science and morality, harris-style

Sam Harris is back. Since writing The End of Faith, apparently while an undergraduate at Stanford, he wrote Letter to a Christian Nation; he’s also been completing a Ph.D. at UCLA’s interdisciplinary neuroscience program. In his new book, The Moral Landscape, he seeks to bring his new field to bear on one of the thorniest problems in The End of Faith, a book plagued by thorny problems. The issue is whether science alone can provide morality. The End of Faith asserts that we don’t need religion to be moral, but doesn’t actually offer an alternative. The Moral Landscape is an attempt to provide that alternative.

I was not impressed with the argument in The End of Faith. Essentially, Harris argues that faith is only honest when it’s fundamentalist, since religion is only about cognitive belief in the claims made in a holy text. Having dismissed as inauthentic a wide swath of actually-existing religious people, he proceeds to rehash 19th-century arguments about the opposition of religion and science and to claim that all religion leads to violence and hatred. Given that, and the fact that the specific claims of religion are generally not true, or at least less likely to be true than competing claims offered by science, religion is both false and bad. The argument is thoroughly black-and-white, without a shred of nuance.

I thought, though, that Harris’s style might have mellowed a bit as he learned the humility of empirical research. No such luck. In The Moral Landscape we are presented with Harris’s argument that science can provide moral values. The book opens with the requisite moral indignation, in this case that in many US states “…it is actually legal for a teacher to beat a child,” even though “all the research indicates that corporal punishment is a disastrous practice” (p. 3). Now, I have no interest in defending corporal punishment; but this review does suggest that it is associated with more short-term behavior change, which might be an appropriate goal in some circumstances. Harris cites a law review article as his sole source for the claim, an odd choice given his contention that science (certainly not law) provides the necessary information.

The book sets up a black-and-white distinction between “The Bad Life” and “The Good Life” (p. 15). The bad life is certainly miserable, consisting of a young woman forced to endure and watch horrible violence against herself and her children through her short life. The good life–well, it’s good, sure, but for specific values of “good”:

You are married to the most loving, intelligent, and charismatic person you have ever met. Both of you have careers that are intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. For decades, your wealth and social connections have allowed you to devote yourself to activities that bring you immense personal satisfaction. One of your greatest sources of happiness has been to find creative ways to help people who have not had your good fortune in life. In fact, you have just won a billion-dollar grant to benefit children in the developing world….

Anybody with even a mediocre introductory sociology course under her belt should be able to spot the partiality in this account of the Good Life. What if you don’t both want careers? What if “intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding” come with “high stress and long hours”? What if the added economic activity of supporting a dual-career family leads to increased ecological degradation? What if, frankly, your greatest source of happiness is consuming very expensive liquor while jetting around the world on a private plane? There are lots of dimensions of goodness here, and there’s no reason to assume, or even expect, that they will covary. (Indeed, a bunch of empirical evidence, much of it by Chris Ellison and colleagues but also more powerfully by Vaisey and Lizardo, suggests that a theistic worldview produces greater well-being than a happiness-centered one. I say this as one who possesses a distinctly non-theistic, pro-hedonistic worldview myself.)

The full first chapter implies as much by slipping in other terms to modify or substitute for “well-being.” I found “long-term” (p. 13), “empowering” (5), “happiness, well-being, peace, bliss” (16), “fulfilled” (19). I’m sure there are more I didn’t note. Indeed, pages 11-13 are spent evading the question of what well-being actually is (even conceptually, let alone in terms of measurement), while insisting that it “surely has an answer” (12).

Harris invokes the metaphor of a moral “landscape” to deal with some of these problems. Essentially, if we understand well-being as a three-dimensional space such that there may be peaks of well-being in various spots, Harris admits that there may be multiple choices that “maximize one’s long-term well-being,” although apparently “the temptation to start each day with several glazed donuts and to end it with an extramarital affair” cannot be such a peak. (Is that because the affair is extramarital? Because it’s engaged in following the consumption of fried dough? Because sex is original sin in any case? How many glazed doughnuts, and sex with whom and when, would be consistent with maximizing one’s long-term well-being? Unclear. But I digress.) The landscape metaphor is a nice evasive maneuver, but it does not handle the all-too-common cases where there are actual conflicts between elements of well-being. Under what conditions ought one to choose health over happiness? Peace over bliss? Wealth over peace? Such conflicts cannot be handled in the space Harris describes. The strongest moral statement in the book, as far as I can find: “…a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being” (39). Not exactly a bold statement! Like most of the rest of his argumentation, it’s a black-and-white claim superimposed on a gray world. To show that some behaviors are universally wrong (or right), which he has sort of done, is a far cry from demonstrating that all, or even most, behaviors can be classified as universally wrong (or right).

In addition to ignoring conflicts between values, the book also ignores conflicts between people (or types of people). The sole reference to Marx (145) notes that he, along with Weber and Freud, thought religion would wither under modernity; there is no consideration that some people might have less well-being because other people have more. Rather, we are treated to a glib “Most boats will surely rise with the same tide” (188). Seriously? That’s all you got? “We would all be better off in a world where we devoted fewer of our resources to preparing to kill one another” (188). Well, no; some would be markedly worse off, including those who own stock in major defense contractors or who wield power via military might. And that’s one of the easy cases; what about distributing resources from each according to ability, to each according to need? How would that fare, logistically and morally?

As a student in my grad theory seminar (Brandon Gorman) pointed out, and others in the blogosphere have noted, if we gloss over these conceptual issues we end up at a kind of Benthamite utilitarianism, or consequentialism. There is lots of complicated discussion about this position, such as the perverse incentives created by standards either of total or of average well-being, which Harris notes on page 71, before, as Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in the NYT Book review:

having acknowledged some of these complications, he is inclined to push them aside and continue down his path.

This is an apt description of the argument, as there is never a claim about how to resolve these questions, certainly not in a “scientific” way. The approach here seems to lead quickly to the kind of conclusion Peter Singer likes to offer: that everyone with resources (which certainly includes Sam Harris, and [to a lesser extent, sadly] me) must donate most of his/her fortune to the needy of the world. That outcome would aid the average and total well-being, but certainly not provide for the kind of “good life” Harris imagines. What is the role of surplus in the good life? What is the role of freedom in it?

Freedom is, well, a part of well-being, but it’s not clear to what extent or in what way. Harris is utterly enthralled with the Burqa, which he refers to as “forcing half the population to live in cloth bags” (43). As in The End of Faith, he is so utterly convinced that there can be no adequate justification for it that he never actually pauses to offer an argument for his position. I began to wonder why Harris gets dressed in the morning (as apparently he does based on the pictures available online). A naturist (WARNING: mildly NSFW) might refer to this as “forcing virtually the entire population to live in constraining fibrous rags pieced together by sweatshop labor.” I don’t actually know where he lives, but the likelihood is that he wears more clothing than is necessary for his physical protection; the rest is there for ritual reasons, presumably similar to the reasons why at least some Muslim women wear veils.

Chinese eunuchs (!) come in for a similar degree of ridicule:

The eunuchs…seem to have felt generally well compensated for their lives of arrested development and isolation by the influence they achieved at court–as well as by the knowledge that their genitalia…would be buried with them after their deaths, ensuring them rebirth as human beings. When confronted with such an exotic point of view, a moral realist [like Harris] would like to say we are witnessing more than a mere difference of opinion: we are in the presence of moral error. It seems to me that we can be reasonably confident that it is bad for parents to sell their sons into the service of a government that intends to cut off their genitalia “using only hot chili sauce as a local anesthetic.”… Most scientists seem to believe [incorrectly, according to Harris] that no matter how maladaptive or masochistic a person’s moral commitments, it is impossible to say that he is ever mistaken about what constitutes a good life (67).

Now, I have no interest in defending the particular practices under discussion here. But these practices did in fact have local logics, and the only argument Harris can mount against either is generic indignation: the snarky reference to “cloth bags” with respect to the Burqa, the reference to an “exotic point of view” and that he “would like to say” that the eunuchs were in moral error. He can’t even meet the low standard he set for himself: to demonstrate that the stuff he finds icky actually reduces either total or average well-being. He certainly can’t meet the higher bar of demonstrating that the ickiness he finds in it makes it universally wrong. (It is ironic, too, that he says a moral realist “would like to say” it’s a moral error; on page 144, we read “One cannot say that water is H2O or that lying is wrong simply because one wants to think this way.”)

Little of the book’s core argument actually makes direct use of the neuroscience research Harris did, and has published. Essentially, his two published scientific papers seem to show that belief, disbelief, and uncertainty are processes located in different structures of the brain, and that religious belief and factual belief are located in different structures of the brain, regardless of whether the brain in question belongs to a Christian or not.

In the book, though, he brings in a finding that seems pretty ancillary to the published scientific work. That is, “the split between facts and values should look suspicious… [because] belief appears to be largely mediated by the MPFC [medial pre-frontal cortex], which seems to already constitute an anatomical bridge between reasoning and value…. [and because] the MPFC seems to be similarly engaged, irrespective of a belief’s content” (122).

I make no claims to special knowledge in neuroscience, but I do have a good friend who is an accomplished neuroscientist, and I asked her what she thought of this evidence. She noted that the fMRI-demonstrated involvement of the same brain structure in cognitive processes understood to be distinct from one another is often taken to mean that the structure’s apparent involvement is not central to the processes’ importance–essentially the neuroscientific equivalent of “a constant can’t explain a variable.” She certainly found highly suspect the claim that being in the same structure meant they were the same processes.

Like The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape is written in a black-and-white, take-no-prisoners style reminiscent of an extraordinarily bright undergraduate so enthralled with his latest epiphany that it is important neither that the argument as presented is a caricature nor that it has been proposed, considered, discussed, amended, and even rejected by very smart people over several centuries of intellectual work. It is therefore unlikely to persuade anyone not already convinced at the outset. On a more personal level, I have found that reading The End of Faith left me more sympathetic to religion than I was beforehand, and now reading The Moral Landscape has left me less convinced that there are scientific approaches to most moral questions of any significance.

I spent some time discussing the book with my in-laws, who are extremely well-read, intellectual, passionate, and smart folks. They were also the people who introduced me originally to The End of Faith when it came out. They both said that what they valued in The End of Faith had been its entry into the reading public of an anti-religion argument that was painfully missing. Harris offered a principled argument against not just religious extremists but against the pervasive influence of religion on politics and culture.

After discussing it with them, I am sympathetic to that view. But I think neither philosophy nor neuroscience offers the right tools to understand or critique religion’s role. Instead of deducing from first principles, as both books do, it would be more productive to engage sociology’s insistence that we understand religion (and other social institutions) as they are experienced and practiced, not as idea systems abstracted from the real world. An evaluation of what religion actually does, to whom, and through what mechanisms, and of how morality forms and is practiced, would not have yielded such caricatured arguments, but ironically would have been more scientific than the book as it was written.

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