Of the Transcendental Moralists

A recent commenter asked what basis I find in Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, for the claim that he is a “transcendental” moralist. I use the term in the same sense as John Stuart Mill in his essay, Utilitarianism, where he writes, for example,

There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of “Things in themselves”, is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only.

In other words, a “transcendental” morality is one with objective validity, legitimate in itself. It surprises me that anyone could question the fact that Harris believes in such a morality, particularly after reading The Moral Landscape. Quoting from that book,

Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.

The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.

I hope to show that when talking about values, we are actually talking about an interdependent world of facts.

…I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics.

and so on. Presumably, Harris isn’t suggesting that everyone else should act in accord with his moral system because that happens to be his personal whim. It follows that he perceives that moral system as a thing having an objective existence of its own, independent of his subjective feelings, or those of anyone else for that matter.

One wonders what rational basis there could be for belief in an objective morality in this day and age in which new indications of the evolutionary basis of morality and its analogs among other animals are being found all the time, and recognition of the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature has penetrated even to the darkest corners of the most obscurantist anthropology and sociology departments. The arguments Harris provides are flimsy enough. He simply assumes a priori that actions are good or evil according to the extent to which they promote human “well-being” and “flourishing” or not, and tries to bludgeon anyone who questions the assertion into submission with lurid stories of female genital mutilation and the castration of young boys to better serve the state. It reminds me of the Far Side cartoon in which two mathematicians are discussing a proof. One of them says that he understands the whole thing very well except for step b, which is labeled, “miracle happens.”

In fact, what we call morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits. Similar traits are found in other animal species. The expression of morality is a great deal more complex in humans than in other species because the emotional phenomena that give rise to it are interpreted through our highly evolved brains. However, as even Darwin realized, the fundamental neurological processes responsible for moral behavior are similar to those in other animals in spite of that. Moral behavior exists not because it promoted the “well-being” or “flourishing” of a particular collection of physical animals with finite lifetimes, but for the sole reason that it promoted the survival of the genes that gave rise to those animal bodies in the first place. There is no logical basis for associating it with any “purpose” beyond that whatsoever.

In spite of that, Harris suggests that morality has somehow transcended its lowly origins, and has now evolved, apparently quite recently, into something quite different, capable of completely disregarding the genes that gave rise to it in the first place and acquiring the “purpose” of promoting the “flourishing” of a population of a particular type of animal, namely, ourselves. It reminds one of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet that magically shed its strings and became a real boy. While Harris is fond of wrapping himself in the mantle of “science,” there is nothing rational about this proceding. It can best be described as the creation of yet another secular religion.

Given the horrific results of similar attempts to cobble together connections between human morality and various philosophical systems in the past, one wonders how anyone in their right mind can still suggest that trying it yet again in the future will promote “human flourishing.” Perhaps the most notorious recent example was “scientific” Marxism. It came complete with that inevitable accompaniment of any human morality, the out-group, in the form of the “bourgeoisie.” The extent to which it promoted “human flourishing” has been described quite well by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.

Human morality is not infinitely malleable, in spite of Harris’ fondest wishes. The out-group have ye always with you. Harris has already turned up a nascent one in The Moral Landscape in the form of the secular liberals who disagree with him. He describes one encounter in which he didn’t merely politely disagree with one of them. Rather, after a suitable expression of pious indignation, he tells us he wheeled about on his heal and stalked off. I fear this particular out-group will have more to fear than being cut at a cocktail party if Harris’ system ever gains the traction of “scientific” Marxism. After all, those who resist the Good must necessarily be Evil.

From my personal emotional point of view, I find much that is attractive in what Harris describes as human well-being. I just reject the idea that the best way to promote it is to force human morality to lie down in the Procrustean bed of yet another “scientific” system. We cannot dispense with our morality any more than a leopard can jump out of its spots. Neither can we change it at will to serve some whimsical purpose or other. Rather, we must understand its origins and accommodate ourselves to what it actually is. Let that, however, be the subject of a later post.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

One thought on “Of the Transcendental Moralists”

  1. Thanks for this. There are a lot of points to address, but this isn’t my blog.

    Thanks for explaining what “transcendental morality” means. There is an objective element to Harris’s morality, although it is an objective treatment of subjective experience. He addresses the issue of objectivity vs subjectivity, I think well, on page 30.

    The quotes you presented from the book address objective scientific fact. I assume that you do not disagree that we can study morality scientifically, so I think we must disagree about the meaning of the quotes.

    Sam Harris’s point seems to boil down to (a) experience is all we should worry about, (b) experience is subjective, but can be examined objectively, (c) through that examination we can determine ways to enhance that experience. It’s actually a fairly boring point.

    Harris then makes the same point as you, that “human nature” — or as he puts it “the human brain” — is the only thing that impacts experience and therefore morality. So he seems to agree with you.

    I don’t see where you disagree. Except in the conclusion of the argument.

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