Sunday, 5 June 2011

Simon Blackburn reviews 'The Moral Landscape' by Sam Harris

source: via

My highlights from Simon Blackburn (Vice President BHA) review of Sam Harris book "The Moral Landscape" in Prospect Magazine.
My comments indented in blue italics.
Reference: Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, 2010, Bantam Press, London (Amazon hardback)
.... tact does not much trouble Sam Harris, a knockabout atheist. He holds that “questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.” His idea is that with sufficient knowledge, and generous help from neuroscience, we can learn to gauge “wellbeing” and then it is just a technical question of how to maximise it. Not only religion, but moral philosophy with its dilemmas and conflicts, is unnecessary, now that we can observe and calculate. On the dust-jacket, Richard Dawkins enthusiastically endorses the same triumphalist line.
Is Blackburn setting up Dawkins as a 'straw man'? On the dust jacket of The Moral Landscape, Richard Dawkins, does not say that moral philosophy is unnecessary. What Dawkins actually says is 'I was one of  those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. Moral philosophers, too, will find their world exhilaratingly turned upside down, as they discover a need to learn some neuroscience. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.' View the debate between Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, (chaired by Stephen Law), April 2011.
It is one thing to say that behaving well requires knowledge. It clearly does, and the more we know about the world the better (and worse) we can behave in it. But it is quite another thing to think of “science” as taking over the entire domain of morality, and that there is a reason that it cannot do so. While it is one thing to know the empirical facts, it is another to select and prioritise and campaign and sacrifice to promote some and diminish others.
The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509,
showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right).
Click image for source.
Aristotle himself thought that ethics concerned wellbeing. But he appreciated, as Harris does not, the twists and turns involved in that simple sounding idea. According to Aristotle, wellbeing is the state of living well, in favourable relationships with the world around one. My successes and failures, knowledge, social relations, memories, hopes, fears and loves make up my wellbeing. This could not be indexed by a brain scanner, which would be insensitive to the difference between a person in a fool’s paradise, largely deceived about his relations with the world, and a person who has got them right.
Aristotle - Eudaimonia: The wikipedia link says '..well being is attainment of excellence in reason.'s active ..Eudaimonia depends on virtue. ..While emphasizing the importance of the rational aspect of the psyche, he does not ignore the importance of other ‘goods’ such as friends, wealth, and power in a life that is eudaimonic. ..He doubts the likelihood of being eudaimonic if one lacks certain external goods such as ‘good birth, good children, and beauty’. ..So, a person who is hideously ugly or has “lost children or good friends through death”, or who is isolated, is unlikely to be eudaimon. In this way, "dumb luck" (chance) can preempt one's attainment of eudaimonia.'
In The Moral Landscape, Introduction note 9, page 195, Sam Harris explains that he relies heavily on philosophers William Casebeer and Owen Flanagan (2007 Kindle book or paperback extract) who have resurrected Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia, but he does not pay any attention to Aristotles' Nichomachean Ethics (complete book here or Kindle book) itself, which Harris relies to much on 'knowing how' rather than on 'knowing that'. For example, knowing that the muslim veil, which is compulsorily worn by women in Afghanistan; immiserates them and  leads to a new generation of puritanical, misogynistic men. This minimises well being, therefore is wrong. It's a truth claim, which is either right or wrong, say Harris. 

click image for source
Harris’s view of wellbeing is nearer to that of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, who saw it as a simple balance of pleasure over pain. Perhaps sufficient knowledge of the state of someone’s brain could help to measure this ratio, and it would no doubt be quite high for the citizens in Brave New World. But in spite of Dawkins’s enthusiasm, that does not really help, for if Bentham’s hedonist is in one brain state and Aristotle’s active subject is in another, as no doubt they would be, it is a moral, not an empirical, problem to say which is to be preferred. Even if this were solved, how are we to balance my right to pursue my wellbeing against the demand to help maximise that of everyone? Striving to maximise the sum of human wellbeing is making oneself a servant of the world, and it cannot be science that tells me to do that, nor how to solve the conflict, which was central, for instance, to the utilitarian thinking of Henry Sidgwick. Harris considers none of all this, and thereby joins the prodigious ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just an instance of their doing it very badly.
I agree with Simon Blackburn.
Peter Singer: well-being of all
sentient creatures is important
Religionists often try to claim meaning and morality as their own private property. The standard secularist will reply that this is so far from the truth that religion cannot even claim a proper share of them. For example, if religion’s contribution to morality is, at base, a matter of bribing us to behave well for fear of supernatural consequences, then it is only a poor substitute for the real thing—like Kant’s shopkeeper giving the right change only because he was afraid of being caught cheating. Such action may accord with a principle of honesty, but he is not acting from that principle, which is what the properly moral person does. I help my child with his homework because he needs help, not to obey the dictates of a supernatural commandant.
The sophisticated religionist will reply that it is not like this: God’s schedule of rewards and punishments is for teaching purposes, “leading strings” as Kant called them, pulling the child, say, towards concern for the helpless. The end-product is the love of others, and the love of principle and justice. Perhaps so, but in that case religious hopes and terrors have nothing essential to do with the motives of morality, any more than parental admonitions, even if they too were accompanied with threats of hellfire.

With meaning we have the same opposition. Faced with the night sky, Darwin’s entangled bank, or the newborn baby, the secularist’s feelings of awe or wonder are directed where they should be: at the sky, the bank, or the baby. His attention does not stray to thinking about his own soul, or the purposes of providence, although he may entertain thoughts about our small place in the vast deserts of space and time. If someone cannot find meaning in the baby’s smile because it is so small in comparison with the cosmos, or because it is not going to last forever, then he is to be pitied, not admired as especially spiritual.
'Spirituality ' is what Richard Green of AtheismUK calls, a 'weasel word'. Here Green talk at Atheist Ireland conference 2010.
Morality is a natural phenomenon. Its roots lie in our needs and our capacities for sympathetically imagining the feelings of others, for inventing co-operative principles, for being able to take an impersonal view of our own doings. We have what Adam Smith called a “man within the breast” monitoring our feelings and actions in the name of those with whom we live. Imagining their admiration, we feel pride; imagining their anger, guilt, their contempt, shame. In his essay “Disenchantment—Reenchantment” in The Joy of Secularism, the philosopher Charles Taylor says that this does not explain what he calls “strong evaluations,” which are cases in which we feel that there is a truth about the matter, or that in valuing something we are not simply projecting attitude and desire, but are getting something right.

The Grand Canyon: ageless, implacable, indifferent and sublime,
says Simon Blackburn, and more worthy of our admiration than gods (who are man-made!)
The phenomenon is real enough, but it is naturally explicable. Some concerns are nearer to our cores than others. If I prefer strawberry ice cream to chocolate, I would not think less well of you if you prefer the opposite. Nor would I be distressed to learn that one day I might change my mind.

But if we visit the Grand Canyon and I am overawed by its grandeur, while you see it just as a good place for tourist concessions, then I may well think less of you. And if I learn that one day I shall become like you, I would be depressed and ashamed, just as I would if I learned that one day I might lose my love of my children, or my concern for truth. I may voice this by saying that the canyon demands the reaction of wonder. But of course it doesn’t issue any demands— indeed its ageless, implacable, indifferent silence is part of what makes it sublime. It is we who demand these reactions from ourselves and others, and rightly so. Admiring the canyon is better than admiring gods, for they, being human creations, suffer from all kinds of nasty traits, where it does not.

1 comment:

Julian Bennett said...

The idea that science will completely overtake all of morality appears to be a straw man.

No one has ever asserted or defended such a claim as far as I know.

Is there any evidence that someone has been defending such a view?