Little ‘Value’ in New Harris Book

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make famous.

Sam Harris shot to fame a few years back for a book that he wrote while still a graduate student. Published in 2004, The End of Faith was a strong attack on religion, especially the Christian religion, and this earned him a leading place, along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, in the so-called “New Atheist” movement.

Now Harris—who recently finished his PhD in neuroscience, on top of an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Stanford—has turned his attention to ethics in a new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. As the subtitle tells us, he argues that we can put moral reasoning on an objective footing. According to him, we have been quite mistaken in thinking that matters of fact and matters of value are two separate things. David Hume was wrong when he said we can never legitimately go from the way things are to the way things ought to be. G. E. Moore made a mistake when he invented the “naturalistic fallacy” for moves from the scientific to the ethical. It is all really a matter of science, and we will be much better off when we start to realize this.

Most importantly, showing the strong links between the earlier Harris and the later Harris, he insists that religion needs to be removed from the picture. Not only does religion presume to tell people what to do (or not to do), it presumes to tell people the most awful things about what to do (or not to do). Killing, rape, child molestation—you name it—religion is game to find a moral justification. Obviously, all right-thinking people find these claims repellent and indicative that religion is absolute nonsense; science will finally show us definitely why. For Harris, therefore, not only will finding the true basis of morality be a good thing intellectually, it will itself be an exercise in moral behavior.

So what is the secret that has eluded David Hume and G. E. Moore, and just about every professional philosopher of the twentieth century, including the present writer? It seems to be a matter of “well-being.” We value well-being and we therefore ought to promote it, both for ourselves and for others. That is all there is to it, Harris thinks, although of course a lot more is required to get well-being in every particular case. But essentially well-being is everything, and science can tell us whether we have it or not.

Well, hang on a minute. Before we go off and celebrate in the bar that two-and-a-half thousand years of moral philosophizing can now be brought to an end, let’s ask a few questions—the sorts of questions that one might ask of a first-year undergraduate who comes up with an answer like this.

First, what does “well-being” even mean? Notoriously, Jeremy Bentham argued that the old English child’s game of push-pin is as good as poetry. The more sensitive John Stuart Mill said it was better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool or a pig satisfied. Can science tell us one way or the other? Moral philosophers have always realized that matters of empirical fact are relevant to moral decision making. For instance, should I plunge this knife into this man’s chest? It all depends. If you have the skill of a surgeon and the man has clogged arteries, go right ahead. If, like me, you were born with ten thumbs, know only about the Categorical Imperative, and could not distinguish an artery from a drainpipe, forget it.

But what about the actual business of well-being itself? Perhaps brain science can tell us why one person likes to go to a baseball game and another to the opera, but can it tell us whether we should go to the baseball game or the opera? Leave aside the convoluted, pretend issues that philosophers so love—the opera singers all have starving children at home who will suffer if you don’t go to listen to them—and just ask the basic question: Yankees or Wagner? I don’t see that science has a dog in this fight.

Push the discussion a bit further. Why should I maximize well-being? I will look after myself and my family and my friends, because I like doing that and when they are happy so am I. But why should I care about others? How can science answer this? One answer might be that if everyone is happy then I will be happier. This is a bit like the Henry Ford argument that if everyone is paid enough to buy a car, I will sell more and my profits will go up. But does this hold generally? And more importantly, why should I care about the well-being of others if I can increase my own?

This is precisely the debate we are having in America today. There are those, like myself, who think that even if the very rich do get a better quality of life than the rest of us—Mayor Bloomberg flying off in his private jet to Bermuda each weekend to play golf (no Saturday Afternoon at the Met for him!)—the riches should be spread around to give inner-city, single moms a bit more of a break. And there are others, equally in the name of morality, who think that ‘freedom’ trumps everything, and if Bloomberg can make the cash legally then it is his to spend how and where he likes. Single moms will have to do without.

Science alone just cannot do it. It cannot decide questions like these. I don’t know what Harris studied in his philosophy courses as an undergrad at Stanford, but they don’t seem to have penetrated very deeply. He denounces philosophers before him (including myself, I should admit) without really addressing the challenge their arguments pose to his claims.

The trouble is that Harris seems so keen to get to religion that he has little or no time for such conventional academic courtesies. To say that religion is a bit of an obsession for Harris is rather like saying Hitler had a bit of a thing about the Jews. Like Mr. Dick writing about King Charles’ head in David Copperfield, he cannot get away from it. And at times—at many times—his obsession comes across as not just misplaced but thoroughly mean-minded. This is well exemplified by his treatment of Francis Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project and now the head of the National Institutes of Health in Washington. Harris writes:

In 2006, Collins published a bestselling book, The Language of God, in which he claimed to demonstrate “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between twenty-first-century science and Evangelical Christianity. The Language of God is a genuinely astonishing book. To read it is to witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide. It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: the body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now—and yet polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man’s health. (160)*

The invective against Collins continues for another fifteen—I kid you not, fifteen—pages.

Let me make clear why I find this all inappropriate to the point of being repellent. It is not because Harris mistakenly accuses Collins of being both a scientist and a Christian—Collins is without doubt both of these. It is not because Harris criticizes Collins for being a Christian or for thinking that science and religion can be harmonized. He has every right to do this, and, if truth be known, I am much closer to Harris than to Collins on the matter of the truth-status of Christianity. Also, even though I think that science and religion can be harmonized, I am not sure that Collins shows this successfully. My objection is that in a book on the foundations of ethics it is simply out of place to spend so much time on such a personal attack.

Perhaps Harris would reply that he is arguing for a secular approach to ethics, one based on science, and that hence it is appropriate to attack the main rival to the secular, namely the religious. But apart from the fact that philosophers from Socrates to John Rawls have been offering secular moralities, why does Harris not actually engage those (like Saint Thomas Aquinas) who have offered religiously-based systems of ethics?

In The Moral Landscape there is not a single mention of Thomism or of the natural law approach. Instead there is personal attack after personal attack. “Is it really wise to entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?”

Actually, the answer seems to be that it is wise to do so. Collins has been at the forefront of trying to get restrictions lifted on stem-cell research. However, my real objection is that this kind of stuff has no place in what is supposed to be a serious discussion of the foundations of morality.

If God wanted to destroy New Atheism, getting this book written was a good start. Although, as I said at the beginning, perhaps the first divine move was making Sam Harris so famous he thought he could get away with it.

*This quote has been corrected.

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Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University. He works on the history and philosophy of science, especially Darwinian evolution, and is the author of many books, the latest of which is Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science (Cambridge U. Press, 2010).