It used to be a
given that religion was the source of all important knowledge. Both the "how"
of the universe -- what it is like, and how it works -- and the "why" -- why
it exists at all, and why human life has a place in it -- were to be answered by
referring to religious stories and authorities. With the rise of modernity
questions of the first sort were removed from religion's purview: we think of
them now as scientific questions, to be answered by empirical investigation.
But many defenders of religion cling to the idea that, while science is the
proper venue for "how" questions, we must still turn to religion to
find answers to questions of meaning and purpose, of the value of human life,
and of moral behavior.
But why should this be? In part, as Sam Harris notes in his
new book, The Moral Landscape: How
Science Can Determine Human Values, it is
because secular liberals have tended to accept a form of moral skepticism or
relativism, according to which there are no moral truths at all other than
those that can be asserted within a particular cultural context. The idea of an
objective moral truth, then, is
something that secularists have largely abandoned to believers. And the idea
that science, in particular, might have something to say about questions of
morality is one that few contemporaries are willing to take seriously. People
who go searching for answers to questions of value often simply assume both
that science will not help them and that religion is the only alternative.
Harris, whose two bestselling defenses of atheism and
secularism (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) have
established his membership in the Dawkins-Dennett-Hitchens pantheon of
"new atheists," thinks this is a deep and profoundly consequential
mistake. A proper understanding of morality, he argues, will reveal that it
falls well within the area of inquiry that is governed by science. For moral
questions are questions about well-being, and questions about well-being are,
in essence, empirical questions about what makes humans and other conscious
organisms flourish and thrive. "Questions about values -- about meaning,
morality, and life's larger purpose -- are really questions about the well-being
of conscious creatures," he announces on page one. "Values,
therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood."
Why think that moral questions must reduce to questions
regarding the well-being of conscious creatures? Well, Harris responds, what
else could they possibly be about? How could anything that does not in any way
affect the conscious experiences of some living entity matter, morally
speaking, at all? To hold that such a
thing could matter would, in his view, amount to an illogical superstition. But
it is equally mistaken, he suggests, to insist that questions of well-being
cannot be addressed by empirical research methods. There are, he says,
discernible and indeed undeniable differences between an extremely good human
life and an extremely miserable one; and there is no good reason for refusing
to view those differences as both real and, in the relevant sense, objective.
Harris is, then,
a moral realist: someone who thinks that there are moral facts and, thus,
objectively right answers to moral questions. He also takes the link between
morality and well-being to imply a kind of consequentialism -- though precisely what kind of consequentialism is not
entirely clear. At times he seems to use "consequentialism" simply to
imply that the consequences of an action, in terms of conscious creatures'
well-being, are what determine that action's moral rightness or wrongness. This
is a quite modest view that is compatible with all sorts of accounts of how such well-being matters. (For
instance, the claim that I should always maximize my own self-interest, and not
be concerned with anyone else's well-being, is in this sense a consequentialist
view.) But at other times he goes much further, seeming to suggest that he has
somehow established that the consequences must matter in a certain way:
well-being in the universe at large (and thus not simply my own well-being, or
that of myself and those I care about) must be maximized -- even where doing so involves violating the basic rights
of some particular person, or sacrificing the few for the sake of the many.
Consider, for instance, the following passage (consigned, as
is most of the meatier argument in The
Moral Landscape, to an endnote) in which Harris considers the problem posed
for consequentialists by Robert Nozick's so-called "utility monster":
Nozick . . . asks if it would be
ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of
some superbeings. Provided that we take the time to really imagine the details
(which is not easy), I think the answer is clearly "yes." There seems
no reason to suppose that we must occupy the highest peak on the moral
That the answer to Nozick's question is yes -- let alone that
it is "clearly" yes -- seems to me doubtful; and the assumption that it
reduces to the question of whether humans must be, morally speaking, the
worthiest creatures in existence, is both simplistic and implausible. Moreover,
Harris entirely ignores another of Nozick's thought experiments, which casts
doubt on the very idea that the quality of our conscious experiences is all
that matters to our well-being. This is the famous Experience Machine, a
virtual reality device that creates a highly realistic simulation of
life -- indeed, indistinguishable from reality -- and asks us to consider whether one
would give up life in the actual, physical world in exchange for a life of
greater pleasure, excitement, and fulfillment, which, as it happened, would take
place entirely in one's own mind.
The fact that most people would say no, Nozick writes, shows
that we value something aside from the quality of our conscious experiences.
And this, if true, poses a significant challenge to Harris's view. So one must
ask: has Harris not heard of the Experience Machine, or did he just not
consider it important? In a remarkable footnote that is worth quoting at
length, he attempts to justify his decision not to engage with the rich
literature that analytic philosophers have produced surrounding issues of moral
realism, skepticism, and consequentialism:
Many of my critics fault me for not
engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There
are two reasons why I haven't done this: First, while I have read a fair amount
of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between
human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral
philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our
making continued progress in the sciences of the mind. Second, I am convinced
that every appearance of terms like "metaethics,"
"deontology," "noncognitivism," "antirealism,"
"emotivism," etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the
universe. My goal . . . in writing this book is to start a conversation that a
wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this
goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic
philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy will be unavoidable, but
my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and
conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so
inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the professional
philosophers I've consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.
One cannot help
but wonder just which professional philosophers gave Harris their blessing.
(Are we to assume, as Harris seems to imply, that there are few if any
philosophers among the "many" critics who faulted him for ignoring
philosophy?) Imagine a philosopher who approached a group of scientists and
said, "I'd like to write a book about evolution, but because I have
arrived at my own views on evolution independently of the scientific
literature, and because I want to reach as many people as possible, I would
prefer to avoid engaging directly with the work of biologists in this
area." Would they be likely to endorse such an approach?
It would be one thing to try to write intelligently about
moral skepticism while avoiding the
language of academic
philosophy -- or at least, the unnecessarily finicky aspects of it -- with the hope
of reaching a general audience. But to try to avoid not only the terminology,
but large portions of the subject matter itself -- the "views and conceptual
distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so
inaccessible" -- is to commit oneself to providing an incomplete and highly
distorted account of the subject. This is unfortunate, given that Harris has a
number of sensible and pertinent points to contribute to the debate. Moral
skepticism is all too frequently advanced by people who have no idea what the
arguments for it are, as if it were simply an obvious fact, accepted by all
reasonable persons, that values cannot possibly aspire to the objectivity of
fact, and that any evaluation must, at the end of the day, reduce to an
expression of some indefensible preference or prejudice. Statements like
"morality is just a matter of subjective opinion" are often uttered
as if they required no defense -- even when it is easy to demonstrate that the
skeptics themselves live and behave in ways that appear deeply incompatible
with their alleged skepticism.
The Moral Landscape
has some good, reasonable, and at times persuasive things to say to such
people. But as it turns out, it has little to say to those people who actually
do know what the arguments are, and it will not help others become much better
informed. Harris might be right that the best way to reach a "wider
audience" is to sidestep difficult philosophical issues. But just how
helpful to that wider audience can a book be that hides from the complexities
of its subject, and misrepresents what it alleges to discuss by making
genuinely difficult questions look straightforward and simple?
In this timely study, University of Texas historian Brands (Traitor to His Class) describes the rise of the great corporate capitalists after the Civil War. J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie constituted an trinity of power-obsessed individuals who instinctively understood that wealth was the ultimate political weapon. They defined the cold-blooded authority of big business. Fascinating detours away from the tale of corporate empires examine the Reconstruction process in the South, the Indian Wars of the West, the opening of the Great Plains, immigration in the East, and the rise of organized labor and the agrarian reformers. Effectively, excerpts from the first-person accounts of Booker T. Washington, Black Elk, Jacob Riis, and others convey the drama of the time. Perhaps the only significant omission in this fast-paced, engrossing narrative is a tendency to dwell on political doctrines that sought to repudiate or restrain capitalism while only briefly discussing the dogma of Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism,which favored the monopolists. (Oct.)
Brands (Dickson Allen Anderson Professor of History, Univ. of Texas-Austin; Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) here argues that the capitalist revolution of the mid- to late 19th century was perhaps the best thing that could happen to the American people, albeit at a cost. Individuals such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, J. Pierpont Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller provided the means to win the Civil War, bind the nation together with railroads, begin larger-scale agriculture in the plains, increase industrial production, and enlarge the country's population through massive immigration from both Europe and Asia. Brands also shows that American capitalism corrupted local, state, and federal government, built a financial system that swung between boom and bust, drastically reduced the Native American population, and established Jim Crow segregation in the South, while also creating a working environment that brought forth the union and populist movements. VERDICT Although this is a familiar story, the author's focus on how the business climate affected the rest of society provides a distinctive perspective on the era. His work, drawn from secondary sources, is a good, solid contribution for undergraduates and other readers interested in the Gilded Age.—Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ. Lib., Parkersburg
A loosely themed survey of 35 years of American history.
Eminent historian Brands (History/Univ. of Texas;American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, 2010, etc.) elucidates the tension between the U.S. brand of democracy and itsversion of capitalism through anecdotes starring politicians, diplomats, judges, union leaders and corporate tycoons, with an emphasis on the tycoons. He singles out Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller as deserving special attention because of their dominance over vital industries and their unprecedented personal wealth. The narrative is organized somewhat chronologically from the end of the Civil War to the early years of the 20th century, emphasizing corporate growth, geographical expansion, increasing urbanism, government intervention and various forms of inequality. Within each section, Brands does not always provide smooth transitions. For example, he jumps from the U.S. government's purchase of Alaska to the rise of Social Darwinism among American intellectuals without overtly signifying why one follows the other. Further, the author relies too heavily on previous histories and biographies, including some of his own. The recurring theme of the tension between capitalism and democracy is most stark in Brands' coverage of U.S. expansion beyond natural boundaries. For example, the capture of the Philippines by American troops could have set the stage for colonial endeavors on every continent. It did not, however, because colonialism nagged at the consciences of many Americans, who believed that democracy should be about a population's self-determination, not about imposing foreign domination on behalf of capitalists lining their bank accounts. After the capture of the Philippines, never again would the United States seek to own another nation.
An educational, briskly written pseudo-textbook aimed at readers outsideuniversity classrooms.
“A superb new history. . . . A big, brash narrative.” —Bloomberg News
“A first-rate overview of one of the most important periods in American history. . . . Brands is a terrific writer who commands his material, handles this sprawling, complicated story with authority and panache.” —The New York Times
“Colorful. . . . Sweeping. . . . Brands masterfully chronicles this transformation. . . . His account serves admirably as a survey history of Gilded Age America.” —The Plain Dealer
“An excellent book. . . . Brands is a smart, lively writer. . . . He demonstrates, as the best historians do, that past is prologue.” —The Dallas Morning News