Think back a few years. If you frequented The Partially Examined Life during that time, you’ll remember the heated debate inspired by Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape (TML). The arguments in posts and comment sections across the blogosphere eventually took on a particularly impressive rancor. The ambient controversy helped land Harris on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and propel the book up the New York Times best seller list. You might have thought you’d left the hub-bub behind or that you’d at least moved onto Harris’s latest book, Lying. But as you may have heard, Harris has issued a challenge—The Moral Landscape Challenge—to call any of you out who believe you can refute the core thesis of TML. If successful, as judged by Harris himself, you’ll win $20,000. If Harris goes unpersuaded, best essay still gets a prize of $2,000. Submissions will be accepted February 2–9, and a winner will be announced in June. In order to be eligible, essays cannot exceed 1,000 words. The official rules are found here.
To recap, Sam Harris believes there is such a thing as moral truth, and that we can confidently know the answers to moral questions. This makes Harris, in the jargon of the branch of philosophy known as meta-ethics, a moral realist, a common and uncontroversial stance. The controversy stems from Harris’s insistence that science can determine values, and indeed that science is in the best position to understand morality properly construed (note TML’s provocative subtitle, How Science Can Determine Values). This is a view even scientists have traditionally stopped short of. “Values,” Harris tells us, “translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values.” Not to exhaust Harris’s repertoire, but imagine a group of scientists, gathered around a brain scan, searching the image for how the parts of the brain light up—presumably this would provide evidence that would go toward telling which among moral theories maximizes happiness. Harris refers to all this as the “neurophysiology of happiness” and to him it makes science preeminent in determining human values.
That’s the thesis. But there’s also a hook: It’s the related but distinct claim that when it comes to understanding the true meaning of morality and its relation to science, philosophy has lead us into a morass out of which Harris can lead us. The hook has at least a touch of iconoclasm to it, but it’s not obvious Harris understands what he got himself into as TML’s actual message, charitably construed, is relatively tame. Lucky for Harris most people didn’t notice the switch between the hook and what TML actually delivered. So the big challenge for anyone hoping to claim the $20,000 prize is not in overcoming some penetrating insight in the book; it’s in the difficulty of pinning Harris down as he grants himself wiggle room through his own ingenious ambiguity. A certain level of rancor is inevitable, then, as proponents on both sides end up exasperated by the process of talking past one another.
Staying above the fray is always nice, but I have to take a side too, because after reading the book I noticed that Harris simply grants himself whatever latitude he needs for his argument to function. For example, he adopts an expansive standard of what can count as science, but invokes a stingy standard for what can qualify as a moral system of thought and belief. It seems like Harris is saying something that, if true, must be revolutionary. Think about it: science can determine morality? How daring! But Harris’s parameters are that science can include not only knowledge formally gleaned from the experimental sciences but also something as everyday as “rational thought,” while morality can only be reasonably defined as a kind of Western-Secular and liberal-democratic well-being. Under these conditions the stance that science can determine values does become persuasive—and very boring.
There’s something even more insidious than that, which can be revealed by traveling to parts of the landscape Harris cordons off. The first sight to see along the way is Harris’s treatment of skepticism, namely, his intimations that the moral skeptic deserves the same ill repute as the radical skeptic. For readers new to the topic, neither of these skeptics is the contemporary skeptical intellectual we know, the one with an air of rational authority, doubting the existence of gods and the efficacy of alternative medicine. The radical skeptic, for example, is much bolder—doubting the undoubtable, even at times doubting the existence of the minds of other people or the physical world in toto. Philosophers have grappled with this skeptic for centuries. I’ve never been entirely clear on whether the radical skeptic holds these doubts sincerely, or if this form of skepticism is merely a kind of argumentative device designed to illuminate the limits of rational justification; either way, let’s go whole-hog and say that this skeptic is not actually bold but foolish and, really just annoying. Most of us have encountered someone like this at one point or another, the kind of too-clever person who challenges common knowledge only for the sake of it, insisting on more and more justification on top of the workaday justification most of us are satisfied with. Some of us may have even inhabited these roles ourselves from time to time, perhaps after a dangerously short time in a philosophy class.
If you were looking for a paradigmatic example of a moral skeptic, the Australian philosopher J.L. Mackie would be it. Harris and Mackie’s secular-atheist views line up quite nicely, but they part ways on meta-ethics. Mackie famously said, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” This line of argument has come to be called “the argument from queerness.” Though it’s contested, many believe that if moral skepticism is true, then so is nihilism, the view that life has no inherent meaning or purpose. In fact the term moral skepticism is often used interchangeably with “moral nihilism” (not too far behind is moral relativism, which starts with the observation that different cultures sometimes have wildly different value systems, and finishes with the assertion that nothing can adjudicate those differences).
Though Harris didn’t bill the book as an anti-religious polemic like that of his late friend’s God is Not Great, TML can still be seen as a continuation of New Atheist attempts to bring secularism and Atheism out of the closet, to make religious belief superfluous and weird, at best. New Atheism is not only an intellectual movement but an ideological one, taking on a public agenda in the hopes of changing the world. In order to do so, the movement has to disassociate itself from the politically unpalatable connotations traditionally associated with atheism, like nihilism and relativism. Despite the revolutionary tone of New Atheism, it also has a triangulation politics which, if successful, would place it well within the mainstream. In Harris’s telling, Secular-Atheist thought removes the historical baggage atheism has traditionally shouldered and stops deferring the moral high-ground to the religious.
To persuade you that the moral skeptic is obviously wrong, Harris gets graphic, writing of Albanian blood feuds and of a young girl who has acid thrown in her face by the Taliban. At first glance, then, Harris’s attempted merging of the radical and moral skeptic seems reasonable. After all, who could doubt that the horrible things cited by Harris count as wrong? Clearly, no one. So why are all these philosophers and writers being so critical of Harris’s thesis? Just to name a few: Patricia Churchland believes our moral beliefs are based in sentiments, not reason; David Sexton doesn’t see science as adding anything to our mix of moral intuitions or judgments, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, deftly employing Harris’s chosen metaphor, writes “… the landscape that the book calls to mind is that of a city a few days after a snowstorm. A marvelously clear avenue stretches before us, but the looming banks to either side betray how much has been unceremoniously swept aside.”
Harris will get little opposition in piling on those who demand radical justification, as extreme doubters of this sort are summarily dismissed by more or less all of us. Maybe we should spend at least some time, then, reflecting on how we moved past radically skeptical doubts. Was radical skepticism defeated in some sort of great debate? Hardly. Even one of the seminal texts on the flaws of radical skepticism, Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, didn’t meet the challenge from radical skepticism head-on, but still managed to convince many of us that we don’t have to either, a now commonly deployed strategy. In the end, it’s not that we defeated radical skepticism as much as that we got bored and moved on. So what is Harris’s championing of the achievements of science meant to show? After all, science could never have defeated radical skepticism, because the radical skeptic doesn’t play the game of evidence like the rest of us. So is the moral skeptic like the radical skeptic, displaying a mere obstinacy? Harris speaks of the demand for radical justification leveled by the moral skeptic. But if that’s what the moral skeptic demands, it’s not clear why anyone needs to write a book explaining the moral skeptic’s mistake, as few of us take the radical skeptic seriously to begin with. In other words, if moral skepticism is merely radical skepticism applied to morality, then the only response we owe it is a shrug.
Early on, TML issues a bold challenge to the specific philosophical field of meta-ethics. Two philosophers Harris mentions by name, David Hume and G.E. Moore, are giants of the field and as such, volumes have been written in attempts to plumb the depths of their work. Harris swats Moore away by dismissing his famous Open Question Argument as a verbal trap. He comes a bit closer to responding to Hume, but still barely engages at all. Hume was an 18th century Scottish philosopher whose seminal contribution to the field is the is/ought problem, which claims that no purely descriptive premise can produce a moral conclusion, and many have thought that it follows that science (on the “is” side) cannot tell us how to live (on the “ought” side).The closest Harris comes to dealing with Hume’s argument is when he asserts that values (oughts) are present in science (is) from the beginning. It’s curious that Harris thinks this counts in his favor as the subtitle of his book—science can determine values—appears to be rendered facile if values are already at the foundation of science. So is Harris merely peddling the mutual dependency of facts and values, or is he holding a coronation for science? He appears to do both at different times, but ultimately the way he chose to present his argument is more of an exaltation of science, in keeping with New Atheist bravado.
In any case, we now have full view of the real estate Harris walled off. It’s true that the burgeoning moral science Harris champions is fascinating and exciting; it’s also philosophically trivial next to what Harris claimed for TML. Harris not only fails to refute Mackie, Hume or Moore, but fails to substantively engage them at all. If anyone doubts whether Harris has shown that science can literally “determine” moral values or whether in one fell swoop that he’s shown that the aforementioned meta-ethical thinkers were misguided, Harris has that base covered: he simply responds by presenting the trivial thesis I’ve outlined here (which is essentially an outline of the neurophysiology of happiness). In the heat of public argument, Harris will earn no small amount of rhetorical credit through his displays of incredulity towards doubters—doubters who’ve perhaps been misdirected somewhere between his bold hook and trivial thesis.
TML’s bold claim—the hook—is why most people paid attention to the book to begin with, including me, which is why I found the book’s core so anticlimactic. TML’s promotional materials cite Harris’s “expertise” in philosophy and his experience on the front lines of the culture wars. The imagery of the culture war is instructive here: When Harris boldly dismisses philosophy’s seminal contributions to moral thought it’s admittedly an intimidating display of goose-stepping, but his constant retreat to the trivial thesis builds a new barricade, one farther back and easier to defend (the academic name for this informal fallacy is “shifting ground,” also an applicable metaphor for Harris’s landscape). In Harris’s presence, though, his rhetoric will feel anything but retreating. He’s as cocksure as any orator. In case any of you wonder whether Harris has overturned a vast and historic field of philosophical debate in 191 pages and a handful of promotional book events, I encourage you to look into it yourself. Now that I’ve mapped the landscape, it’s up to you, contestants: will you attack the thesis, or the hook? As for me, by engaging in philosophical housekeeping rather than apologetics, this post could not win any cash prize from Harris. Besides, it appears I’m over the thousand-word limit.