Sunday, August 26, 2012

Some thoughts on Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape"

I recently did a first reading of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape. I'd like to write about it again once I've read another recent book about neuroscience and morality, namely Pat Churchland's Braintrust, but I had two brief notes that I wanted to get down about Harris' book before my first impressions of his book faded completely. 

My first point is that I feel the neuroscience was an unnecessary distraction from the main argument. I'll have more to say about Harris' argument later, but one of the central themes of the book is that moral questions have objectively right and wrong answers, and that these answers are a function (in almost a mathematical sense) of objective facts about the well-being of human animals. What I found jarring about the introduction into the narrative of neuroscientific results was the fact that we already have a wealth of facts about human flourishing. Without drilling down into the neuroscience we already know, for example, that children who are raised without sufficient loving attention from a caregiver are going to have severe developmental issues. We already know, without having to run an fMRI study that repeatedly raping a child - those who have read the book will have encountered a particularly chilling account - will have disasterous consequences for that child's eventual flourishing, or failure to flourish. Please don't understand me as suggesting that neuroscience can't or won't contribute to the eventual science of human wellbeing (which, for Harris feeds into, if not constitutes in itself, a science of morality) - it just felt, to me, that almost every introduction of neuro-talk into his argument was forced.

My second point is that, despite the clunky neuroscience, I enjoyed the book. At first I tried approaching it as I would any work of moral philosophy, but after half an hour or so I  realized that I was reading a different kind of book. If I had tried to read it as serious moral philosophy, I would have enjoyed it far less than I did. To be clear, it doesn't present itself as a work of moral philosophy, at least no more than Dawkins' "The God Delusion" presents itself as a work of theology or philosophy of religion. Both books flirt with serious philosophy, but neither of the books commit themselves to being serious philosophy per se. No - rather than primarily being about knowledge (although both are filled with facts) or philosophical argumentation (and both are primarily argumentative in form) - these books are more about a kind of empowermentIn the case of Sam Harris' book I believe that the central aim, over and above the talk of moral landscapes and shifting notions of well-being, may very well have been to simply empower people who, when faced with clear moral violations, would ordinarily fall back on a naive cultural relativism about values to justify not speaking up, criticising, and condemning. To those who might mute their conscience in the name of, what might be, a justified belief in multiculturalism it serves as both admonition and call to action. 
Of course, I'm not suggesting that others who have read the book have missed this point - not at all - I think Harris makes it blindingly obvious, but it is a lesson worth repeating. 

Our respect for difference does not require that we acquiesce in the face of the truly morally outrageous.