The Moral Landscape

I recently picked up “New Atheist” Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape.  As I read itI wondered if Sam Harris would be good to have as a neighbor. He is a strong believer in objective morality. Many Christians believe that atheists are all terrible people with no morals. Sam Harris shows that this stereotype is false (though he would go a step further and say it is most Christians who have poor morals). As a moral guy who cares about issues in the world, Sam Harris would be a good neighbor.

The problem is, I am a Christian. For that reason, I fear Sam Harris would not like me. I would hope that if we got together with our wives to play Settlers of Catan, or perhaps watched a football game (does Penn State every play UCLA?) we could get along. Could we disagree and still live in neighborly friendliness?  I have read all three of Sam Harris’ books and I am not confident that this would be possible, as he shows a deep and bitter anger towards Christians. Not that I blame him for this, the hate mail he has received from people of faith has not done much to bring any sort of reconciliation.

In The Moral Landscape, Harris presents an argument for objective morality. He opposes secular scientists and philosophers who argue that there are objective facts in science but when it comes to morality, objectivity is gone. Harris sees this moral relativism as false. Worse, he sees in it secularists conceding objective morality to people of faith. His goal is to provide an argument for morality from a secular perspective.

Harris defines “good” as that which supports human well-being. Determining human well-being rests mostly on the science of the brain, which Harris admits is still relatively new. Thus his book is not a final argument for a specific morality. Science is not at a place to do that yet. Instead it is an argument that science does speak to issues of morality and over time will do so more and more.

As a Christian I tried to come to this book as open-minded as possible. In other words, I expected to disagree (much as an atheist expects to disagree when coming to a Christian text, we’re none of us unbiased). But I tried to give Harris a fair hearing. I am sure there were some specific arguments I did not fully grasp, for I am not a trained scientist. I suspect many of those arguments were in the chapter on belief (chapter three), which I found to be the most interesting and insightful chapter in the book. Overall, I still am a Christian and I still find arguments for morality from a naturalistic perspective wanting.

Harris’ argument seems to be a form of utilitarianism – maximizing the good (well-being) and minimizing the bad. It is difficult to see how this can be measured, which I believe has been the main critique of utilitarianism over the years. Besides that, if Harris is right that well-being is the key, the question is whose well being? Why should I care about the well-being of others if it does not affect my own well-being? He reports an exchange he had with a scientist at a conference who said she has no issue with the Taliban’s violence against women because that is just the way their culture is. Harris was appalled at this. But if I am happy, if my wife and kids are healthy and my life is comfortable, why should I care about these people on the other side of the world? Perhaps Harris cares, and good for him. But if I am an atheist, I only have this one life to live and then I am gone forever. The Taliban is thousands of miles away and I do not want to bother with it. I would rather enjoy my life.

The same basic question came up a few times as I read. He seems to lament the fact that more people spend their time playing video games than working to help the homeless (p. 70). Again, if such people were lucky enough (or worked hard enough) to have a comfortable life, why not play video games? Who is Harris or any of us to tell them they should live in a different way? Of course, Harris’ whole project is to prove that science does provide such “shoulds”. I just don’t see it.

Likewise, he shares a story of his wife being hit on at the gym (p. 51). He was glad she resisted the flirting of this other man and he speaks of how an affair would damage the well-being of his family. I am glad for Harris that his wife is loyal. But if she had chosen to cheat on him…what if that increased her own and this other man’s well-being? What if this man was a widower with four children? Perhaps stealing Harris’ wife would hurt Harris’ daughter, but it could help these other four children? Isn’t that more human well-being?

My point is that judging morality in these ways is unsatisfying. Further, if all that matters is human well-being, why not envision a scenario from a movie like The Matrix where all humans are plugged into a computer? If such an existence would make us happiest, why not? Or as one reviewer says: “Nobel Prize–winner Daniel Kahneman studies what gives Americans pleasure—watching TV, talking to friends, having sex—and what makes them unhappy—commuting, working, looking after their children.” (… )

Harris also rejects free will, while assuring us that this does not lead to determinism or fatalism. (103-105). Reading his argument for this, I felt like I was reading John Calvin (and Harris may be surprised to find that Calvin would agree with him in this assessment, though for different reasons). Harris says we believe in free will because we are ignorant of the causes of our actions in each moment (105). He goes on to say:

“But the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they do not matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are all causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe” (105)

“There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will…the former are associated with felt intentions (desires, goals, expectations, etc.) while the latter are not…a voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, while an involuntary action isn’t. Where our intentions themselves come from, however, and what determines their character in every instant, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms…the freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was” (105-106). 

If there is no free will, then however the intentions, goals and such that arise in us, we are not responsible for them. So how are we responsible for the actions they lead to in the world? He goes on to say, “What we condemn in another person is the intention to do harm” (108). Why condemn something that this person has not freely chosen? Why hold them responsible? It seems more consistent to say that we don’t have free will and thus we are subject to whatever combination of natural desires made us who we are.

Harris did make a huge point that Christians should listen to (123-124). Here Harris talks of how the internet has reduced intellectual isolation but it has also allowed bad ideas to flourish. He goes on to say that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will overestimate his abilities, in other words ignorant people are more confident (123). He applies this to debates between science and religion:

“When a scientist speaks with appropriate circumspection about controversies in his field, or about the limits of his own understanding, his opponent will often make wildly unjustified assertions about just which religious doctrines can be inserted into the space provided. Thus, one often finds people with no scientific training speaking with apparent certainty about the theological implications of quantum mechanics, cosmology, or molecular biology” (124)

I have to say, I agree with Harris here. Christians do no one any good when assuming that just because they are Christians, they are right about everything. For example, Christians should have no problem admitting that Richard Dawkins (or Sam Harris) knows more about science than they do (unless said Christian has degrees in science).

But to turn this critique around on Harris, he often writes as if he possesses a better knowledge of Christian faith than Christians do. He declares the Bible is in favor of slavery, quoting chapter and verse. This sort of surface-level understanding of the text seems to be the same surface-level understanding he decries when Christians approach science. Why not engage with the best Bible scholars? Or at the very least, try to get inside the culture in which the Bible was written to try to understand if there is more going on.

Would it matter to Harris that though the Bible allows slavery, it puts regulations on this slavery that put the slave in a much higher position than slaves in the surrounding culture? Probably not, as the idea of progressive revelation does not seem to carry much weight for Harris. Harris, like some other atheists, seem to say if God exists then God would do xyz (says who?). At any rate, if he wants to be as fair to Christians as he expects people to be to scientists, he should recognize that proof-texting is not valid biblical interpretation.

The same critique could be applied to history. Harris rolls out the rhetoric that Christians in the middle-ages burned witches on a regular basis. But Rodney Stark has shown that witches were rarely burned in the middle-ages, instead witch-burning became most popular at the same time as modern science was beginning to rise (see For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, With-Hunts and the End of Slavery).

This book has me wanting to read more about brain science, especially books that limit the tangents. Harris seems to be writing for an audience that he knows will agree with him, so he throws out rhetoric and red herrings every now and then, to remind us how dumb religion is. I am not sure what the point of the chapter on religion was (chapter four) other than just to smack around religion for a while. In this I am sure Harris comes across as a hero to those who agree. To me, it sounds like the same sort of arrogance that Harris hates when ignorant Christians discount the findings of science.

While I would like to read more about how the brain works, and I assume science will continue to shed light on this, I do not think it is possible to find morality (or meaning, which is a separate question) here. Jerry Coyne in his book Why Evolution is True talks about how when a lion takes over a pride he will kill the baby lions to rid himself of the competition. Of course, no person would say that lion was a murderer or was evil. Yet when I listen to the History of Rome podcast and learn of how many emperors upon coming into power would kill their relatives or relatives of the previous emperor to solidify their power, I see this as murder. What makes humans different? If we are just animals, or if such murder increases the well-being of the emperor and his empire, why is it wrong?

I still agree with Ivan Karamazov in the amazing novel, The Brothers Karamazov: “if there is no God, then all things are permissible“. If Harris is wrong and there is no objective morality from a secular view, it does not automatically mean there is a God. Perhaps life just is meaningless. That is what Ivan believed, and it angered him as this philosophy justified his father’s disgusting life. I think Ivan is right. If there is no God then what reason can you really give a person to choose to help the poor rather than spend their days playing video games?

Online Reviews………

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