UPDATE: Audio, a summary of the debate, and my snarky summary of the debate are all linked here.
First, some information about the debate.
- Who: William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris
- Where: The University of Notre Dame
- When: Thursday, April 7 – 7pm to 9pm
And apparently the debate will be streamed live by the University of Notre Dame. (H/T Mary)
“I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you with an answer about online availability. I got it myself this afternoon. There will be a live stream on http://www.ndtv.net/. On the day of the debate, Thursday April 7 at 7:00, the home page of http://www.ndtv.net/ will be replaced with the live stream. I hope you enjoy it.”
Now let’s see where the debaters stand.
Harris defines morality in terms of human well-being, with its intent being to advance our welfare. He also claims that human well-being is a function of the brain’s state.5 However, he doesn’t present evidence to support the idea that any particular states of the brain can be produced in any particular way. (Yet, evidence exists that suggests certain moral behaviors generally considered evil produce a functional state of the brain indicative of well-being in those morally reprehensible individuals.)
If I am understanding him correctly, Harris thinks that what is good is happy brain states for the biggest number of people. He can measure happy brain states using scientific methods. But then comes the atheist leap of faith. He thinks that from this *IS* we should jump to an *OUGHT*. Harris this that we OUGHT to do whatever maximizes happy brain states for the biggest number of people. I think that Craig should challenge him on why we should accept this ought when it goes against OUR OWN self-interest, and when we can escape the social consequences.
Harris’ view sounds like old-style utilitarianism. And old-style utilitarianism has many flaws.
Harris is blazing a bold path with this assertion, but his case starts to fall apart almost as soon as he leaves the gate. First of all, Harris’s “moral science” is less using science to determine values than it is using science as an evaluative mechanism for what Harris has already deemed to be moral. For instance, without any science in sight, Harris baldy asserts that “the only thing we can reasonably value” is “maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures.” Far from using science to determine human values, Harris simply assumes as a first principle that his version of utilitarianism is correct. By making this assumption, Harris skips entirely past where his argument should be. Even those whose knowledge of philosophy is limited to high-school debate can list the many potential flaws with a utilitarian worldview, but Harris brushes them aside with a single sentence where he bothers with them at all. Why, precisely, should individuals value the good of the collective whole or of future generations over their own immediate personal wellbeing? It is never precisely made clear, although Harris boldy implies that everybody prefers a fair world to one that favors them. Would it be right for our species to be sacrificed towards the unfathomably immense happiness of some race of superbeings? Harris says the answer is “clearly” yes, and leaves it at that. Should average wellbeing be held in highest esteem, or aggregate wellbeing? This is mentioned and then goes unaddressed.
And you can read more about the flaws of utilitarianism in this excellent article by J.P. Moreland.
Several objections show the inadequacy of utilitarianism as a normative moral theory. First, utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that are clearly immoral. Consider the case of a severely deformed fetus. The child is certain to live a brief, albeit painless life. He or she will make no contribution to society. Society, however, will bear great expense. Doctors and other caregivers will invest time, emotion, and effort in adding mere hours to the baby’s life. The parents will know and love the child only long enough to be heartbroken at the inevitable loss. An abortion negates all those “utility” losses. There is no positive utility lost. Many of the same costs are involved in the care of the terminally ill elderly. They too may suffer no pain, but they may offer no benefit to society. In balancing positives and negatives, and excluding from the equation the objective sacredness of all human life, we arrive at morally repugnant decisions. Here deontological and virtue ethics steer us clear of what is easier to what is right.
Second, in a similar way, utilitarianism denies the existence of supererogatory acts. These are acts of moral heroism that are not morally obligatory but are still praiseworthy. Examples would be giving 75 percent of your income to the poor or throwing yourself on a bomb to save a stranger. Consider the bomb example. You have two choices — throwing yourself on the bomb or not doing so. Each choice would have consequences and, according to utilitarianism, you are morally obligated to do one or the other depending on which option maximized utility. Thus, there is no room for acts that go beyond the call of morality.
Third, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of human rights and human dignity. If enslaving a minority of people, say by a lottery, would produce the greatest good for the greatest number, or if conceiving children only to harvest their parts would do the same, then these could he justified in a utilitarian scheme. But enslavement and abortion violate individual rights and treat people as a means to an end, not as creatures with intrinsic dignity as human beings. If acts of abortion, active euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and so forth maximize utility, then they are morally obligatory for the utilitarian. But any moral system that makes abortion and suicide morally obligatory is surely flawed.
Finally, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of motives and character. We should praise good motives and seek good character because such motives and character are intrinsically valuable. But utilitarianism implies that the only reason we should praise good motives instead of bad ones, or seek good character instead of bad character, is because such acts would maximize utility. But this has the cart before the horse. We should praise good motives and blame bad ones because they are good or bad, not because such acts of praising and blaming produce good consequences.
I expect that Craig will use some of Moreland’s arguments on Thursday night.
According to Sam Harris, people are not free to make moral choices. This is because on atheism, human beings are just computers made out of meat, and everything they do is determined by their genetic programming and sensory inputs.
Like many who hold an atheistic worldview, Harris does not accept the notion of free will. Rather, he accepts determinism, as is demonstrated by the following quotes:
- “You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. As we shall see, however, this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.”
- “All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.”
- “I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will next think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.”1
How can machines be morally responsible?
Elsewhere, it should be noted that Harris claims to believe in objective moral values, but he thinks they are not discovered but created.
Yesterday, Harris posted an article in answer to some of his critics, titled Moral confusion in the name of “science”. It turns out Harris has not come up with a theory about any particular objective moral truth. In answer to the question, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Harris proclaims, “The answer is: ‘we do.'” In other words, Harris says we determine objective morality, but this is a contradiction, because objective morality, if it exists, is discovered–not created.
To me, Harris’ view isn’t objective morality – it’s cultural relativism. Because “we” are deciding that human happiness is morally valuable as opposed to something else, doing good things that are good on some objective standard but that make us feel unhappy – like not killing our unborn children. What makes us happy is arbitrary and it varies by time and place – so really what “we” decide is good depends on who the we is, and when the we is deciding. But there isn’t anything really right or wrong out there. In some places and times slavery made the majority of people happy, and on Harris’ view, that was just fine for that group because they had the right brain states. Maybe I am misunderstanding his argument.
I should also point out that Harris is a political liberal, so he would presumably put abortion in the “good” category because it leads to happy feelings for the grown-ups.
Now let’s look at Craig’s views.
William Lane Craig
Here’s part 1:
If you want to see the moral argument played out in a couple of debates, you could watch the William Lane Craig vs. Paul Kurtz debate on Youtube. Yes, that’s the same Paul Kurtz who wrote the “Humanist Manifesto”. Or you could watch the more recent William Lane Craig vs. Louise Anthony debate on Youtube, if you’ve already seen the Kurtz debate.
Here are some recent comments by Craig on Sam Harris’ theory on scientific foundations for morality.
And here are a couple of video lectures on Sam Harris by philosopher Glenn Peoples.
And a post on Harris’ argument by Christopher Copan Scott at the Student Apologetics Alliance.
Brian Auten maintains the William Lane Craig Audio Debate Feed here, in case you get through all of these and would like to see how well Bill Craig performs against other famous challengers, like Marcus Borg, Lewis Wolpert, Arif Ahmed, Bart Ehman, John Shelby Spong, Gerd Ludemann, John Dominic Crossan, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, etc.
You guys may also be interested in my snarky, humorous summary of Lawrence Krauss’ speeches in his debate with Craig, and in the preview post which featured resources for understanding Craig’s kalam argument, the fine-tuning argument and the moral argument.