Revised and updated June 17, 2018
Sam Harris, who is a best-selling author, outspoken atheist, and neuroscientist is considered one of the “four horsemen” of New Atheism, with Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Yet his views contrast the views of other “New Atheists” because he endorses objective morality instead of relative morality. Atheists who endorse relative morality do so in recognition of the source of objective morality, which is God.
Harris’ 2010 book, which is entitled “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Explain Human Values” is his ambitious attempt to explain his perspectives on humanity’s objective moral standard without God. The intent of the present blog is to offer a critique of his work.
What is the best explanation for our objective morality?
William Lane Craig (2010, pp. 128) references William Sorley, who was a professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge University and his book Moral Values and the Idea of God to explain that the “best hope for a rational, unified view of reality is to postulate God as the ground of both the natural and moral orders…In Sorley’s view both the natural order and the moral order are part of reality. The question, then, is: What worldview can combine these two orders into the most coherent explanatory form?” Sorley argued that the best explanation is an infinite, eternal mind who is the architect of nature and whose moral purpose man and the universe are gradually fulfilling.
What is our purpose?
Christians believe that humanity has a spiritual purpose, which is to fulfill our calling from God by capitalizing on our spiritual gifts, growing our character, and emulating the example of Christ.
Atheists propose alternatives. Harris (2010) states, “I will argue, however, that questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” Yet he never specifically defines the well-being construct he states that we need to maximize. He states “well-being…resists precise definition, yet is indispensable.” Well-being, according to Harris, is whatever leads to happiness and pleasure. Harris adopts consequentialism and notes, “the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures.”
This is a textbook example of the “naturalistic fallacy,” which occurs when one clumps two or more unrelated terms together (well-being and whatever leads to happiness and pleasure – and what’s right) as if identical, when they are clearly not identical. See here for a detailed explanation of this fallacy: https://www.iep.utm.edu/evol-eth/
On his website http://www.reasonablefaith.org, William Lane Craig offers this critique of Harris’ circular reasoning, “So to ask, ‘Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is on his definition the same as asking, ‘Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures’ well-being? It is simply a tautology — talking in a circle. Thus, Harris has ‘solved’ his problem simply by redefining his terms. It is mere word play. At the end of the day Harris is not really talking about moral values. He is just talking about what’s conducive to the flourishing of sentient life on this planet.”
So what is conducive with the flourishing of life on this planet?
Harris contrasts a “bad life,” which he typifies with the story of an African woman whose son murders her daughter after he is kidnapped by a murderous gang with a “good life” which he typifies as one who is in a wonderful romantic relationship and has a job that is intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding and lives in a peaceful environment.
He points to Christianity to note an interesting dichotomy. The religious person having a “bad life” may be happy knowing the meek shall inherit the world in the afterlife, while the religious person having a “good life” may be bothered by the way Jesus Christ said that it would be easier to squeeze a camel through a needle than for a wealthy person to go to heaven. Jesus also promised that some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last. Both points demonstrate that happiness in this life may inversely relate to happiness in the afterlife. Perhaps it is for this reason that Harris considers himself an atheist.
Yet with God, nothing is impossible. We have numerous examples of the reformed (King David and Saul/Paul) and the wealthy and prosperous (Abraham, Joseph, King Solomon) who earned God’s favor in the Bible. The Parable of the Talents states that we should use our spiritual gifts wisely. To whom much has been given, much is expected.
How are well-being and morality linked?
Harris states, “So it is with the linkage between morality and well-being: To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good.”
Morality can better be explained by philosophy than by science. Morality speaks to the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong and good or bad behavior. Science is the study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through experiment and observation. Accordingly, developing a “rational understanding” of the universe does not equate to stating that humanity universally seeks to maximize its well-being to achieve happiness and pleasure. The comparison does nothing to address the problem Harris faces, which is to explain why maximizing the well-being of individuals and populations through happiness and pleasure both is and ought to be our universal goal.
Is Harris’ theory generalizable?
Do all populations and people maximize their well-being through happiness and pleasure? No. The Schwartz Value Surveys, which are well-known surveys of individual-level and societal-level values across cultures, indicate that humans vary in notable ways. Some (particularly Western societies) seek self enhancement, which is consistent with Harris’ somewhat hedonistic philosophy, which likely evolved from Epicureanism. Others (particularly Eastern societies) value the self-transcendence of selfish values, preferring benevolence and universalism. Accordingly, Harris’ philosophy cannot be applied across cultures because all don’t seek self enhancement as he does in his pursuit of happiness and pleasure. Furthermore, happiness and pleasure are consequences of our values – not justifications for same.
At the individual level, what maximizes the pleasure and happiness of one person may concurrently maximize the displeasure and sadness of another. Harris demonstrates this with an example of a psychopath who derives pleasure by raping his nine-year old stepson. Such an example demonstrates that the maximization of well-being can have both positive and negative effects on people and societies. Clearly, this ought not to be our universal goal.
In what situation would well-being fail humanity?
Harris adds, “What if the laws of nature allow for different and seemingly antithetical peaks on the moral landscape? What if there is a possible world in which the Golden Rule has become an unshakable instinct, while there is another world of equivalent happiness where the inhabitants reflexively violate it? Perhaps this is a world of perfectly matched sadists and masochists. Let’s assume that in this world every person can be paired, one-for-one, with the saints in the first world, and while they are different in every other way, these pairs are identical in every way relevant to their well-being. Stipulating all these things, the consequentialist would be forced to say that these worlds are morally equivalent. Is this a problem? I don’t think so. The problem lies in how many details we have been forced to ignore in the process of getting to this point.”
I submit that one of these important details is how humanity came to value goodness, kindness, benevolence, love, and empathy over their counterparts. As Plato pointed out in his book Republic, and Harris points out here, the possibility of a world of evil exists. So, why are we not living in such a world? The answer is that we have a moral lawgiver.
Furthermore, Harris both acknowledges that the world of matched sadists and masochists is antithetical to the present world, yet by using this example, Harris demonstrates that he regards followers of the Golden Rule to be equally capable as sadists and masochists of reaching the heights of moral virtue. He uses the “far-fetched” scenario in which there is “no connection between being good and feeling good” so “rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints…If evil turned out to be as reliable a path to happiness as goodness is…saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks” on the “moral landscape.” In essence, he is stating that if evil results in happiness just as well as good does, then being evil is morally equivalent to being good.
Defining a “good” world as one in which people seek to maximize their well-being and an “evil” world as one in which sadists and masochists thrive fails to acknowledge the reality in the world in which we all live. In our world, people do both good and evil. Some do more good than evil, while others do more evil than good. Yet we all have a moral compass in which we can distinguish good from evil – and the sane among the earth’s inhabitants recognize and appreciate the objective moral values such as truth, justice, and equality. These values stand regardless of whether individuals or societies seek to maximize their well being to gain happiness and pleasure.
His views call to mind dualism, which is embraced in pantheism and the philosophy of yin and yang. As C.S. Lewis (1952, pp. 44-46) states, “If dualism is true, then the bad Power must be a being who likes badness for its own sake. But in reality, we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad. The nearest we can get to it is in cruelty. But in real life people are cruel for one of two reasons – either because they are sadists, that is, because they have a sexual perversion which makes cruelty a cause of sensual pleasure to them, or else for the sake of something they are going to get out of it – money, power, or safety…Wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness: you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness…All the things which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things – resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why dualism, in a strict sense, will not work… Christianity agrees with dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks this is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.”
In conclusion, Sam Harris’ conceptions of objective morality based on the well-being of humanity are flawed in a number of important ways. Firstly, he fails to cogently define well-being and instead suggests that it is “whatever leads to happiness and pleasure.” He further makes the assumption that all of humanity seek to maximize happiness and pleasure, yet ignores primarily Eastern societies in which self-transcendence is highly valued (as opposed to self enhancement). Additionally, he acknowledges that both good and evil may correspond to the happiness and pleasure of various types of humans (e.g., psychopaths), so the maximization of well-being for some will be at the detriment of those they victimize. Clearly, this is not an optimal representation of the objective morality that we know to be true. He also presents a “far-fetched” conception of an evil world of masochists and sadists to explain his philosophy without acknowledging why such a world does not exist. The reason why such a world does not exist is because we have a moral compass that gave us the innate desire for kindness, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, goodness, truth, equality, and justice. If we did not have an objective moral lawgiver, his conception of a far-fetched world would not be so far-fetched. Thank God he believes such a world is “far-fetched” as that demonstrates God’s work has been successful.
Thank you for investing the time.
Craig, W.L. (2010). On Guard. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook
Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Lewis, C.S. (1952). Mere Christianity. C.S. Lewis Pte. New York, NY: Harper One.
Plato. (380 B.C.). The Republic. Available at http://idph.net.
Schwartz, S.H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 1-65.