some humans seem to have no need of religion or ritual doesn’t prove that the need of most men for religion and for a life ordered according to the demands of that religion is something extrinsic or artificial to the human experience. If the exception proves the rule in ninety-nine cases out of one-hundred, why shouldn’t the minority of exceptions prove the rule in this case? If some small percentage of creatures in the human species don’t have the capacity to experience such a thing as numinous awe, perhaps they lack something intrinsic, essential, and necessary? In practical terms, this absence may be of no more serious effect than a lack of pigmentation or the ability to see color. And yet, in the race to flourish beyond the capacity for mere survival, these could be useful if not necessary attributes to have. Life would certainly be less colorful without them.

Grant for the sake of argument that this desire for religion, ritual, and sacrifice evolved "accidently", as it were. Perhaps, as man struggled to eke out an existence against tremendous odds and under conditions that should probably have caused a creature of such heightened awareness to despair, perhaps it was only this evolved capacity, the capacity for Hope, that enabled him to “Flourish”.

In the end, encouraging people to place their hope in some yet-to-be-realized scientific accomplishment may turn out to be exactly the wrong thing to do. Such a hope may be only a pale and inadequate substitute for the “ignorant superstitions” that have given mankind Hope up to now.

So far we’ve been playing on the field of Sam Harris’ choosing. We’ve been trying to show that science cannot provide a moral basis for evaluating actions directed toward preferred results. And we’ve been trying to show that Sam Harris’ attempt to provide such a basis for evaluating human actions and behavior is at cross purposes with his desire to believe that some behavior is really truly immoral regardless of the intended effect.

I admit, I would have a hard time determining a basis for evaluating actions and behavior in a moral sense if I came at it from the direction that Sam Harris does and, to be frank, I can’t even say for sure whether I’d find such an attempt worth pursuing. If we’re all left alone on this planet with nary a star to guide us than we should just pick a destination that looks attractive and drive; and if obstacles obstruct us we should smash them away or get smashed in the process. It's the height of hubris to suppose that science could tell us that one destination is better than any other.

But if the destination we wish to pursue is “Human Flourishing”, so be it. Let us define whatever it is we wish “Human Flourishing” to mean and then harness whatever is within our power to achieve that goal.

Daily Show clip URL:
Appearance on October 4, 2010

“The New Naysayers” URL:
Newsweek; Jerry Adler, September 11, 2006

Bill Maher clip URL:
Appearance on George Lopez Tonight, October 26, 2010

Sam Harris’ TED Speech URL:

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