Sam Harris starts off his book stating that he has the modest mission to convince the reader that neither divine command theory nor positivistic emoti...moreSam Harris starts off his book stating that he has the modest mission to convince the reader that neither divine command theory nor positivistic emotivist theory is a sufficient account of morality. But then he goes somewhat further: His actual mission, as he lays it out, is to show how maximizing human wellbeing--defined as a subjective neurological state of wellbeing--can form the basis for moral reasoning, and that scientific inquiry into neurology and effects of different acts can form the basis for such a moral system. The scope of his argument is therefore rather limited; however, his writing betrays a lack of the education and clear, analytical thought that would be necessary to make a broadly persuasive or powerful argument.
Pinning down exactly what Harris is arguing in any bigger context is difficult. He is frankly hostile to religion; therefore it seems he is looking for an account of morality that is based on some combination of naturalism and pure reason. He is not at all clear about the distinctions between morality, ethics (he identifies morality and ethics), politics or public policy, and jurisprudence or legal philosophy. It seems that at different times in the book, he addresses all of these issues, without making clear when he's dealing with which. Given that these are usually considered different areas of academic inquiry, and there is a large literature about their similarities, differences, and overlaps, this presents in itself a significant flaw in his book.
A second flaw that makes analyzing Harris difficult is that he is not clear about what "wellbeing" is. On the one hand, he is honest about this; he frequently uses the analogy to health. He points out that health is a poorly-defined concept that nevertheless can be discerned. However, where his analogy becomes a problem is that he does not seem clear about whose wellbeing is being discerned. Is it the wellbeing of the moral actor, or the aggregate greatest wellbeing for the greatest number? He seems to vacillate on this point. At times, he seems at pains to show why helping others is pleasurable to the individual moral actor, and at times he sounds almost like a utilitarian. Either way, he seems to slip in between the two paradigms without signaling or justifying his moves.
He senses his first task is to deal with the problem of question-begging. Both David Hume and G.E. Moore identified a problem in consequentialist moral philosophy: If, as Harris says, the objective of his system is to maximize human wellbeing, then it isn't really a system of moral philosophy. It's a system of wellbeing philosophy, not moral philosophy, because there is as yet an irreducible leap between any state of affairs and the good. In other words, just because something leads to wellbeing, has no bearing on whether it is good; and there is no guarantee, either in principle or practice, that any particular instance of wellbeing is actually "good," unless you simply fiat that wellbeing is good and close your mind to further inquiry. Harris rightly senses that this is a devastating objection that he cannot answer head-on. Hume, Moore, Kant, and others all found more or less convincing ways around this question-begging, but Harris doesn't even try. Instead, he simply says: You don't really believe that. You can identify a better or worse life. And he uses some examples to show that in fact we can identify "good" or "bad" lives and that in many cases, good or evil acts are more or less intuitively clear. And his argument is fairly convincing, even if it is basically special pleading. But this is a insurmountable problem for Harris that I will return to later in my review.
Closely related to his confusion about whose wellbeing he is talking about, Harris seems to have difficulty taking individuality seriously. This shows up in two ways. First, he assumes that everyone wants wellbeing. Either this is meaningless, or it is an unclear statement. If it simply means that even if you do something that objectively harms your wellbeing, you clearly meant to do it in order to increase your wellbeing, then it is a tautology and adds nothing to the discussion. On the other hand, if there is some objective way of measuring wellbeing, then we can at least start making some moves toward thinking about what wellbeing really is and how to get there. But he never really closes that gap. More profoundly, Harris has no answer to the issue of the oppressed minority. Imagine if 80% of the population would have their average wellbeing level go from 75 to 85 if some act were done--with sufficient attenuation to make it not tantamount to slavery, etc.--that would cause the other 20% to have their average wellbeing level go from 75 to 55. Clearly, the aggregate wellbeing of the society has increased; and clearly some individuals are very badly hurt. Harris attempts to deal with this problem three times, and fails every time. First, he simply denies it, when he mentions Rawls' statement of the issue; then he says that the subjective wellbeing of the 80% would be harmed because their neurological state would be harmed; then he says that it just doesn't work that way. But of course all he has to do is look at his native United Kingdom (or my native United States) to see a society where a real-world scenario similar to this has happened over the last decade, and it seems no one is much bothered by it.
It barely deserves mention that Harris's overt hostility toward and determination to misrepresent religion whenever possible mars his arguments. He is a New Atheist, which is to say he's regurgitating some Hume and Voltaire as if he thought of it himself. That will tell the reader of this review all you need to know.
I am also ignoring the philosophy of science issues that using scientific inquiry to get at morals raises. Suffice to say they appear huge on first glance, but I'm not smart enough to suss them out fully.
Very closely related to the Hume issue is the Brave New World issue. Ultimately, because he has no philosophically adequate account of what the word "good" means, he cannot explain why World Controller Mustafa Mond was not correct that he had created the best of all possible worlds, or why the Savage might have had a point. He also, of course, cannot deal with the problem of the suicidal person, except to say (and to his credit Harris is honest about this) that he is wrong about his own wellbeing, unless he takes of course the Vatican-ish position that a life in being, no matter how unpleasant, is always per se infinitely more valuable than a life not in being, which I doubt he would do.
In short, what Harris has done is written an excellent apologia for a particular variety of early-21st-century vision of human wellbeing. He has not written a book of ethics. It is helpful, interesting, and probably is grounds for public policy research and a reasonably good guide to personal action a lot of the time. But it isn't a book about morality.(less)