Sam Harris’ Morality

Atheist writer Sam Harris book The Moral Landscape includes Harris’ argument for a morality ultimately based in human experience of natural physical forces. His book includes the following:

Many people seem to think that because moral facts relate to our experience (and are, therefore ontologically “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e., biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue. I hope it is clear that when I speak about “objective” moral truths, or about the “objective” causes of human well-being, I am not denying the necessarily subjective (i.e., experiential) component of the facts under discussion. I am certainly not claiming that moral truths exist independent of the experience of conscious beings–like the Platonic Form of the Good–or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong. I am simply saying that, given that there are facts–real facts–to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice. (p.30, italics in original)

These statements bring up several thoughts. First, Harris bases his morality on people experiencing the greatest possible misery. This is flatly untrue, for no matter how evil an experience, we can all conceive of an evil that is greater still: more people suffering, longer pain, more injustice. So if Harris bases his morality on the greatest possible misery, then no one has ever experienced such a thing. We are then left with people experiencing some degree of evil and misery. Harris is correct that such evil and misery are objectively wrong, and not subjective, but his basis reeks greatly of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, with all of the following faults that have been well documented in philosophical circles for over a hundred years. In such a system, we cannot achieve the greatest possible good, so we strive for the greatest good possible. Who is to say what is the greatest good? How would we draw conclusions on such a thing? Are a bunch of little goods greater than one giant good?

Second, Harris holds that God does not exist, and that all things are ultimately caused by natural forces. This includes every human thought and decision, for in his book Free Will he holds that humans do not have independent thought or power of free agent choice and free will is a complete illusion. Indeed, Harris holds that conscious awareness is an effect of chemistry in the brain, nothing more. Therefore in the paragraph above, Harris would mean that a human act of evil, caused by natural forces, are received by another human whose experiences of pain and injustice are also the result of natural forces. It is unclear how the consciousness that Harris spends so much ink refuting as an illusion can be wronged by similar natural forces in the other person. If evil is based on one brain causing evil in another brain, but both consciousnesses are an illusion and neither are truly originating a cause of anything, the basis of evil in experience is weakened at best, if not eliminated entirely.

Third, Harris is saying that the real facts are not intrinsically evil in themselves, but only evil when experienced by a person. Yet our person’s awareness is an illusion, unable to change any feelings or thoughts. Imagine a researcher who is studying the effect of magnetism on iron filings. Hold the magnet near the iron filings and lo, they move. The ‘real fact’ would appear to be that magnetic fields move iron filings. But our researcher has read Sam Harris’ book, and he concludes that the magnetism is not in the magnet, nor the magnetic field, but in the experience of the iron filings moving. The filings have been done wrong, you see. As ridiculous as this sounds, this appears to be what Harris is saying, for he claims that the evil is not in the real fact of any act, say a murderous one, but in the experience of a conscious being whose consciousness is an illusion.

He is also saying “whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice” which means that we cannot always determine what the evil acts actually are. This leaves Harris with a convenient way out. One of his main points is that objective morality exists, and is not subjective, but he quickly follows with his statement that we might not ever be able to determine whether any given act is moral. One of Harris’ gods is science, where he is trying to hold that everything can be fit into a scientific model. One wonders how far he would get in the physical sciences, where conclusions that do not make conclusions are not given much attention. We do find such arguments in pop philosophy, which is the category we will be placing Harris’ book.

On the positive side, it appears that Harris is recognizing that by golly, some things are just plain wrong and some things are right, and total subjectivity does not work. This is a great first step. However, he is trying to avoid the dilemma of proving the first premise in the moral argument for the existence of God (see here for why this is relevant.)  In doing so, he tries to hold to a purely materialistic worldview, while still splitting the horns of the atheistic dilemma. In this he will not succeed, for when one starts with nothing but physics and chemistry, one ends with nothing but physics and chemistry.

About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Atheism, Morality, Philosophy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Sam Harris’ Morality

  1. JoeC says:

    You write a lot of “What Sam is saying”, as if you can somehow enter his mind and translate what it is he really means based on one paragraph of a book. If people really want insight to how Sam thinks, then they should buy the book and read it and see if they come to the same conclusions you do. I personally will pass.

    Religion is a reflection of our morality. For example, back in the days of the Old Testament, slavery was accepted as normal. The Bible even gives laws to cover how to treat your slaves. Today, we find any form of slavery as one of the worst evils. Some morals are absolute, such as prohibuting murder or stealing. These actions bring chaos into a civilized world.

  2. portal001 says:

    So what is the difference between biological determinism and the Calvanist view that there the elect are saved and while others predestined for perdition?

    The belief that peoples were chosen before the foundation of the world? Is this not calvanistic teaching?

    Are not both holding a belief that ultimately we do not have free will?

    • humblesmith says:

      Good question.

      Strident Calvinists, of which I am not, teach that all men have free will. They merely hold that the scriptures teach that all men use their free will to sin against God. The Calvinists hold that no humans want to love or obey God, so they have all turned away, every last one. So to the strident Calvinists, all men exercise their free will to disobey God. By God’s sovereign and all-wise choice, He lovingly chose some for salvation, applying Jesus’ judgement to them. Calvinists are divided into two camps, one that believes God chose some to salvation while leaving others to rebel on their own, and the other that believes God sovereignly chose some to salvation and chose some to hell. But all Calvinists believe we have free will, they just qualify it to say that everyone has exercised his will to hate God. So say they. I disagree with them, especially the second camp, which is often referred to as double predestinarians.

      Like most things we compare, there are some similarities and some differences between Calvinism and biological determinism. One big difference, perhaps the largest and most significant, is that God chooses and causes things to happen, with God being an intelligent agent. Biological determinism claims that no intelligence is involved at all, that all thoughts and actions have a prior, purely materialistic cause, with no intelligent agent behind anything that ever happens in the universe, including all human thought and action. I have disproven this in several posts.

  3. portal001 says:

    Nice, I learned something 🙂 thanks for explaining

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