Science writer John Horgan reviewed Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape in the latest Scientific American. He doesn’t like it, but for a bizarre reason:
One can raise all sorts of philosophical objections to this position, and the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah does just that in a New York Times review ironically titled “Science Knows Best”. My concerns about Harris’s proposal are simpler: I just look at the harm—historical and recent—wreaked by scientists supposedly concerned with humanity’s well-being.
Horgan then recounts some episodes of malfeasance by scientists, including the latest revelations about NIH-funded doctors injecting Guatemalans with syphillis, and doctors taking bribes from pharmaceutical companies to prescribe dangerous psychotropic drugs to children. He blames science for this, or rather the hubris of scientists. He even raises the canard about science being responsible for the evils of Stalin and Hitler:
Some will complain that it is unfair to hold science accountable for the misdeeds of a minority. It is not only fair, it is essential, especially when scientists as prominent as Harris are talking about creating a universal, scientifically validated morality. Moreover, Harris blames Islam and Catholicism for the actions of suicide bombers and pedophilic priests, so why should science be exempt from this same treatment?
Clearly, some bad scientists are just greedy opportunists who care about only their own well-being. But those who fervently believe their own rhetoric about saving humanity may be even more dangerous. Consider the harm done in the name of Marxism and eugenics, pseudoscientific (not religious) ideologies that inspired two of the most lethal regimes in history—Stalin’s U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany.
Horgan’s claim here—that if we blame religion for its misuse by bad people then we must also blame science for similar misuses—is very common. I would argue that it’s much more inherent in religion than in science to make its adherents behave badly: as Steven Weinberg said, “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” And codes of conduct are inherent in religion but not in science.
I’m about three-quarters of the way through Harris’s book, and his point is this: if you think about it, you’ll realize that moral judgments should always be about people’s well-being—that no other criterion makes sense. (His argument is not that our past and current moral judgments always come down to well being, for he sees some modern “morality” as mistaken.) Nor does Harris overlook the problems with this view: the difficulty of evaluating and trading off different types of well being (e.g., mental versus physical), the problem of judging societal versus individual well being, and the dilemma of making moral judgments in those many cases where it’s simply impossible to assess well being. While recognizing these problems, Harris doesn’t offer explicit solutions, and for this (and other things) he was criticized by Appiah in The New York Times. I’m not sure, though, that Harris sees his brief as having to resolve these problems.
Harris also suggests that neurophysiology and brain studies can help us determine what “well being” is on a neuronal level, how people make moral judgments, and whether those judgments arise in the part of the brain that also assesses empirical “truth.” And, of course, he suggests that science—broadly construed as “empirical study”—can help figure out what promotes or does not promote well being. This latter claim seems uncontroversial: if we object to abortion because we think that fetuses of a certain age are aware of their surroundings, then science can conceivably provide helpful information. To this extent, Horgan’s assertion that scientists “should not claim that their investigations of what is yield special insights into what should be” is wrong. Even if you don’t buy Harris’s argument, science does yield insights that can inform judgments about what should be.
I’ll post a review of Sam’s book when I’m done, but I do recommend that you read it. We have too blithely dismissed the derivation of “ought” from “is”. And if our thoughtful moral judgments really do come down to assessing “well-being,” then Sam may be right. Right now I’m thinking hard about morality, trying to determine whether what seems obviously moral nevertheless could sometimes reduce well-being. Given the fuzziness of the concept of “well-being”, and the often near-impossibility of measuring it, I may not come up with an answer.
Nevertheless, Horgan’s review is off the mark, ill-tempered, and curiously aligned with the common religious claim that science produced Hitler and Stalin. It’s especially curious coming from a man who wrote such a trenchant critique of the Templeton Foundation and its blurring of faith and science. And it’s telling that when Horgan singles out one “misguided” moral judgment by Harris, he chooses this:
I suspect Harris wants to rely on brain scans to measure “well-being” because he doesn’t trust people to simply say what makes them happy. If a Muslim girl says that she likes wearing a veil, as many do, she doesn’t know what’s good for her, Harris might say. Maybe she doesn’t, but magnetic resonance imaging won’t help us resolve these sorts of issues.
In fact, Harris discusses this very case in his book. His take is that while some individuals may like wearing burqas (yes, I know that a burqa is more than a veil), others don’t and may wear them out of fear (the Iranians have special police to enforce female dress codes). Clearly many women try to get around those codes, and equally clearly many of them hate them. (I experienced this in Turkey when I talked to university students about the wearing of head scarves—currently banned in public universities but always contested. Nearly all of the students I met, including Muslim women, were opposed to the practice: the Muslim women told me that they don’t like headscarves but if they were permitted in universities they would feel compelled to wear them so that they wouldn’t be seen as “bad Muslims.”)
Harris’s take on burqas is that the compulsion to wear them is bad for general well-being since it oppresses women, and that’s not good for society as a whole. What he’s objecting to is not an individual’s right to wear the garment, but religious and legal dictates that they must wear the garment—and the effect of those dictates on the health of Islamic society.
You can argue about whether Harris is correct in his take on clothing restrictions, but Horgan gets that take completely wrong. It’s as though he didn’t even read the book, but is using it as a hobbyhorse to vent some spleen against scientists. And Horgan must surely realize that science has no way of enforcing morality. Even if people like Harris tell the layperson what they see as increasing “well-being”, and hence morality, we scientists can’t force people to behave one way or another. That’s done either by religion or law, and in both cases the information must be filtered through non-scientists. It’s simply fatuous to claim that researching well-being is going to produce an Orwellian society run by scientists with brain scanners.
The first requirement of reviewing is that one present the book’s arguments correctly and address them honestly. And at this minimal task Horgan fails miserably.