Philosophy Weekend: Sam Harris on Morality

Existential Politics Psychology Religion

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.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Goofing Off. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Alain De Botton on Religion.
8 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Sam Harris on Morality"

by Cal on

Running barefoot through a jungle chased by war criminals doesn't sound entirely unappealing to me...

I'd normally make a quip about this being, in my view, preferable to marriage and children.

But come on, Levi. While we middle-aged modern men are often beset by ennui that evokes stirring dreams of heroic danger, suggesting it is in any way preferable to safety and security, however boring, is ... I'm trying to think of a proper word that isn't insulting but I can't. Because I can't take this comment seriously - though I do believe the thing that jolts you from such a romantic reverie is the idea of your children suffering along with you. You're engaging in some deep fantasy here, I think, and it's only from the perspective of the "good" life we inhabit that we can look at the horrible life of constant vigilance and eventual murder to derive any benefits from it. "Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, " we think after a long day of backstabbing at the office. "At least I'd know who my enemies are." It reminds me of those very comfortable Westsiders who imagine the spiritual benefits of living in poverty that so many Indians must enjoy! (It also strikes me as, well, simple and not very considered, the very criticisms you are making of Harris.)

Harris' terms and method are indeed loose and too broad to be useful or effective. His contrast of good/bad life is cartoonish and childish in its focus on the distant extremes of life experience. In the muddled middle is where most of us live. When we choose between good and bad lives, few of us chooses what we perceive as "bad." The eighteen year old chooses the good life of 4-6 years in the military that promises to pay for his college. He does not choose the "bad" life of having his legs blown off and being unable to attend college due to chronic pain and PTSD.

Which life is actually "good" is without doubt in Harris' ridiculous scenario - that's how he sets it up; it's a trick shot, not an actual game of billiards. That the person challenged by ravenous predators and violent enemies is able to derive "good" from his "bad" life is a testament to human ingenuity, not moral fiber. Same goes for those entrenched in a plastic life dulled by prescription drugs and too much television: they may eke a bit of existential worth from their drudgery.

Harris' philosophy is not only proudly pedantic but superciliously selfish. He attempts to measure "good" not as much by its effects on others as its benefits to the actor. The "good life" is what benefits me, not you: my "good life" my depend on your "bad life" - much of capitalism is in fact engineered in this manner. He gives only passing and superficial consideration to the most glaring chasms in his reasoning. Everything he writes is like a bad TED talk, superficial and glossy with lots of pictures - this might be the perfect forum for such a "philosopher," as it takes longer to read his books so the 11-minute version might preferable.

It seems to me that most of these "public philosophers" are more interested in being public than doing philosophy, more intrigued by in having an audience than engaging with difficult questions that will result in challenging answers that once invoked might result in a smaller audience.

by Levi Asher on

Well, Cal, I didn't say I would choose a death race in the jungle. I just said it doesn't sound entirely unappealing to me. I guess 15 gazillion people who went to see "The Hunger Games' also see the appeal.

Anyway, it sounds like you agree (even more emphatically) with my estimation of Harris's acheivement. Any suggestions which popular philosopher I should try next?

by Cal on

So a brief life dominated by hunger and fear on the good days, and being chased to death by criminals on a bad day, isn't unappealing to you?

More than a few men in our age range have lately expressed such sentiments to me. Without exception, few of them have ever even been hunting, much less experienced the wilderness beyond a brief camping trip. And of course, they've never had to survive merely on their wiles. While I understand that few who express this are (1) not putting much thought into it and (2) are actually trying to identify (and express) some dissatisfaction with the way we/they live.

I recognize the existential dilemma of being a "middle aged" human male in American society. Our contemporary urban lifestyles don't seem to offer much in the way of existential challenge. It is easy and common to begin to question what has value, what constitutes the "good life," and wonder if the near-total absence of physical challenges from the environment (relatively recent in the lives of human males) might be the cause. The increasing popularity of "extreme sports" and similar activities attests to this, as does the growing interest in "post-apocalyptic survival."

But finding such a survival scenario "appealing" is clearly the result of (1) lacking experience in facing physical challenges from the environment and (2) media imagery associated with the fantasy of these scenarios. That people enjoy a movie or book like "The Hunger Games" does suggest a popular interest in the fantasy of these scenarios, if only for their entertainment value. But it's a long jump from "entertaining" to "appealing." I doubt anyone actually finds the idea of starving to death, being oppressed by an elite political class, and being forced to hunt your friends to survive is "appealing."

But no doubt they find appeal in the heroism of the protagonist. Why, then, don't they express these aspects of the fantasy? Why is the expression akin to, "It seems appealing to be living on the edge of death and in constant fear?"

Norman Mailer wrote a lot about this kind of thing. It's also the core of much of Hemingway's work. (I think it might be nestled into Jonathon Franzen's novels as well, but I'm still trying to read "The Corrections," so....). It's the "existential dilemma," of course - something we don't talk about much now, even in philosophical circles, because "existential" is as tired and misused as word as "fascist."

Consider our age: until very recently, we would be near death or old. Now thanks to medicine we get to be "middle aged." This however is maybe 50-100 years of our biological history, not likely to overcome 10,000 or more years of evolution, DNA hard-wiring, and environmental lessons that are so entrenched that they seem "biological" (fear of the dark, for example). While I'm not a biological determinist, there is definitely some determinism that results from this bio-mechanical humanoid evolutionary history.

At our current ages 8,000 years ago, you and I are memories to our tribe and family. We were once proud hunters - now we are bones.

Today, you and I are graying men who still occupy central roles in our family and tribe. We were once proud hunters - what are we now?

(I don't have much advice on modern/contemporary philosophers. You know I still read Plato daily, right? I'm fond of E.M Cioran, who was in vogue for a moment in the 90s. I'm not sure if she's a philosopher, but I read everything Rebecca Solnit writes. Paul Draper is a good one as well. But I find most of these people are revisiting old ideas, so I revisit the old ideas and the old thinkers as well.)

by catalyst on

if i am not understanding this correctly i apologize...but i have to disagree with this guy's stance on the "good" life or the "bad" life...its always been my opinion that whether your life is good or bad is not depending on the circumstances you find yourself in, rather, on how to relate to them and how you handle those in your mind, this is our FREE WILL...some people are in dire situations not because they lack reason, or any fault of their own...but because shit happens...like people who are born into poverty, they didn't choose that situation with their own reason or understanding...thats just the hand that was dealt...i've met a lot of "poor" people who are genuinely happier than "rich" people simply because the way they relate to those around them, their minds are strong and they find happiness within themselves, rather than looking for all these external things to bring them happiness.

for these reasons, it seems to me, this guy is pretty ignorant about life in general. of course, i could be interpreting this completely wrong which would make me the ignorant one, HA!

by josh moore on

I think its odd that someone who seemingly believes in order rationality positivist determinism argues against the existence of God. God's existence was posited because man needed an umbrella argument to explain the disorder.

It's naive to think that the person running around the jungle away from the zombie brain eaters made poor choices compared to the ideal manifestation of situation comedy.

They may have indeed made some poor choices but that does explain why they live in a jungle whereas the author lives in a nice trendy suburban area (which he may or may not).

We are driven by own egos. Inflicting our cultural norms is a given. I hardly have the right. but I am paternal even to fresh fruit.

Extending way past John Stuart Mill here without the framework of the society or cultural norms---what gives me the right to say anything is right (or degrees of) any more then I have a right to say what is wrong (or degrees of)?

Mitakuye Oyasin I guess right?

by Levi Asher on

Cal, I really don't get where you're coming from. Do you know how many times you've said "middle-aged" in your two comments above? That would make sense if my original blog post was about arthritis, but it's about morality, and I think morality works the same way no matter what age you are.

You seem to be objecting to the basic fact that comfortable and mature adults with safe and secure lives sometimes dream of adventure or danger. Well, object all you want, but it's an absolutely basic fact of life.

I also think "Hunger Games" delivers more than entertainment. Think also (appealing now to our own "middle-aged" generation) of the film "Deliverance", which was also about people shooting each other with bows and arrows in a forest. Do you not recognize that this yearning for danger is a primal urge? Why fight against it?

Anyway, thanks for the references to EM Cieran and Rebecca Solnit -- they are both now on my reading list! And thanks to all for the comments.

by Subject Sigma on

I don't know about Sam Harris, but I have a different explanation about the "dream of adventure and danger". I know this is not the main topic of the discussion, but it seems that everyone more or less agrees about this last work of Sam Harris...

A quite simple idea is that, since we are (also) animals, we still have lot of self-defense mechanisms, and as Cal stated, "50-100 years of our biological history, not likely to overcome 10,000 or more years of evolution, DNA hard-wiring, and environmental lessons that are so entrenched".

So in my opinion the dream is not about adventure and danger, but mainly is the adrenaline given by a race in the jungle, or any physical exploit that requires also strong concentration and istant reactions, like a motorbike run or a football game. Despite our recent history, biologically we still are hunters, and the inner mechanics of our body are highly developed to grant our best performances during this action; with this aim, it is reasonable that we find a positive stimulus in doing it, so this may be a simpler reason behind the excitement for "The Hunger Games", the extreme sports, fast driving, and so on: just a biological adrenaline addiction.

by Daniel Meloy on

Interesting points. However, I think universalizing such thoughts is a bit counter productive. Not that I disagree with the sentiment that desiring a good life is universal, but you simply cannot generalize what is considered a good life. While they may all have common themes, they are going to be vastly different, and one person's ideal life could be intolerable, all but a nightmare, to somebody else. I'm an anthropologist by training, not a philosopher, so I don't know how universality applies to such schools of thought. What do you think?

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