The Dismal Landscape--Mr. Harris Expropriates a Metaphor

Marilynne Robinson on The Moral Landscape

Perhaps the strength of my reaction to this work is that Mr. Harris has taken the work of one of my favorite paleontologists, writers, and scientists, and annexed it for his own purposes--purposes, which I can't help but feel Mr. Gould would have no part of.  The morphoscape of Sam Harris's morality seems a direct borrowing of the adaptive morphoscape and bauplane of Seilacher, Gould, and others.

An amusing moment:

What specific forms is cooperation to take? Mr. Harris is a little vague on this point. He strongly favors "maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures." He imagines potential human circumstances as landscapes of peaks and valleys, with different models of moral success on each of the peaks and of moral failure in each of the valleys. Probably because he deplores moral relativism, he offers no particulars about what these variants might look like. Many of his aspirations are highly respectable but they are neither bold nor new, at least from the point of view of certain religious traditions. If he were to articulate a positive morality of his own, he might well arrive at its heights to find them occupied by the whole tribe of Unitarians, busily cooperating on schemes to enhance the world's well being, as they have been doing for generations.

And how is this little snippet for true enlightenment of the purpose of a "scientific morality."

Mr. Harris says "the prohibition against compelled testimony itself appears to be a relic of a more superstitious age"—and for no reason associates the prohibition with the practice of taking oaths on the Bible.

Wow, taken at face value, it would seem that Mr. Harris sees some value in torture and in "compelling" testimony.  Now, how is that for looking for the peaks in the landscape of morality?

And one last whiff of the bog:

He says that "the split between facts and values—and, therefore, between science and morality—is an illusion."

Hmm.  Obviously, this is taken out of context, are we to assume that Mr. Harris is in agreement with Mr. Pope?  If read and meant at face value, are we to assume that Mr. Harris is claiming "whatever is [facts] is right [morality]?" (See Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man.")  Surely not, and yet, what can it mean?  This is one of those moments in writing where you really don't want a productive ambiguity.   And so we have found the new Maya of Mr. Harris's pantheon of Science--the illusion of a split between science and morality--they are, in fact, one in the came--science is morality.  I honestly never knew.

But then, I must admit to being unfair.  I have not read the book, and taking its arguments from one who is likely to be a detractor is not a reasonable means of evaluation.  But too much I have read and heard suggests that the regime under Mr. Harris's morality is likely to make all those deplorable excesses of religion he so excoriates look like a gentle and nurturing guide.


  1. Hi Steven, the derivation of an ought-statement (you ought to help your neighbor) from an is-statement (your neighbor is in pain) has a very long, convoluted history.

    According to Hume, for instance, we cannot derive an ought from an is.

    That is, no description of the world, no matter how accurate and true, can give us any insight into how we should act.

    When Harris says that “"the split between facts and values—and, therefore, between science and morality—is an illusion,” he’s rejecting Hume’s (and others’) position.

    Harris is claiming that ought-statements can be derived from is-statements, that an accurate description of a brute, physical fact *can* give us insight into how we should act.

    That’s all he’s saying. (By the way, I don’t agree with Harris when he implies that science can provide a foundation for morality, but that’s a separate dispute.)

    He’s not saying that whatever is factual is moral. Not at all.

    Although Hume is an extraordinary thinker who puts Harris to shame, Harris is correct on this point. We can derive an ought from an is. And we routinely do it all the time, you, me, and everyone, if only because we are living-breathing-willing creatures that rank, grade, and evaluate aspects of the world in terms of “good” and “bad” or “better” and “worse” or “right” and “wrong” or “moral” and “immoral,” etc.

    We’re able to derive an ought from an is because a statement of fact, say, your neighbor is in pain, functions as a reason for action, as a reason for helping your neighbor.

    Or even more elegantly:

    X is an English teacher (fact).
    X should teach reading and composition (value).

    Derivation complete.


  2. Dear Kevin,

    As I allowed, I figure my interpretation was off-base being based at best on sound-bites. And your explanation makes sense. However, I would refute it only in a nuance and say that We may be able to derive an ought from an is--that is: not every is has its ought. The facts (because they are always viewed through the lens of interpretation and bias) do not so readily admit of their oughts--and age by age the oughts differ. And perhaps THAT is what Hume was getting at. Facts are rarely taken as isolated instances and always come fraught with the interpretation surrounding them. So then we need to tease the fact out of the mess of contradictory interpretation. Then and only then can an ought that has meaning be derived from it. Given the brokenness of most people, I am doubtful that this enterprise can be accomplished at all, much less with a wave of the rationalist wand.




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