Wrath of Achilles
An author faces an unrepeated opportunity, in the opening lines
of a book, for laying out his topic to a reader whose attention will never
be more sharply focused. This is why the first word of
Homer's Iliad is "wrath:" because the book is about the wrath of
Achilles. This works well for authors whose thought process is
organized and consecutive. Now on to our author, who begins his tome with a
complaint about Albanian life:
"The people of Albania have a venerable tradition of
vendetta called Kanun: if a man commits a murder, his victim's family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. . .Untold
numbers of Albanian men and boys live as prisoners of their homes
even now." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 1).
Readers who loyally forge onward, expecting these Albanians to
turn up again, do not appreciate how scatter-brained an author we
are accompanying. These disappearing Albanians remind the reader of the
old saw about the phone book: lots of interesting characters are
introduced, but never developed in any depth.
Our author's tunnel vision allows him to see only the evil in
usages not of his own time and place. His readers have encountered this
cultural narcissism before: this man's whole aim in life is to look
at others and say, 'I'm better than you.' This boast is his
'ethics,' if you please. Clan justice, where there are
no law courts or police nor any means of obtaining those things, is
not an unmixed evil, but the only deterrence against a sky-rocketing
murder rate. Certainly law is a step upward, though these Albanians
do not see it. Blood vengeance, which is usually carried out by the next of
kin against a murderer and not his entire family as is reported
here, is a little like the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction
which kept the peace during the Cold War: it is a great system of
deterrence so long as it deters, but should deterrence fail, it is
the road to disaster. Once a murder is committed, violence spreads
out in ever-widening ripples: the victim's brother kills the
murderer, whose next-of-kin then kills the avenging brother, whose
relatives then kill the murderer's next-of-kin who killed the
avenging brother, until the entire tribe is depopulated; like a rock
rolling downhill, the process cannot stop. It makes no exception for
'justice' nor even for 'accident.' The process can and has, however,
been stopped, though this will require a detour through religion.
So what is to be done with our Albanians? What did decades of officially atheistic government do to eradicate this practice?
Though untold Albanians were confined as virtual "prisoners in their
homes" expected to listen to their "Great Teacher," leather-lunged
Dictator Enver Hoxha, deliver his lengthy atheist rants, this
evidently did nothing to change their behavior. If the isolationist
Albanians are not an atheist success story, then who is? Atheism failed.
Contrast the case of the Waodani tribe of South America. No noble savages these, murder
was the principal cause of death for their tribe before they heard
the gospel. When five missionaries landed their plane to share the
gospel, true to form, they murdered them. Yet the survivors stayed,
and taught the Waodani that God's word said, "Dearly beloved, avenge
not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written,
Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." (Romans 12:19). As
described in the documentary "Beyond the Gates of Splendor," the
murder rate plummeted as the Waodani took God's proclaimed monopoly on
vengeance to heart.
One might expect it is 'scientific' to go with what works, but
some people think it's much more 'scientific' to go with what demonstrably does not work.
Our author never thinks to take up the path of friendly persuasion
blazed by the surviving missionaries; he does not want to talk the
Albanians nor the Afghans into doing what he thinks they should be
doing instead of what they are now doing. He prefers the path of
coercion; he is a great enthusiast for the U.S. military remaking local society.
In his utopia, freedom from foreign rule is not a positive value. But Enver Hoxha could have told him
how well it works out to use the police power of the state to crush
religion. Ultimately coercing people into adopting atheism is futile.
There was a TV advertisement some years ago, showing a Soviet
'fashion show,' featuring a heavy-set babushka wearing a shapeless
sack of a dress. Then a sign appeared advertising 'evening wear:'
the same babushka came back out, wearing the same shapeless sack,
this time carrying a flash-light. The trouble with atheist lives is
that they have no plot. People do not dance in the streets all day
because they have "hot showers;" the atheists have forgotten that
man does not live by bread alone. The people Sam Harris despises would never
trade his inner life for theirs, because they have a horror of a vacuum.
Sam Harris' readers expect of something of him. Alas, he cannot quite grasp what
it is they want. They say things like this:
"The most common objection to my argument is some
version of the following:
"But you haven't said why the well-being of conscious
beings ought to matter to us. If someone wants to torture all
conscious beings to the point of madness, what is to say that he
isn't just as 'moral' as you are?
"While I do not think anyone sincerely believes that this
kind of moral skepticism makes sense, there is no shortage of
people who will press this point with a ferocity that often passes
(Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 32)
At some level, Sam Harris realizes that these people do
not themselves believe torturing all conscious beings to the point of
madness is virtuous conduct, nor are they indifferent to virtue. His hearers are leaning forward
in their chairs, gesturing with an encouraging hand, as if to say,
'go on.' They are waiting for him to deliver the groceries. You see,
this is what we expect from a toiler in the vineyard of ethics: he
should explain to us why we should do what he says we should do.
That is the whole point of the endeavor.
Not only can Sam Harris not deliver the goods, he really can't
even understand what it is these people want of him. Our author
noodles along, sharing his likes and dislikes as if he were on
Facebook, delivering the occasional laugh line or sound-bite. He is altogether innocent of
what a well-constructed argument might look like. By his own report,
the mis-match between our author and his philosophical audience is complete;
what they expect, he cannot deliver. When asked the obvious, inescapable
questions with which any ethical system will be met, his response is
plain puzzlement, a blank stare: Why on earth would you ask that?
He opens his heart to us so that we can see how vivid, fiery,
incandescent and pure are his hatreds; he is a
professional hater, not an ethicist. But if, even after glimpsing
how vividly Sam Harris hates the Taliban, the Catholic Church, evangelical
Christians, Albanians or whomever, his listener is not moved to adopt his
hatreds as her own, he in the end can only walk away: "I found that I could not utter another word to her."
(Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 44). Our junior apprentice ethicist
is not the garrulous type, like Socrates, who was always ready to talk to
anybody. Dialectic is not what he gives us, only personal likes and dislikes.
In lieu of offering his readers a reason why they should
adopt his ideas of right and wrong, our author is reduced to making noises of disgust
and astonishment, demeaning his unconvinced readers as moral
skeptics or moral relativists, though himself aware the greater
number are not, nor are they likely to throw battery acid in the face of
a child; he is erecting a straw-man. Instead of setting out to
revolutionize ethics, a better plan would have been for our author
to sit down and familiarize himself with prior offerings in the
field; that way he at least would have had some idea of what it is
these people expect, and he would not be left with no options but body language.
Fallacy of Scale
So far as I know 'fallacy of scale' is a neologism; people don't make this mistake often
enough for the term to be needed. But enter Sam Harris, with
his by now familiar illogic. I mean by 'fallacy of
scale' the error of assuming that, because I can bring down a
house consisting of six over-lapping cards by blowing on it, it is
therefore very likely I can also bring down a full-size brick
house by blowing on it.
As we've seen, Sam Harris has already 'argued' in favor of his
postulate of human interdependence by proposing two
hypothetical cases, the Maximal Misery Universe and the Maximal
Happiness Universe, both of which had the odd characteristic, ex
hypothesi, that we all suffer misery together or we all flourish
together. But this characteristic, if it is claimed as a feature of
the real world, must be shown to be such, not trucked in stuck to an
unexamined packing crate. Here again we have an effort to prove interdependence, 'we are all in this together,' with
People sometimes say, 'I wouldn't date him if he were the only
other person left on earth.' Most people do not 'hear' this
catch-phrase as meaning the same as, 'I wouldn't date him if he were
one of three billion available persons on earth,' because there is
something different about being one of only two persons dwelling
upon the earth. We can afford to be choosy with three billion options,
but there is a powerful incentive to learn to get along with even an
annoying person, who is your only hope of human companionship, or
indeed of leaving behind children to continue the depopulated human
race. Not many have ever experienced the lonely prospect of being
'the last of the Mohicans,' the last of one's kind, but it cannot be
an encouraging feeling.
Sam Harris points out that it would have been
ill-advised for Adam and Eve to smash a rock into each other's face.
Doing so would have reduced their prospects for happiness in a
direct and immediate way. Two people, if they are the only two people on
earth, need each other. To our author's way of thinking, there cannot be any difference
between this case and a quarrelling couple amongst six billions:
"Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly
disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?"
(Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 41). The short answer is,
because a tsunami can carry away hundreds of thousands without
affecting our immediate personal prospects for happiness (don't be afflicted
with mourning or regret, dear reader; the Utilitarian system only values
conscious existence, which by their count rules out dead folk. What exactly is
wrong with a quick, painless death is difficult for Utilitarianism to say.).
If Adam and Eve can sort amongst three billion prospective mates,
divorce is not quite the disaster it would have been in the Garden.
Scale does matter. Again, competent ethicists have
argued in favor of human inter-dependence; but for this to be a
rational ethics rather than a catalog of Sam Harris' personal likes
and dislikes, we must await a non-fallacious argument showing this to be so.
Hall of Mirrors
Recall the Utilitarian founder Jeremy Bentham set up the standard of general happiness
as the definition of right and wrong, the sole standard to be applied in determining whether an act
was moral or immoral. Sam Harris' 'Moral Landscape' is already a
heterogeneous place, a junk-yard filled with pleasure and pain,
hot showers, crime and punishment, this and that. Sam Harris was
reminded that many people rejected Jeremy Bentham's innovation
because, when put to the test, this sole criterion produced
results unacceptable to the older morality: for instance, if a
large group of people enslaved a smaller group and thrived on their
uncompensated toil down in the diamond mines, this might
well produce greater good for the greater number, but could
never be just. At this they frowned, and suffered discomfort.
So a light bulb flashed on in Sam Harris' mind: all
this injustice proliferating under the Utilitarian system is
making people uncomfortable. And that is just what is wrong
with it! Let's add 'a preference for right over wrong' to our list of things that
promote well-being: hot showers, good nutrition, and enough
justice to make people smile. Now the 'moral landscape' is
populated with hot showers, good nutrition, law and order, and
not only that, but morality, too. See:
"Fairness is not merely an abstract principle—it is a felt
experience. . .It seems perfectly reasonable, within a consequentialist
framework, for each of us to submit to a system of justice in which our immediate, selfish interests will often by superseded by considerations of fairness."
(Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, pp. 79-80).
How are we now defining "justice"? No longer in Utilitarian
terms. As in the old movies where an amorphous blob shuddered through
the movie theatre, agglomerating to itself the seats, the carpeting,
the slower patrons, and all that lies before it, Sam Harris'
"well-being" has agglomerated to itself the old standard of
traditional morality,— or at least as much of that stuff as our resident
"moral expert" is prepared to tolerate,— and now, at long last, the
people rejoice, Utilitarianism has been fixed.
But this brilliant move of atheist logic carries a price. You see
it is not as helpful as it might seem to define things in terms of
themselves. It sets up a rotary motion, and once you hop on that
merry-go-round and whirl around a few times, even the atheist will
begin to feel queasy with motion-sickness. We have defined right and wrong
- Right and wrong are defined as what promotes well-being, and
- Well-being is defined as, among other things, satisfying a preference
for right over wrong, by those so disposed.
From 2.) we rush back to 1.) to find out what "right and wrong" are, but can never quite catch up to ourselves.
This self-referential definition is circular to the second degree,
because not all moral concerns are moral, our author intones: ". . .many
people's moral concerns must be immoral." (Sam Harris, The Moral
Landscape, p. 87). So first we must employ a definition of morality
other than well-being to weed out the immoral morals, then we require
another as we add satisfaction of the remnant moral concerns to
'well-being,' then we redefine morality to mean 'well-being, including
the satisfaction of some, but not all, moral concerns'!
As he goes noodling along, offering us his insights into morals and the good life, our author decides to adopt
a reductive, materialistic approach to brain function. It is a pretty pebble laying on the ground, so
why not pick it up? That this approach leaves no room for free will, our author understands,
intoning: "The illusion of free will is itself an illusion."
(Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 112.)
Recall this is the author who has earlier said,
"If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling,
screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up,
. . .the only question would be how severely that person should be punished,
and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction."
(Donald Symons, quoted with apparent approval by Sam Harris, The Moral
Landscape, p. 46).
This censorious, moralizing approach is the one he takes to condemn religious-motivated
people, because he erroneously assumes female circumcision arises through religious motives.
(Or could it be that these people correctly understand that: perhaps
the real target in their sights is male circumcision, an undeniably religious
practice, the sign of the covenant,— and they hope to succeed where
Emperor Hadrian failed?) Sam Harris does realize that the pretty pebble he has picked
up, reductive materialism, leaves no room for moral censoriousness:
"But it seems quite clear that a retributive impulse, based upon the
idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions,
rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion—and perpetuates a
moral one." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 111). What was that,
again, about "whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe
sanction?" He sententiously explains, "The men and women on death row
have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas, and bad
luck—which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible
for?" (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 109). Does that
include those he wants to see on death row for female circumcision?
One cannot help but throw up one's hands in hopeless astonishment
at these 'New Atheists.' Have these people never heard that a is not
not-a? Will someone please explain to Sam Harris that he cannot set
up shop as a censorious moralist if he also believes free will is an
Lest anyone think this man is an isolated case, someone whose bad
genes or bad luck prevented him from ever learning logic, look at
Richard Dawkins, who breathlessly blurbs on this author's book
jacket: "'The Moral Landscape' has changed all that for me."
(Richard Dawkins, The Moral Landscape, back cover). Richard Dawkins,
who used to call abstract ideas 'memes' which jumped from host to
host, rewiring and reorganizing their hosts' neural structures as their own needs
required, now buys into the idea of self-moved neurons, no longer the helpless, parasitized host
of active and creative thought, but rather themselves the prime movers. Self-starting neuronal storms kick up apparent 'memes,'
deceptively similar to 'memes' in other brains, yet they cannot
really be the same when we understand "the mind as the product of
the physical brain." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 110). This
is a new thing: a host that creates and controls its own parasite!