In his most recent book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Determines Human Values, Harris claims to offer an argument for his position that science can objectively ground morality. While his method of proof is long on earnestness, it is short on argument. In fact, he seems to think that he can establish many of his conclusions by simply willing them.
All throughout the book, we encounter expressions that assure us in the most sincere terms that what follows them is true: terms such as "are bound to," "in my experience," "there simply must be," "cannot be," "it seems inevitable," "surely," "the good life must relate," "will necessarily," "cannot be denied," "science should one day," "most of them are surely wrong," "we must first acknowledge" "change will necessarily depend," "values seem to arise," "it seems to me," "it seems clear," "there is every reason to think," "is bound to be," "of course," "I believe," "there is simply no question," "there must be," "the inescapable fact," "we already have good reason to believe," "I consider," "almost surely," "we can be reasonably confident," "could also," "it seems quite possible," "this certainly appears," "do not seem to," "there is probably," "it is widely believed," "we all know this," "it is only reasonable," "at the very least," "I have no doubt," "I am nearly as sure," "I strongly believe," "it is quite clear to me," "it seems possible," "it is easy to see," "it also seems," "I suspect," "be assured," "apparently," "it seems quite clear," "we can imagine," "we can see," "it now seems," "it is reasonable to wonder," "there is no reason to think," "there is a sense in which," "there can be no doubt," "I cannot conceive," "it is also conceivable," etc., etc., etc.
You get the idea.
Real logical expressions like "for," "since," "because," and "therefore" don't stand a chance against the avalanche of seemses and musts and surelys. In fact, Harris' argument is powered largely by adverbs.
Just several pages in I started to notice this tendency to presume upon the reader's presumption. Then I kept noticing it, and I saw it again, and again, and again. I just started circling them as I encountered them, page after page. There were key components to Harris's "argument" which were just "supposed" to be clear to me: to be "undoubtedly" true, to be "reasonable," to be "probably" be this way, or "inescapably" that.
It is a rhetoric that fits the photograph--a photograph that graces all his books and captures the look of the Randian hero: confident, determined, and free of all doubt.
I finally realized that Harris just thinks that the main steps in his case that science can establish morality are obvious. He wasn't arguing with me, his reader, that his assumptions about these things were true, he was expecting me to simply acquiesce to their self-evident truth on the mere grounds of his confidence in his own assertions.
When you're setting forth a position, it's reasonable to assume what you're readers actually do assume. But when you are overturning 2,500 years of thought on an issue (really only about 400 years worth, since he only really tries to counter Hume--the prior tradition he ignores), it's probably not a good idea to assume what your reader does not actually take for granted.
One of the admirable things about St. Thomas Aquinas is that he always tried to put his opponents' arguments into a rational form, sometimes stating them more logically than they did. Since Harris himself won't do it for us, let's try to cast his argument into some kind of logical form. If we did, his main argument would run something like this:
Questions about well being can be scientifically understoodHarris's whole argument hangs on his middle term: "well-being." If it means the same in his major (or first) premise as it does in his minor (or second) premise, then the argument has some plausibility: he can reasonably claim to have connected together the two ideas in his conclusion--morality and science. But if it doesn't, then he has committed the fallacy of equivocation, and the argument falls apart.
Moral questions are questions about well being
Therefore moral questions can be scientifically understood
And his concept of well-being will have to have more support than Harris's own assertions of "seems" or "appears" or "I strongly believe."
What Harris does--wittingly or unwittingly--is bank on our traditional moral conception of "well-being" in his minor premise and then go on happily defining "well-being" in an entirely scientific and non-ethical way for purposes of his major premise, so that, by the time he gets done, he has two entirely different middle terms on his hands that cease to be able to keep the subject and predicate of his conclusion together. He has, fact, constructed his whole argument on this equivocation--and the term "well-being," being sufficiently vague, suits his purpose nicely.
It's a good try. But no one should be fooled.
Harris starts out by observing what he considers to be the two main schools of moral philosophy: the religious school that considers that moral truth exists because "God has woven it into the very fabric of reality"; and the evolutionary school that believes that moral values are culturally constructed. These are two of the three standard schools of ethics: the first is duty ethics, and the second consequentialism. Both, he says, are mistaken.
But the real bogey throughout the book is David Hume's "fact/value"distinction, a distinction which, given certain presuppositions (one's which Harris and other New Atheists share) prevents you from going from one to the other. Facts are things that are; values are things that should be; and things that are and things that should be are two entirely different kinds of things. To confuse them is commit what philosophers call a "category mistake."
To say that science, the study of what is, can have something to say about what ought to be is like applying the standards of what constitutes good music to determine how to bake a cake, or saying that the standards of good accounting practice can be used to determine the quality of a piece of music.
This distinction is assumed by most advocates of both schools Harris mentions: protestants assume it as much as secular philosophers, although it is largely rejected in Catholic thought. Harris is clearly aware of this problem, and articulates it competently in the introduction. The problem is that, once it is acknowledged, the then proceeds as if he had never heard of it.
Catholics (at least those in the Aristotelian/Thomist tradition) largely form the third school of ethics--virtue ethics, in which you can get around the distinction because of the prior distinction between man as he is and man as he would be if he achieved his telos or purpose. Both of these things are facts--the way man is and the telos which is the fulfillment of his nature, and ethics is simply the best way from one to the other.
But Harris does not believe in an objective telos--or that man has a particular nature to which this telos would correspond. So how does he get around the fact/value distinction? And this leads us to the second main argument of the book.
Harris argues that if factual statements and ethical statements both derive from similar brain processes, then they are the same kind of belief. He doesn't argue for this view, he just asserts it. And he seems to think that his assertion can be transformed into an argument by simply piling on evidence that both derive from similar brain states. But the problem in bridging the gap between the fact that a particular brain process occurs for two different kinds of belief and the conclusion that brain state to kind of belief is no less daunting then bridging the gap between facts and values.
Once again, we are forced to do Harris' work for him. Here is the argument:
Any belief that is produced by a certain brain process is the same kind of belief as any other belief produced by the same brain processHarris spends all his time proving his minor premise, and simply assumes his major premise. He never attempts to prove it, yet it is precisely the assertion at issue.
Factual beliefs and moral beliefs are both produced by the same brain process
Therefore, factual beliefs and moral beliefs are the same kind of beliefs
"[B]eliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain," he says on p. 11. "The division between facts and values does not make much sense in terms of underlying brain function," he asserts on p. 121.
He has tracked his seemingly divergent quarry and, following the trail to hole in the ground he calls the "medial pre-frontal cortex" (which he invests with the authority of scientific mysticism by crowning it with an acronym: MPFC), he calms the hounds and declares he has proven the objects of his hunt to be the same.
But why should anyone believe that a particular process--or a particular geographical location of the brain--dictates or limits the kind of thought or belief that occurs in it? Why does the nature or meaning of a statement have anything to do with the fact that it derives from a certain "brain process"? It is as if someone were to tell you that beef and milk are essentially the same thing, since they both derive from a cow, or that fried chicken and eggs easy-over were essentially the same kind of food because they are both the product of a chicken.
The same brain produces different kind of beliefs. Why shouldn't the same gland produce them?
He doesn't say. It apparently "seems" that way to him and "no doubt" must "appear" that it is "only reasonable."
If a particular brain process can only produce the same kind of thing, does that mean that if two contradictory statements derive from the same brain process (a contingency not precluded in Harris' account) that truth and falsity are fundamentally the same? Again, it all hangs on whether we are assured by those comforting adverbs.
It is the same old scientific reductionism that we constantly hear being invoked, and seldom hear being rationally justified. It certainly isn't in this book.
And this brings us to our third point concerning Harris' book. The most publicized passage in it truly sums up the book:
Throughout this book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call "the moral landscape"-- a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving--different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.--will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing."Well-being" and "human flourishing" serve interchangeably as equivocal terms in Harris' argument. But this passage highlights another weakness in Harris' rhetoric: he employs metaphors that masquerade as arguments.
His rhetoric of "peaks" and "valleys" is an old weapon in the quiver of those who reject traditional morality, and the defense against it was articulated over 100 years ago. In his 1908 book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton describes the tactic as taking "refuge in material metaphors:
[I]n fact, is the chief mark of vague modern people. Not daring to define their doctrine of what is good, they use physical figures of speech without stint or shame, and, what is worst of all, seem to think these cheap analogies are exquisitely spiritual and superior to the old morality. Thus they think it intellectual to talk about things being "high." It is at least the reverse of intellectual; it is a mere phrase from a steeple or a weathercock. "Tommy was a good boy" is a pureChesterton points to the same tendency in Nietzsche:
philosophical statement, worthy of Plato or Aquinas. "Tommy lived the higher life" is a gross metaphor from a ten-foot rule.
Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, "beyond good and evil," because he had not the courage to say, "more good than good and evil," or, "more evil than good and evil." Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, "the purer man," or "the happier man," or "the sadder man," for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says "the upper man," or "over man," a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers.Harris' "peaks" and "valleys" serve the same role as Nietzshe's "higher" and "lower": they create the illusion of moral substance. He invokes them just like he invokes "well-being" and "human flourishing": as a sort of incantation he thinks will make the real problems with his argument go away. But we are never told exactly how it does this.
And so we are left with two different conceptions of well-being or flourishing, one a truly ethical conception which renders the minor premise of his first argument meaningful, and another a purely emotive or utilitarian conception which serves to establish his major premise. We are left devoid of any rationale for believing that the nature of a brain process dictates anything about the ontological or epistemological character of the judgments it produces.
And we are left with the feeling that, in the final analysis, his "moral landscape" with its "peaks" and "valleys" sounds attractive and plausible, but when you actually investigate it you find it doesn't show anything about how science determines human values, but is little more than the product of Harris' own imagination.
Finally, there is the whole issue of the legitimacy of Harris' project. What, if anything can science say about morality? How can a discipline devoted and designed only to tell us the how say anything the why or the whether? As Alastair MacIntyre has pointed out, the moral project of the Enlightenment has failed. Morality cannot be grounded in any of the things so many modern thinkers have thought it could be: the reason, the will, or the emotions. Kant, Kierkegaard, and Hume all come up short in their attempts to establish in on their respective bases. It defies any such analysis.
The only ethics worthy of the name was abandoned at the Renaissance: the classical conception which incorporates formal and final causality: that everything, including man, has a nature and a purpose, and that the approximation of that nature and the accomplishment of that purpose are what make him more truly what he really is. To say that a man is a "good man" is no fundamentally different than saying that dog is a "good dog" or a tree is a "good tree." Is it being what it really is and is it serving the purpose intrinsic to it? If it is, then it's good. If it's not, then it's not.
That's all you can say.
As to what the nature and purpose of human being is another matter, but it doesn't help in the task of determining these things to say that they don't exist. And those who say that they don't exist have the responsibility, if they want to cling to a notion of right and wrong, to provide an alternative account. So far, all such attempts have failed, and Harris' is not exactly one of the more impressive ones.