Shayne Wissler
“… to understand is, above all, to unify.” – Albert Camus

To Sam Harris: A Challenge and a Solution

February 06 2014

I find in Harris’s writing both a heartfelt plea and an argument. His plea, which I wholeheartedly applaud, is that to help address the unnecessary horrors that plague the world, we should strive to find a humane, rational morality. Unlike many of his detractors, I think his general goal is not only laudable, but is achievable.

However, I don’t think his argument works. The problem is threefold: 1) it blithely dismisses the relevant metaethical question, namely, “What is the rational origin of ethics?”; 2) it assumes – without proper justification – an answer to this metaethical question; 3) having dismissed the metaethical question and insisting on his founding premise as a kind of dogma, his various moral prescriptions can only ever be vaguely defined, or thus, in spite of the best intentions, may give rise to dangerous dogmas.

Russell Blackford and others have already essentially pointed this out[1], and yet Harris dismisses their arguments. So why am I writing this? Because Blackford and Harris share a premise that I disagree with, the resolution of which I think sheds critical light on their dispute. Their shared premise: Blackford seems to assume that the problem of metaethics is insoluble; Harris, in effect if not explicitly, concedes the same, considering metaethics, as Blackford and other philosophers conceive it, to be a folly. But the problem of metaethics is neither insoluble nor a folly.

Blackwell correctly observes: “If we presuppose the well-being of conscious creatures as a fundamental value, much else may fall into place, but that initial presupposition doesn’t come from science.”

Harris replies with an alleged parallel to the field of morality: “…the same can be said about medicine, or science as a whole… Scientists need not apologize for presupposing the value of evidence, nor does this presupposition render science unscientific.”

This is not a proper comparison. Yes, logic and evidence – or in other words, reason – is at the foundation of all proper arguments. So it is certainly true that we cannot argue for reason without an appeal to reason. But mere comparison with this fact doesn’t itself vindicate moral concepts such as “well-being.” If Harris wishes to assert that his morality must be accepted as we do the tools of reason, he must actually make the case, not merely rely on analogy to these fundamental philosophical tenets.

Harris, aware the fact that he is merely making an analogy, insists that “While the analogy may not be perfect, I maintain that it is good enough to obviate these three criticisms.” No, it really is not good enough, and maintaining that it is instead of making a solid argument is tantamount to dogma – the very opposite of science.

Furthermore, even while it is true that reason must be accepted as a given, that doesn’t mean that exploring the meaning and foundation of reason to the utmost is a folly, in spite of the fact that we must use reason in order to do so. Indeed, I think it is precisely the tools of reason as explored philosophically that cement the case for a rational morality. Given space constraints I can only give a bare outline of my argument here[2].

To follow reason is to: 1) root beliefs in evidence, not mere imagination; 2) be logical; 3) examine things from a variety of perspectives, reconciling them.

Reason is the faculty that enables us to know. To pursue knowledge, we must follow reason; if we stop following reason, we thereby stop pursuing knowledge. Since the realm of rational discourse is the realm of pursuing knowledge, no one may knowingly advocate any idea which contradicts reason and remain; i.e. the fundamental moral precept one must advocate in this realm is: follow reason. (There is no contrary realm in which one may meaningfully advocate.) This is the origin of rational ethics.

To knowingly advocate any behavior which undermines our ability to follow reason is thereby to confess that one does not value reason, and thus, that one is not moral. For example, if we advocate that we should be murdered, then since being murdered blocks us from following reason, we are morally barred from advocating such.

We are also morally barred from advocating that someone else’s reason be undermined: By its nature, if reason approves of some particular person committing a given act, then it would approve of every person committing it, for there is no fundamental difference between people that could be used to argue that what is fundamentally proper action for the one is improper for the other. (This is a variation of Newton’s Rule III, viz., “The qualities of bodies, which admit neither intensification nor remission of degrees, and which are found to belong to all bodies within the reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever” – these are not an arbitrary hypotheses but ones that can be rationally grounded.)

These arguments can be extended to not only prohibit brazen crimes, but to all moral philosophy. For example: Knowingly believing things that contradict reason is morally barred. Physical fitness and proper nutrition are good since being weak and sickly interferes with our reason. Freedom of speech is good since interference with speech interferes with reason. More generally, liberty is good because ultimately, reason submits to no authority outside of itself. (Note that these moral values are vindicated philosophically; they do not “fall within the purview of science”.)

Our reason depends on our well-being. So too does our well-being depend on our reason. However, in ultimate terms, we cannot rationally justify following reason because it supports our well-being; rather, we can only justify a pursuit of well-being because it supports our commitment to follow reason, a commitment which is itself the ultimate presupposition of all inquiry, including moral inquiry.

  1. http://www.samharris.org/site/fulltext/response-to-critics (Note: this link was taken down; see http://jetpress.org/v21/blackford3.htm and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/a-response-to-criticsb_815742.html)

  2. For a fuller account see my book, REASON and LIBERTY.

  3. http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-moral-landscape-challenge1