Not a Revolutionary

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A point Ayn Rand frequently made regarding why so many people reject the very idea of philosophy (even though they go right on living under its influence) is that so the much of the discipline has been so wrong on so many levels for so long that most people understandably reject it out of hand. (See Note below.) Since, as Rand also pointed out, men need philosophy in some form, this suspicion does nothing to stop them from seeking the kind of guidance it provides, although sometimes from quasi-philosophic sources, such as religion or misapplied science. A problem I have seen myself is that one way that pop philosophers take advantage of this state of affairs is by posing as intellectual mavericks. Sam Harris, famous for writing the ultimately mystical The End of Faith, is one such "maverick."

It is worthwhile to consider briefly in what way Harris poses as a maverick, in what way he isn't a true revolutionary, and why. Troy Jollimore reviews Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape for Barnes & Noble and finds it wanting. His reason for doing so strikes at the heart of all three of the questions I just raised.

It would be one thing to try to write intelligently about moral skepticism while avoiding the language of academic philosophy -- or at least, the unnecessarily finicky aspects of it -- with the hope of reaching a general audience. But to try to avoid not only the terminology, but large portions of the subject matter itself -- the "views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible" -- is to commit oneself to providing an incomplete and highly distorted account of the subject. This is unfortunate, given that Harris has a number of sensible and pertinent points to contribute to the debate. Moral skepticism is all too frequently advanced by people who have no idea what the arguments for it are, as if it were simply an obvious fact, accepted by all reasonable persons, that values cannot possibly aspire to the objectivity of fact, and that any evaluation must, at the end of the day, reduce to an expression of some indefensible preference or prejudice. Statements like "morality is just a matter of subjective opinion" are often uttered as if they required no defense -- even when it is easy to demonstrate that the skeptics themselves live and behave in ways that appear deeply incompatible with their alleged skepticism. [bold added]
I submit that Harris, although he holds himself out to be a champion of objective morality, is among those who unwittingly advance moral relativism precisely because he fails to engage the questions of moral philosophy -- although perhaps to a far worse extent that even his reviewer sees. This is a shame, because if Harris really were a champion of objective morality, he would be a true revolutionary!

As I noted years ago when I reviewed The End of Faith, Harris is, ethically, an altruist: "But there are far better reasons for self-sacrifice than those that religion provides." (p. 78) And what might those reasons be? Jollimore picks through Harris's footnote-littered Landscape to give us an indication:
A proper understanding of morality, [Harris] argues, will reveal that it falls well within the area of inquiry that is governed by science. For moral questions are questions about well-being, and questions about well-being are, in essence, empirical questions about what makes humans and other conscious organisms flourish and thrive. "Questions about values -- about meaning, morality, and life's larger purpose -- are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures," he announces on page one. "Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood."
This sounds like a promising start, but look where it ends up! Jollimore quotes Harris:
[Robert] Nozick . . . asks if it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings. Provided that we take the time to really imagine the details (which is not easy), I think the answer is clearly "yes." There seems no reason to suppose that we must occupy the highest peak on the moral landscape.
If we take, say, one's race as one such "superbeing," it's not too hard to imagine where's Harris's train is going to take us. [Clarification: Harris's contention that our species can be sacrificed clearly indicates that he's okay with the sacrifice of individuals, as implicit in the above.]

What went wrong? Consider where another philosopher started her moral inquiry on the path to proposing an objective morality and reaching very different conclusions regarding human sacrifice.
What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions -- the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?

Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all -- and why?
Elsewhere, Ayn Rand asks two other relevant questions that Harris never touches: "What is man?" and "What are values?" Interestingly, Rand notices something that Harris apparently fails to: that even non-conscious living beings have values -- but only rational beings must learn what their (moral) values are in order to pursue them and live. She also considers two major questions that Harris seems fuzzy on at best -- the standard of value in morality, as well as the proper recipient of values obtained by one's effort.

What does Harris do? He jumps in mid-stream, accepting, as far as I can tell, the following premises without question: man needs "values," and those "values" pertain to some woozily-imagined "well-being in the universe at large." This is not scientific, although it is very bad philosophy. This is not revolutionary. This is not even wrong, and as such is not objective at all.

But Harris says he's casting aside the errors of religion, so he must be a revolutionary, and he praises sacrifice, so he must be good. He'll pass as a revolutionary in the minds of plenty of people who want to flatter themselves as fans of an iconoclast while not having to question common ethical assumptions. But he'll fail to satisfy even the most minimally critical readers, and, in doing so, may only confirm what many of them already "know:" that morality is not a rational pursuit.

Harris will thus lead fans astray and waste detractors' time alike because, for a brief instant at the start of his inquiry, he decided against objectivity.

-- CAV

Note: To consider just a couple of levels: (1) patently absurd conclusions like, "We can't know anything;" and (2) a largely rationalistic methodology, which manifests (in part) in tedious, boring arguments that alienate most "men-on-the-street."


: Added a clarification.


mike said...

I heard his lecture on TED a few weeks back and thought it was good.

Like you say most of today's philosophical ideas are wrongly taught and thus they are wrong on a lot of things. In my chemistry department for example 5 professors think philosophy is completely bunk and the others happen to be logical positivists.

Sam is probably the best out of the so-called "new atheists". It seems that they are so fixated on disproving religion that they never offer something better instead.

Anonymous said...

"If we take, say, one's race as one such "superbeing," it's not too hard to imagine where's Harris's train is going to take us."

Especially with this group of the "We're the ones we've been waiting for" mentality. Talk about self-annointing with oil. And it's not even good snake-oil.

C. Andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Harris is a lot like Ann Coulter in the sense that he can level decent criticism of some things from time to time, but when it's time to offer positive ideas of his own, he is ... umm ... lacking.


What's worrisome is that Harris's mystical "method" leaves things wide open for that.


madmax said...

If we take, say, one's race as one such "superbeing," it's not too hard to imagine where's Harris's train is going to take us.

This is exactly where the human-bio-diversity (HBD) movement is going. It is loaded with secular evolutionary types, only difference being that they are Conservatives instead of Leftists like Harris. Harris is trying to argue that there is an evolutionary basis for morality, egalitarianism and Leftist politics. The HBD or alternative-Right crowd are using evolution to argue for racial collectivism and ethnic solidarity as the only alternative to Leftist politics.

I think that when intellectuals go down the road of materialism and scientism they will always leave themselves open to these false alternatives.

mike said...

yeah I do notice that from people who fight the good fight sometimes- not saying that Ann Coulter is one such person though-- they focus on criticism which itself is something good but just don't come up with alternatives. Like all those who rightly criticize multiculturalism but then go on to offer nationalism or secular "humanism" instead or miss the fundamental point of defamation of reason.

oh well

Gus Van Horn said...


Materialists both write off the idea of free will as mysticism and ignore ample introspective and observational evidence that it exists. And then, their deterministic premise, along with altruism absorbed from the culture make them shills for such allegedly evolution-based "scientific" arguments for collectivism.


If I read you right, it is a good point that Coulter isn't fighting the good fight.

I'll still say that some of her criticisms of the left are useful to those of us who are.


Anonymous said...

Harris was on The Daily Show a week or two ago promoting this book, and it was embarassing to watch. It was very clear that he didn't have a firm grasp of relatively simple concepts, such as why religion cannot be a source of objective morality. I lost any interest I might have had for the book while watching it.

Gus Van Horn said...

Such a turning-off of readers could be a good thing if common, as it would mean that Harris is self-limiting the amount of cultural damage he could do.