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The many contradictions of Sam Harris

February 21, 2014

I have just finished the Moral Landscape challenge. I found the challenge very worthwhile and enjoyable. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed blogging my way through the book. In the end there were many more blog posts I could have written but alas I ran out of time. To summarise and conclude some of my thoughts on The Moral Landscape I thought I’d consolidate many of my thoughts with this final blog post (on the moral landscape challenge).

One of my main frustrations with The Moral Landscape were the the many contradictions Sam Harris makes throughout. I felt at times these contradictions emerged because he ‘wanted to have his cake and eat it too’. Harris was writing to appeal to a popular market and by doing so he often softened the hard edges of his moral philosophy. Hence I felt he was never willing to admit the logical conclusion of his position. Moreover in attempting to overcome these contradictions, Harris merely asserted that they weren’t contradictions without ever explaining why or how.

I’ve identified six important contradictions within Harris’ work.

  1. In a previous post I demonstrated how Harris justifies injustice. He asserts that the concept of justice is not opposed to the maximisation of well-being. Yet in a footnote contradicts himself by saying, ‘Are there trade-offs and exceptions? Of course. There may be circumstances in which the very survival of a community requires that certain of these principles be violated. But this doesn’t mean that they aren’t generally conducive to human well-being’. Hence ‘justice’ is not a central part of Harris’ ethic. As I mentioned, you can’t justify an exception to justice and maintain that the paradigm is fundamentally ‘just’.
  2. Harris’ moral landscape is a consequentialist system, yet he contradicts this by importing a deontological maxim. Harris imports a deontological rule (page 79-80) by proposing that ‘people should be treated as ends in themselves’. Rawls identified a crucial problem with utilitarianism is that ‘it does not take seriously the distinction between persons’. This is a key criticism of any utilitarian ethical paradigm, that sometimes injustice can be justified (see point 1) and the needs of the individual are sacrificed for ‘the greater good’. Harris attempts to overcome this though his deontological maxim, but by asserting this, Harris actually subverts his consequentialist ethic (Harris is seemingly unaware of this). It subverts it because this new ethical ‘command’ introduces a new dimension into ethical decisions and means that a trade-off must be made at times between following the ethical system i.e. does a particular ethical decision maximise well-being OR treat people as ends in themeselves’? It appears that Harris is attempting to have his cake and it it as well.
  3. The moral landscape claims to provide an ‘objective’ source of moral value, however the presence of multiple peaks makes it ‘subjective’. I outlined this problem in this post reflecting on Harris’ claim that if an honour system could be demonstrated as having equal ‘well-being’ then it would represent another peak on the landscape. Despite Harris’ protestations, it’s difficult to avoid the accusation of moral relativism.
  4. Harris denies free will yet still maintains we retain moral responsibility. Harris writes an interesting section outlining the ‘illusion of free will’ (pp. 102-106) claiming that we actually don’t have free will because many of our actions have been determined before we make them. Yet it is difficult to reconcile this claim with maintaining any sense of moral responsibility – how can we hold anyone morally responsible for their actions, particularly the poor psychopaths whom Harris condemns, or how we can condemn and punish others?
  5. It is unclear whether there is one Platonic ‘ideal’ landscape of ‘maximised perfection’ or multiple peaks. Harris is quite unclear on this. At times he maintains that there are multiple pathways to ‘well-being’ yet at other points he suggests that there is one ultimate pathway. This lack of clarity makes it very clear how to understand the moral landscape.
  6. You can’t get an ought from an is. This isn’t strictly a contradiction but it is the fundamental weakness of the book. Harris simply asserts that certain values are built into ‘facts’ about the world. Hence he claims that when we do science it is obvious what we should therefore do. Yet this is not true. Science can make observations about the world, it can help us determine certain facts, but as I highlighted in this post science doesn’t adjudicate what we should or ought to do. To make these ethical decisions we need to make prior philosophical decisions and utilise other ethical frameworks. Hence this renders the moral landscape unnecessary.

As I mentioned in my moral landscape entry, I think the whole moral landscape concept is interesting, but redundant as ethical decisions can be derived in other ways.

I want to thank Sam Harris for his provocative work and I admire his epistemic humility to open himself up for public criticism. My only hope is that Harris listens to the criticism and modifies his thesis in light of these weaknesses.

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