A while ago Sam Harris, one of the public faces of contemporary objectivism, realised that one of the strongest weapons in the theist attack on science was that the latter is impotent to provide any meaningful moral foundation to life on earth. On the one hand, the supposed ‘morality’ of theism, particularly Judeo-Christian-Islamic varieties, is a sitting duck, but that doesn’t stop the fact that, on the other hand, if life comes down to quantitative bits, there’s no qualitative reason why we should or should not do anything. There is no morality. So Harris wrote a book explaining how ‘science’ can reach such foundations.
Harris begins this book, The Moral Landscape, by washing his hands of the consequences of the evolutionary determinism he knows that he will be accused of. Certainly, he says, men are programmed to climb over the corpses of their rivals to reach a thousand vaginas — i.e. to act immorally — but there’s more to life than that. Why? Because, says Harris, ‘our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.’ Effectively, anything goes. We are not constrained by our genes and are free to act morally. But as this means we are also free to act immorally, why bother?
It’s certainly not because morality can be found in the objective world of science. Harris mentions David Hume’s is-ought objection to rational moral theorising, but doesn’t dwell on it and has no answer to it. Probably because he knows that Hume is unanswerable. Instead, he tries to move the goalposts by redefining morality as satisfying material needs—look, he says, people are hungry, and therefore they ought to be fed. But why? There is no perfectly rational reason that people ought to be fed, cared for, given great jobs and so on. He also makes the claim that the distinction between facts and values is illusory, that the former ‘translates’ into the latter because, in his words ‘there simply must be’. That’s about the sum of his case although he later tells us that, according to his groundbreaking work in neuroscience, facts and values both happen in the brain, so they’re effectively the same. This is like arguing that the difference between the moon and the death star is illusory because they’re both things I can look at, or that we will one day be able to work out the difference between right and wrong by looking at brain scans..
Harris’ attempts to intelligibly address the problems of ethics, or any philosophers who have meaningfully critiqued his position (such as Kant), are risibly vague. Instead, he locates moral quality in a world of objective quantity, founded on an identification of morality with ‘well-being’, a quantitative expansion of what he calls ‘the good life’. He says that ‘a concern for well-being is the only intelligible basis for morality and values’. He makes no attempt to define ‘well-being’ and instead outlines for us, by way of example, ‘the good life’ as that of a gloriously loving Western professional engaged in ‘intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding’ work (let’s call her Gloria) in contrast to ‘the bad life’ as one of a woman who has seen her daughter raped, and then flees through the ‘green hell’ of a third-world jungle (let’s call her Dolores). This, for Harris, is the moral ‘range of experience’ of human life today; entirely, as you would expect from a materialist, material. Not that the second example would not be horrendously unpleasant and the first wonderfully pleasant, but that, first of all, while Harris gives us the entire context of Gloria’s life he deceptively only gives us one day in Dolores’s life—i.e. not a life. Even then, the inner world of the two exemplars could well be the complete opposite of what Harris supposes. It is not impossible that poor Dolores, seeing her life destroyed before her eyes, chased into the jungle and, about to die, experiences something utterly, insanely, gloriously good. Unlikely, but not impossible. Conversely, it is not impossible that the splendidly joyous Gloria—heart surgeon is she? or famous actress perhaps?—is living in something close to hell. Quite likely, I’d say.
Harris says that if you don’t see a distinction between his two women, then there may be nothing he can say that ‘will attract you to [his] view of the moral landscape’. Apparently, Harris tells us, there are people who see no difference between the material lives of Dolores and Gloria. We needn’t detain ourselves by seriously considering how such nutcases think. Of course there is a difference, and of course only a maniac would wish Dolores’ life on her. The question is how their lives correspond to their ethics. Is Gloria more likely to be a more moral person than Dolores? Does ‘the good life’ lead to morality? Are the most materially comfortable people in the world the most moral? Anyone with the slightest sensitivity and experience, who has spent any real time with the most and the least wealthy people in the world knows the answer to this. Material comfort, ‘meaningful’ work, good food, financial ‘security’ and so forth — the ‘good life’ as Harris understands it — no more lead to ‘more morality’ than fame, with all its wealth and adulatory attention, leads to more creativity.
Later in the book, Harris substitutes Dolores’ life for what he calls ‘the worst possible misery for everyone’. Imagine, he says, a universe in which everyone is suffering as much as each individual possibly can. That, he says, is ‘bad,’ although he’s actually engaging in a shifty sleight-of-hand. He isn’t talking about suffering — which can and usually does occur in conditions of great material well-being — but pain. He is describing a Judeo-Christian-Islamic definable hell, essentially. Remove this pain and you’ve got the ‘good’. That this ‘good’, a world in which nobody feels pain, would be a totalitarian abomination of the most horrific kind — in fact one of permanent suffering — doesn’t occur to him.
At this point, Harris references Robert B. Edgerton’s ham-fisted attack on our old friend ‘the noble savage,’ Sick Societies, in which Edgerton attempts to argue that ‘inefficiency, folly, venality, cruelty and misery were and are’ an unavoidable part of human nature and history. He bases this judgement, as usual, on post-conquest, agricultural societies (later Harris paints an image of Adam and Eve as two professionals rationally planning their future). If this isn’t the biggest straw-man in the physicalist’s cross-hairs then Harris’ other target certainly is; good old-man God, the psychopath sitting on the throne of the monotheistic kingdom of Abraham. To these easily shredded absurdities Harris adds a third; Moral Relativism. Harris hopes that after he has incinerated these wicker men, the last man standing, enlightened scientism, will be declared the winner. He is, alas, like all the big atheist names — Hitchens, Dawkins, Dillahunty, etc. — completely unaware that there’s another contender, one which is neither objectivist nor subjectivist.
Essentially, with his definably objective ‘good’ as moral foundation, Harris is offering an argument for utilitarianism, the idea that human beings are things conglomerated into rationally-apprehendible masses, and that morality is simply a question of keeping the maximal number of this mass comfortably alive. Harris tries to distance himself from the disastrous problems and consequences of utilitarianism by stressing that he’s not talking about pleasure and pain, but about well-being; but as we’ve seen he makes no attempt to explain what he means by ‘well-being’, and in any case the same objections hold. Whose well-being should we prioritise? Are a billion anaesthetised zombies, smug in their ‘well-being’ somehow ‘better’ than a hundred people living meaningful but painful lives? Is it ethically satisfying to treat all our actions and everyone as a means to greater well-being? How do we even judge if well-being is ‘good’ or that it’s opposite, whatever that is, is ‘bad’? Or what about Fyodor Dostoevsky’s objection to utilitarianism? How would Harris account for the innate response of human beings to a perfectly, rationally-designed world, in which everyone’s well-being was perfectly addressed—namely, irrational violence and self-destruction. Our need to exert our free will (meaning the qualitative sense of freedom; not merely being able to do as you please) is ineradicable and far more potent than our desire to be happy, comfortable and part of a ‘fair’ society of universal ‘well-being’. Organise society ‘perfectly’ for the benefit of the greatest good of the greatest number and man will tear it, or himself, apart; just to feel alive.
For Harris, predictably enough, there is no free will (see this review of Harris’ defence of this morally monstrous doctrine in his book Free Will) and there is no conscious life ‘from’ which such freedom could ‘arise’.1 He mentions ‘consciousness’ as the starting point for morality, but2 what he means by this is feeling good, because something in the material world made me feel good. Harris cannot understand that there is a ‘feeling good’ which is uncaused, non-material and which human beings, or at least living human beings, will always put in front of their material needs. The numbed, half-dead technological slave of modernity won’t of course, nor will the inflated brains of the professional, management class, nor will the emperor-class drinking children’s blood on the top floor of the golden pyramid. They can’t — they have no experience of a causeless good, and so no idea of it. Those outside the bubble do though, and always have. They might intellectually agree with Harris that ‘the good life’ means being materially satisfied, and morality means providing the means for materially satisfying the needs of the greatest number of people, but they instinctively rebel against it, and against the ‘genuine moral experts’ that Harris says we need in order to manage the moral world;
Only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being). And only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.
Such people are, of course, necessary in a technocratic system. We need ‘genuine medical experts,’ ‘genuine education experts,’ ‘genuine legal experts,’ ‘genuine nature experts’… We need ‘genuine experts’ for every aspect of our lives in a machine world, because that’s how machines operate; discrete, specialised parts causally related to other such parts. And of course this is just what we do have, everywhere in our utilitarian world; everyone working away at their tiny, particular, zone of influence, unable ever to cross over into a more general experience of existence without stepping on the toes of other experts and specialists. Just as it is unthinkable in a machine-system that ordinary people can take care of their whole lives — their own health, education, security and environment — so it is unthinkable that we can make our own moral decisions. We are just too erratic, too illogical, too partial.
No, we need ‘genuine moral experts’. Like who though? Who might be one of these ethical titans? Harris himself perhaps, world famous intellectual and philanthropist, well-connected and successful son of two extremely wealthy American media professionals? It’s hard to say for sure of course, not personally knowing the man or having looked much into his life what his moral credentials are, but I’d say these two famous quotes…
‘…civilized human beings are now attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people.’ (written in 2005).
‘…there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like ‘water-boarding’ may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary.’
…might not be ‘genuine moral expert’ material.
So who? We might look back in history and ask ourselves how ‘genuine moral experts’ have managed societies prior to ours. Who were the ‘genuine moral experts’ in the US while it annihilated South East Asia? Who were the ‘genuine moral experts’ in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Fascist Italy in the 1930s and 1940s? Who were the ‘genuine moral experts’ running the British Empire? Whoever they were, they don’t seem to have had much influence, so clearly the machine being run by the technical experts who do is somehow excluding the genuine moral experts. I wonder how.
Or let’s look at our own ‘genuine moral experts’. We’ve recently had a situation in which they have had a chance to shine, so the picture is quite clear at the moment. Our ‘genuine moral experts’ told us last year that there was a ‘pandemic’, one with an average age of death of 80 (around the time people normally die anyway), which had no significant affect on age-standardised mortality and which ended up leading to a growth of the world population.3 This ‘pandemic’, our experts told us, required the complete shut down of society, the injection of everyone on earth, regardless of their age or health, with dangerous and ineffective gene-hacking chemicals (which they called ‘vaccines’, but which operate in a completely different way to vaccines), followed by the introduction of ‘passports’ in order to ‘freely’ interact once more with the world around us. Now; are these the ‘genuine moral experts’ Harris thinks should run our lives? If not, where are they and why didn’t we hear from them during the ‘pandemic’?
But it doesn’t matter you see, because these people all experience neurological ‘well-being’. That’s all that matters. It could be argued that the neurological ‘well-being’ of a vast number of working people at the receiving end of their actions is dropping precipitously as a result, but provided that this is offset by that of right-thinking people, or by a year of continued existence for a few hundred thousand 80 year olds, or by an imagined paradise several years down the line, when the ‘well-being’ graphs climb again, it’s a price worth paying. This is how psychopaths — many of whom are fairly overflowing with neurological ‘well-being’ — think.
It’s also how we all think from time to time. Have you ever tried to reason your way out of a bad mood? Have you ever been in the teeth of a moral dilemma and tried to rationally work out what to do? Have you ever used your rational mind to produce a genuinely creative and original response to a situation? Have you ever tried to reason someone who is fundamentally immoral out of their lifestyle? How did that go for you?
None of this means that, of course, rational reflection isn’t helpful when making moral decisions. Obviously we do think about our ethical problems and obviously that thought is useful. Defining all such thought as ‘science’, however, and then ignoring the ground of such thought — the context and consciousness from and to which all such reasoning is ultimately about — obliterates actual morality in the service of measurable ‘well-being’. This activity is welcomed by experts with magical moral measuring sticks who with clear conscience can and do visit all manner of moral crimes on those they manage without the slightest feeling of responsibility. ‘It’s not me who is locking you all up in antiseptic living units for your own good, it’s the data.’
A great many moral decisions, and all those that most impress and fascinate us (the kind that great dramatists like to present) ignore, and have to ignore, this data, the rational moral calculus that Harris is telling us that ‘science’ can provide. Although, on second thoughts, perhaps they haven’t been sufficiently aware of the kind of arguments Harris has been offering? Perhaps their moral expertise hasn’t quite been up to snuff? Perhaps the fact that all of the most admired human beings in history have not been loved for their rational intelligence, but for something which transcends rational reckoning; perhaps that was an error, and we should have been directing our admiration not to the most beautiful, the most creative or the most generous people, but the cleverest among us? Perhaps, now that we have a good theory about morality we can finally just forget about the moral agonies of the most celebrated characters in world literature? Clearly Achilles, Hamlet and Ivan Karamazov did not have sufficient moral expertise to solve their problems. Perhaps Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu and other revered teachers should have spent a little less time praising the poor, the innocent and the simple-hearted and a bit more time praising the smart, the rational and the big of brain? If only these people had had access to more ‘genuine moral experts’.
To conclude, and to redress the balance somewhat, allow me to present my retelling of one of the most famous moral tales in the Western tradition, imagining clever-clogs Sam Harris had been its author.
The Parable of the Rational Landowner, by Sam Harris
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found still others standing idle, He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” “Because no one has hired us,” they answered. He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.” The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” The vineyard owner, who was a ‘genuine moral expert’ then answered one of them, “Yes, actually, you are quite right. That was a logically unfair thing to do. What was I thinking? It is morally wrong to expect a denarius after only working an hour.” When they heard this, those who were hired first not only agreed but became angry with those who were hired last and raised their fists against them. And the vineyard owner thought to himself, “If I try to stop those who were hired first from killing those who were hired last there will be wide bloodshed among them and perhaps fifty people will be killed, but if I let those who were hired last kill those few who were hired first, only a couple of people will die.” So the moral vineyard owner said, “okay, I’ll leave you to it lads. Smite away.” And he walked off, feeling sad but at the same time glowing with neurological well-being, for he had made the right decision. Soon after this he went to work for the CIA, to help them out with their ethically-justified water-boarding.
At the beginning of this piece I suggested critiquing Abrahamic religions was easy, facile even. Taking pot-shots at morally deficient, uni-dimensional thinkers like Harris, Dawkins, Pinker and the like is much the same, and quite boring because of it; not to mention useless as follows of scientism have no more capacity to grasp the ineffable reality which precedes their mighty minds than a dog can play the violin. So apologies for anyone thinking ‘so what?’ So what indeed! I wrote the above because a friend asked me to give my thoughts on Harris and The Moral Landscape — or The Moral Car-Park as I like to call it — not because he offers anything close to an interesting or important view on life. If anything his writing serves as little more than an example of how official ideologues and moral automatons think, which is why I have shared it here.
- The scare quotes here are oblique references to the fact that freedom cannot literally ‘arise from’ anything. See Self & Unself for a full treatment.
- Following the standard practice of scientism; defining consciousness empirically and then hoping that no-one will notice that something other than the non-empirically observable experience of consciousness is being discussed.
- Of 80 million people.