I think I saw you in the shadows… how to sell a book to atheists

Oh, Sam Harris.

Okay, so I purchased The Moral Landscape in the hope that he’d moved on from some of his frankly zany ideas in The End of Faith.  It wasn’t a particularly large hope: the recent talks he’d given about morality and evolution and evolutionary psychology and so on and so forth did not make me particularly optimistic.

Still, I decided — as one of the dying breed of rational, conservative atheists — to give the book a crack.

Frankly, spare yourself the cost.  It’s a confused and confusing ADHD rant from somebody who cites compulsively but seems disinterested in reading what he’s cited.  Nigh on one hundred pages of the book consists of footnotes, bibliography, further reading, and index.  The other two-thirds of the book is mostly incoherent.

His basic case is that morality is about the ‘well-being’ of people.  This ‘well-being’ can be measured and is thus able to be based in science.  While a bit of hand-waving is done to the centuries of analysis which has gone into what ‘well-being’ means (in terms of ‘eudaimonia’: Harris doesn’t think it’s necessary to understand the ‘great man’ Aristotle), it’s never explicitly stated what this ‘well-being’ means.  From there, his account of morality slides around into whatever shape it needs to be for the purposes of the current section of the book.  His account of ‘science’ is equally amorphous: he explicitly states in the footnotes that he’s not talking about science, then babbles about JFK.

One of the most baffling comments was early in the book.  Basically, one of the problems with a ‘well-being’ account of morality is that it’s difficult to show why people need to suffer for their own ‘well-being’.  Take, for example, punishment.  Punishment is terrible as a deterrent (a quick and flimsy demonstration is: ‘Would you kill somebody if you knew that you would get away with it?’  Most people still say no: we refrain from criminal activity not because we might get punished but because most of us agree that criminal activity is bad), yet many people think that punishment is morally justified on the basis that the criminal deserves to be punished.  In other words, sometimes things which aren’t for our ‘well-being’ are morally justified.

Harris shrugs this problem off with the following:

[W]e must occasionally experience some unpleasantness — medication, surgery, etc. — in order to avoid greater suffering or death. [p. 22]

… the what?  Unpleasantness now means future good, so the unpleasantness is morally okay.  Ignore the sloppy use of the word ‘must’ and think of a drug which blocks all unpleasantness.  People never suffer.  Harris must think that this would be the most moral drug conceivable because it eliminates unpleasantness (which was some sort of necessary evil in his cosmos).

It looks like he’s not actually talking about morality as ordinary people understand it.  He’s talking about pain.  If you feel pain, it’s Harris-morally bad unless that pain has some benefit to you, in which case it is Harris-morally justified Harris-evil.

Which is weird.

For a guy who repeatedly says that philosophers are confused about morality, he doesn’t shed much in the way of useful light.


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