a blog by josef johann

Friday, December 17, 2010

My notes The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Critics of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape wrongly expect that Harris will give a knock-down argument to convert everyone into moral realists, and then express disappointment when he fails to give one. But Harris openly concedes he is not going to give one:

Let me simply concede that if you don't see a distinction between these two lives that is worth valuing (premise 1 above), there may be nothing I can say that will attract you to my view of the moral landscape. Likewise, if you admit that these lives are different, and that one is surely better than the other, but you believe these differences have no lawful relationship to human behavior, societal conditions, or states of the brain (premise 2), then you will also fail to see the point of my argument.

Of course the problems of why we care and why we ought to, and what it is we are caring about are very real. But much more consensus exists than we would like to admit. We are, after all, going to put down Harris' book, and go on getting oil changes and cancer screenings and looking both ways before crossing the street -- behaving in a way that communicates a belief in the value of human life (and perhaps other lives as well). Most of us end up ultimately unconvinced by the very philosophical points we bring against Harris. It is, I think, this inner conviction Harris is appealing to. Once we take our moral behavior seriously, as if it pertained to real things in the world, it has all sort of implications: implications for how and whether we should adjudicate over competing claims of cultures, for one. So he asks:

Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?

And must we? In this I see echoes of Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July speech, which is, I think one of the greatest assertions of human value ever made by an American. Douglas reacts to those who expect him to debate the wrongness of slavery:

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

And what would they imply? Whose sense of human dignity could be so hedged and contingent that they could speak of it relatively, and positively, and negatively without suffering trivialization? It is embedded in facts of the lived life. We climb over these facts and through them before any discussion starts.


Warren said...

Agreed on all counts. I have actually been quite amazed at the type of arguments by people who should know better. Simon Blackburn in the Great Debate was an excellent case in point with this. His arguments were a almost pure strawman fallacy and misconstruing of Harris' points. Something a philosopher of his calibre should've have been able to avoid I would have thought. And I say that as an admiring of his writing.

Thanks for the Douglass speech I haven't read that before.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Thanks

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