Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Harris Review -- Kat Kolby

Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”
            Sam Harris is a rather strange author. Out of all of the texts I’ve had to read this semester, I will have to say that his “The Moral Landscape” was one of particular lack of interest. It did not begin that way, however. When I began reading Sam’s book, I felt as though he was really going to change the minds of any reader. He spoke of objective morality, and how we can conceivably map it out with science. We aren’t there yet, but Harris stays hopeful. This is my initial issue with this book. The premise is one that is indeed intriguing, but the fact that there is no real gravity to this statement of mere possibility makes the rest of the book pretty null and void.
            Harris consistently refers to a “science” of the mind, but any current science mentioned is later discussed as if it just doesn’t cover the perfect scope and perspective that Harris is trying to get at. The problem here is that he constantly references these precise sciences to make claims about what we already know about mankind and how that leads us to these objective morality conclusions. How can he use examples of these sciences and then dismiss them as the possible ways to figure out his scientific inquiry? What science is he talking about? These questions were common among many readers, I imagine. I still do not what the hell he is talking about. Well, let me rephrase that: I do understand what he is implying by his “science,” I just don’t see why that would be a good way to accomplish his goals.
            When Harris writes about objective morality, he is speaking about his concept of a moral landscape, with peaks and valleys representing all of the highs and lows of morality among humans. He talks about science being able to map this out, over time, by observing what is and is not beneficial for peoples’ well-being. The science he is wanting here is one of severe tedious data retrieval. Sam Harris dismisses other sciences, making obscure grasps at why they aren’t doing EXACTLY what he intends, but what he is asking is for a massive examination of all situations and scenarios, then making conclusions, somehow, about whether or not they were good or bad for well-being of humans. Sam Harris also likes to dismiss subjectivity in social and cultural norms. What he is asking for us to do is to analyze each subjective situation to determine its own subjective morality. I smell a contradiction. Aren’t these dismissed sciences already working on figuring out the connection between morality, behavior, the body, and a myriad of everything in the known universe? To me, this proves his points useless.
            His science returns to a tedious job that is impossible, literally. He refuses to admit that he is suggesting looking at every portion of human existence and figuring out its valleys and peaks; exactly how each person can have a good well-being, whatever that means, according to each of their individual definitions of well-being. He often talks about health and how that term is relative. Can’t well-being be a generally relative term? Not if you want your readers to agree with you, Sam. He seems so wishy-washy in his claims, flitting back and forth between subjective and objective claims. The worst parts aren’t even this indecisive nature of his book.
            Sam Harris starts to generally fall apart over time in this one. He starts off with strident claims about how awesome science is and how it totally can map the human morality through the study of the brain, then I feel like Sam gets concerned that he will scare people away from his “we have to figure out what’s right and wrong” banner if he makes these same strident claims. He starts to pull back from his statements, only using this vague “science” as his practically metaphorical tool for the discovery of objective morality. He talks about how some people just will not agree with him, and how astounded he is when they just will not budge on the issue, so much so that he walked away from a woman he was speaking to once. He frequently references these “intelligent, completely lucid” people that suddenly change when morality comes into play.
            My issue here is with his approach to these people, these opponents of his—convincing them by writing a book that talks about how he walks away from them when they disagree with him. He mocks them. Who the hell is this book for then? You aren’t telling me anything important here, Harris. I know that there is an objective morality. All “good” people understand this. They are “good” because they just know what to do. I consider myself one of these people. I am as honest as I can be, trying not to assume things about anyone, understanding that we are all the same animal on the same tiny speck, respecting others regardless of our differences (or at least trying really hard to), and a number of other “no shit” moral duties that we all KNOW naturally. We understand the objective morality, the issue here is with everyone who doesn’t understand this, and Harris treats those people like the plague because they’re just “too stupid to truly see the horrors of the world.”
Killing is wrong. The problem is that humans have, somehow, convinced each other and their selves that they have a right to do this. This can be said of every crime committed, yet people still commit crime. They have completely blocked off the idea that they are wrong because to admit to the crime would upset psyches culture wide. This is just “how things are done.” Sam does not offer a way to change this view, he only seeks to eliminate it: but how, Harris? How? He has demonstrated a lack of care for people like this, and has gone so far as to call them names and snidely talk about their opinions in his book. How is this strategy supposed to work? Why am I reading this?
The conclusions he reached were vague and unsatisfying. He started with bashing the very people he should be trying to convince with this text, then he slowly backed away from any specific claims in order to avoid more speculation on his theory, and finally he had been alluding to the possibility that he could be completely wrong for the entirety of the book. He had zero confidence. My absolute least favorite part about this book is that he doesn’t ever give any specific example of what we should do, nor does he really talk about any examples of science figuring out morality the exact way he wants it to be done, and he concludes with something along the lines of “and people probably won’t be convinced of any of this anyway, so bye, I guess.”
What was the point? I guess I gathered a bunch of great, horrifying examples of what not to do. This is because Harris spends a good portion of this book describing many scenarios of “bad” behavior in order to show us that we understand what “bad” is, and that cultural and societal norms only allow us to ignore these “bad” behaviors. Of course we understand what bad is. These people have decided that maybe there are reasons behind it, because they don’t want to deal with the implications of such tragedies. They also don’t want to be placed out of their own societal norms, as with “American Constitutional” opinions having a “respect everybody’s rights” chant going on all of the time. People are not comfortable admitting that they are wrong, and Sam Harris has not provided an easier way to do this. He was preaching to the choir, so to speak, and I walked away with nothing but examples of terrible things happening in the world and a vague idea of a possible objective morality that I already know and understand within me.
He began with an already losing battle, and the only people that could agree with him were those that already did or were on the fence about it. He could never, by his own logic and personal reactions to situations of disagreement, convince the opponents of his view. I love the concept of an objective morality, understood through scientific discovery—I just feel like it’s already happening with known sciences that Harris doesn’t even fully understand. I feel like he stepped out of his comfort zone to make controversial claims, then receded after worrying about how he was going to be understood. He never made any really compelling arguments that weren’t already blatant to anyone reading it. We all have that tiny voice in our heads that immediately assesses a situation and determines the right and wrong reactions, we just react differently when it has to be a rapid decision, and then we try to justify our mistakes with things like “societal norms” and “cultural relativity” (save those with severe brain troubles, which neuroscience, biology, genetics, and so forth have tried to fully explain as well).
For me, Harris ultimately fails to fully understand who he’s trying to convince, and does a terrible job appealing to anyone that wouldn’t already agree because they understand morality naturally. Sure, science can explain morality, but it hasn’t done this yet. We’re all waiting, that’s part of being human. Why is it that all philosophers think that the best is going to happen in their lifetime? You can only be morally good, which Harris isn’t by being a general prick to his nay-sayers, and hope that those around you pick up on why morality is a good thing through observation of someone actually sticking to their guns. You can never tell someone how to behave until the science catches up. This “until” is the most important term here in reference to this book—it was written too soon.

Sorry for the ranting, guys, I just really disliked the execution here...and that is heinously obvious at this point.

For future contact: I'm on facebook as Katlin Joelle Kolby -- Look me up if that's your poison.
If you're some kind of hipster who likes some other social networking thing that few people use (meant as a joke), my email is kjk2w@mtmail.mtsu.edu. I'm willing to hang out with anybody if any of you ever wants to philosophize, so use one of those ways of contact if you feel up to it. This has been one of the best classes of all time for me, and I thank you all for helping that be the case :)

1 comment:

  1. Kat,

    Sorry Sam disappointed. I think of this book as a necessary prequel to a necessary project, and not as its completion. But we've gotta start somewhere, and I give Sam credit for having the audacity to go where most philosophers have feared to tread-on the sacred but misunderstood robes of Saint David Hume.

    And so the conversation continues...