Sam Harris and the Moral Failure of Science
Sam Harris, who received a BA in philosophy from Stanford and a doctorate in neurobiology from UCLA, is easily the most radically ideological of the “New Atheists” or “Four Horsemen” as they are also called. Along with the other horsemen, journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens, Biologist Richard Dawkins and Philosopher Daniel Dennett, he has become one of the most famous and outspoken critics of religion in the modern world. He is also the most controversial. If you look up criticisms of Harris you will find that many of his critics are atheists themselves and that despite associating himself with the political left he is as blasted by left leaning voices for his intolerance as he is by the right for his views on Christianity. Even after all the ink against him I still feel that nobody has really realized how dangerous some of the ideas that Harris has proposed really are. I am about to unleash a no holds barred attack on Sam Harris and the ideology that he has proposed which I find as dangerous as even the most radical religion.
Despite the inflammatory title this article is not meant to appeal to the religious but to those who are not religious, and specifically to people who consider themselves agnostics, atheists and even anti-theists. This does not mean that I do not invite an audience of religious people or their comments but even though I am certain to say some things that you will like I will also almost certainly say things that you do not like. I myself am an atheist and a strong believer in scientific realism but at the same time I am in no way interested in discussing whether religion is true or not. I think this is a completely useless conversation to have and resent being dragged into it. I don’t think the religious question hinges on truth but I agree with the views of the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who despite coming to totally different conclusions, agreed that the value of religion did not come from its relation to reason.
The subject of this article, Sam Harris, would certainly not agree with this statement. Neither would any of the other new atheists that he is associated with. In many ways Kierkegaard and Nietzsche should have ended this discussion. Despite the fact that Christian Apologist Dinesh D’Sousa is fond of using Kierkegaard’s example of romantic love as a leap of faith that has value, he then misses the whole point of Kierkegaard by claiming that Christianity has evidence to support its claims. If there is evidence then it isn’t faith and if you need evidence you aren’t a real Christian. Kierkegaard would look at D’Sousa with nothing but derision. Similarly, Sam Harris is the embodiment of Nietzsche’s worst nightmare. In his most recent book, The Moral Landscape, Harris claims that not only is morality based on religion faulty (not a hard thing to prove) but claims that objective morality can be derived from science. One of Nietzsche’s primary concerns was that if science replaced religion as the primary moral authority we would be in far worse shape than religion ever put us in.
I’m already getting ahead of myself. In many ways the term “New Atheists” is a complete misnomer since their main concern is not whether religion is true but that it is immoral. Despite the fact that this is really what it comes down to claims that religious values and atheist values are somehow either inferior or superior usually are based on both sides using the exact same faulty logic.
1. Appeal to Authority
Religious people assume that because Atheists do not have an ultimate moral authority other than their capacity to reason then they have no incentive to be moral. This is, of course, wrong and the reason it is wrong will be revealed in the common anti-theist attack on the religious. Anti-theists will often cite an offensive passage from the Bible or other holy book and insist that in order to believe in the religion as a whole they must believe this passage and believe it literally, not as a parable, metaphor or having a different historic context. This is logic you would never apply to anything else but religion. Most people wouldn’t call somebody a hypocrite for voting for a candidate they disagreed with on ten percent of the issues. You wouldn’t throw out a scientific theory that had been 90 percent effective at predicting outcomes, you would instead form a new hypothesis to try to account for the ten percent that did not conform to the theory. Some people would say I’m being generous giving religion a 90 percent positive rating but we’d just be playing a numbers game. If more than 50 percent of religion is positive then it is still worth keeping those moral values. But ultimately my point is that we get our moral imperatives from the same place whether we are religious or non-religious. We get them from reason and not a higher authority. If you are religious you can say God gave us that capacity for just that purpose and though the atheist disagrees he cannot argue that many religious people are perfectly able to disregard dubious morality they find in scripture.
2. Confusing Ideology with Religion
While ideology can be informed by religion it is not the same thing. One example that comes up in these arguments is slavery. Anti-theists make the claim that slavery was supported by Christians and that scripture was used to defend it. The religious make the claim that it was Christians who worked tirelessly to abolish slavery and scripture was used against it. Who was right? Both are right and each account is completely true. The Southern Baptist and Southern Methodist churches split off from the rest of their denominations because of the slavery issue. In these cases one religion produced two different ideologies that were directly morally opposed to each other. This line of argument always leads to the inevitable, “who killed more people, the religious or the non-religious?” These arguments ultimately go nowhere because when we are talking about massive historical events saying that one idea or ideology was completely responsible is impossible.
So you might be asking, what does any of this have to do with Sam Harris and his claims of scientific morality? I suspect that deep down Harris knew that these arguments were not working. He said in many interviews that “the only people who think that there is an absolute morality are the religious.” This is not a true statement. As one of the critics of Harris, Kwame Anthony Appiah, was quick to point out, the vast majority of ethics professors agree that there are absolute answers to most moral problems. Appiah should know because he is an ethics professor at Princeton University. When being interviewed by John Stewart on The Daily Show, Harris was asked if whether he was confusing the idea that the right thing to do is difficult to ascertain and the idea that it was unknowable. As Harris usually does with any philosophically hard question he changed the subject.
This is why I believe that Harris was playing in the realm of philosophy for strictly ideological reasons. It seems that Harris believed that in order to truly destroy religion he needed a morality that was equally as rigid. As I have watched him give speech after speech it is obvious that no matter how ridiculous his arguments are his audiences can do no more than gush. He has not created a new workable moral theory as he claims, but a cult of personality. He is a left wing Ayn Rand in the making and if he chooses to push his “philosophy” in later books he could become just as dangerous if not more dangerous than her views are. Like Rand, he claims his morality is based on objective science and just like Rand his philosophy shows a dangerous disregard to the concept of basic human rights.
Because of his educational background I do not have the luxury to consider Harris naïve or ignorant. It seems that he does not know the implications of what he is saying and that he is just naïve but then he pulls out objections to his arguments that reveal his philosophy background. When he mentions David Hume’s contention that “an ought cannot be derived from an is” and just like Ayn Rand he dismisses it without making much of an argument, it makes me cringe. “We not only can derive an ought from an is,” Harris says during one of his speeches, “but we can derive an is from an ought. We ought to be rational. We ought to consider evidence.” I don’t know who this is more insulting to, philosophers or scientists. There is no morality involved in science. We base scientific validity by its ability to predict. That is pretty much deriving an is from an is.
His basic moral theory is that what is good and bad comes from brain states. So he says that what leads to the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people is the greatest good. Anybody who knows anything about philosophy knows that there is already a theory that makes this very same claim and that theory is Utilitarianism. The one thing that Harris adds to it is that he claims it is derived from science alone with no moral assumptions. When an audience member asks the question, “Isn’t that still a moral assumption?” Harris seems genuinely puzzled. He claims that there is no other version of morality that can be argued for and that when people say that there is another value other than good consequences, “I think they don’t know what they are talking about.”
This is the point that I became convinced that Harris was either a manipulative liar or willfully stupid. As hard as it is to believe that he got through college without reading Immanuel Kant, it is even harder to believe that he didn’t consult any research materials about modern ethical theories that mention Kant. Kant gives two values outside of simply maximizing pleasure. Kant says that all human beings should be treated as ends in themselves and not means to an end and that the point of morality was not to maximize human happiness but to increase human autonomy. For instance, if I told you that I could plug you into a virtual reality machine where you would have the ideal life that you could imagine but that you would have to stay in this fake reality all your life, what would you say? Philosopher Robert Nozick proposed this objection to Utilitarianism in the 1970s and when psychologists ask people the question the vast majority of them say that they would rather be free than happy. By his own standards this proves the thesis formed by Harris to be false.
But if Harris was just a bad Utilitarian this wouldn’t be such a big deal. My point goes further than that though. One of the most controversial claims that Harris has ever made was a Huffington Post article where he defends torture. What makes Harris so dangerous an ideologue is not his argument itself but the way he argues it. He begins with that old chestnut about being in a situation where there is a bomb about to go off and the only way that you can get the information to save the world (he imagines it is a nuclear bomb) is to torture a terrorist suspect. He argues simply that if you can imagine such a circumstance then you are saying that there is no rule that could prevent you from using torture.
First of all, Harris is once again showing his ignorance or outright inability to deal with the problems of Utilitarianism. While we expect politicians to use such sloppy logic to get this from somebody who so many think of as a “respected intellectual” is really disappointing. The question is, at what point do we know enough information that torture would be okay? In order to really know enough that we could act with certainty of good consequences is that we would already have to know: a bomb exists, that the suspect knows where it is, that it is an imminent threat, that we could get enough information in time to stop the bomb. Now, could you even plausibly imagine such a situation? How could a situation arise where you know enough information to know that the torture would stop a disaster but still not have enough information to not know where the bomb is?
Harris then makes an analogy with collateral damage. He says that if collateral damage of innocent people when we are pursuing the enemy is morally acceptable then torture should be acceptable. After all, the torture victim is guilty (because obviously we tried and convicted him before the torture because that is how it works) and the victims of collateral damage are innocent. Many people pointed out to Harris that one is intentional and the other isn’t but he dismisses this. Once again his Stanford philosophy education has failed him. In one of his speeches Harris mentions the famous “trolley problem.” In one scenario a runaway trolley is on a track and going to run over four people but you can flip a switch and put it on the other track where another person is. In the second scenario you are standing next to a fat man who you can push in front of the trolley to save the four people. In the first case almost everyone says pulling the switch is okay but almost nobody says pushing somebody in front of the trolley is okay. Harris mentions this but doesn’t even have a point. He just says that the two acts are “different” but doesn’t clarify.
If he had bothered to think about it for even a second he would have seen that the first example is collateral damage. There was no malice in the flipping of the switch but it was the act that was necessary to save the four. If the other person was to see the trolley and jump out of the way then their death would not be necessary. In the case of the man being pushed in front of the trolley we are using another human being as a means to an end and that is unacceptable to most of us. Sam Harris said it himself. He doesn’t see what else is important other than the maximizing of human welfare, so your religious rights don’t matter, your civil rights don’t matter, due process doesn’t matter. Kant claimed that every human being had intrinsic value and an inherent right to be free. Kant thought that it was better to let humans be free to make bad choices than to enslave them in the interest of their well -being. For the last few hundred years civilizations that have lived by these principles have done pretty well.
For those who think I have been unfair to Dr. Harris I just want to bring up a point. When Sam Harris debates he shows how religion was harmful by bringing up the crusades, the Spanish inquisition and Islamic terrorism and says religion was the cause. When apologists debate they mention Hitler, Stalin and Mao and claim atheism is the cause. But may I suggest that if all of these ideologies share one trait that this single trait connecting them all might very well be the cause? All of these atrocities share a trait with the “moral theory” of Sam Harris in that they deny the intrinsic value of human beings and that they do not respect the rights of human beings based on cultural, religious or racial differences. They deny the central premise of Kant’s ethics and if every atrocity in history does this shouldn’t we as theists and non-theists come together to protect this one principle?
More by this Author
A summary of the major ideas of Plato and how these would influence the development of philosophy is western society.
A summery of the basic ideas of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and the influence that Aristotle had on the development of these ideas.
A list of ten unusual and offbeat attractions you can find in the state of Florida.