A response to Sam Harris on moral questions
Author Sam Harris has recently presented before the TED conference on the question of whether science can answer moral questions. While I agree with his conclusions on moral questions, I don’t think we agree on what to do about it.
Harris makes the case that moral questions can indeed be answered through a rational approach. He asks, “Can adding cholera to the water supply be a good idea?” and answers, “probably not.” This, of course, assumes that we all share the same standards for what constitutes ‘good ideas’. Harris makes it obvious several times that he is referring to “human flourishing”, a “good life”, “thriving”, or “well-being”. Although he does not overtly address this point, this is obviously the standard by which he judges whether something is moral.
I have made precisely this argument since writing Natural-Objective Ethics in April of 2005. The point being, when we look at humanity it should be obvious that the reason for Homo sapiens’ instinctive universal tendency to form moral norms is because this enhances its chances of survival and prosperity. If we know the function of ethics, then we can measure a moral norm by how well it performs that function, and we can investigate those questions scientifically.
Harris admits that defining what is precisely meant by “well being” is difficult, but the problem is even worse than that. It is also important to note that not everyone will share our approach to ethics, and not everyone will share our assumed basis for the measure of an ethic (that being, whether it leads to human flourishing). If a person or a people believe that the basis of morality is to serve God or some other purpose, regardless of its effect on human flourishing, then Harris’ argument fails to connect, and is even somewhat question-begging.
While the arguments of my N-O Ethics and Harris’ presentation may be good ways to illustrate to rationally-minded people how there can be an objectively “right answer” and “wrong answer” to moral questions, an entirely different angle on different topics is needed to reach the fundamentalist. This failure to connect with fundamentalists on the basis of morality is an important point that will become even more important later in this article.
Rational morality: what to do about it
Harris and I agree that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions and that these can be investigated rationally and even scientifically. However, that’s where our agreement seems to end. To really see Harris’ approach, one may need to have read some of his other works and seen some of his other presentations, because much of his overall thesis in the TED presentation is subtle or even unstated at times. I’m not implying subterfuge, but rather he had a particular focus in this presentation and those not familiar with his writings may not have caught the full drift of his outlook by this one video, even though it clearly connected to his overall views.
The important question of our time is not whether moral questions can be investigated and answered through rational means. That is already happening in nearly every field; and will only continue to happen over time, whether people realize it or not. No, the important question of our time is – what are we rationalists going to do about it?
In a subtle bemoaning of his intellectual colleagues who insist all morality is subjective, Harris admits in the presentation that, to his chagrin, the majority of people w
ith whom he seems to agree on the objectivity of ethics are the religious fundamentalists! Harris does not take this as a cautionary indicator that might be saying something important to him about his views, but rather, looks at it as a case of irony that his otherwise enlightened colleagues haven’t achieved this insight.
Harris does point out that the reasons behind the fundamentalists’ belief in objective ethics are very different from his own; that being their belief that a perfect deity has delivered this knowledge to them. But I would point out another difference (hopefully) between the rational approach to Natural-Objective ethics and the religious fundamentalist approach. As I stated in Natural-Objective Ethics, there is an important difference between saying “there is a right answer” and saying “I have the right answer”. The latter is the extra step the fundamentalists take with certainty. I am not appealing to subjectivism here. The endeavor of moral progress is not one of invention, but of discovery – but like scientific discovery, we must hold conclusions provisionally, and must be open to further investigation and correction over time.
What is of more concern is what we do with our rationally-based provisional moral answers?
Harris says that we must “converge” on matters of great moral importance. I agree that flourishing is the goal, and that convergence on that
would be wonderful. But how to go about it is another matter. Harris speaks fluently about the dangers of religious extremism, but I see in his approach much reactionary fear – an overall perspective that focuses, perhaps myopically, on controlling the world and bending it into what we think it should be.
The United States was once a far less invasive nation, not only militarily but economically, culturally, and so on. Thomas Jefferson suggested that we be friends with many nations, but have entangling alliances with none. Since World War II however, the modus operandi of the nation changed to something more like the Imperialist mindset of our Western roots. We had already become more militarily involved overseas and we had shifted to a war-based economy. Powerful corporations had much to gain by continued production of war machines. President Eisenhower warned the American people of this in his farewell speech regarding the dangers of the military-industrial complex.
Through our long Cold War with the Soviet Union, the world was our chess board and smaller nations our pawns. Entangling alliances abound as each superpower did whatever it could to manipulate the global stage to its advantage. This often underhanded process set up many of the unfortunate social, political, economic, and cultural situations in other nations that today create the conditions ripe for the terrorism we now face. Throughout the process, more and more of our military bases appeared on the soil of other nations, in addition to an influx of our corporations and culture, whether greatly welcome or not. In fact, the entire history of our nation since the mid 20th Century can be looked at as one long state of war – it’s goal to cast an ever increasing net of strategic forces over the planet. This process has given us much more to lose, and created a situation in which we are frequently attacked. When that happens, we feel less secure and more fearful as a people, and our response is to seek even greater control over the globe in the belief that we can gain enough control to one day be safe. We always seem to have good intentions such as security, fighting for freedom, or liberating others – but the result is the same: the more control we try to exert over the world, the less secure and more afraid we become.
We must be careful that Harris’ correct conclusions about the objective nature of moral questions does not lead us down the path of seeking to dominate others with our vision of ‘how things should be’. Would the Crusades be any more palatable if the brand of morality the crusaders were attempting to erect by force had been derived through scientific investigation on the basis of human flourishing? There is some indication Harris seems content that a few egg shells may need to be broken in order to erect this ‘convergence’ on human ethical standards.
Harris says in his presentation that we can no longer “respect or tolerate” vast differences of opinion on moral questions in such a dangerous intertwined world. It is true that, in one’s personal life considerations, every view on morality doesn’t ‘have to count’ as he says. In fact, it’s actually important that it not – that a person have a healthy deliberative standard by which to evaluate moral opinions and assertions. But Harris takes this personal standard of healthy skepticism and seeks to apply it on a sociological level, with concerning implications.
One who has read and heard Harris’ other works will note that his objection is not just with violent religious extremists, but with the ‘moderates’ who hold similar religious views but do no violence. I point that out, not to disagree but because of its implications on how we must interact with other nations in terms of sheer number. It should be added that he has in the past suggested torture and the preemptive use of nuclear weapons may be appropriate in some limited cases.
Harris uses the example of the facts upon which safety standards of buildings and airplanes are based as being analogous to moral questions, and I concur. However, the important question is whether we go about global domination, tolerating whatever manner of violence may be necessary, to ensure that building safety standards converge in all corners of humanity, and are administered by a single board that will do the appropriate studies to determine what those regulations should be.
Recall my earlier point about the failure of Harris’ argument to connect with religionists on the underlying basis of morality. This is where that point becomes especially important. When all of these people do not share Harris’ underlying definitions and conceptions on the purpose and function of ethics, they will be immune to his arguments for a scientific take on moral matters, and when this is mixed with ourselves discarding even tolerance of ‘vast differences of opinion’ on moral matters, then such an onslaught may be the only alternative Harris leaves us.
At the end of the presentation, the questioner asks Harris what we do when a women who wears a veil says that she wishes to do so of her own accord. Harris responds that we will eventually be able to measure scientifically whether these sorts of cultural norms lead to fathers who love their daughters more. The questioner then asks, “And if the results come out that, actually they do, are you prepared to shift your instinctive current judgment on some of these issues?” To that, Harris noted that it’s not just the father’s experience of love we have to look at, but “well-being in a larger context” – that it is “all of us together”. It is true that we must defend ourselves against direct violence, but it is also precisely because it is “all of us together” in the larger scope of things that respect and tolerance must have a place, even where it isn’t comfortable.
Harris’ mistake is in his focus on achieving greater control over the actions of others. It is the traditional Western Imperialist perspective on ‘engineering the world’ as it ‘should be’ that has not changed. What’s even more concerning is the underlying incentive upon which his argument is based, which is fear. Although he mentions only briefly this world “filled with destructive technology”, fear of this destruction is the underlying motivation of his argument for discarding tolerance and respect.
Instead, we should be looking inward. Why are we so scared that we might be willing to perform nearly any act to ensure that others converge as we believe they should? Further, there are many ways to help educate and change the world, but that door is only opened through respectful relations.
Yes, what Harris says is true: there is a ‘right answer’ to moral questions, which can be discovered, albeit imperfectly, through rational means. But to spread truth requires a unique approach. The solution to these inter-cultural problems of cyclical violence is like a Chinese finger trap puzzle, which gets more difficult the more you resist it. Its solution requires no physical strength at all. The outcome of such an approach is by no means certain, but the effects of this approach can be profound.
Speaking of the Chinese, Yen Huei once came to the Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu and complained about the Prince of Wei. He said he was an old man of “unmanageable disposition”. Yen Huei continues, “He behaves as if the people were of no account, and will not see his own faults. He disregards human lives and the people perish… The people do not know where to turn for help.” Yen Huei suggests he may go and confront the Prince.
Chuag-Tzu tells Yen Huei that preachiness and brute force will only make wicked men hate him. Fighting fire with fire is called aggravation, warns Chuang-Tzu. On the other hand, if you begin with concessions, there will be no end to them. Yen Huei proposes all manner of approaching the Prince and Chuang-Tzu points out why the Prince will be unresponsive. What then?
Chuang-Tzu says that to know what we should do, we must first become blank – we must engage in a ‘fasting of the heart’. By this, he means we must hold back on our judgments and reactionary nature so that our ego (self) is no longer in the way of our clear seeing and understanding. At that point, it becomes easier to see that we must get to know our enemies, build relations, talk when they are in a mood to listen and refrain when not. Do so without labels and let things take their natural course, then you may have a chance of success. This is called walking without touching the ground.
What Chuang-Tzu refers to is a way of handling people and events that is more sophisticated. Like the Chinese finger trap puzzle, it is observing carefully and using the momentum and nature of the thing against which we struggle to bring about the change we desire. But to take this approach, we need to put away our egotistical judgments and obsessions which keep us from truly understanding others, and we need to temper our fears. If we can suspend these long enough to understand, then we can begin acting in ways that really are productive for the whole. Not only does it require humility, but it requires bravery, because it is so much easier to succumb to our fears and pick up a sword and shield (or machine gun and bomb, as the case may be). This approach can work, and has worked, on a national level at various times and places – if we are committed to it.
As a freethinker, a skeptic, and a naturalist, I am a believer in the power of reason – but not merely the power of my reason. Reason can and does flourish in free minds naturally. It flourishes best in minds that are not threatened or offended. Fear is a powerful temptation, and it often may be very difficult not to let it cloud our vision or make us react with blunt force. Fear is also insidious and will subtly find its way into our underlying motivations and rationalizations – all while we believe we are being very intellectual, unemotional, and rational – as Harris appears to be in his presentations and writings.
We have already tried the option of having the ‘right answer’ for the world, with unfortunate results. Compassion, tolerance, and respect can have profound effects on enemies, but we as a nation have yet to even try that approach in any serious or deep manner. It requires far more bravery than we have, sadly, yet been able to muster.
 For stoicism enthusiasts, since I often write on that philosophy: In Stoicism, the only ‘good’ is my virtuous choice. But what is virtue? Virtue consists of the correct selection among Indifferents – that being the Preferred Indifferents. And, what determines whether something is a Preferred Indifferent? Whether it is in accord with Nature. The nature of human beings is to thrive and survive, thus when it comes to complex issues we can use our ‘spark of the divine fire’ – rational means (including the scientific method) to try to understand what is more likely to lead to survival and prosperity (i.e what is more likely to be in accord with Nature).
Special thanks to Aurthur Fay for making me aware of Harris’ presentation.