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Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Brian J. Collins critiques Yuval Noah Harari’s ethical and political incoherence.

The foundational principles of representative democracy are under attack globally. In the US we are still dealing with the fallout from the Trump administration and the blatantly anti-democratic sentiments that were manifested in the January 6 Capitol attack. Globally, there are many further examples of democratic systems under stress, but there are also many more implicit and less extreme examples that demonstrate people’s distrust and antagonism towards democracy right now. When these sentiments crystalize into politically influential actions the pendulum swings towards stunningly fascistic and dictatorial policies and governments. Regardless of where each of us sits on the political spectrum, nobody wants to be governed by a dictator that they disagree with, but that’s always the danger with dictatorships. Given this broadly-shared opposition to authoritarian politics, then, we should be able to agree that we need to rein in the current anti-democratic enchantment. What we desperately need are enlightened and persuasive public intellectuals who can help us see through the fog of our fear, anger, and disillusionment, to find our rational political commitments again.

One of these public intellectuals is undoubtedly Yuval Noah Harari, the best-selling author of three recent books – Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Harari is also a frequent contributor in the popular press, and a guest on shows, podcasts, panels, and as a keynote speaker. Add to all this that Harari is acting on his lofty academic ideals through ‘Sapienship’, a multidisciplinary organization he cofounded that advocates for global responsibility, clarifies the global conversation, and focuses attention on the most important global challenges.

I single out Harari because I presume many Philosophy Now readers will be familiar with his work. He is certainly one of the fastest rising stars of public intellectualism. Unfortunately, his work is undercut by the philosophical positions he put forth in his first bestselling book, Sapiens. In this review I wish to show that in order for Harari to advance a coherent political or ideological argument, he must first shore up his philosophical commitments.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011) has sold over twenty million copies (and counting), and has been translated into over sixty-five languages. In it Harari offers a history of humanity that includes at least six different species of humans (Homo), and offers a theory for why Homo sapiens ultimately survived while the other species did not. Ultimately, Harari agrees with the general scholarly consensus that Homo sapiens thrived because of their advanced cognitive abilities. However, he argues that the real advantage to our mental superiority was our capacity for imagination. This imaginative capability allowed Homo sapiens to create and spread myths, which opened the door for large-scale cooperation: we were able to form larger communities based on commonly accepted fictions. This large-scale communal cooperation allowed for increasing geographical, ecological, and species domination. Harari argues that the imagined stories making this domination possible are our religions, our political and legal institutions, our economic systems, and our ethical codes. He believes that it was these sort of common myths that allowed for the agricultural revolution, the continual expansion of civilizations and cities, and the scientific revolution. Ultimately, they still hold our loose global society together today. In summarizing his position Harari writes:

“Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths… States are rooted in common national myths… Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths… Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”
(Sapiens, p 27-28, emphasis added)

Harari on his website claims then that all these advanced social institutions are merely imaginary constructs: “ Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.” But Harari is making extreme philosophical claims here without supporting them with adequate arguments. This is more than a philosophical faux pas, it ultimately undermines his ability to respond to anti-democratic attacks.

Harari is not opposed to philosophy, in fact, he has said that philosophy is now more important than ever (Experts on Experts: Armchair Expert No. 45, Yuval Noah Harari, D. Shepard & M. Padman, Hosts, Oct 4, 2018). He even describes himself as a ‘historian and philosopher’ on his website. His brilliance is obvious, his position as one of today’s leading public intellectuals is well deserved, and I am delighted that he sees himself as a philosopher and recognizes philosophy’s importance. However, to make progress in the betterment of society, the underlying philosophy needs to be done well. Specifically, Harari’s political views need to work in concert with his philosophical commitments. To achieve this consistency, Harari needs to first recognize that his philosophical position in Sapiens (and in Homo Deus) is undermining his overall work. His contention that ethical codes, political systems, and legal systems, are all merely ‘myths and stories’ misses some important conceptual distinctions and ultimately undercuts any prescriptions he makes about how we should be acting and organizing our society and our political and legal policies.

Female human evolution
Female human evolution Stadtpflaenzchen 2018 public domain

Problematic Relativism

As a public intellectual, Harari has been quite outspoken about some of the possible dangers of humanity’s relationship with technology, and some specific societal problems, including political corruption, wealth inequality, dictatorial data ownership, immigration, and what ‘freedom’ and ‘nationalism’ really mean. These are all important topics in the battle against anti-democratic sentiments, but Harari needs a solid philosophical foundation in order to support his claims. This is where his previous work betrays his current endeavors.

As I said, in Sapiens, Harari contends that all theories of ethics and social/moral codes are merely stories and myths, including the contemporary ethical framework of human rights. As he writes, “human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations” (p.32). But he doesn’t stop there: he extends this claim by saying that the same holds for all social and political principles. From the Code of Hammurabi (c.1776 BC) to the American Declaration of Independence (1776 AD), and for all other social and political orders, Harari believes that these are myths, and that we form social norms and order through communal acceptance of these myths. For instance, concerning the political principles underlying the US political and legal system, he says: “the American Declaration of Independence claim[s] to outline universal and eternal principles of justice… Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity” (p.108). In saying this sort of thing, Harari is claiming that there can be no definitive method for deciding (say) between Hammurabi’s code and the principles put forth in the US Declaration, or any other conception of morality.

This ethical and political position is called ‘relativism’ – the view that ethical and political principles are simply conventions which can only be evaluated relative to the context giving rise to them. For ethical relativists, claims about right and wrong and how we should or shouldn’t organize a society are completely dependent on a framework for assessing the claim. Two common frameworks that relativists use are, the cultural norms and beliefs within which a claim is made (this is called ‘cultural relativism’), or an individual’s standards and beliefs (‘individual relativism’). According to cultural relativism, there is no culturally independent way of even analyzing a question about how things should be. For example, the cultural relativist might say that we can’t determine if it’s right or wrong to establish a certain political system in a society until we know what its cultural norms and beliefs are. Or as another example, the individual relativist would say that we can’t determine if it’s right or wrong to steal until we examine an individual’s own standards and beliefs concerning stealing. If the individual thinks it is okay to steal, then it is okay, for them; and if the individual thinks it is not okay to steal. then it isn’t, for them.

These might seem like enlightened and open-minded positions at first, as they appear to allow a nonjudgmental live-and-let-live approach to a diversity of cultural norms. But upon closer inspection, one will realize that if this view is accepted then we lose the capacity to substantially criticize or defend any and all policies and subsequent actions, as no system of ethics is better than any other.

High Road to Nowhere
High Road to Nowhere by Paul Gregory

Descriptive vs. Normative

People do often operate psychologically in ways that relativism suggests. If we think something is okay then we feel free to do it, and if we don’t think something is okay then we refrain. However, the relativist is not simply describing how humans make decisions. They are making the much stronger claim that this is how we should make decisions – in such a way as we can’t decide between competing ethical claims, such as concerning how we should treat immigrants, or over FGM.

In ethics and political philosophy we often make this distinction between descriptive and normative claims – between claims of how things are, and how things should be. But this is something that Harari seems to completely miss. Harari seems to believe that he is always making descriptive claims – simply describing ‘how things are’ – and not making the bigger claim about how things should be. However, once one is familiar with the descriptive/normative distinction, it is easy to see that Harari is often making normative claims about how things should be, and not simply describing how things are. When he speaks out against radical nationalism or against the absolute power of tech companies and governments to control our data, he is making ethical claims – claims about how things ought to be; about what we ought to do and believe; and about how our political and legal policies should be in line with these facts. However, if ethical and political principles are merely myths and stories we tell one another, as he contends in Sapiens, then there is no more ultimate reason to accept his arguments against radical nationalism than to accept the opposing position that favors radical nationalism. If ethical and political principles are merely myths, then neither position is objectively superior because there is no objective truth to either – it’s just a question of what we want to believe and accept. This type of radical relativism is extremely dangerous, because once you accept it you can’t substantively criticize any ethical, political, legal, or economic positions, principles, or theories, no matter how absurd, contradictory, or morally repugnant they might seem. If all of them are ‘mere myths’ and simply ‘figments/features of our imagination’, then there is no way to say one system is atrocious and others better.

My criticism is not that Harari is making normative claims. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for people dealing with the wide sweep of human history, as Harari does, to restrict themselves from discussing how they think things should be. In fact, descriptive and normative judgements both seem to be an essential part of human experience: noticing how things appear to be and thinking about, and making judgments about, how things should be. Indeed, well-defended democratic and humanitarian normative claims are exactly what we need in the intellectual battle against radical nationalism and authoritarianism. My criticism is that Harari apparently doesn’t recognize that he is making normative claims, and non-relativistically too. He’s put himself in the position of defending ethical relativism in his books, then operating as a public intellectual by making non-relativistic claims. As a self-proclaimed ‘philosopher’, he needs to do better.

© Brian J. Collins 2023

Brian J. Collins is Associate Professor & Chair of Philosophy at California Lutheran University as well as the Founder & Director of the SoCal Philosophy Academy.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, Harvill Secker, 2011, £9.95 pb, 456 pages, ISBN: 978-1846558238

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