Monday 11 April 2011

Giles Fraser lays aside his woolly mantle to review Sam Harris

Tonight Sam Harris is discussing morality with Giles Fraser. As I previously blogged, this is the event nearest to me, out of Sam Harris's three announced appearances on his UK book tour. Nevertheless I decided not to get a ticket because so far I've been severely underwhelmed by Giles Fraser (his recent spot on the Today Programme with A. C. Grayling is an example).

Earlier today, however, I discovered that last Saturday Guardian Online published Giles Fraser's review of The Moral Landscape, and reading it I found myself wishing I had swallowed my misgivings and arranged to attend the discussion. (The fact that IQ2 decided not to live-stream the event after all, is but one more regret.)

So what is it about Fraser's review that has brought on my change of heart? Mostly it's because he seems to have cast off the woolly mantle that has to date muffled anything of his I've come across. He reviews The Moral Landscape in a forthright manner, with hardly any wishy-washy equivocation. I still think he's wrong in most of what he says about the book, but his review convinces me that his discussion with its author would be more interesting than I had thought.

Fraser takes some potshots at Harris, but I think they misfire. For instance, on David Hume's point that you can't derive values from facts:
But Harris will have none of it. Science has sold itself cheap. The peace treaty must be torn up. Science can indeed tell us about morality. Indeed, science can determine morality.
Fraser also commits — on a grand scale — what might be called the "not my religion" fallacy:
With regard to the god Harris describes, I am a much more convinced atheist than he – even though I am a priest. For Harris asks constantly for evidence, with the implication that if he discovered some, he would change his mind. My own line would be that even if the god he described was proved to exist, I would see it as my moral duty to be an atheist.
He goes on to imply that he's heard it all before:
What is presented as Harris's big new idea is really just reheated utilitarianism with wellbeing in place of pleasure.
I also think Fraser has missed one of Harris's key points:
There are so many problems with utilitarianism, it's a pity Harris does so little to address them. How can one quantify the sum total of wellbeing produced by a single action when the potential consequences of any particular action are infinite? So keen is he to turn morality into science that Harris presses on regardless. His demand is that all morality be calibrated on a single scale. Yet if one observes what it is that people call good (and isn't observation a scientific golden rule?), instead of assuming what good ought to look like, one surely recognises very different sorts of moral value.
It seems to me that Harris does indeed address this — it's what I understand by there being different peaks in the moral landscape. Fraser legitimately raises the necessity of some kind of metric for determining how high up the peaks or deep in the valleys moral actions are, as have other critics, but Harris isn't saying he's got all the answers. He's asking for science to be brought to bear on moral questions. Fraser, however, won't have it:
Harris sees the great moral battle of our day as one between belief and unbelief. I see it as between those who insist that the world be captured by a single philosophy and those who don't.
Here we see Fraser's woolly equivocation breaking through once more. It sounds to me like a plea not just for pluralistic society but for pluralistic belief. Such is, after all, the Anglican way.

UPDATE 2011-04-13:
The mp3 audio of the Fraser/Harris discussion can be downloaded here: