The Moral Landscape revisited

A number of you have sent me this public challenge by Sam Harris:

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was
first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by
readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the
resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted.
However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was
not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that
my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is
invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must address the
central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response
will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000.
If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive
$20,000,* and I will publicly recant my view.

Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.

Needless to say, I will be submitting an entry. I’ve read the book and I’m very familiar with his approach. Sam Harris makes a regular habit of claiming he has answered his critics by way of anticipating them; he did the same in The End of Faith.  Let’s just say I don’t anticipate any trouble convincing anyone else that his thesis has been refuted, although convincing Mr. Harris himself may be considerably more difficult, especially considering the way he tried to weasel out of his perfectly straightforward statement on his belief in the ethical nature of killing people who subscribe to propositions considered to be sufficiently dangerous.

For those who are interested, here were my initial impressions after reading The Moral Landscape; my subsequent review of it, published on WorldNetDaily in November 2010, was as follows:

The Moral Landscape
Vox Day reviews Sam Harris’ case for using science to define morality

Sam Harris’ first two books were commercial successes and
intellectual failures. Riddled with basic factual and logical errors,
“The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” served as little
more than godless red meat snapped up by unthinking atheists around the
English-speaking world. His third book, “The Moral Landscape,” is also a
challenge to established wisdom, but it is a much more sober, serious
and interesting book than its predecessors.

The basis for the book is Harris’ own neuroscience experiments, in
which he tested his hypothesis that when hooked up to an fMRI scanner,
the human brain would produce an observable difference in its activity
when contemplating non-religious beliefs than when considering religious
beliefs. As it happens, the hypothesis was found to be incorrect, as
the same responses were elicited from both the believing group and the
non-believing group for religious and nonreligious stimuli alike. (Full
disclosure: I was one of the Christians asked by Mr. Harris to review
the religious stimuli to ensure their theological verisimilitude. In my
opinion, the questions utilized were both reasonable and fair.)

In “The Moral Landscape,” Sam Harris courageously attempts to address
the Problem of Morality that has plagued atheist philosophers since
Jean Meslier failed to realize the obvious consequences of his
declaration that every rational man could imagine better moral precepts
than Christianity possessed. As Harris notes, in the absence of a
morality derived from a religion, scientists and other secularists have
concluded that all morals are relative and there is therefore no
objective basis for preferring the moral precepts asserted by one
individual to those put forth by another, regardless of how monstrous
they might appear to a third party. This is why, aside from few
irrelevant rhetorical flourishes and one inexplicable personal jihad,
Harris’ arguments in the book are predominantly directed against his
fellow non-believers rather than theistic targets.

To his credit, Harris explicitly recognizes that he is making a
philosophical case, not a scientific one. This is a significant
improvement upon the first wave of New Atheist books, including Harris’
own pair, in which the various authors presented their intrinsically
philosophical cases in pseudo-scientific guise. However, there are three
argumentative flaws that pervade the book. Unfortunately, Harris
appears to have adopted Richard Dawkins’ favorite device of presenting a
bait-and-switch definition in lieu of a logically substantive argument.
He repeatedly utilizes the following technique:

1) Admittedly, X is not Y.

2) But can’t we say that X could be considered Z?

3) And Z is Y.

4) Therefore, X can be Y.

For example, in an attempt to get around Hume’s is/ought dichotomy,
Harris readily admits that “good” in the sense of “morally correct” is
not objectively definable and that what one individual perceives as good
can differ substantially from that which another person declares to be
“good.” So, he suggests the substitution of “well-being” for “good”
because there are numerous measures of “well-being,” such as life
expectancy, GDP per capita and daily caloric intake, that can be reduced
to numbers and are therefore measurable. After all, everyone
understands what it means to be in good health despite the fact that
“health” is not perfectly defined in an objective and scientific manner.

However, even if we set aside the obvious fact that the proposed
measures of well-being are of dubious utility – life expectancy does not
account for quality of life, GDP does not account for debt and more
calories are not always desirable – the problem is that Harris simply
ignores the way in which his case falls completely apart when it is
answered in the negative. No, we cannot simply accept that “moral” can
reasonably be considered “well-being” because it is not true to say that
which is “of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules
of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong” is more
than remotely synonymous with “that which fosters well-being in one or
more human beings.”

Harris’ second habitual flaw is one that was seen in his previous
books. That is to act as if admitting that a problem with his reasoning
exists is somehow tantamount to resolving the problem in his favor. He
appears to grasp that his philosophical consequentialism suffers from
the same democratic problem that caused philosophers to abandon
Benthamite utilitarianism as a prospective substitute for morality –
nine out of 10 individuals agree that gang rape enhances their
well-being – but he simply chooses to ignore the problem. In the notes,
he justifies this gaping hole in his argument by declaring that the
conceptual developments that have taken place since John Stuart Mill
died in 1873 “are generally of interest only to academic philosophers.”
That’s likely true, but it doesn’t excuse such a blatant evasion of a
known criticism nor does it help the self-confessed consequentialist
deal with the potentially nightmarish consequences of utilitarian

The third pervasive flaw is what after three books has become
recognizable as Harris’ customary intellectual carelessness. Time and
time again, he makes statements of fact that are easily disproved by the
first page of a Google search. For example, in an attempt to explain
that all opinions need not be equally respected and that not all
competing responses to moral dilemmas are equally valid, he brings up
the subject of corporal punishment:

“There are, for instance, twenty-one U.S. states that
still allow corporal punishment in their schools. … However, if we are
actually concerned about human well-being, and would treat children in
such a way as to promote it, we wonder whether it is generally wise to
subject little boys and girls to pain, terror, and public humiliation as
a means of encouraging their cognitive and emotional development. Is
there any doubt that this question has an answer? Is there any doubt
that it matters that we get it right? In fact, all the research
indicates that corporal punishment is a disastrous practice, leading to
more violence and social pathology – and, perversely, to greater support
for corporal punishment.”

Sam Harris, “The Moral Landscape”

But “all the research” shows nothing of the kind. Sweden’s rate of
child abuse increased nearly 500 percent after spanking ban was
instituted in 1979 and is significantly higher than that of the United
States. In Trinidad, a paper titled “Benchmarking Violence and
Delinquency in the Secondary School: Towards a Culture of Peace and
Civility” concluded that a ban on corporal punishment in school had led
to indiscipline and even physical attacks on teachers. Dr. Robert E.
Larzelere of Oklahoma State has even published annotated studies
showing that what little scientific evidence has been produced to
support anti-spanking bans is not sound. One need not have a position on
corporal punishment to recognize that Harris did not, in fact, actually
look into the relevant research he cites so blithely.

This failure to
correctly establish a factual premise and build from it is found
throughout the book; Harris makes a habit of beginning with a conclusion
and belatedly attempting to support it with a statement of fact that is
often dubious and occasionally downright in error.

Still, Sam Harris is to be lauded for taking the moral bull by the
horns and bravely attempting to make the case for the possibility of a
secular and scientific morality. “The Moral Landscape” raises some
interesting questions and provides the reader with more than a little
material for thought. On the downside, Harris’ repeated attacks on Dr.
Francis Collins are unseemly as well as irrelevant to his topic; one
wonders what his editor was thinking to permit such a lengthy tangent
that is more indicative of a Victor Hugo novel than a serious scientific
work. And in the end, the reader is forced to conclude the argument for
a science-based morality presented in “The Moral Landscape” is even
more demonstrably incorrect than was the scientific hypothesis that
served as the original inspiration for the book.