Is Sam Harris successful at rationally grounding objective moral values and duties?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

I just wanted to put out a few snips from this layperson-level article on the Reasonable Faith web site. The article is about atheist scholar Sam Harris, and his attempt to provide a basis for morality on atheism.

Here’s the Harris project:

The question then is, what is the best foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties? What grounds them? What makes certain actions good or evil, right or wrong? Traditionally, God has been the highest Good (summum bonum) and His commandments constitutive of our moral duties. But if God does not exist, what foundation remains for objective moral values and duties?

Dr. Craig is able to show why Harris’ attempt to ground the objective moral value of humans in “human flourishing” fails, by using the law of identity to show that Harris’ rule doesn’t account for the possibility that those who do evil could possibly flourish and be happy. If Harris is right that objective morality is identical to human flourishing, then it cannot even be possible that this be the case. This can be a bit confusing to non-philosophers, though, so I’ll focus on Dr. Craig’s argument against Harris’ attempt to ground objective moral duties.

Dr. Craig writes:

That takes us to a second question: Does atheism provide a sound foundation for objective moral duties? Duty has to do with moral obligation and prohibition, what I ought or ought not to do. Here reviewers of The Moral Landscape have been merciless in pounding Harris’ attempt to provide a naturalistic account of moral obligation. Two problems stand out.

First: Natural science tells us only what is, not what ought to be, the case. As philosopher Jerry Fodor has written, “Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it wouldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are.” In particular it cannot tell us that we have a moral obligation to take actions that are conducive to human flourishing.

So if there is no God, what foundation remains for objective moral duties? On the naturalistic view, human beings are just animals, and animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra, but it does not murder the zebra. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it does not rape her — for there is no moral dimension to these actions. They are neither prohibited nor obligatory.

So if God does not exist, why think we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes these moral duties on us? Where do they come from? It is hard to see why they would be anything more than a subjective impression ingrained into us by societal and parental conditioning.

So we might feel morally obligated to do something, maybe what our herd expects of us in this time and place we live in. But on atheism those feelings are arbitrary. After all, societies have evolved where feelings of obligation are felt by people to perform suicide bombings against civilians. On atheism, those feelings are as valid and grounded as any other “duties” because they emerge from the same process in other times and places. Obligations change between time and place – they are not objectively real. But that means that our moral duties are not objective, they are arbitrary – if atheism is true. The same “socio-biological evolution” is generating opposite moral duties in different times and places. This is not “objective”.

And the second objection is even more lethal:

Second: “ought” implies “can.” A person is not morally responsible for an action he is unable to avoid. For example, if somebody shoves you into another person, you are not to blame for bumping into this person. You had no choice. But Harris believes that all of our actions are causally determined and that there is no free will. Harris rejects not only libertarian accounts of freedom but also compatibilistic accounts of freedom. But if there is no free will, no one is morally responsible for anything. In the end, Harris admits this, though it’s tucked away in his endnotes. Moral responsibility, he says, “is a social construct,” not an objective reality: “in neuroscientific terms no person is more or less responsible than any other” for the actions they perform. His thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties on his worldview because we have no control over what we do.

Harris recognizes that “determinism really does threaten free will and responsibility as we intuitively understand them.” But not to worry! “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.” The point, I take it, is that we do not really have the illusion of free will. Not only is such a claim patently false phenomenologically, as any of us can attest, but it is also irrelevant. The fact remains that whether we experience the illusion of free will or not, on Harris’ view we are thoroughly determined in all that we think and do and can therefore have no moral responsibilities.

On Harris’ view, human beings are computers made out of meat. But if you cannot freely make moral choices, then you cannot choose to perform moral duties or not. What is amazing to me is why he wants to deny free will in the first place. He is surely very well aware of his own experience of free will, and his own consciousness, for that matter. Before we even start to look at scientific evidences against atheism like the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, etc. we already have evidence within ourselves that naturalism is false.

Just in passing, my friend Micah sent me this article about Sam Harris’ academic credentials. Although Harris has a PhD in neuroscience, the underlying reality is a bit more complicated. When I watched him debate William Lane Craig, he seemed to be ignorant of simple problems with his utilitarian moral views, and his inability to ground libertarian free will. The problems with utilitarianism have been known for hundreds of years. You can watch the debate yourself and see if you think he was prepared or not.

6 thoughts on “Is Sam Harris successful at rationally grounding objective moral values and duties?”

    1. Rights for other tribes, females, etc vary historically and around the world. In our context we have the history of Christianity forcing all are equal before God as a foundation of our constitutional agreements, this is often forgotten as they try to make Christianity into an evil thought. But those that didn’t give these rights to people were against biblical teaching.

      Now they like to historically rewrite history as of that was a lucky guess by those making the US Constitution. The Christian faith gave us the core beliefs we assume all people possess.

      Look around the world and you will see the norm is more like treat you neighbour well is an accepted rule.

      But trying to find ways to show love to an enemy is hard to find anywhere outside of Christianity. Many religions and groups can be justified to persecute others for no reason beyond a different personal faith or tribe of origin.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. In university years ago I replied to one atheist determinist prof (who repeatedly tried to convince us students to embrace his hard determinist atheist beliefs) that it seemed to me that my antecedent conditions were determining me to believe that I and other humans possessed responsible agency powers and free will so that I and other humans were validly to be held morally culpable for our free choices and actions. I said that I believed our police and court judges were right to do the same. Dr. McMullen did not agree.

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  2. I’ve watched some of Sam Harris’ recent debate with Jordan Peterson and my opinion of Harris and his worldview haven’t improved. He seems to base his own system of ethics on ideas such as: ‘actions that move us toward universal happiness are moral while those that move us away are not’. Like most of the claims made by the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’ they lie in contradiction to the facts and when taken to logical extremes they either lead nowhere or somewhere very sinister (something which they will fervently deny). Take his claim about moral = human flourishing for instance and apply it to a future scenario where humans have begun to travel the stars and we meet alien races. If it serves human flourishing are we justified in exterminating and enslaving these races? They wouldn’t be human, therefore their ‘happiness’ (assuming they could feel it) and ‘flourishing’ aren’t our concern according to his logic.

    Honestly, just the fact that Harris seriously thinks that Communism/ Marxism counts as a religion is more than enough justification for someone to doubt his claims (not to mention his IQ).

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  3. When some Internet atheist claims that there is no such thing as free will, I always ask in the comments, “Did you freely come to that conclusion?”

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