The Moral Landscape: My Perspective

The Moral Landscape

Sam Harris, Free Press 2010

Sam Harris is best known as a ‘radical’ atheist-polemicist, a virulent campaigner for a civilisation who places heavy emphasis on the power and prestige of reason and who seeks to disabuse faith-claims, and the people who make them, of the totemic status that they enjoy in our society today. Having read Harris’s anti-God, anti-faith book, The End of Faith, I come to his new book, The Moral Landscape, with a fair notion of the nature of his ideas and contentions about the role and place of religion in society.

Up until now, the so called New Atheist movement has largely concerned itself with questions around the efficacy of religious belief, and writers and scientists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coin, Matt Dillahunty, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris himself have argued stridently against the taboos of discourse that for centuries have stood in the way of critiquing and debunking the flawed nature of religious belief and the received wisdom about the efficacy of ‘faith’. In some respects though, the New Atheists have avoided, or have been unwilling to focus upon the question of morality. In philosophical parlance, they have avoided questions of meta-ethics – how can one justify one’s claim to righteousness? How can a particular behaviour or way of life be said to occupy the status of “the right, the noble, the correct, the ethical, the good” as opposed to “the bad, the ignoble, the dangerous, the unethical, the immoral, the evil“?

Those who profess religious faith have always “known” the answer – our ethics, or at the very least the basis for maintaining certain ethical standards, are derived from God, is regardless of the particular manifestation He might happen to take on, depending on your faith. This “theonomous” argument has been ridiculed heavily by the New Atheists, who assert that regardless of where we find the source of our ethics, it should be obvious that moral authority cannot, and should not, be derived from a non-existent deity. While I agree with the New Atheists on this point, I have been concerned at the scarcity of alternative approaches – until now. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher at UCLA, has written a masterful work of intense energy designed to disabuse us of our traditional notions about the role that science has to play in questions of ethics and morality. It’s a work written lucidly and without recourse to tiresome philosophical jargon (although I’ll be referring to some traditional philosophy-of-ethics concepts in this review/essay), and so quite easy to digest. For those who wish to delve deeper, there are some interesting discussions of the usual philosophical ideas/contentions etc. consigned to the footnotes.

Let’s cut to the chase: Harris contends that science can, and should, inform human values. For centuries, observes Harris, humanity has sought to understand the nature and origin of moral strictures and ethical systems, so far without universal success. Harris thinks the time has come for humanity to converge in terms of the behaviours it values, citing our ever-present capacity for self-annihilation as good reason to begin serious investigations into the notion that not all cultures/religions/worldviews are created equal, and that some are even worth discarding altogether. In place of “Christian” morality and “Islamic ethics” Harris contends that we should end the absolutist approach towards differentiating science and values. Instead, we should acknowledge that science is the only way the real world has been illuminated to us; it is a highly useful process of investigation which contains checks against biases and enables near-objective results to be obtained, and therefore truths to be deduced about the state of the natural world. Harris argues we should no longer be ignorant about the potential for scientifically based investigation to shed light on not only what is, but how we therefore ought to behave. I realise all too well that the philosopher’s immediate response to this idea will be to raise Hume’s is/ought distinction and the naturalistic fallacy like some kind of religious dogma. But relax, Harris realises this too, and we’ll get to that.

Harris bases his claim on the notion of human wellbeing. “While the argument I make in this book is bound to be controversial, it rests on a very simple premise: human wellbeing depends entirely on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it.” For Harris, wellbeing is the basis for morality; he argues that we can therefore discard many “moral” questions, like gay marriage (which all evidence would suggest is beneficial for those wishing to get married and in no way works to become detrimental in the lives of everybody else) just as we should discard notions of the “Catholic” physics of the transubstantiation as bogus. Harris seeks to overcome old notions of metaphysical ethics, religiously derived ethics, “form” and “material” substance; any notion that depends for its efficacy on unsubstantiated metaphysical premises. Note that Harris is not saying that morals are “out-there” somewhere, waiting to be discovered; he understands all the relativist arguments against moral absolutism, but he does argue that it should be possible for humanity to converge on a largely homogeneous moral code, given what we know about human suffering and human flourishing. “There are facts to be understood about how thoughts and intentions arise in the human brain; there are facts to be learnt about how these mental states translate into behaviour; there are further facts to be known about how these behaviours influence the world and the experience of other conscious beings.” If certain behaviours cause certain measurable responses in individuals, responses that sit somewhere on the continuum between abject pain and glorious flourishing, Harris argues we have no excuse not to make judgements about these behaviours.

Why have scientists resisted questions of morality for so long, assuming that religion or philosophy are the most ideal paths through which to attain enlightenment? Harris quotes the psychologist Jerry Fodor on this question, who pithily encapsulates this view:

Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it couldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are. There couldn’t be  a science of the human condition.

Harris also relates a few of his many encounters with scientists who have been reluctant, even stridently opposed to, the idea of a science of “the human condition”. “Many people believe that something in the last few centuries of intellectual progress prevents from speaking in terms of “moral truth” and therefore, from making cross cultural moral judgements…” Ironically, many of those who would ostensibly oppose themselves to the idea that moral truths are knowable would also be the first to assert the right of religion to be practiced and accommodated in the public sphere, religions that themselves preach spurious and blatantly unethical dogmas about woman and homosexuals, for example. Nevertheless Harris does not blithely dismiss the problem; he tackles it head on and refuses to kowtow to its hypocritical double standard. “Having discussed this subject in a variety of public forums, I have heard from literally thousands of highly educated men and women that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions…and that concepts like well-being and misery are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them”. What has brought on this extreme and frightening form of moral accommodationism? Harris cites several possibilities, the two most powerful being the urge to “tolerate” those with different “cultural beliefs” and the fanatical adherence to Hume’s is/ought distinction, mentioned earlier.

“There are very practical concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything – the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world”. Harris’ point is that we no longer have reason to consider many practices and behaviours moral merely because some culture or religion sanctions them as such. Is it moral to stone homosexuals to death because they happen to enjoy having sex? If you take Leviticus on its word, then yes, it is. Most Christians would of course contest that point, arguing that Old Testament morality is no longer applicable to this day and age. Why would they argue this when their holy book intones, quite clearly, that homosexuality is a sin punishable by death? Are they not being disingenuous? Well yes, they are. The only reason they no longer believe this is moral is because the last three hundred years have witnessed an explosion in our capacity to understand not only nature in all its variety, but also each other. We are able to comprehend each other with ever greater precision, and we are therefore more able than ever to recognise the humanity in each other. Where religions would divide and demonize ‘non-believers’ and sanctify such practices like slavery in the past, science has affirmed beyond any doubt our shared humanity, and every individual’s capacity to experience both abject suffering and joyful ecstasy. This is the crux of Harris’ book, and also why it is of such import today. We no longer have any excuses to ignore the plight of our fellow human beings. Those among us who are honest should be ashamed to hide behind a veil of ignorance in the defence of “tolerance” – given the proliferation of weapons capable of wiping out large swathes of life on Earth, we do have a moral imperative to recognise human wellbeing as something that is knowable and to condemn those religious and cultural behaviours that fail to advance it. It is not as though God has changed his mind about stoning homosexuals; we have instead collectively come to the realisation that stoning homosexuals is bad because it does not promote anybody’s wellbeing, and serves only to destroy perfectly viable lives. This shift has been enabled not by God or religion, but by philosophers and scientists like Harris over the last 200 years.

The other objection to a science of morality is exemplified in this extract from a high school philosophy textbook, Mel Thompson’s Access to Philosophy: Ethical Theory. Yes, it is as dry and unenlightening as its title intuits, but it is useful for citing the abject and absurd notion that is G.E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy, developed from Hume’s is/ought distinction. For some reason, this dogmatic like assertion has been indoctrinated into philosophy students since Moore made it famous, and philosophy textbooks like this one spout it like some kind of inalienable creed:

…that children are starving as a result of  famine is in itself morally neutral. It simply describes the condition of those who die for lack of food. It only becomes a matter of moral debate [note, moral debate. Thompson apparently considers that the moral status of starving children is still ‘debatable’ even when we have the power to affect it] once, in response to this, it can be shown that a person is able to rectify the situation…therefore, ‘children are starving’ may lead someone to say: ‘You ought to do something to help them’. But the second does not follow logically from the first.

Surely it is moral issue that children starve, due to the fact of their demonstrable suffering, regardless of whether we can “rectify” the situation or not. Surely it then becomes a moral imperative to improve the situation, precisely because it is a bad thing to begin with. Harris calls this kind of attitude out for what it really is: moral ignorance. It is not some kind of well argued philosophy; it is an excuse to ignore facts that we can know about human well-being and human suffering. These facts should take on a moral dimension because it is demonstrable that human wellbeing leads to happier people, and there is no reason not call this a good outcome for individuals and for societies. This kind of notion does not call for a transcendental God, or some kind of metaphysical “absolute” from which to derive the Good; it relies on the notion that we can measure and obtain objective information about our states of being, and that we can verifiably identify the difference between pain and flourishing. “Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realise what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference.” And yet, “The amazing thing is that some Western intellectuals won’t even blink when asked to defend these practices on philosophical grounds…”  Notes Harris darkly, “As it turns out, to degenerate the Taliban [who rape, stone and generally treat women and minorities with despicable tortures and should therefore be condemned without qualification] at a scientific meeting is to court controversy.” This kind of postmodern groupthink is beyond our contempt; it should be ridiculed with the utmost intensity. I, along with Harris, deplore the scope of its reach in our universities and our institutions. All forms of moral relativism are toxic, even those that hide behind the protective veil of “philosophy”.

But how can we say that facts and values are really related? Don’t the philosophers have a point? Aren’t facts and values really “non overlapping magisteria”? Harris asserts there are three ways in which the “divide” between facts and values is illusory:

1. Human wellbeing (and the wellbeing of other conscious creatures) can be traced to states of the brain, and is therefore measurable. Resultingly, we have no excuse to ignore the reality that we can scientifically measure the difference between pain and flourishing. This of course rests on the premise that human wellbeing is all that we can reasonably value, which is Harris’ primary argument.

2. Our discussion of facts depends firstly on having a certain set of values, like intellectual honesty. There is no a priori reason to think these values are actually valuable. But they become valuable because they help us attain verifiable scientific results that concern facts.

3. The neurological processes that occur when we believe in certain facts and certain values are similar.

Harris’s subsequent argument is convincing. “To say that there are truths about morality and human values is simply to say that there are facts about well-being that await our discovery – regardless of our evolutionary history. While such facts necessarily relate to the experience of conscious beings, they cannot be the mere invention of any person or culture”. Facts do not merely underpin values; facts about human experience should guide us toward a convergent moral sense – and this is where the metaphor of the moral landscape is finally reached. Lest you think Harris is being dogmatic, be comforted. Harris recognises the folly of transcendental moral absolutisms like those espoused by religion. As such he is careful to qualify his argument: by no means is only one answer available to certain moral questions, there is every reason to think that many a moral “peak” could be attainable on the moral landscape. An important point, however, is that there are more valleys than there are peaks. There are many ways to be Good; many ways to scale the heights and flourish, but there are many more ways not to. Now that we are attaining the tools to be able to determine the difference between behaviours that lead to peaks and valleys, it is reasonable that we should discriminate between them, and draw ethical conclusions based on this knowledge.

“I believe that we will increasingly understand good and evil, right and wrong, in scientific terms, because moral concerns translate into in facts about how our thoughts and behaviours affect the well-being of conscious creatures like ourselves. If there are facts to be known about the well-being of such creatures – and there are – then there must be right and wrong answers to moral questions.” Harris’s assertions will be startling to many who would jump on the status-quo bandwagon, and will be refreshing to others like myself who believe passionately in the capacity of science to enlighten humanity and overcome old prejudices and failed wisdoms.

I highly recommend this book, especially to those who, after reading this post, may feel themselves disposed to disagree with Harris’s assertions. I have only scratched the surface of his arguments, which are lucidly and entertainingly written for any reader willing to take on the challenge. For those who wish to engage with Harris even more deeply, his extensive footnotes go into more detail and discuss contemporary problems in modern ethical philosophy, like the libertarianism/determinism/compatibilism/ divide that dominates the debates around free will.

This is a very, very important book: indeed, it is epochal. Everyone should read it, whether they are particularly interested in morality or not, because this book sheds new light on old questions that are often disabled by cultures of groupthink which render original ideas difficult to publish and profess. Harris has done something extraordinary: he has taken on religion, philosophy of ethics, and the humanities, and I think he has triumphed. Harris is a brave thinker, one who transcends and reimagines many of the old, tired debates. He makes philosophy interesting, and science relevant. He is a must read.

Essay for English Class: Italo Calvino

Being exam time, I don’t have much space to write extended blog posts at the moment but when I have more time over the summer I intend to write responses on Sam Harris’s new book The Moral Landscape, Simon LeVay’s Gay, Straight and the Reason Why, Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World (maybe touching on her A Question of Time as well), and Richard Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth and Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. Hopefully I’ll also get around to finishing (and blogging about) T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief. It’s a rather eclectic bunch of books, fiction and non-fiction, that I’ve been reading recently, and they each demand some kind of considered response for different reasons. In the meantime, however, this is an essay I recently penned for English at ANU, focused on Italo Calvino’s postmodern masterpiece, If on a winter’s night a traveler. I’ve become quite a fan of Calvino and his writing; perhaps one day I’ll pick up another of his tomes and attempt to engage with it. For now, though, postmodernism is on the menu:

Italo Calvino

If on a winter’s night a traveler

Vintage 1998

In part, the history of the novel consists of the drive to represent life as it has been lived by common people through the ages. It is a bold and visionary project that has consistently been acutely self effacing and self critical, while simultaneously claiming to possess a monopoly on moral and social truth. The project of realism – the quest to write a fiction that would accurately and sharply mirror ‘everyday life’ is a project constantly at odds with itself. The old and perennial question, ‘is art truly a reflection of life?’ is perhaps most relevant when applied to realism, which by the very nature of its claim to represent life as it is actually lived begs us to regard it with a special reverence. To achieve a suitably mimetic effect authors have consistently striven to accomplish a sense of verisimilitude; to bring the minutiae of everyday life as it is supposedly lived to the attention of the reader so as to generate the sense of what the critic James Wood (2009: 186) calls “The Real.”

Yet this project, as ambitious as it is, has suffered from constant embarrassment. Since the time of early realist writers like Flaubert, the axioms of the realist project have themselves been undermined. What gives a writer the authority to represent “real” life? How are readers to be certain that the author’s implicit claim to represent real life in the text is a valid one?  Why do we privilege “realist” fiction in the first place? Is there some normative standard by which readers can judge the success of the writer’s art? Why do we assume the writer is in control of his writing, given that novels are complex constructions whose eventual meaning is mediated by a host of other individuals apart from the novelist – editors, illustrators, graphic designers, and others? Do we not “…move merely among competing genres of fiction-making, of which realism is just the most confused?” (Wood 2009: 171) Answers to these questions, and many others like them, have been thought and argued about since the dawn of criticism in Aristotle.

Only in the last century have theorists and other writers conjectured radical and thoroughly destabilising responses to these problems. Although the “genre” of realism continues to enjoy commercial success, its most fundamental assumptions have been diluted. For example, Roland Barthes, a French theorist and philosopher, wrote an essay called “The Death of the Author” in which he sought to demonstrate that fiction was composed not of intentional unity and holistic meaning, but instead constitutes a “multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash…”, a “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” (Barthes 1967) Authors, for Barthes, become mere “copyists”.  In Wood’s eyes (2009: 171) Barthes posits a world of novels that adhere to “a system of conventional codes” forming a “grammar so ubiquitous that we do not notice the way it structures bourgeois story telling.” Barthes’ suggestion implies that texts refer only to themselves or other texts; there is no ‘reality’ outside the text to which an “author” can appeal – because the author is not really the origin of the text in the first place.

I want to argue in this essay that Italo Calvino, like Barthes, seeks to demystify realism and challenge the notion that authors maintain a kind of supernatural control over the meanings in their work, especially meanings that are said to convey something truthful about the real world. We assume novels are representative of the real world, but we assume this only because we admit great status to the author as a kind of moral prophet. Calvino seeks to expose this assumption and render the figure of the author as absurd as his Father of Stories, a man “who uninterruptedly tells stories in countries and in times completely unknown to him” (Calvino 1998: 117)

A quick glance at If on a winter’s night a traveller hints at Calvino’s scepticism. The text is composed of a sequence of unfinished stories, all unconnected, all fragmentary, which taken together suggest a kind of ‘Barthesian’ view of literature as perpetually self-referential, stuck in a ceaseless, kaleidoscopic universe of allusion, collusion, imitation, and unreality. Even the narrator of the seventh incipit seems to be mysteriously aware of the illusion of received notions of reality: “Speculate, reflect: every thinking activity implies mirrors for me…I cannot concentrate except in the presence of reflected images, as if my soul needed a model to imitate every time it wanted to explore its speculative capacity.” (Calvino 1998: 161). It is as if all meaning is merely a reflection of itself, to itself, and understood in terms only of itself. Yet despite the postmodernistic pretensions of the novel, Calvino opts to make the focus of the journey of the protagonist, named “Reader”.

In many ways If on a winter’s night a traveller is a quest story: there is a dilemma, a journey and an object of the quest.  The initial dilemma concerns the strange and somehow inexplicable fact that the novel the Reader thinks he has purchased turns out to be anything but what he expects. The journey consists of the quest to find the answers; the answer is the object of the quest. And yet, the Reader is never privileged with a final answer; he never discovers the final hoard of gold. Instead, stories merely arise, one out of the other, indefinitely.  “The Male Reader, the main character in the novel, pursues an order…by which to move through the books he reads, only to find that pursuit never ending and impossible”. (Sorapure: 705) Order, finality, ending, totality – these traditional tenets of novelistic realism are undermined and subverted by Calvino. In the ninth incipit, the character is denied any sense of closure, and left to flounder, as we are as readers, to reflect on the fragmentary, the contingent, the unfinished nature of reality.

““The name! My mother’s name! Quickly”

“Now. The moment has come for you to know…”

No, the moment did not come. After having rambled in vain prefaces, my father’s speech was lost in a death rattle and was extinguished for ever.” (Calvino 1998: 223)

How are we to understand the scepticism of If on a winter’s night a traveller, given that the novel appears to deny the efficacy of closure and conclusiveness? These are, after all, traditional tropes of realist fiction. Most novels we ever read have a definable, definite end point: a point at which the reader can anticipate closing the book and feeling satisfied, their emotional expectations having been met. The plurality of stories in If on a winter’s night a traveller seems to suggest that only a fragmented and illusory fiction is capable of capturing the vagaries of “real life”. And yet, strangely enough, we find that If on a winter’s night a traveller itself affords its readers a traditional ending. The Reader marries the Other Reader.. “…in a flash, you decide to marry Ludmilla.” (Calvino 1998: 259) The closure seems abrupt and unnatural, but this is exactly the point. For all its intransigence, its plurality, its difficulty, If on a winter’s night a traveller seeks to be every bit as conventional, as decidedly traditional, as most ‘realistic’ novels ultimately are, with their rounded endings, their resolved plots, their emotional symmetries. The quest story is formulaic: the Reader confers with strange professors, reads manuscripts in near dead languages, falls in love, travels to exotic locales and strives with a mysterious adversary. And yet, Calvino’s novel is at all times ironically aware of its own fallible status. Unlike other “realist” novels, it does not seek to engender notions of reality.  Instead, the juxtaposition of the postmodern and the strangely conventional serve to bring to our attention to the paradox of novelistic realism: a genre that seeks to represent reality is subject to deliberate artifice, an artifice which is exercised not only by the imperfect, solipsistic figure of the novelist but by more mysterious parties with questionable morals. Calvino’s ‘ideal’ novel is ghastly assemblage, more suspect even than Barthes’s clinical conception of novels composed of “cultural” spoils.

In a further layer of irony, Calvino dramatises this very predicament in the pages of his novel. The central portion of If on a winter’s night a traveller is interposed with a comically absurdist diary, written ostensibly by the (fictional) Irish novelist Silas Flannery. The figure of the author is shown to possess forlorn, almost psychotic imaginings, to be the victim of a perpetual neurosis that renders him eternally lonely, reduced to watching his idealised reader, the hoped for recipient of his innermost thoughts, through a “looking glass”. Calvino’s Flannery embodies qualities oppositional to those often ascribed to notions of the traditional author, Barthes’s Author God. “How many years has it been since I could allow myself some disinterested reading?” (Calvino 1998: 169) Flannery is anything but a selfless prophet, invested with perspicacious powers or insight. He is self obsessed, or rather, obsessed with the desire to write. The whole affair of writing is “unnatural” to Flannery; words do not come to him through some kind of inspiration. Instead, he lives an isolated existence at a great distance from his readers, those into whom he theoretically possesses insight that they themselves do not enjoy. Yet Flannery is wrought by struggles. He desires to communicate directly to his readers, in an unmediated voice, pure and focused. “At times I am gripped by an absurd desire,” writes ‘Flannery’, “that the sentence I am about to write be the one the woman is reading at that same moment.” (Calvino 1998: 170) Ironically, “A team of ghost writers, experts in imitating the master’s style in all its nuances and mannerisms, is ready and waiting…”(Calvino 1998: 121) Most of the sentences attributed to Flannery anyone every reads are probably counterfeits, produced by the mysterious Organisation of Apocryphal Power, brainchild of the mysterious Ermes Marana, master of imitation and deceit. Flannery hopes to speak directly to his readers, most of the time he is merely “imitated”, his words counterfeited, inauthentic, suspect. But what does it matter if an author is “imitated”? Are the words any less meaningful? Calvino’s answer to this question seems to be that all writing is imitation of a kind; that all writing suffers from delusions of its own unique authenticity. Flannery suffers from the delusion that he can write a novel at the same moment his readers’ eyes peruse its words. But all words are mediated through the prism of third parties, conventions, inspirations (both conscious and unconscious), cultural and social contexts, etc. The notion that authors have possess kind of direct control over their writings, and that realism is the product of this inspiration, is heavily undermined by Calvino’s treatment of the figure of the author.

This is dramatically realised in the paradox of Flannery imagining his own complete erasure: “How well would I write if I were not here…In between the white page and the writing of words…there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person.” (Calvino 1998: 171) Authenticity can only be realised at the expense of the author? Is this Calvino’s ultimate “message”? Perhaps, but whatever the case Calvino thoroughly demystifies the centrality of the author’s mind, morals, and insight, contesting realism’s claim to moral and cultural supremacy.

It seems clear to me that Calvino is invoking a different sort of fiction, one that consistently demystifies and usurps the purposed control of the author figure. No longer hegemonic, the author is reduced, while the novel itself comes to be seen as an artefact that is as much a part of the world as the people whose lives it, as a form, is designed to represent. Nor can we know the extent of an author’s control over his or her work, but we can no longer assume it is absolute. We don’t know, when we read the ten incipits in If on a winter’s night a traveller, the extent to which they have been fabricated and tampered with by Marana. We must assume a degree of uncertainty and contingency for all realist fiction that in previous times would have been unthinkable.