Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris
He is especially offended by anthropology. Too often, he says, “the fire-lit scribblings of one or another dazzled ethnographer” have sanctioned some destructive practice (human sacrifice, female genital mutilation) by explaining its adaptive or social function. At their worst, ethnographers have created a cult of the noble savage that celebrates primitive cultures we should rightfully scorn. His scornfulness aside, Harris is not wrong about ethnographic sentimentality, but he thoroughly misunderstands cultural relativism. He seems to think it means cultivating a bland indifference to ethical questions rather than making a serious effort to understand ethical perspectives radically different from our own without abandoning our own. He is ignorant of the relevant anthropological literature on the subjects that vex him the most, such as Hanna Papanek’s study of Pakistani women, which described the burqa as “portable seclusion,” a garment that allowed women to go out into the world while protecting them from associating with unrelated men. As the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod writes, the burqa is a “mobile home” in patriarchal societies where women are otherwise confined to domestic space. Harris cannot imagine that Islamic women might actually choose to wear one; but some do. Nor is he aware of the pioneering work of Christine Walley on female genital mutilation in Africa. Walley illuminates the complex significance of the practice without ever expressing tolerance for it, and she uses cross-cultural understanding as a means of connecting with local African women seeking to put an end to it.
Harris’s version of scientific ethics does not allow for complexity. In The Moral Landscape, he describes his philosophical position as a blend of moral realism (“moral claims can really be true or false”) and consequentialism (“the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”). He does not explain why he has abandoned the intentionalism he espoused in The End of Faith. Nor does he spell out how his newfound consequentialism can allow him to maintain his justification of collateral damage (which surely “impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”), or how his new view differs from the pragmatism he had previously condemned. Pragmatism, the argument that ideas become true or false as their impact on the world unfolds, is nothing if not consequentialist.
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Competing philosophical claims merge, for Harris, in “the moral brain.” Moral truth is not divine in origin, nor is it merely a product of “evolutionary pressure and cultural invention.” It is a scientific fact. Or it soon will be: “The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled.” This is not an argument for Western ethnocentrism, Harris insists, but rather for the idea “that the most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, just as most other facts do.” No one can dispute the desirability of human flourishing or the possibility that neuroscience may lead us closer to it. But the big questions always lead outward from the brain to the wider world. If altruism has an innate biological basis, as some research suggests, how can societies be made to enhance it rather than undermine it?
Harris’s reductionism leads him in the opposite direction. His confidence in scientific ethics stems from his discovery that “beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain.” Much of The Moral Landscape is devoted to teasing inferences from this finding. Sometimes Harris merely belabors the obvious. For instance, he points out that the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which records feelings of reward and “self-relevance,” also registers the difference between belief and disbelief. When research subjects are presented with a moral dilemma—to save five people by killing one—the prospect of direct personal involvement more strongly activates brain regions associated with emotion. As Harris observes, “pushing a person to his death is guaranteed to traumatize us in a way that throwing a switch will not.” We do not need neuroscience to confirm the comparative ease of killing at a distance: Bauman’s work on the Holocaust, along with many other studies, demonstrated this decades ago.
More commonly, though, Harris depends on the MPFC to make more provocative claims. He says nothing about the pool of test subjects or the methods used to evaluate evidence in these experiments. Instead he argues by assertion. As he writes, “involvement of the MPFC in belief processing…suggests that the physiology of belief may be the same regardless of a proposition’s content. It also suggests that the division between facts and values does not make much sense in terms of underlying brain function.” This is uncontroversial but beside the point. The nub of the matter is not the evaluation of the fact-value divide “in terms of underlying brain function” but the conscious fashioning of morality. Harris is undaunted. He asks, “If, from the point of view of the brain, believing ‘the sun is a star’ is importantly similar to believing ‘cruelty is wrong,’ how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?” But can the brain be said to have a “point of view”? If so, is it relevant to morality?
There is a fundamental reductionist confusion here: the same biological origin does not constitute the same cultural or moral significance. In fact, one could argue, Harris shows that the brain cannot distinguish between facts and values, and that the elusive process of moral reasoning is not reducible to the results of neuroimaging. All we are seeing, here and elsewhere, is that “brain activity” increases or decreases in certain regions of the brain during certain kinds of experiences—a finding so vague as to be meaningless. Yet Harris presses forward to a grandiose and unwarranted conclusion: if the fact-value distinction “does not exist as a matter of human cognition”—that is, measurable brain activity—then science can one day answer the “most pressing questions of human existence”: Why do we suffer? How can we be happy? And is it possible to love our neighbor as ourselves?
These high-minded questions conceal a frightening Olympian agenda. Harris is really a social engineer, with a thirst for power that sits uneasily alongside his allegedly disinterested pursuit of moral truth. We must use science, he says, to figure out why people do silly and harmful things in the name of morality, what kinds of things they should do instead and how to make them abandon their silly and harmful practices in order “to live better lives.” Harris’s engineering mission envelops human life as a whole. “Given recent developments in biology, we are now poised to consciously engineer our further evolution,” he writes. “Should we do this, and if so, in which ways? Only a scientific understanding of the possibilities of human well-being could guide us.” Harris counsels that those wary of the arrogance, and the potential dangers, of the desire to perfect the biological evolution of the species should observe the behavior of scientists at their professional meetings: “arrogance is about as common at a scientific conference as nudity.” Scientists, in Harris’s telling, are the saints of circumspection.
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If that’s true, then Harris breaks the mold. Nowhere is this clearer, or more chilling, than in his one extended example of a specific social change that could be effected by scientific ethics. Convinced that brain science has located the biological sources of “bias”—the areas of the brain that cause us to deviate from the norms of factual and moral reasoning—Harris predicts that this research will lead to the creation of foolproof lie detectors. He does not say how these devices will be deployed. Will they be worn on the body, implanted in the brain, concealed in public locations? What he does say is that they will be a great leap forward to a world without deception—which, we must understand, is one of the chief sources of evil. “Whether or not we ever crack the neural code, enabling us to download a person’s private thoughts, memories, and perceptions without distortion,” he declares, the detectors will “surely be able to determine, to a moral certainty, whether a person is representing his thoughts, memories, and perceptions honestly in conversation.” (As always, the question arises, who are “we”?) Technology will create a brave new world of perfect transparency, and legal scholars who might worry about the Fifth Amendment implications are being old-fashioned. The “prohibition against compelled testimony itself appears to be a relic of a more superstitious age,” Harris writes, when people were afraid “that lying under oath would damn a person’s soul for eternity.” He does admit that because “no technology is ever perfect,” it’s likely that a few innocent people will be condemned; but the courts do that already, he notes, and besides, deception will have become obsolete. Rarely in all his oeuvre has Harris’s indifference to power and its potential abuse been more apparent or more abominable.
Maybe this explains why Harris remains an optimist despite all the “dangerously retrograde” orthodoxies on the loose. Moral progress is unmistakable, he believes, at least in “the developed world.” His chief example is how far “we” have moved beyond racism. Even if one accepts this flimsy assertion, the inconvenient historical fact is that, intellectually at least, racism was undone not by positivistic science, which underwrote it, but by the cultural relativism Harris despises. Ultimately his claims for moral progress range more widely, as he reports that “we” in “the developed world” are increasingly “disturbed by our capacity to do one another harm.” What planet does this man live on? Besides our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “we” in the United States are engaged in a massive retreat from the welfare state and from any notion that we have a responsibility to one another or to a larger public good that transcends private gain. This retreat has little to do with Islamic radicalism or the militant piety of the Christian right, though the latter does remain a major obstacle to informed debate. The problem in this case is not religion. Despite the fundamental (or perhaps even innate) decency of most people, our political and popular culture does little to encourage altruism. The dominant religion of our time is the worship of money, and the dominant ethic is “To hell with you and hooray for me.”
Harris is oblivious to this moral crisis. His self-confidence is surpassed only by his ignorance, and his writings are the best argument against a scientific morality—or at least one based on his positivist version of science and ex cathedra pronouncements on politics, ethics and the future of humanity. In The Moral Landscape he observes that people (presumably including scientists) often acquire beliefs about the world for emotional and social rather than cognitive reasons: “It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for.” The description fits Harris all too aptly, as he wanders from neuroscience into ethics and politics. He may well be a fine neuroscientist. He might consider spending more time in his lab.