Sam Harris and Objective Morality
10/5/2010—In a Newsweek debate a few years ago, Sam Harris, one of the New Atheists, debated Rick Warren, noted evangelical minister and author of The Purpose Driven Life. At one point in the debate, Warren challenged Harris on the ground of morality for atheists: “If life is just random chance, then nothing really does matter and there is no morality—it’s survival of the fittest. If survival of the fittest means me killing you to survive, so be it. For years, atheists have said there is no God, but they want to live like God exists. They want to live like their lives have meaning.” Warren was challenging atheism on the ground that atheism is inherently nihilistic. Harris responded, “I’m not at all a moral relativist. I think it’s quite common among religious people to believe that atheism entails moral relativism. I think there is an absolute right and wrong. I think honor killing, for example, is unambiguously wrong—you can use the word evil.” (exchange)
I thought at the time that Harris’ response was disingenuous. I thought that he must endorse moral relativism whether he liked it or not. After all, many atheist thinkers have acknowledged the moral incomprehensibility of the universe empty of God. But it turns out that Harris was quite serious and he has now written a book, The Moral Landscape, in which he argues that there is objective morality, that there are right answers to moral questions, that moral claims are either true or false and that science, particularly brain science, is the most reliable source for moral knowledge.
I haven’t read the book, which is published just today. I have read only the review in the New York Times by Kwame Anthony Appiah. (here). I have my doubts based on the review that science can live up to the claims Harris makes for it or even that morality can be specified in the ways Harris seems to claim.
But my interest is the role of religion for Harris. Harris is very clear, apparently, that moral knowledge does not reside in religion. Yet, in claiming that morality is objective, Harris joins a fundamental religious tradition. As I say in everything I write, C.S. Lewis called that position, the Tao, because it is the assertion that the universe is a certain kind of moral thing and that we are also. For Lewis, the Tao was the essence and starting point for all religion.
What does Lewis think religion is, after all? Just supernatural fairy tales? If the universe produces beings like us who seek objective morality, objectively right ways to live, and if the universe then produces the very structures in the brain that allow us to see that this is possible, then it is likely that there is something moral in and behind the universe, a kind of blueprint. Plato called this the idea. Some religious believers call it God. What difference does it make what we call it? Why does Harris think there is so much distance between himself and the religious believer?
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
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If the universe produces beings like us who seek objective morality, objectively right ways to live, and if the universe then produces the very structures in the brain that allow us to see that this is possible, then it is likely that there is something moral in and behind the universe, a kind of blueprint.ReplyDelete
I don't understand the reasoning behind this at all. How is one forced to ascribe intentionality to the facts of our existence and nature? The potential for intelligent life is inherent in the universe we live in, but that is no warrant for the claim that the universe exhibits conscious purpose or intention.
The societal and ethical rules which enable human flourishing are human creations suited to time, place and environment, like any other tool for survival.
I don't ascribe intentionality, for the universe is not a conscious entity. Nevertheless, morality and meaning can still be, and indeed seem to be, built into it. Ethical rules are human creations only in a sense. It is now impossible to draft rules for a human society permitting chattel slavery. And it will remain impossible. Humanity has come to see slavery as wrong. I should add that the sense of right and wrong itself does not seem to be a human creation.ReplyDelete
[T]here is something moral in and behind the universe, a kind of blueprint.ReplyDelete
That's overlaying your perception of the way things ought to be on a universe that's quite devoid of morality. I'll stick with Ecclesiates:
"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
I should add that the sense of right and wrong itself does not seem to be a human creation.
I agree, the sense of right and wrong is not a human creation but an attribute of the species, which we've inherited. We survive through group cooperation and reciprocity, just as other primates do.
I just signed up to your blogs rss feed. Will you post more on this subject?ReplyDelete