I’m searching for a bright light of truth among the hip young “public philosophers” selling books today. Last weekend, we admired Alain De Botton’s sensitive style but worried that he might be the Martha Stewart of philosophy. This weekend, I’d like to look at a harder-hitting upstart, Sam Harris, whose key ethical work is The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
I got off to a bad start with Sam Harris in 2004 when he rose to fame with an angry book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason that identified fundamentalist religion (particularly radical Islam) as a major source of the world’s problems. Harris was part of a wave of new atheists, including Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and eventually Christopher Hitchens, who posited Osama bin Laden as the reductio ad absurdum of all organized religion, a formula I completely disagree with (I’m quite sure that “religious hatred” is only a surrogate for ethnic or national hatred, and I suspect that guerrophiles like Osama bin Laden have little authentic interest in religion to begin with).
So I avoided Sam Harris’s early books, but he may be improving. His 2010 Moral Landscape is worth digging into and taking quite seriously. This book lays out an extended argument for the real existence of a concrete and universal moral code that could, if properly expressed and understood, significantly, improve the world. This is the kind of ambition I like to see in an ethical philosopher.
The primary challenge facing Sam Harris in this book is not to define a concrete and universal moral code — not surprisingly, he resorts to a John Stuart Mill-ish Utilitarian approach — but rather to show that a concrete and universal moral code is possible at all. Harris presents a clear argument for the positive conclusion here, which I will paraphrase as follows:
PREMISE 1: We can all roughly agree on the difference between the bad life and the good life. (To hammer this point home, Harris presents capsule examples of each: The Bad Life involves a barefoot refugee in a jungle who has just seen her children raped and dismembered. The Good Life involves a mature adult in a loving relationship who has been successful enough in well-chosen endeavors to now devote his life to helping others.) There is universal agreement that the good life is to be preferred to the bad life, or near enough to universal — Harris has quipped elsewhere that anyone who objects to this premise is “hitting philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question”.
PREMISE 2: The difference between the bad life and the good life is not accidental, but rather is the result of rational thinking applied to strenuous effort. Reason is an essential part of our natural drive to achieve the good life and avoid the bad life.
CONCLUSION: Since we universally value the good life, and reason is required to acheive the good life, therefore we have universal agreement that we should favor reason over unreason. The pursuit of reason, then, must form the structural basis of our moral code.
What I like best about Sam Harris is his plucky determination, and his clear presentation of premises leading to conclusions.
What I don’t like is that, unfortunately, this argument lacks any force to persuade. There’s no evidence that Sam Harris has persuaded anyone yet (I often meet people who swear by Ayn Rand, for instance, but have never met anyone who swears by Sam Harris). His argument only holds up when we agree to ride along with his use of abstractions like “good life”, “bad life” and “reason”. He does a fine job of illustrating what each of these words should mean, but, as hard as he tries, acceptance of these abstractions remains voluntary.
His argument is sturdy enough for those who want to agree with it, but it has no claim to universal appeal. Personally, I don’t have a big problem with either of his premises or with his conclusion, but I am sure that no large group of Earthlings will ever find his argument compelling. It’s too easy to tear apart. For instance, the terrible “bad life” of the victimized refugee offers chances for heroism and beatitude that more comfortable people may never have. We yearn for heroism and beatitude, for deathly challenge; human nature often seems to abhor happiness itself. Meanwhile, the “good life” of the well-connected, worldly, successful do-gooder reads a lot like a New Yorker profile of International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn … just before a string of inexplicable sex scandals began to ruin Strauss-Kahn’s name.
Last weekend I cited Fyodor Dostoevsky as a counter to Alain De Botton’s gentle philosophy, and the same medicine must be tested here. If human nature is naturally twisted and willfully self-contradictory — and much evidence shows that is — then Harris’s premises and conclusion will never capture the complexity of actual life.
But Harris’s formula works fine as a voluntary argument; there are no holes in his logic, and one may choose to agree with his estimation of the value of a strictly rational moral code (as I suppose I personally do, at least in rough outline). But if his argument has no force to compel, than he has not achieved the primary objective of the book, which is to provide a moral code that everyone must accept. Like the controversial health care reform law currently being evaluated by the Supreme Court in the United States of America, Harris’s argument falls apart without a universal mandate.
There’s more to philosophy than logic and reason; a writer of ethical philosophy must show enough perceptive insight to grab and hold many readers, and this is where Sam Harris could benefit from Alain De Botton’s artistry, or William James’s humorous psychological depth. Harris occasionally writes well (an essay about the folly of religion called The Fireplace Delusion, which can be found on his website, is among his cleverest pieces) but his vision is too straight, his treatment too plain and flat.
As I pondered Harris’s capsule illustrations of the bad life and the good life, it occurred to me that the defining characteristics of these lives were the bad and good experienced by others, not by the subjects of the stories themselves. Running barefoot through a jungle chased by war criminals doesn’t sound entirely unappealing to me, and I only felt myself concurring with this example of the bad life when Harris described the suffering of this person’s children. Likewise, his illustration of the good life didn’t appeal to me until Harris declared that this person would have the luxury of helping the needy. This quirky fact about his illustrations strikes me as more interesting that the illustrations themselves. But Harris does not take the opportunity to explore this path with us. I wish he did.
Sam Harris is a proudly pedantic philosopher, and he seems to have won much acclaim among many smart readers who already agreed with him before they opened his books. His greatest success has been in preaching to his choir, but I’ve seen no evidence that he has managed the slightest success in reaching readers who did not agree with him first. He may spend his entire career standing as a pillar of moderate ethical rationalism, but I don’t think this would be an impressive achievement. We already have John Stuart Mill.
Sam Harris’s intensity and drive are his best qualities, and I hope he will broaden his scope and write more enlightening books in the future. In this light, though, his most recent book is a real disappointment. A year and a half ago, reviewing Fate. Time and Language by David Foster Wallace, I quipped that nobody should care about the Free Will Problem after Ludwig Wittgenstein. Well, apparently Sam Harris still cares. What a waste of time! The bad life and the good life await, and Sam Harris is churning out books about abstract nouns.