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Quick Books: Culture and Moral Truth – Taylor, Frankfurt, and Harris

I have recently read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, Harry Frankfurt’s On Truth, and Charles Taylor’s The Malaise of Modernity, in quick succession. All three of these books are responses to a trend in modernity towards to a quasi-moral relativism on a cultural level. Frankfurt and Taylor are more concerned with the idea of truth in general, while Harris is concerned with moral truth in particular. The Malaise of Modernity was the first book published in 1991, while On Truth was published in 2006, and The Moral Landscape in 2010. Politically, Harris has a particular bone to pick with some forms of “regressive” liberalism while Taylor is sympathetic and encouraging of the left. Frankfurt’s book is more concerned with a bipartisan critique of societal disregard for truth. Taylor and Harris both discuss young people and students, and while Harris is highly disdainful of campus politics, Taylor is more neutral.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris sets forth the idea that morality is not relative: morality can be correlated to human well-being. If human well-being is seen as the metric for morality, it is possible to compare various types of moral codes or even cultures as either enhancing or hindering human flourishing. According to Harris, it is therefore not merely an opinion that murdering apostates is wrong – it clearly results in human suffering rather than flourishing. On Truth and The Malaise of Modernity also argue against a naive relativism. I find that Taylor’s treatment of the issue is the most impenetrable due to its scholarly language but is the most precise at enumerating the possibilities that relativism heralds. Frankfurt, as always, writes in a clear style that uses philosophy to explain the reasons (rational or not) why people act the way they do. All of them find a disregard for the truth troubling, particularly criticizing those that claim there is no such thing as truth, moral or otherwise. Such relativism seems to be closely related to post-modern ideas of truth, which Frankfurt does his best to dismantle in his book.

Taylor is famous, especially within Canada, and his work in religious studies was much discussed during my undergrand at McGill (his alma mater). His recent tome, A Secular Age, combines a historical analysis of religious modernity with philosophical insight. Much of Taylor’s work is concerned with describing aspects of an interiorized worldview, where the most salient aspects of life are directly related to one’s “inner life”. It is interesting that Taylor’s Malaise still feels contemporary and timely more than 20 years later, when campus politics is still big news. The Malaise of Modernity often directly responds to criticisms of university students in The Closing of the American Mind, the seminal 1987 work by Allan Bloom. Taylor’s analysis of the issue is more nuanced than Bloom’s, he does not participate in the dichotomy between “open” and “closed” minds. Taylor sees the new emphasis on one’s “private experience” as potentially useful. Taylor claims that alongside a troubling disregard for truth there is also a beneficial interest in the lived experiences of others. Taylor claims that through thoroughly analyzing our own experiences we create a meaningful relationship with the world. Finding “nothing true”, or nothing particularly relevant to one’s experience, has profoundly negative ramifications in the search for meaning (alongside being rationally bankrupt). The “outside world” is still deeply important, claims Taylor, it is not a mere illusion.

The Moral Landscape is a modified version of Harris’ PhD thesis, on the neurology of belief. It is interesting that The Moral Landscape was first a neurology paper, since I found his philosophical points the most compelling part of the book. In fact, the chapter on belief and neurology seemed a little tangential to his main thesis. Harris’ primary argument is that truth is (or at least should be) contextually calibrated around human well being; since we know about human well being, we can know whether somethings are moral or immoral. He does not claim that we currently have all the answers about human well being but that this knowledge is historically developing. Harris takes heart from Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Natures which argues that violence has been declining and morality increasing throughout history, even compared to relatively recent times. The Moral Landscape takes its name from the central conceit of Harris’ work, where Harris claims that morality is like a landscape with a particular moral position existing somewhere on it. We do not know our precise point on the landscape, our moral “peak” might be on the slope, or even a valley for future humans. But we can know that some things (helping others) are more moral than other things (torturing others). Harris also brings up a few interesting points, like Hume’s is/ought distinction. Hume could not see how we could move from descriptive statements about the world (is) to prescriptive statements about the world (ought). Harris argues that we can and should freely move between these positions. Just because morality is not (yet) as quantitative as physics does not mean that we cannot make strong claims about right and wrong. Harris claims there are such things as “moral experts” which the neuroscientist Francisco Varela also claims in Ethical Know-how, which details the cognitive effects of “moral expertise”.

Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit claims that our modern culture is awash with bullshit. Frankfurt defines bullshit as information that is unconcerned with truth or falsity. If truth is an attempt at an accurate representation of what is true, and a lie is a purposeful hiding of the truth, than bullshit is simply operating without relationship to these categories. Frankfurt says that this is a major problem, and upon publishing the book was stunned that some people didn’t even believe there was such a thing as truth. Frankfurt’s book On Truth is therefore an attempt to describe how truth is real, necessary, and important. Frankfurt claims that humans are motivated to find what is true; that knowing what is true improves our capacities and performance in the world. Operating under bullshit, or lies, puts people out of touch with the world, with disastrous consequences. The truth does not stop being true when you stop believing in it. Everyone operates under either explicit or implicit claims as to what’s true. Even those that claim that “there is no such thing as truth”, or that “truth is relative” are operating under the assumption that their claim about truth is true. We may never know “absolute” truth, but Frankfurt claims that it is impossible to operate without a meaningful and contextual idea of things being true and other things being false.

While reading these books I was reminded of Karl Popper’s idea that the we cannot bless ideas with certainty or with the status of “absolute truth”, but through eliminating error we can set ourselves upon an infinitely convergent course with truth. We can only hope to be “less wrong” but we can never be totally “right” in any ultimate sense. This does not mean that there is no such thing as truth. Some things are truer than others, and as Harris claims, some things are more moral than others. I find these arguments persuasive, but I do prefer the tact of Taylor and Frankfurt over the annoyed indignance of Harris despite his well written and erudite argument. These three books are a refreshing blast of truth, in an academic (and increasingly popular) arena that is obsessed with the falsity of truth.