apologetics, philosophy

Sam Harris on Morality: A Critique

I watched a video of Sam Harris talking about morality in February this year (here) and was quite interested in what he had to say on morality.

I was excited to see what  Sam Harris had to say. He is one of the so-called “New Atheists”, and thus I expect him to be on the absolute cutting edge of the philosophical debate between theism and atheism. My excitement built because the video was called “Science Can Answer Moral Questions.” I think there are insurmountable problems with such a claim, but this video claims Sam Harris answers this very question.

After some initial comments in which Harris remarked that people often think science doesn’t have much to say about values, Harris did not wait very long to show how it is that science can indeed interact with values and morality. He states, “Values are a certain kind of fact [sic]; they are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.”

This is literally his argument. I’ve watched the  video twice, trying to see if I missed anything, but I haven’t. This is what he says “Values are… fact[s]…”

I read the comments underneath and I noted that one commenter said “I do not see how the speaker used science to understand morality.” The next commenter replied, “I agree that his current argument is unscientific, and that his examples were somewhat extreme and not well presented.” Okay, so I don’t think I missed anything.

One commenter did say that Harris made (sort of) the following argument:

“-science can tell us what makes people happy
“-a moral decision will increase happiness
“-therefore, we can use science to determine if a decision is good or not”

Now obviously these comments are not authoritative on what Harris was saying, but from this video I see no actual argument. Harris managed to prove nothing. What does it mean to say a moral value is a fact? This is something that most (I’d say all, but there are always exceptions) theists would absolutely agree with. Moral values are facts. So what?

How is it that suddenly declaring moral values facts means that science can now discover moral values? It seems to me as though this is impossible. Construct an empirical test that demonstrates “Rape is wrong” or “Murdering people for one’s own pleasure is wrong.” It seems to me as though this cannot be done. Perhaps the one comment did make some headway, however. On atheistic naturalistic science, consciousness is reducible to brain states. These can be detected by science. Throw in the assumption that what makes people feel good is right and what makes them feel bad is wrong, and we now have a way to determine objective morality!

Well, not so much. One immediate objection is that murder or rape, it could be argued, make the perpetrators quite happy. Who decides which happiness trumps which happiness? Is it a group effort? Gather enough test subjects around when a murder happens, measure their brain waves to determine how many people are happy or sad, check off a box “right” or “wrong” depending on the happiness levels. Repeat as many times as needed for empirical validation, and now we have an objective moral values? I think this view is utterly bankrupt. How can we determine morality by mob?

Not only that, but isn’t it possible that at different time periods in history (or the future) such measurements would come up differently? Suppose that in the future the majority of people believe murder is a happy thing, or at least it is acceptable. Well, on this same test, there would be completely different results. Suddenly, objective morality has changed its mind!

There are other problems, however. How exactly can a moral value even be testable. We can do as above and simply measure happiness in various moral situations, but that doesn’t do anything to test the moral value itself. Instead, it tests how people feel about the moral value. How do we test the value with science? I don’t see any possible way to do so.

One final problem is that Harris, on this argument, seems to take what is “right” to be what people like. This is a huge assumption. How fortuitous it would be that naturalistic evolution managed to line us up exactly with the self-existent moral values such that we would like what is “right”! No, the problem with this is that equating “right” with “pleasure” allows for things like the Nazis. Get enough people who take pleasure in exterminating a populace that is a huge minority, and you have suddenly changed “objective” “right” to be exterminating that populace. Say there are 1,000,000,000 people who each get +1 happiness to exterminate a population of 10 people, who would each get -100 happiness (the maximum!) for being exterminated. Clearly, +1,000,000,000 is better than -100. But is it objectively right to say that exterminating people for +1 happiness is right?

Speaking of the well being of children, Harris says: “Is there any doubt that this question has an answer and that it matters?” Indeed not. I am absolutely astounded that someone like Sam Harris seems to be arguing that there are objective moral values. He has nothing on which he can base them. Dawkins states that “there is at bottom no… evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” In contrast, Harris states that moral values are fact! But he has no grounds to do so. Science cannot show objective morality. It can show the feelings of individuals. These feelings are not objective.

At best, all the atheist can do is distill the feelings of the mob into a general recommendation for morality one way or another. I’m not saying atheists cannot be moral people (indeed, I think often many atheists are extremely moral individuals, with much to commend them in this regard), rather, I would argue that atheists have no basis for their morality. Such morality can be based on the feelings of the majority, but it can never be stated that these are objectively right or wrong.

It is telling, further, that someone like Harris admits that there are indeed objective values such as right and wrong. It is quite unfortunate, however, to have to watch him fumbling to try to explain them. The atheistic universe is exactly as Dawkins portrays it, “there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Thankfully, theists have something on which to base objective morality: God. The universe, on theism, has such things as objective moral values, it has design, it has purpose, it has good and evil, and instead of blind, pitiless indifference, it has a God who cares specifically about each creature in this universe.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from cited material which is the property of its respective owner[s]) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


33 thoughts on “Sam Harris on Morality: A Critique

  1. It’s like a sexed-up version of the utilitarian approach to morality, which also fails because of the difficulties encountered with enjoyment of evil. John Stuart Mill tried to get aruond that by claiming that there were “higher” and “lower” pleasures, which should be valued differently, and also “legitimate” and “illegitimate” pleasures, and the illegitimate ones shouldn’t be included in the utilitarian calculations at all.

    The only problem is, to establish which pleasures are illegitimate you need, oh wait, an objective standard of morality…

    Posted by Sentinel | April 21, 2010, 2:16 AM
    • Yeah, utilitarianism breaks apart at its seams rather quickly. Another major problem with the view is that if you get enough people together who enjoy something a good deal that ends up oppressing, killing, or otherwise hurting others who are a vast minority can justify this pleasure in light of the overall “good.”

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 21, 2010, 8:27 AM
  2. I actually think that Sam Harris is not arguing that you can somehow prove from pure reason the factual basis for any moral statement. Philosophers seem to need to do this. He actually seems to be arguing that we have reasonable and rational discussions about morality, not in order to “prove” anything mathematically correct, but in order to further agreement based on common understandings and self-evidence propositions. In his world, “rape is wrong because it harms one person in order to gratify another” is an obvious truth, and if we both agree on that, then we do not need to inject fairy tales about God into it in order to validate it. If we disagree on that, perhaps there is a deeper basis than “harming another in order to make yourself happy is wrong,” although it’s hard to see something more self-evident as a principle than that. I think we could develop a set of axioms based on observation and reason from those. That seems to be SH’s point. He is not claiming the proof of an ultimate truth, he is arguing for a reasonable morality bereft of mythology.

    Posted by Rich | January 16, 2011, 2:22 PM
    • In his world, “rape is wrong because it harms one person in order to gratify another” is an obvious truth, and if we both agree on that, then we do not need to inject fairy tales about God into it in order to validate it.

      That’s my main problem with his contentions. What basis is there for assuming that harming others is wrong? On Sam Harris’ argument, as you forward it, it is based on whether or not we all agree on it. And that is exactly what undermines his position. Suppose I disagree with Harris. What basis does he have for recommending his moral standpoint over my own? His view is a smuggled utilitarianism along with some attempts to add some scientific words here and there. On the whole, his view, with all his scientific language bracketed, is utilitarianism. And that view is incapable of sustaining a working morality.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 17, 2011, 1:56 PM
      • I disagree that he is arguing a purely utilitarian point. Utilitarianism seeks to optimize happiness for human beings. Sam Harris talks about “well being.” But let’s call it a flavor of utilitarianism if you like, that includes other beings and also includes social cohesion. What is it about utilitarianism that cannot sustain a working morality? And what is your idea for a replacement? If you are going to try some Moral Law argument, don’t waste your breath. But I’m curious what RATIONAL framework you would use that competes favorably against this “unworkable” focus on the well being of sentient beings? You might say that he is assuming some things, well, guess what, yes, and he outlines quite good reasons for his assumptions in his Moral Landscape book I thought. In the end, you must have first principles, else you devolve into quite ridiculous arguments that lead you nowhere. Basically, the goal here is to have reason supplanting unchallenged arguments from authority emanating from supposedly divine sources without sufficient evidence.

        Posted by Rich | February 25, 2012, 5:05 PM
      • Again, I see little here in the way of argument, just a lot of phrases thrown out there.

        To cite just one major problem with utilitarianism: if you can get enough people who would be pleased by eliminating a minority, and the minority is small enough, then it becomes morally permissible (and even required) to eliminate the minority.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 27, 2012, 5:34 PM
      • But Sam Harris explicitly addresses this issue that you make in his book. I think you are confusing him with some other authors you have read in the past. You would be better to address his actual points, as you have inferred a position SH never had and then argued against it. If you define your morality as a utility function that simply is about pleasing the most people in the short term, then your statement might be correct for some vicious or misguided group of people. But if you define morality (or “utility” if you like), a bit more judiciously, then you no longer have this problem. Saying that the majority slaughtering a minority advances the cause of the majority ignores all the repercussions such an act would have on the majority. They might take pleasure in the slaughter for some reason, but in truth their society and their well being is better served by allowing the minority to flourish. They are choosing a path of lower utility, if you prefer that phrase. So using SH’s moral framework, your example is immoral.
        I’d be interested if you can cite another problem with SH’s morality as he has laid it out. Or perhaps you feel my explanation falls short. You like to say “a lot of phrases thrown out there,” which itself is just a phrase thrown out there as it is vague and does not address any of the allegedly thrown phrases directly. Very hard to defend against that kind of tactic.

        Posted by wealthychef | February 27, 2012, 7:32 PM
      • My statement “a lot of phrases thrown out there” was not vague at all. I explicitly cited more than one example. The problem is you’re commenting on more than one post. I see them as a line of comments all at once–I didn’t realize you were commenting on different posts until just now. I’ll confine the rest of my response to your other comment. I’ll respond later, however, because I have a few things to finish up for now. Thanks for continuing the discussion.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 27, 2012, 7:54 PM
      • I quote his video in parts here to show what appears to be his view. If his view is that there is no objective reality for morals, then I’m happy to concede that he is allowed to make up moral theories as he wishes. The problem is that he seems to claim that the moral theory he has is capable of competing with theism regarding the basis of objective reality. And that means he’s smuggled his subjectivism into an objective account. So which is it? Does he hold that objective morals are true? If not, then he certainly gives no competition to theistic metaethics. If so, then his account is subject to the errors I press.

        Again, if all he’s claiming is that his ethical theory is subjective–not necessarily connected to reality–then fine! I’m happy to allow him to imagine that things matter when they really do not.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 29, 2012, 10:06 AM
      • Aha, I see, you have finally answered my question. About time! 🙂 He says “values are a certain kind of fact,” and now I see my point of confusion. I found the transcript here by the way: http://prestonparish.wordpress.com/2010/03/28/sam-harris-science-can-answer-moral-questions/ I
        think you are right and I am wrong, that in a sense he is arguing about objective morality. But as you note, he is not doing so from an absolutist point of view; it’s an empirical argument. He defends it this way: “there is no notion, no version of human morality and human values that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.” I think this is the crux of his “objective morality” claim. Perhaps you agree (that this is the crux). He is primarily claiming that what we call morality is something that we can reason about without reference to a god or gods.
        Your criticism of this seems to be that this boils down to making people happy. The only problem is that he said “conscious experience and its possible changes,” not just “conscious experience.” He is talking about “well-being,” not just “feeling happy.” I think this is where your critique falls short. You are trivializing his argument for convenience. Arguing against a straw man.
        Your claim is that God cares about each and every one of us. But that claim itself is a well-being argument as Sam Harris points out. When you defend this, you end up ultimately saying things like, in the end you will find paradise, (Heaven, 72 virgins, eternal reward, planet Kolob, the Right Hand of God), or God knows what’s best for us, an analogy to a wise parent who has our best interests at heart. All of these are really promises that your well being will increase, aren’t they? That’s what motivates people to be religious.
        And note that when people take the religious view of morality, that of God being being the source of it, then you might be tempted to divorce that from the notion of the well-being of human beings And as soon as you do, then if God commands suicide bombings, then blow yourself up you must. (Yes, Yoda was a terrorist)
        I think in short that to critique his assertions you need to start from what he actually says and not from what you wish he said. And I do support his point of view, but will also happily change my view if you show good cause — I prefer honest understanding to egotistic posturing. 🙂 I think I have demonstrated the ability to admit I’m wrong.

        Posted by wealthychef | February 29, 2012, 11:20 AM
      • Thanks for the continued discussion. I think it is interesting to see how the “straw man” is now a moving post. Initially you said I argued against a straw man when I claimed he was trying to talk about objectivity. But now suddenly it has changed to a straw man in that happiness isn’t the standard.

        The problem with Harris’ position is that there is no clear way to determine well-being. I think we can see that across the board with “conscious experience.” Suppose someone is a pedophile. Now it seems that empirically, he was just “born that way” or something of the sort. Clearly, it interferes with his “well being” to prevent him from acting on those impulses. The problem is Harris has no way to determine who decides what well-being is, who defines it. He tries to define it, but doing so just offers his subjective opinion.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 29, 2012, 11:45 AM
      • Yes, I guess when you appear to be arguing against points that SH did not make, I call that a “straw man.” I was mistaken the first time, but this time I’m pretty sure I’ve got you. 🙂 You are arguing against the idea that you can measure morality by detecting the amount of happiness in a human being, but that is not SH’s point, nor is it my belief after having read SH. What I agree with SH about is that although as you say there is no defined way to measure well being, the same applies to health, yet it is meaningful and rational to talk about more or less health. We agree that being healthy has something to do with not vomiting a lot, staying conscious and being pain-free, but it is a moving target as we improve our approach to it. Nowadays, if you die when you are 45, we consider that to be unfortunate, but 300 years ago, it was the norm to be sick all the time and die at 40. Similarly with well being, you might not have a fixed quantitatively measured notion of well being, but we know it is a very meaningful thing to discuss. It has something to do with not suffering a lot, with being happy, with being connected to self, with living a long life, with being productive and satisfied, but it’s a moving target like health. I think it’s going too far to say there is no way to determine what well-being is. First you have to agree it’s a reasonable goal, then you proceed as in any rational discussion: you sort it out in a public forum in the same way you discuss physics, biology, etc. YOu make mistakes, sure, but you correct them, and our collective wisdom increases in the process.
        Respecting the well being of a pedophile, it is not at all clear to me that you understand what I and SH are saying yet. Again, we are not simply discussing the happiness of an individual and excluding all other variables. It’s inconvenient for your argument that a rational morality does not reduce to your straw man (oh, yes, I went there). You need to have a notion in your morality of what is OK in the interaction between two beings. The pedophile’s short term pleasure, or even long-term pleasure, clearly must take a back seat (no pun intended) to the long term experience of his victim. We recognize that it damages the well being of a child to be molested. Or do you dispute that point? Thus, this is an instance, even if you claim the well being of a pedophile is being hurt by not being able to express their love for a youth sexually, that you can rationally say the balance is not in favor of pedophilia.
        Not only that, but there is the notion of what happens to the larger society if we allow predation in any form. That is, if a society allows one individual to triumph over another in a predatory manner, this is disruptive to society, which is a harm to all individuals’ well-being. Your analysis of the pedophile ignores this sphere entirely.
        So I think I’ve shown you how we can rationally conclude that pedophilia, murder, thievery etc. are immoral on completely rational grounds, using objective criteria agreed upon through public discourse, without reference to god or gods. Agreed?

        Posted by wealthychef | March 1, 2012, 11:09 AM
      • Sorry for the late response.

        You wrote, ” Similarly with well being, you might not have a fixed quantitatively measured notion of well being, but we know it is a very meaningful thing to discuss. It has something to do with not suffering a lot, with being happy, with being connected to self, with living a long life, with being productive and satisfied, but it’s a moving target like health.”


        “You are arguing against the idea that you can measure morality by detecting the amount of happiness in a human being, but that is not SH’s point, nor is it my belief after having read SH.”

        First, notice this post is specifically about the video explaining his views. His book wasn’t even out when this was written, so my comments are restricted to what he said in the video.

        Now Harris says we must admit that there are “right and wrong answers about how humans flourish.” But supposing we do grant that, what follows about morality? Who says that human flourishing is what we should aim for? Why should we aim for that? What is the ontic basis of human flourishing? Is there a real morality or is it just subjective–it just is human flourishing? These are all serious problems that Harris has to deal with.

        And here’s the kicker- you admit that he is, “in a certain sense” talking about objective morality. Where in the world does he ground it?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 8, 2012, 10:38 AM
      • When I complained that you are simplifying his well-being argument to a simplistic happiness argument, you pointed out that you are only going off this transcript. OK, so let’s boil it down to happiness and suffering, as Sam seems to use that word here interchangeably for well-being. I would just say that the happiness he is talking about is the overall happiness of all beings over time, as opposed to an instantaneous hedonistic in-the-moment pleasure seeking. So even from strictly going from this video, I think you are being unfair to his position. Is there a problem defining morality as a utility function that maximizes the long-term happiness of sentient creatures?
        Next you complain if we claim there are right and wrong answers about morality, that we now have the problem of who decides and how to determine it. Yes, but this is just the way it is in life. Advancing the idea of God does nothing for this in my view. Who is it that decides that God should be obeyed? How do we determine what it means to obey God? As usual, the God theory does not help explain or solve anything.
        And you ask where he grounds his objective morality. That is an odd question to me. What do you mean “grounds?” I assume you mean, how does he claim it to be objective. The sense in which I think it is objective is that it is measurable and observable. You and I can discuss it in objective terms, but we first have to agree one what it means. Again, adding a God to the discussion only pushes this question out. We as humans still have to get together and determine what is right and wrong. Arguing over God’s attributes is simply an indirect way of doing this.

        Posted by wealthychef | March 9, 2012, 12:03 PM
      • Alright, lets first clear something up. I’m not “complaining” about anything here. I’m asking Harris to defend his claims. To say that I ‘complained’ is disingenuous and adds nothing to our conversation. If you’re going to make claims, defend them, don’t assert that I’m “complaining” if I don’t just take your ideas as a priori correct.

        Anyway, you wrote, ” Is there a problem defining morality as a utility function that maximizes the long-term happiness of sentient creatures?”

        There is no problem with that, if you’re willing to grant that morality is then completely arbitrary and a figment of our imagination. If we choose how to define morality, and then just latch it on as a ‘utility function’ in such a way that what is moral is our own happiness, then all the so-called “morality” is boils down to self-satisfaction. That hardly qualifies as a moral system, but if someone wants to say that is their moral system, I’m willing to let them as long as they grant that it is vacuous.

        You wrote, “Who is it that decides that God should be obeyed? How do we determine what it means to obey God? As usual, the God theory does not help explain or solve anything.”

        That is a pretty nonchalant dismissal of millenia of theistic metaethics. Please actually defend your claim that “the God theory does not help explain or solve anything.” Regarding the question itself, it would be a bit complex to delve into such ideas here, but there are any number of theistic theories that present answers to that very question, from Robert Merrihew Adams to Mark C. Murphy to Linda Zagzebski. All of them present cases which would show that people should (or at least should choose to) obey God. Of course, reducing theistic metaethics to divine command theory only (which it seems you’ve done by asking the question) is a bit of an oversimplification.

        You wrote, “The sense in which I think it is objective is that it is measurable and observable.”

        Here is the kicker for me. Basically, Sam Harris (and you, apparently?) decide to define reality as “maximizing the long-term happiness of sentient creatures” (again we already have a name for that–it’s called utilitarianism) and then, in order to make it objective, claim that objective is “measurable.” Well of course, if we choose to define an ethical theory arbitrarily and then make sure that we can measure its outcome, that would meat our redefined term for “objective,” but that’s hardly what has been meant for 4000 years of metaethical theorizing. Simply put, if morals were objective, they would hold even if there were no sentient creatures or indeed anything at all. So we can see once more how many questions Harris begs when he tries to say his theory is objective. For, if we define morality in terms of sentient creatures, we have already grounded it in the existence of sentient beings. Therefore, the theory is not objective until one redefines that term as well.

        Essentially, what is happening here is that Harris has defined terms in order to allow himself ‘objective’ [redefined] morality [redefined] and then claims that this is a better theory than the competing ones [largely theistic in nature]. Of course, because he’s redefined terms, he’s not even arguing against those theories he seems to be arguing against.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 9, 2012, 5:51 PM
      • Now I would like to note that I did use “complain” in my post on the ontology of morality–that is because that was literally what Anthony did. If one listens to the debate, one finds that as she says “my children matters to _me-eee_” she is merely asserting it without argument, and in the way she says it (in context during her discussion with Craig), it can be justifiably read as a complaint.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 9, 2012, 5:58 PM
      • Mr. Wartick, you need to look up the word “complain” in a dictionary. “Express dissatisfaction or annoyance about a state of affairs or an event.” You seem dissatisfied to me. I really don’t understand why you think this is disingenuous; even if it’s incorrect in your view, I meant no insult, and am surprised by your apparent ire. In other words, relax. We can be nice, right? I’m not out to get you!

        You say that morality holds even if there were no sentient creatures or anything at all. This to me is a bizarre statement. What can that even mean? The definition of morality is “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior, or Behavior as it is affected by the observation of these principles.” The behavior being considered here is clearly sentient beings. What does it mean for a grasshopper to behave immorally? Or a rock? Can you please clarify this point? Clearly we are not talking about the same thing here.

        I think we need to clarify what it is that you mean by morality before we can talk sensibly about it. I think that’s the crux here. Surely if you agree with the dictionary definition, or at least see that that is what I’m using, then you can start to see where I’m coming from. I can’t really respond to your points about it if we are using the word in completely different senses.

        I cannot disprove a negative, so asking me to defend my claim that “the God theory does not help explain or solve anything” is not fair, but you should trivially be able to defeat it by bringing up an example of something it helps explain or solve in this context (or really any other).

        Posted by wealthychef | March 9, 2012, 10:48 PM
      • First, regarding “complain”–in an online comment discussion it is hard to note tone… I misread the tone and I apologize.

        I’ll get back to you about the middle section later, but regarding “I cannot disprove a negative” is simply false. The atheist, anarchist blogger over at “The Prime Directive” points out that people use this to avoid fulfilling the burden of proof. Simply put, if you make a claim, you must argue for it. If you say “the God theory does not help explain or solve anything”, you have made a claim. I’m asking you to justify it.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 10, 2012, 12:21 AM
      • As an example to show how frustrating it can be when people make claims and then insist they have no burden of proof, suppose I were to base this critique on the following statement: “the ‘well-being’ theory does not help explain or solve anything.”

        I’m clearly making a claim here. Of course, I think that claim is true. But then suppose you came along arguing Harris is correct and my only response is “that’s not fair!” Clearly, it is I who am not playing fair here. I made a claim, I need to support it.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 10, 2012, 12:26 AM
      • Honestly, I don’t get your example, it does not seem to fit. There is no “well-being theory.” I do not seek to explain or support anything by some theory of well-being. I don’t know how I can be more clear about my statement or support it more than the logic I took you through to get there. I was pointing out that God does not do anything to solve the problem of who decides what is right and wrong, because if you postulate a God, then you must then have arguments about God’s commandments, and those arguments are the same as if you never postulated God in the first place. In other words, it pushes the problem away without addressing it, or hides it behind a belief that cannot be reasoned about, it seems to me. To me, this is always the case with God. People say “the universe must have a first cause, this is God.” But then I ask, what caused God? It just never seems to add value to a discussion to say that God did it. Does that clarify my meaning? Perhaps you can show how this time it’s different; that would be refreshing. It just seemingly comes down to “Well, if you don’t believe there is a God, then what can I tell ya?” kind of thing.

        Posted by wealthychef | March 10, 2012, 12:43 AM
      • Alright, regarding objective morality. Objective morality is simply that which is right and wrong irrespective of things which exist. I am a bit confused by your own confusion, to be honest. 1+1=2 is an objective truth. Would it be false or “bizarre” if there only existed one thing?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 11, 2012, 9:35 PM
      • And I’d like to clarify I never said or implied that objective morality would apply to non-sentient beings if there were no sentient beings.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 11, 2012, 9:36 PM
      • OK, you said, ” if morals were objective, they would hold even if there were no sentient creatures or indeed anything at all.” Then you said “I never said or implied that objective morality would apply to non-sentient beings if there were no sentient beings.” You define objective morality as “Objective morality is simply that which is right and wrong irrespective of things which exist.”
        I have to ask a few questions to try to get clear here. As I said, the definition of morality is probably the entire point of the discussion, and it’s worth us not hurrying past in order to just argue.
        First, is morality only applicable to sentient beings? This is an important question to understand.
        Second, regardless of your answer to the first question, can you give me an example of something that is wrong even if there are no sentient beings or anything at all, as you seem to have claimed?
        I gave you a definition of morality, which is ““Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior, or Behavior as it is affected by the observation of these principles.” Do you agree with this definition? Note in particular the important word “behavior” in both instances. I’m not sure, but that seems to be left out of your definition. Can there be morality without actors?
        I don’t understand your 1+1=2 analogy yet. Hopefully soon I will. If there is only one thing in the universe, then I think 1+1=2 becomes a false statement, because there is no 2, and the whole idea of “+” is bogus. Or did you mean something else?
        — Rich

        Posted by wealthychef | March 11, 2012, 9:55 PM
      • Thanks for your continued thoughtful comments.

        You asked: ” is morality only applicable to sentient beings?”

        I guess it depends what you mean by “applicable.” Sentient beings have obligations to nonsentient beings, so in that sense morality applies to them. But an amoeba cannot be held accountable for its actions.

        You asked, “can you give me an example of something that is wrong even if there are no sentient beings or anything at all, as you seem to have claimed?”

        I’ll address that indirectly below.

        You wrote, ” Do you agree with this definition? [of morality]”

        Nope, it seems to be inherently behaviorist in its basis for morality, and I am no behaviorist.

        You wrote, “I don’t understand your 1+1=2 analogy yet. Hopefully soon I will. If there is only one thing in the universe, then I think 1+1=2 becomes a false statement, because there is no 2, and the whole idea of “+” is bogus. ”

        It was this comment that really revealed to me where the misunderstanding is. It seems you are confusing the notion of “instantiation” with the notion of “ontology.” That is, you seem to be thinking that if there are no instances (occurrences) of a property and/or proposition, then the proposition loses truth value. That’s simply not the case. Truths like “1+1=2” are necessary truths, which mean they are true in all possible worlds. There is nothing that can make that statement not true, nor is there any world in which it is false. Think about it this way–suppose I knew the exact number of material objects in our universe. That is, suppose I knew exactly how many of the basic pieces of physical matter there were (quarks, whatever you want to call them). Now suppose I wrote that number +1. Let’s say the number is (for the sake of explanation) 500. Now suppose I wrote on a piece of paper 500+1=501. Would that be a “bogus” operation? Clearly not, for mathematical truths are not grounded in being instantiated–they are not grounded in the existence of objects to make their truths. Similarly, objective morality cannot be tied to the existence of some kind of objects.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 15, 2012, 9:23 AM
      • Well, I don’t want to get too wrapped up in 1+1=2. There are two levels to this discussion (at least). I got your point but humor me here. On one, less interesting level, you are making an inductive argument. But that requires at least two things to exist — your question asked specifically about the case where there is only one object in the universe. In that case, there would be no math, etc. Perhaps you should have chosen 2+2=4. But more generally, it brings up to me the issue of dualism vs. materialism. It also probably merits a discussion of consciousness, something that impacts everything.
        These topics might be useful to address inside of the original inquiry was into the nature of morality, but I fear to digress without having accomplished anything, so I’d like to hammer away at that point if I may. To wit: you have said that a morality defined in terms of the behavior of sentient beings is not agreeable to you, as you are not a “behaviorist.”
        What is missing is that we have not found a definition of morality we agree on. It seems to me that this is the heart of the misunderstanding. For that to happen, we have to respect each other’s world views. I think you are dualist, that you believe in a perfect world of ideas that has meaning and validity outside of our physical world. Is that fair? My evidence is that you said “mathematical truths … are true in all possible worlds.” I see no basis for such a statement. If you are going to imagine worlds that don’t exist but are philosophically possible, you can certainly imagine one in which mathematics does not apply. In fact, I think “Heaven” is one such place. But probably wise to not go there. LOL Anyhow, I reject dualism.
        I’ve made you an offer of the definition of morality, which by the way came from the dictionary and Wikipedia. Can you offer a definition of morality that you aren’t just making up for the convenience of your argument? I’m not saying you are making anything up, I’m just asking you to look for that first before making a proposal.
        Can a materialist and a theist/dualist agree about morality? I think so. And where will such agreement take place? I think it will be in the realm of behaviors, because I cannot find a definition of morality which is not based on behavior.
        Perhaps when you offer a definition of morality that I can agree on, or vice versa, we will really get somewhere.

        Posted by wealthychef | March 15, 2012, 10:04 AM
      • I think we do need to be hung up on the nature of necessary truths for the moment here. Even materialists grant the existence of necessary truths, such as mathematical truths. The nature of morality, if it is objective, would make it a necessary truth. That’s where the confusion is happening. Morality holds no matter what exists, because even if it is not instantiated–even if there is nothing to reflect the morality–the “rules” still apply counterfactually. Similarly, mathematical truths still apply, even if there aren’t enough objects to reflect their reality (cf. the whole system of transfinite math).

        Defining morality is notoriously slippery and I don’t want to get into that game. The point I’ve been trying to make is that morality, if it is objective, would be necessary. Yet Harris (and others like Louise Anthony) ground the morality in the existence of sentient beings, and therefore cannot have developed an objective morality.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 16, 2012, 9:28 AM
      • Well, this is interesting. I looked up “necessary truth” and it is as I suspected itself basically a mathematical (logical) idea. ” Necessary truth is a feature of any statement that it would be contradictory to deny.” This is opposed to contingent truths, which could have been otherwise without resulting in contradiction. Good to know of this concept, thank you.
        If you are not willing to enter the slippery business of defining morality, then I don’t see how you can claim it to be necessary and not contingent. Please note that by “define” I do not mean “enumerate all moral actions” or even “state a general rule of morality.” I’m simply asking for the definition of the word “morality.” It occurs to me that it might not be possible for you to define it without referring to God. That would be good to understand. I have offered a definition and it did not seem slippery to me.
        I suppose that if one accepts my definition, then she must then consider the meaning of the word “right.” What I am applauding Sam Harris for and which I think you deplore is that he has taken that on and said that what is right is that which increases the happiness of sentient beings. Since this is a definition, it is claiming to be a necessary truth. And since Sam Harris has advanced a theory of morality, he has shown that science can answer moral questions by bringing the discussion into the realm of reasonable discussion. He has not proven anything other than that he can make such a claim without contradiction. Historically, humans have often deferred to the preferences of deities in terms of asking what is moral. We’ve looked to tradition and claimed divine revelation on the subject. And at the same time, the actual determination, it seems to me, comes about by experimentation. “Revelation” is actually reason + intuition + instinct, and “history” is experimental results. We do not need God in any of this from my view.

        Posted by wealthychef | March 16, 2012, 10:35 AM
  3. I wish I could edit my post. 🙂 I made a mistake in saying “That’s what motivates people to be religious.” Such generalizations are trivially easy to argue against. People are religious for a variety of reasons. However, perhaps I would argue that either they are religious in order to increase their own well being, or in order to increase the well being of the people of the world, or because they believe that God’s will is supreme, or a combination of these. Two of these are “utilitarian,” and one is very problematic, as I discussed.

    Posted by wealthychef | February 29, 2012, 11:41 AM
  4. By the way, no need to apologize. Thank you for understanding. I’m not really interested in bashing egos or trying to make myself look clever. Discussions about religion can be frustrating and require patience.

    Posted by wealthychef | March 10, 2012, 12:45 AM


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