A Philosopher's Blog

Sam Harris Rediscovers Aristotle

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 5, 2010
Sam Harris
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Sam Harris was interviewed on the Daily Show last night and pushed his new book, the Nicomachean Ethics. Oops, I mean Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Value. As the interview progressed, I realized that I had heard his theory before, namely in Aristotle’s moral theory.  As I suspected, I am not the only one to see that Harris seems to be essentially copying Aristotle in his moral theory. Unfortunately, Jon Stewart did not call him on this and say “hey, that sounds  just like Aristotle’s moral theory with some more science stuff thrown in.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah, who has reviewed the book, contends that Harris is presenting utilitarianism as his core moral theory, hence not really offering anything new from the standpoint of moral philosophy.

I haven’t read Harris’ book, mainly for two reasons. First, I think he has enough money. Second, I’ve already read the Nicomachean Ethics and various form of utilitarianism and see little reason to buy what seems to be a rehash of this work.  Plus, I’m sort of jealous that I never get to be  guest on the Daily Show. Of course, I freely admit that I could be missing some key additions to Aristotle’s theory or utilitarianism that would be worth reading. If anyone has read his book, please feel free to correct me.

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33 Responses

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  1. kernunos said, on October 5, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    So his moral scientific landscape makes it alright to steal? Nice, I’m going to right my own too.

    • Greg Camp said, on October 5, 2010 at 2:55 pm

      And “all right,” not “alright. While we’re at it, I don’t know what to make of “Re-Discover’s.” A hypen and an apostrophe, and no reason for either. . .

      I suppose that since Western philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, one writer adding footnotes to another’s footnote isn’t surprising.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 5, 2010 at 3:43 pm

        Whoops. I fixed the title. I attribute it to blogging under the influence of Mallo Cups. Mallo Cup

        Mallo Cups…a gateway candy to Zotz.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 5, 2010 at 3:46 pm

        Well, he isn’t so much adding a footnote as recycling. But, I suppose that going Green with ideas is all part of saving the earth.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 5, 2010 at 4:02 pm

      Borrowing. Genius borrows. 🙂

  2. kernunos said, on October 5, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    …write that is.

  3. Nick said, on October 5, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    I agree (thanks for including me). Also, my guess is that Harris simply assumes that science has a prescriptive authority; unfortunately, I cannot say that I have better reasons for ascribing moral authority to the things I do. Are we all guilty of that assumption?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 5, 2010 at 4:00 pm

      That does seem to be a major flaw in his approach. He seems to simply assume that what we ought to do is maximize our “personal and social well being.” While there is an intuitive appeal in this, science does not seem to reveal this as being what we ought to do. Or anything else for that matter.

      Harris could, of course, avail himself of Aristotle’s theory here. very crudely put, Aristotle gets in the “ought” by accepting a teleological universe replete with goals and ends. Of course, Aristotle’s science has not been part of mainstream science since the Renaissance (and, interestingly enough, it can be argued that the rejection of Aristotle’s science was the beginning of what is now considered modern science).

      I do agree with his view that ethics is objective and that moral claims can be mistaken or correct. Like Harris, I also like Aristotle’s analogy to health. But, I do this at the cost of having to buy into a certain metaphysical view that grounds my ethical theory. While non-teleological science can tell us what is, it seems to, by its very nature, lack what is needed to tell us what ought to be. But, I am open to arguments against this. In fact, I would very much like to see a fully developed and effective science of ethics. That is, I would like to see Aristotle’s project brought to completion. So, I suppose my main disagreement lies with the heart (or brain) of his book, the idea that his sort of science can, by itself, be the foundation of ethics.

      • Nick said, on October 5, 2010 at 8:52 pm

        I think I agree with your final sentence. Like you, I am curious how he explains himself; it would take more than science for me to be convinced.

        Aside: to be honest–and I doubt I am alone–I struggle to take Harris seriously. He seems to be writing in that non-academic, but quasi-intellectual genre that is becoming increasingly en vogue (I call it ‘pop expository’: Hitchens, Dawkins, etc.); the purpose of such writing does not seem to be educational or academic so much as polemic–in this case, against all the things Harris deems to be apart from ‘well-being.’ But, who am I to judge a guy with a PhD in neuroscience?

      • Ryan Brown said, on April 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm

        I don’t think Harris would say that we need science to tell us what is a good action and what is a bad action in every scenario we come across. Like he says in the interview, slavery seems to be an obvious wrong doing. So we do have the ability to develop correct moral decisions based purely on our intuitions. That being said, our well-being is inextricably linked to the brain. This can be measured. Levels of chemicals in the brain such a oxytocin and dopamine have direct relations to our responses to social interactions and happiness. Since the way we act affects the well-being of ourselves and others, our actions produce various types of mental states in others’ and our own brains. So the idea that science cannot make any normative claims about our actions is simply false. Again, I do not think Harris would say that science alone should adress moral issues. In his book, Harris writes,

        “I am not suggesting that we are gauranteed to resolve every moral controversy through science. Differences of opinion will remain– but opinions will be increasingly constrained by facts. And it is important to realize that our inability to answer a question says nothing about whether the question itself has an aswer…Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? Of course not. In the same way, the fact that we may not be able to resolve specific moral dilemmas does not suggest that all competing responses to them are equally valid. In my experience, mistaking no answers in practice for no answers in principle is a great source of moral confusion” (Harris 3).

        • Chris said, on April 11, 2011 at 1:47 pm

          Like he says in the interview, slavery seems to be an obvious wrong doing. So we do have the ability to develop correct moral decisions based purely on our intuitions.

          No, Harris isn’t at all morally intuitionist. Besides, think about what you just said — slavery existed with general approval for *millennia* before we very recently decided that maybe it wasn’t okay after all. If we’re going to talk about the role intuitions play, it’s exceedingly clear that intuition has persistently blinded us into failing to give equal consideration to people that are different from us in ways that aren’t morally relevant, and still does so today. (Racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, and general “other”ing of people who don’t share an ingroup with us.)

          • frk said, on April 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm

            “slavery existed with general approval . . .”

            It could be argued that those who “approved” of slavery knew full well that slavery is immoral. But other factors, like wealth and power, overrode their moral intuition. That’s where a functioning framework of laws must enter the equation.
            You know (intuit) it’s wrong, but you do it anyway for personal gain. You get caught; you get punished. Today. No need to wait for the fires of hell.

            • Chris said, on April 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm

              It could be argued that those who “approved” of slavery knew full well that slavery is immoral. But other factors, like wealth and power, overrode their moral intuition.

              I don’t think that’s a compelling argument, because philosophers (even Aristotle, arguably!) made what they thought were moral arguments *in favor of* slavery.

              You could argue that his “moral intuitions” against slavery were being overridden — but if they’re so easily overriden, and if it’s so hard to tell whether someone is correctly using their intuitions or not, why would we argue that our intuitions carry any normative weight in the first place?

              (In any case, Sam Harris does not argue in favor of trusting intuitions over ethical analysis, which was the point I’m responding to.)

            • frk said, on April 11, 2011 at 9:51 pm

              Bless Sam Harris. We can’t trust those moral intuitions. That’s why we are a nation of laws and not a nation of man’s religions or moral intuitions.


              I’m struck by the word “expedient” here. “Expedient and right”. Expedient for the owner or expedient for the slave? Can we have it both ways? The Time (4/18/2011) cover story this week describes the post-Civil War fabrication of the “Lost Cause” theory and “happy slave” stories. It’s almost enough to convince me that Aristiotle would have made a dandy Confederate.

              Concerning your second paragraph: Is arguing that moral intuitions can be overridden easily (or otherwise) by human weaknesses anything like claiming they have no “normative weight”? Why can’t we say, as I said previously, that moral intuitions carry us as far as they can in the continuing struggle between the better and lesser angels of our nature, but at some point, for some (or many) people,”a functioning framework of laws must enter the equation.”

  4. T. J. Babson said, on October 5, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Old wine, meet new skins.

  5. greatgallimaufry said, on October 5, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Interesting–John Doris suggests that what we do know from science and psychology does not support virtue ethics, rather some kind of moral situationalism.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 6, 2010 at 2:14 pm

      Hobbes argued that psychology supports ethical egoism. Of course, psychology seems to be at least as divided as philosophy. 🙂

  6. kernunos said, on October 6, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    I think he wrote the book so he could sound smart to the ladies at mamby-pamby parties. Rebox, relabel and voila-instant genius.

  7. Bob the Chef said, on October 6, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Warning: I haven’t read Harris’s latest nonsense, and having been overexposed to the gimmicks of Dawkins already, I honestly have little interest.

    Utilitarianism — again, old hat, like all of the New Atheist “discoveries” — I see half-assed versions of Freud, Nietzsche and Darwin cropping up over and over again, with Harris, Dawkins et al. quite pleased with their conclusions as if they were teenagers discovering these things for the first time…things which for the most part have been discredited, or if you find that too forward, then substitute “discredited” with “addressed”.

    However, if Harris is arguing for utilitarianism , then he isn’t much rediscovering Aristotle in toto, is he. It would be more correct to say that he is rediscovering Bentham. I also venture to guess that he has mixed in his mechano-scientistic presuppositions and thus produced all over again what has plagued Western civilization for at least the last century, namely a morality grounded in materialistic reductionism (wait a minute, sounding a bit like Marx, Feuerbach…). Without all Aristotelean causes in place, I would not even think to credit Harris with a rediscovery of Aristotle, only perhaps some, again, half-assed ethics that probably occurred to some bastard child of Democritus.

    Regarding a completion of Aristotle’s ethics…what have you in mind when you say “completion”? I am of course greatly interested in the highest rigor (I find it sorrowfully lacking in much of the modern philosophic discourse — that is, true rigor and not the theatrical version), but would stand far away from systematization, which resonates well with the sentiments of Gilson (where he upholds the rigor of scholasticism, but denounces its systematization tendencies which you can see carry through into Descartes). In terms of a rigorous elaboration and, to borrow the term, the perfection of Aristotle’s ethics, some would argue this has already been accomplished vis a vis Aquinas. In Aquinas we find the transcendentals of good, beauty, etc, and the highest happiness is given as the beatific vision. So it seems to me that Aquinas sans theology, you have Aristotle (that is, in terms of metaphysics and ethics at least — I have no real familiarity with his physics). And oddly enough, the removal of final causality as a consideration has worked its ways into presuppositions which the likes of Harris don’t seem to notice. If we assume no final cause, then how can we possibly conclude it?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 7, 2010 at 10:05 am

      Based on his interview and the TED talk, he seems to be putting forth key parts of Aristotle’s view. But, you are right to call me on my hyperbole-he probably does simply reproduce the Nicomachean Ethics. The Apiah review makes the point that Harris is using a utilitarian approach based on human flourishing. But, he sure talks a lot like someone summarizing Aristotle’s ethics. Naturally, I should read the book before being too critical of the book itself. After all, what he said in the interview is just a small snippet of the book itself.

      As far as completion goes, this would include (but not be limited to) a full scientific account of the nature of humans. After all, Aristotle bases his approach to ethic on the function of man, so fully grasping this function (well, assuming there is one) and how it relates to happiness, etc. would do much to complete his project. Of course, this all assumes that humans do have a nature and a function and that these factor into what we should do (as opposed to just what we are).

      Quite so about Aquinas. I always use a cake analogy when I teach Aquinas’ moral theory (I present his theory after Aristotle’s): Aquinas adds a Christian layer on top of Aristotle’s ethical cake.

      Interesting point about the final cause. Harris does not seem to adequately handle the problem of getting from “science says we are X” to “therefore we should do Y.” Of course, this is hardly a unique problem for him. I was, however, hoping for something original here. I’d solve it myself, but…well, I’m not that smart.

  8. […] associated with goodness and beauty, or at least it can only be fallaciously conceived of as such. Sam Harris’ neo-Aristotelianism (or maybe neuro-Aristotelianism?) is a sign that science is beginning to realize that its findings […]

  9. Chris said, on October 16, 2010 at 1:46 am

    I saw the full-length version of the talk in person tonight.

    I hadn’t read your post or Appiah’s review, and haven’t read the book yet, but I noticed during the talk that most of it could be summarized as “be utilitarian, realist and scientific-naturalist” and that Harris hadn’t mentioned any of these words, or even the idea that he was building on the work of other ethicists. I asked him about it afterwards — I said I felt that he was short-changing the significant body of atheist ethics that precedes him, by essentially describing these theories as if he discovered them. Harris said that he doesn’t precisely agree with other ethicists, and came up with these ideas independently, and isn’t expert in academic ethics anyway.

    None of these seem like good answers: one doesn’t get through a philosophy degree without learning what consequentialism and realism are, and not fully *subscribing* to a particular ethics (say, utilitarianism) doesn’t give you leave to explain its core tenets to other people as if you made them up.

    (I should mention that I only spoke to him while he was signing a book for me; he didn’t have time to take a few minutes for an answer, which might have helped.)

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2010 at 4:10 pm


      The idea that he came up with the ideas independently has no plausibility. As you pointed out, he was a philosophy major. Also, these theories are fairly well known even outside of academic philosophy. Even if he had somehow never heard of utilitarianism or naturalistic ethics, typing a few key words into Google while he was working on his book would have revealed the existence of such theories.

  10. Nick said, on November 17, 2010 at 9:42 am

    I thought you should know that someone has copy-pasted your article elsewhere as their own. http://aristogeek.wordpress.com/2008/11/19/sam-harris-rediscovers-aristotle/

    Perhaps this was done with permission. Not sure.

    • Nick said, on November 17, 2010 at 9:04 pm

      It has apparently been removed.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 18, 2010 at 4:26 pm

      Thanks-I have no objection to people re-posting, but it is nice for folks to at least ask. 🙂

  11. Kezia K. said, on December 10, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    I don’t think his ideas are any different from utilitarianism, really. If you set out to outline a system of determining what is moral and what isn’t, shouldn’t you also have the goal of getting people to pay attention to that system? And yet the overwhelming conclusion of scientists who study morality found that people make moral decisions based on their emotions, not reason. So why isn’t Harris’ theory developed in response to these findings? Why would you appeal to man’s rationality when it has been scientifically proven that an emotional appeal is what effects moral decision making? More here: http://fullobaloney.blogspot.com/2010/12/limits-of-paradigm-sam-harris.html

  12. Ryan Brown said, on April 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    I think you should read Harris’s book. It’s interesting, and I think you will see that his theory does not copy Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I’m not sure where you got this idea. Harris is basing his claims on our understanding of modern science (specifically, neuroscience). We can understand human well-being scientifically, and actions that promote the highest levels of well-being should be deemed moral. Aristotle’s era would have been over two-thousand years away from the advent of modern science.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 11, 2011 at 2:20 pm

      I think Sam has enough money, but maybe I’ll get a copy at the library. 🙂

      He seems to sound very much like Aristotle. True, he does talk about modern neuroscience that Aristotle could not have included in his work. However, the idea that human well being can be understood by understanding the nature of humans is straight from Socrates and Aristotle.

  13. Chris said, on April 11, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    (Replying to frk at the bottom since I can’t do so inside the thread anymore.)

    Concerning your second paragraph: Is arguing that moral intuitions can be overridden easily (or otherwise) by human weaknesses anything like claiming they have no “normative weight”? Why can’t we say, as I said previously, that moral intuitions carry us as far as they can in the continuing struggle between the better and lesser angels of our nature, but at some point, for some (or many) people,”a functioning framework of laws must enter the equation.”

    I think you are confused about laws.

    I have not argued that we shouldn’t have a functioning framework of laws. I am strongly in favor of a functioning framework of laws. The question still remains, “How should we decide which laws to have?”. We could decide to select laws based on our moral intuitions, in which case extremely recent history shows that we would and do select laws that promote racism and sexism, or we could decide to select laws based on ethical analysis of the kind that Harris proposes.

    Ethicists usually favor the latter. Coming up with methods of analysis with which to replace our naive intuitions is, I would say, why ethics exists in the first place. If you just want to decide how everyone should act based on whatever you feel is right, you don’t need a system of ethics to do that.

  14. […] Sam Harris Re-Discover’s Aristotle (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

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