Sam Harris

Nazi. Eugenicist. Communist. Sam Harris has been called a lot of things, so it’s a little difficult to know where to start. As the author of two enormously successful anti-God tracts, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, he has been on the receiving end of bile from liberals and conservatives alike. His ruthless and rational attacks on religion are striking in their tones of certainty and hostility, yet he appears to rejoice in such confrontation: in the past few years, he has joined together with Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins to form an informal group of like-minded atheists called the Four Horsemen. For many, he is a clear-thinking, indispensible advocate of non-belief, but for a far greater number, he is a blasphemous and dangerous enemy. Death threats are not unusual for him.

His new book, The Moral Landscape, is no less provocative, yet this time he has been attacked not only by the religious right, but also by many of his former allies in atheism. Its central proposition is that, with the aid of current and future developments in neuroscience (Harris’ speciality), we can now begin pursuing a science of morality. The eponymous landscape is a place of peaks of ‘well-being’ (a broad term which Harris defends as being no more vague than our current definition of physical health) and valleys of misery, and he argues that science might increasingly help us navigate this unsteady terrain. It’s a novel idea, going against received opinion that science cannot comment on moral issues, yet he argues for it with an implacable certainty.

He appears self-assured and utterly confident in print, and his recent appearance on Newsnight (defending France’s banning of the niqab and burqa) was equally fiery. Given this, I’m surprised when we sit down to chat to be confronted with a remarkably mild-mannered individual. After being ushered into an anonymous white dressing room in the dusty bowels of the Sheldonian, I find Harris deep in conversation with Richard Dawkins (who is due to share the stage with him this evening), apparently about what kind of Thai food he would prefer for their meal later. I feel like a bit of an intruder, but Dawkins soon strolls away, and we’re left alone. Harris greets me politely with a quiet, considered air, and I’m struck by the contrast between his hesitant demeanour and the more vociferous style that is found in his writing. The Moral Landscape contains much of this urgency and indignation, and as such, I’m curious to find out how the reception has been so far. He pauses.

‘It’s been… somewhat contentious.’ Is he surprised by this? Its argument is, after all, fairly radical. ‘Well, it doesn’t seem radical at all to me because I can’t actually see an alternative. I just can’t see truth claims about the nature of human experience kept within a walled garden away from a maturing, scientific understanding of the human mind.’ He smiles, and notes that some of the fiercest criticism he has faced has been ‘from academic philosophers who feel that I’m giving their discipline some short shrift.’ I suggest that this isn’t exactly unsurprising – any scientist who achieves some degree of mainstream popularity is invariably dismissed by certain less successful peers. Harris nods at this. ‘It’s quite amazing. On one level it’s explained by envy, but you then have all these detractors within the ivory tower basically saying, “You’ve sold out,” and not offering any valid criticism of your book. I didn’t really have that luxury, or problem, because I was a graduate student when I wrote my first book, so I sold out instantly.’

Still, he acknowledges that the gap between academic and public discourse is, to a certain extent, unbridgeable: ‘The problem when you’re writing a book like this is trying to communicate a serious argument but write it in such a way that people’s eyes don’t glaze over with boredom.’ This isn’t to say his is a book of pseudo-science; rather, it is extensively researched (being based in part upon his PhD thesis), and its fairly dense central section is filled with studies and experiments that demonstrate our rapidly increasing understanding of how the brain registers ‘well-being’. Rather than being theoretical or rhetorical posturing, his argument genuinely appears to have developed as a direct result of his research.

Still, regardless of its academic validity, there’s clearly something about his argument that deeply unsettles people. He has stated elsewhere that ‘some people are unable to want what they should, in fact, want; some people are cognitively and emotionally closed to ways of living that would make them happier than they are tending to be.’ Would he force them to act in a certain way if science proves it will increase well-being? ‘Well, I do view the analogy to health as pretty instructive. We’re not forced by medical doctors to avoid all of the risks they point out to us. So if you want to smoke and get lung cancer, you’re free to do it, but medicine is in a position to say, “Listen, this is not good for your health.” It’s not an Orwellian intrusion into your freedom, it’s just information which we now think we have well in hand. Now clearly when the information’s clear enough and the liability’s grave enough, then we can be somewhat coercive in our expectations of people.’

For Harris, moral certainties have for too long been the exclusive domain of the religious right, and he’s had enough of the liberal tendency to shrug when confronted with questions of right and wrong, particularly in relation to Islamism and their treatment of women. ‘There’s this idea that it’s presumptuous to ever claim to know what’s right in moral terms. We certainly claim to know what is right in terms of global health, or how best to respond to a nuclear disaster… We’re not agnostic about the truths of engineering or physics or economics. We’re humbled by how complex various systems are and how bad we are at knowing what the right answer is, but we’re not agnostic as to whether or not there is a right answer or a set of right answers in those circumstances. I don’t think we should get agnostic about human well-being. And there are some clearly wrong answers that we can criticise without hedging our bets and saying, “Well maybe we’re mistaken on whether it’s good to force girls to remain illiterate for their entire lives.”’ Though jet-lagged, Harris is now leaning further forward, and appears increasingly energised as he argues his case. However, I can’t withhold a certain degree of scepticism. In particular, I am suspicious as to whether this liberal apathy is really a danger today; isn’t the moral equivalence of modern liberals a somewhat hypothetical enemy, there to give him something to oppose?

‘It’s certainly not hypothetical. I’m consistently encountering these people in real life and in comment threads and in emails.’ But even if this is the case, is it such a danger? Harris is adamant that it is. ‘To think that there’s no moral truth, to think that it’s purely a matter of preference that is not grounded in anything other than accidents in biology or accidents of culture or personal whim, you get people just not committed to changing the world. They’re committed to the status quo. [It shows] a total lack of moral energy and courage.’ He regards radical Islam as the world’s most potent threat today, and believes the liberal reaction to this to be dangerously spineless.

With this argument, Harris has succeeded in alienating large swathes of left-leaning liberals who one might otherwise view as his most natural allies. Are their criticisms as fierce as those of his religious opponents? He smiles. ‘Well, there are so many different flavours of anger directed at me that it’s hard to know how to summarise it.’ The smile then quickly evaporates, and for the first time, he seems lost for words. He fixes his eyes on the floor, before eventually looking up. ‘It’s…’ He sighs, and falls quiet again. Clearly this isn’t a comfortable subject. I’m about to ask another question when he abruptly resumes his thread: ‘I think it’s largely a liberal criticism of me that’s the most vehement at this point. Obviously my criticism of religion annoys the right, there’s all that as well. But that criticism is less annoying, somehow… Strangely, I find there’s more self-deception and shoddier reasoning in the other [liberal] camps than when you’re in the presence of just a Bible-thumper who thinks that the universe is six thousand years old.’

I’m a little bewildered by this position, and certainly surprised to see Harris attack what he regards as the inactivity and delusions of the left with so much vociferousness. Doesn’t this leave him united with some unfortunate allies? ‘That’s what I’m worried about. The people who make reasonable noises about Islam in Europe, as far as I can tell, are fascists and anti-Semites and racists, and people who you just think are not good bedfellows at all.’ There is an uncomfortable pause as Harris considers this, before he continues with a firmer tone. ‘But they are right about Islam and they are speaking in a vacuum of honest commentary from liberals. So there’s just no moderate voice that is making true sense.’ However, even if Harris believes himself to be that voice, he makes no attempt to embrace moderation and placate his critics. Instead, in his quietly polite manner, he is attempting to fill society’s ‘vacuum of honesty commentary’ as loudly as he possibly can.

[Originally published in Isis Magazine, Summer 2011]

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