Tag Archives: Sam Harris

atheists have morals?

One of the few substantive atheist attempts to explain morality. However, I think he ultimately fails, but I would like to hear your thoughts if you have time mate.



Eli’s Response

I enjoyed it because it presented a calm, logical explanation about the nature of morality. A majority of people would argue that morality is god-given and without God “all things are possible” as Dostoevsky famously said. Harris shows that morality can essentially be reduced to empathy and that it is a discipline we must all practice. Here is a link to a lecture where a scientist shows that this trait isn’t even unique to humans, though humans have a much more highly evolved sense of empathy.

He also touches on the failings of organized religion in relation to what most people in the enlightened Western world would consider moral. The subjugation of women in Islam is the most glaring example, but recently Catholics have been back in the news for protecting child rapist and avoiding secular punishment by refusing to help secular authorities bring these monsters to justice.

We’ve been through a lot of these arguments before, and I can imagine you’re biggest complaint will probably be that Harris can’t find any “objective” basis for morality so it is ultimately meaningless. It is a good objection, in fact it is the only one that has really caused me any significant cognitive dissonance. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I think I have a decent reply: Where does God’s moral authority come from? Since God created the universe and decided what is right and wrong how is his idea about what is right or wrong any more valid than anyone else’s? Well, I imagine you would say that God is an “objective” being who is perfectly synced into the universe and is morally correct by his very nature. That begs the question, why does the universe itself seem to have this innate moral code? And do we have to have God to do what is right?

I’m not sure how well I got my point across and I’m sure you will be able to find some gaping holes in my logic, but give me break. I’m just an accountant. Anyway, I hope that gives something to ponder, and I’m sure you’ll likely obliterate it in one fell swoop (maybe two if I argued well.)



Jon’s Response

I haven’t watched the video yet, but I think I can safely say that empathy is not moral. It is an emotion, like anger, which is amoral. Empathy can lead to both good and evil actions. For example, a mullah, out of empathy for his raped daughter, might kill her to spare her the shame of being defiled.

But on to Harris’ video (sorry for the rather dark opening. Take a moment and imagine that you are unicorn riding on a rainbow….. Okay, now resume.). I see three specific problems with his theory. Actually, I do think that Harris’ system is not objective. The problem is that the terms are not defined. In particular, what does “well being” mean? Harris suggests that we rely on at least two different sources: intuition and moral experts. I would agree that intuition is a powerful force that informs us of what is right and wrong. But intuition is not authoritative or objective. We may think a certain action is right, but our thinking it is right doesn’t make it right.

He also suggests that we appeal to moral experts like we appeal to great scientists. But the problem here is that moral experts don’t work with empirically verifiable information. Einstein was great not because he had a beautiful idea about the universe, but because his beautiful idea worked and can be verified. Suppose that we take the Dali Lama as a candidate for being a moral expert. Many would agree that the Dali Lama increases or encourages well being in conscious beings, and is therefore qualified to be a moral expert. However, the Chinese disagree. They think that his religious teachings destroy the fabric of the state and create disharmony and frustration among the people. So there are conflicting moral constructs. What makes the Dali Lama right and the Chinese wrong? Surely it can’t be that more people are inclined to agree with the Dali Lama. That’s not how science works. If it did, we’d still think the earth was flat. What is moral or what constitutes well being cannot be defined by intuitive consensus or moral experts.

It sees that Harris suggests that well being can be scientifically determined. But that is doubtful. It seems a little like saying: “Science can tell us why art is beautiful.” Perhaps science can tell us that we have certain predispositions to particular colors and shapes, but it cannot grasp beauty. The same is true here: perhaps science can help us understand what sorts of environments produce maximally satisfied beings, but that is hardly moral. And there is another, more grim problem. Harris admits that our moral obligations to certain species to the degree that they are conscious. What about babies, the elderly, or mentally retarded people? What happens when we let the potential for conscious experience determine our moral obligations? It seems like certain classes of people might be deemed sub-human. We’ve seen where that sort of thinking can take us.

Second, and I think this objection is more important and easier to understand than the first, Harris system does not obligate humans to do what is morally right. For the sake of the argument, suppose that Harris has provided a way that we can determine what is morally correct in an objective way. Great job Harris! But so what? Why should I do what is morally correct? What is my obligation? Rightness and wrongness have no intrinsic meaning in themselves. They simply describe two ends of a spectrum. Why prefer one end to the other? Why good instead of evil? Even if morality can exist objectively apart from God, for it to be meaningful, it must also oblige me to obey it. Otherwise, it is useless. Imagine that you could break the natural law at will. No one would consider it improper to do so. And you would not consider yourself a bad person if you did. If morality exists objectively apart from God (and is thus another component of natural law), if you could suspend the moral law from applying to yourself, why wouldn’t you?

Third, and this objection flows from the first two, Harris’ system has a “meta-problem.” What I mean is that Harris’ moral imperative “act in such a way that produces the maximum well being in other conscious beings” cannot be supported by his own system. What makes his moral imperative moral? Why is it obligatory? There is no meta-explanation for this maxim. It just sort of floats in space without any justification.

Now, concerning your objection God as the source of morality.
There are actually several different theories concerning the origin of morality in Christianity. Some subscribe to the divine command theory which states that God arbitrarily decides what is good and what is bad. It is by declaration of God that a thing is either good or bad. Personally, I don’t hold to that view.

I would describe goodness this way: goodness is whatever is appropriate or proper. This means that love (which a morally good action) is the proper relationship between two beings. Justice, in a legal context, is the appropriate relationship between citizens and the society. Respect is the proper relationship between two or more parties. Hate would be the improper relationship between two beings. So would lust and selfishness. And you could go on with all the rest of the virtues and vices.

But what does it mean to say something is appropriate or proper? It means that is consistent with God’s nature. When I say I love another person, I mean that I am acting toward them in a way that is consistent with God’s nature. Goodness is whatever is consistent with God’s nature. Evil is whatever is disharmonious with God’s nature. When I act with goodness, I act properly, as God (or Jesus) would if he were in my place.

It’s sort of like this: A morality is a kind of spectrum. On one end there is evil (or inappropriate actions) and on the other end is goodness (or appropriate actions). That is simply what the words good and evil mean. They describe degrees of propriety and impropriety. But that scale is meaningless unless it is attached to some moral system that gives substance to the terms “good” and “evil.” (In utilitarianism, for example, goodness is whatever produces maximum happiness for the maximum number of people).
What I suggest is that goodness be given its substance by the nature of God. Whatever God is, he must be good, appropriate, and proper. Now those terms have meaning. Appropriateness is acting in a way consistent with God’s nature.

So it is God’s nature that determines morality. But it is not arbitrary and neither is God subject to some external moral code. And if God were to disappear, then so would the standard of moral rightness (not to mention or obligation to behave morally). If God is not, then the moral spectrum is without substance.