Sam Harris, who is a best-selling author, outspoken atheist, and neuroscientist is considered one of the “four horses” 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 and he does not endorse determinism. Atheists who endorse genetic determinism are materialists who believe our actions are predetermined in our DNA. Richard Dawkins notes that this does not mean our actions are unalterable. It means only that they obey the laws of physics. His famous quote is “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” Atheists who endorse relative morality do so in recognition of the source of objective morality, which is God.
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.
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.
The Elusive Definition of Well-being
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.”
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. Harris 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.
The Assumption of Goodness
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.”
The comparison of morality, which speaks to the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong and good or bad behavior to science, which is the study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through experiment and observation, presents a false analogy. 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.
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 seek self enhancement, which is consistent with Harris’ hedonistic philosophy. Others seek self-transcendence of selfish values, which is a focus on 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.
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.”
In summary, 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. He is stating the possibility of a world he knows is “far-fetched” to justify his moral landscape philosophy, which essentially makes his philosophy far-fetched.
His views are consistent with 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.”
Free Will and Determinism
Another way Sam Harris distinguishes himself from the other atheists is his view on free will. Some new atheists endorse determinism and materialism, while Harris appears to disagree.
Harris says, “As Daniel Dennett has pointed out, many people confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like, ‘If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?’ But the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they do not matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. And to ‘just sit back and see what happens’ is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist.”
“Most people’s view of the mind is implicitly dualist and libertarian and not materialist and compatibilist … [I]ntuitive free will is libertarian, not compatibilist. That is, it requires the rejection of determinism and an implicit commitment to some kind of magical mental causation … contrary to legal and philosophical orthodoxy, determinism really does threaten free will and responsibility as we intuitively understand them (J.Greene & Cohen, 2004, pp. 1779–1780).”
In summary, Harris rejects determinism. I reject genetic determinism as well, but for different reasons. Some atheists believe their decisions are predetermined in the composition of their DNA, while some theists believe their decisions are predetermined by God. Atheists use the latter as an argument against God, since they say if we have free will and God has predetermined our actions, then we really don’t have free will. They conflate our free will with God’s omniscience and omnipotence, claiming that an all knowing and all powerful God controls our decisions. Yet while God is all knowing and all powerful, He has given us free will so He does not control our actions. How does He know what our actions will be? He is concurrently in the past, present, and future. Therefore, He both sees our actions as we make them and has concurrently seen our actions from His position in the future.
The False Dichotomy between Science and Theism
Harris offers a quote, which I greatly appreciate. “Here is a version of this charge that, I fear, most people would accept, taken from journalist Chris Mooney and marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum’s book Unscientific America: If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive. If anything, they work in ironic combination with their dire enemies, the anti-science conservative Christians who populate the creation science and intelligent design movements, to ensure we’ll continue to be polarized over subjects like the teaching of evolution when we don’t have to be. America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made. Atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome of scientific reasoning, any more than intelligent design is a necessary corollary of religious faith. A great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction, just as many religious believers accept evolution as the correct theory to explain the development, diversity, and inter-relatedness of life on Earth. The New Atheists, like the fundamentalists they so despise, are setting up a false dichotomy that can only damage the cause of scientific literacy for generations to come. It threatens to leave science itself caught in the middle between extremes, unable to find cover in a destructive, seemingly unending, culture war.”
The Assumptions of Evolution
Survival of the Fittest as conceptualized by Charles Darwin refers to the survival of the most adaptive. In recent years, studies indicating that social species evolved empathy have helped atheists to explain human empathy and the empathy of animals categorized as social. Yet, as my friend Skye Martens points out, the evolutionary question is ‘why isn’t the human or chimp selfish?’ Atheists answer this question by stating that when we’re selfish, we hurt the group. This answer presupposes that we have endorsed another moral value: we ought to be concerned about the welfare of the group. We all ought to be collectivists. Yet major studies by cross cultural scholars such as Geert Hofstede and Robert House indicate societies are often much more individualist. The United States, as an example, is considered the most individualist country in the world (Hofstede, 2001), Atheists will also say that if the group doesn’t survive, the species doesn’t survive – but why should people necessarily be concerned with the survival of the species? The answer forces another assumption.
An Interesting Observation
Harris states, “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the most widely used reference work for clinicians in the field of mental health. It defines ‘delusion’ as a ‘false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.’ Lest we think that certain religious beliefs might fall under the shadow of this definition, the authors exonerate religious doctrines, in principle, in the next sentence: ‘The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).’
“If we are measuring sanity in terms of sheer numbers of subscribers, then atheists and agnostics in the United States must be delusional: a diagnosis which would impugn 93 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences. There are, in fact, more people in the United States who cannot read than who doubt the existence of Yahweh. In twenty-first-century America, disbelief in the God of Abraham is about as fringe a phenomenon as can be named.”
I appreciate Harris’ observation.
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 define well-being, yet loosely correlates it to happiness and pleasure and makes the assumption that all of humanity seek to maximize well-being to achieve happiness and pleasure. Secondly, 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. Thirdly, he uses a dualist perspective to present a “far-fetched” conception of an evil world of masochists and sadists to explain his philosophy, which merely makes his philosophy just as far-fetched. Finally, his conceptions of evolution, like those of all atheists, are based on false assumptions. In fact, his entire book is based on false assumptions.
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.