A Strange Witness

Book cover
The Moral Landscapeby By Sam HarrisThe Free Press. 304p $26.99

Some years ago, the theologian Schubert Ogden wrote a thoughtful essay entitled “The Strange Witness of Unbelief.” He argued that the staunchest atheist of all, Jean-Paul Sartre, had ironically demonstrated the reasonableness of belief in God. If atheism is true, Sartre had insisted, there can be no absolute or objective standard of right and wrong. All values would have to be relative and subjective. If objective values exist, then God exists, but if there is no God, then there is no eternal heaven that would make values objective and give them universal applicability. Atheism means that we alone are the authors of our values, and it is “bad faith” not to take responsibility for creating them.

Strangely, however, by insisting that we must—one and all—take responsibility for our decisions, Sartre was implying that human freedom is an objective and universal value. In spite of verbal denials, he in fact confirmed his own adherence to an absolute standard of right and wrong. Hence Sartre’s own self-contradictory train of thought, Ogden argued, pointed back to the God whose existence he had denied.

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Sam Harris, who bills himself as the most thoroughgoing atheist ever, is also a strange witness, although by leaps and loops of logic different from those that led Sartre into self-contradiction. Staking out a position distinct from both theological ethics and Sartrean atheism, The Moral Landscape, the latest of Harris’s three major atheistic manifestoes, argues that the affirmation of objective values does not entail the reality of God after all. Nor does the nonexistence of God mean that our moral values are inevitably subjective and relative.

Harris’s claim is that in our godless universe there exists an objective domain of “moral facts” that can be discovered only by scientific inquiry. Values are objective in the same sense that scientific facts are objective. So the traditional distinction between facts and values, as taken for granted by all but a few philosophers, including atheists, is wrongheaded. Moral values do not require eternal divine sanction any more than scientific facts do. They simply need to be discovered and applied.

The death of God, therefore, is not a Nietzschean opportunity to celebrate the dizzying chaos of moral relativism and start human life over again on our own terms. According to Harris, not just anything goes, nor is everything permitted. In the absence of God, behavioral norms still exist “out there” independently of our private preferences. We just have to do a better job of finding them.

The function of morality, Harris proposes, is to promote the “well-being” of “conscious creatures.” True, we do not yet all agree on what well-being means, but that should not discourage us. Eventually science, if we just let it have its day, will arrive at an objective measurement of well-being around which all reasonable people will structure their moral lives.

Not surprisingly, the anthropocentric treatment of well-being in The Moral Land-scape leaves no room for moral interest in the thriving of the life-world beyond conscious beings, and it is doubtful that Harris has any interest in conservation or environmental concerns except to the extent that these are instrumental to his own historically and culturally conditioned ideal of human existence.

So, what is it that justifies well-being as the objective core of moral existence? For Harris it is simply the fact that well-being is ultimately an empirically describable set of brain states. But how then can he judge one pattern of brain states to be normative without being highly subjective in doing so? Harris does not really answer this question, although he spends several chapters trying to do so. Like the theism he despises, he wants to universalize the list of basic human needs and rights upon which many people already agree, but his commitment to a materialist worldview and his explicit denial of human freedom spoil his noblest aspirations. Puzzlingly, he fails to show how his own atheistic brain state with its morally deadening denial of the reality of freedom—once science has ensured that it is universally shared—could conceivably provide the incentive for a new era of human well-being.

Having recently completed his doctoral work in neuroscience, however, Harris replies to all objections that since our valuations are reducible to chemically specifiable brain states, this should be enough to make morality objective. With this bit of verbal magic, he claims to have grounded morality in an ultimately material universe. Additionally, he implies that he has now solved the “hard problem” of cognitive science—namely, that of bridging the worlds of subjective experience on the one hand and the scientifically objective investigation of mind on the other. He “solves” this notoriously intractable puzzle by simply denying in effect that subjectivity exists.

And yet, Harris’s whole project is as lively a performance of relativist and arbitrary subjectivity as one could possibly imagine. A more transparent display of what he is trying to debunk would be hard to find. His spirited enshrinement of “scientific reason” has all the fervor of the religious “faith” he loves to hate. He remains oblivious to the irony that he is offering no scientifically objective justification of his own moral hyper-valuation of scientific objectivity. Untamed subjective passion, swinging completely free of scientific confirmation, animates every page of The Moral Landscape.

So Harris turns out to be a strange witness as well. He demonstrates, in spite of all disclaimers, how difficult it is for any of us to live without faith.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Norman Costa
7 years 3 months ago

If many readers are like me and don't have the time to read every book that is reviewed on AM, we can always find a video summary, or a video of the author talking about his or her book.

Fortunately there is a video summary of the book by the author and it only takes an hour and forty minutes to view.  You can find it at:

http://fora.tv/2010/11/10/Sam_Harris_Can_Science_Determine_Human_Values

I'm going to give it a shot and see if I can contribute anything worthwhile to this review and discussion.  Also, the NY Times reivew is at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/books/review/Appiah-t.html

Good watching and good reading.

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