Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape," Chapter 1

I'm short on time today, so here's Nick again with a look at Chapter 1 of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape.


Interestingly, Sam Harris begins this chapter with a point I agree with. He talks about people who espouse moral relativism and then condemn immorality.

Anyone who has ever done debates with someone who espouses moral relativism knows that this is the case. Too often, what they do is just plant their own personal morality without any foundation. The sad reality is that I believe Harris does the same thing.

Harris does not espouse moral relativism. However, he does say on page 28 that “I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want---and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.

I have stated before that this is in fact my fear because it will not be science that does it but scientists doing it. It will also not be based on studying the things themselves, as good philosophers do, but it would rather be based on studying the brains of people, and whose brains will we study to be the authority? One can hardly doubt that it will be those of the scientists themselves.

Shortly afterwards, Harris says that he is not claiming that moral truths exist independent of conscious beings as if they were Platonic forms. What Harris does not realize is that there are other ways of seeing these truths existing other than in the idea of forms in the sense Plato understood. For Plato, the forms could exist independently. For Aristotle, forms exist insofar as they are in a substance. The form of humans exist in humans. That does not preclude the idea of humans existing in a divine mind, such as the mind of God, but the form does not exist independently of God’s mind.

Moral truths are then based on what the essences of things are. Why is it that you can kill a bacteria but you cannot kill a human being? (Note. I do understand killing and murder are different, but I am speaking in a generic sense) It is because of what a bacteria is compared to what a human is. We are to treat things based on their nature. Why is it that a thrown rock breaks a window? Is it because there is a law outside of the rock and the window that the two must obey, or is it more likely that there is a response in the nature of a window when it meets the nature of the rock in motion? It happens so regularly and predictably that we call it a law, but the law is based on the things themselves.

I realize this is complex, but Harris’s position is too simplistic as he only brings up Platonic objections, which is something many atheist thinkers seem to do. Note also how we will see theories of morality are based only on voluntarism and not on other theories of morality in theology.

Harris is also right later on saying that consensus is not necessary in truth. He points out that people will see scientific controversy and think that that destroys all of science. Such a notion would be rather simplistic, but as we will see later on, that does not stop Harris from doing the same to religion. It is ironic Harris does this while condemning double standards. One only wishes he would follow his own advice, but that is to come later.

Considering however that moral truth could come from a transcendent source, Harris says the following revealing much on page 32:

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already too much.

Harris already thinks that such a source cannot affect the life of any conscious creature. How this is known? We don’t know. That Harris spends so little time thinking about a serious option that philosophers have wrestled with for thousand of years shows we don’t have a serious thinker. I wonder what he would think if I said something like this:

So how much time should we spend considering the possibility that there is a non-miraculous explanation of life arising on our planet? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already too much.

One can picture Harris being indignant, and rightfully so. “This is a serious matter! We need to know it if it’s true!” Precisely! If there is also a source of morality outside of us that is beyond us and would also be eternal and unchanging, does it not behoove us to know it? “Well no, because that would not be scientific.”

What about religion however? Harris says on page 33 that those who say we should follow God’s Law say that we should “for its own sake.” Harris asks questions like “What if a more powerful God could punish us for following YHWH?” (Well if you think you can make an argument for one go ahead) “Aren’t religious people also seeking to find happiness and avoid misery?” (Well yeah, and we believe that following the guide of our creator is a way to do that.) For Harris, in the end, they’re seeking well-being also and therefore, their account cannot be exceptions.

Yes. All of this in one paragraph. In one paragraph he presents the religious position.

No one doubts that people seek well-being. Harris states that all ethical systems somehow end in well-being. Well geez. Is this supposed to be a surprise? Everyone go and celebrate. Sam Harris has ended thousands of years of debate in ethics by pointing out that people seek well-being.

Um. No. What the problem is is not that people seek well-being, but that people do not know what well-being is. Harris realizes that it depends on what it means and points to what matters to the average person. Ah! So now the consensus does matter! After all, who will be average? Is it the average American or the average Mediterranean? The average teenager or the average senior citizen?

Or, lo and behold, will it be someone like Harris himself?

Harris goes on to say that we all have an intuitive morality. No problem there. However, he also says that most of it is clearly wrong. What is wrong? We don’t know. He doesn’t say. Of course, he does use this to attack religious cultures. (One can easily picture Harris frothing at the mouth as he writes cackling with glee at any chance to strike religion.)

How does he know that they are clearly wrong? Is this clear to everyone? If so, then is this known apart from science? Could it be we actually know moral truths apart from science? Surely not!

On the next page, Harris makes a point that I have been making. Science cannot tell us why scientifically we should value health. Indeed. It could tell us what health is, but it cannot tell us why we should value it. It cannot give a should at all.

On page 38, Harris tells us that it is worth noting that the God of Abraham never told us to treat our children with kindness. However, he did tell us to kill them for talking back to us.

First off, why would God need to tell the children that? In that culture, your children were your future and your livelihood. You wanted them to grow strong so they could continue the family and be around to support you in your old age. (Never mind Ephesians 6 also contains duties for parents to children) However, let’s look at his references.

Exodus 21:15 is first saying anyone who attacks their father and mother is to be put to death.

Yes. How innocent it would be in a society where the family was the main social unit responsible for the upbringing of the next generation if children were given a blank check to attack their parents. This wouldn’t be seen as a serious crime. How horrible it would be if we actually taught children to respect their parents!

(Note that this could also be rendered as “kills their parents.”)

The same applies to Leviticus 20:9 which would mean one who essentially wishes that their parents were dead. This would be seen as a form of treason in such a society leading to social upheaval.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is the classic one so often used. Links to my treatment and that of JPH’s can be found at the bottom.

Mark 7:9-13 and Matthew 15:4-7 have absolutely nothing to do with the idea that children can be killed for talking back. Rather, this was about children not taking care of their parents and using God as an excuse. Harris is obviously not counting on his readers reading these passages, or he is ignorant of what the passages mean, or both. Note once again that Harris can’t avoid a chance to snipe at religion.

Harris asks us to imagine if there were only two people that existed known as Adam and Eve. He asks us to imagine what it would mean if they attempted to kill and eat each other. Would it be wrong? (italics his) Harris says yes, but only if we mean they would be forsaking better means of satisfaction.

I wonder if I really need to go any further? Harris can’t see ipso facto that for someone to attempt to eat someone else would be just wrong in itself?

On page 46, Harris continues his usual rant on religion and this time says “Among conservatives in the West, the same skepticism about the power of reason leads, more often than not, directly to the feet of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Universe.”
Whereas misuse of the power of reason in the West leads, more often than not, to identifying yourself as a new atheist.

I am a strong believer in the power of reason and would love to debate Harris someday. I happen to know many other conservatives who would enjoy such a thing. Perhaps Harris should accept all of our challenges. After all, we are skeptical of the power of reason supposedly. It should be an easy challenge. Has Harris not read at all any of the great philosophers in Christian history from the apostolic era to now? Wait. No need to answer that question. I already know.
On page 51, Harris takes a swipe at honor cultures. He uses the example of his wife working out at a gym one day when a handsome stranger hits on her. She politely informs him that she is married and yet the man persists. Now I agree with Harris on this point. If someone did that to my wife, I would definitely be ready to make a response to this person.

Harris says on this page:

Had this happened in a traditional honor culture, the jealous husband might beat his wife, drag her to the gym, and force her to identify her suitor so he could put a bullet in his brain. In fact, in an honor society, the employees of the gym might sympathize with this project and help to organize a proper duel. Or perhaps the husband would be satisfied to act more obliquely, killing one of his rival’s relatives and initiating a classic blood feud. In either case, assuming he didn’t get himself killed in the process, he might then murder his wife for emphasis, leaving her children motherless. There are many communities on earth where men commonly behave this way, and hundreds of millions of boys are beginning to run this ancient warfare on their brains even now.

Any citation for this? Not a one. Harris gives no indication that he has read anything on the topic.

Note also Harris says that he views the emotion of jealousy with suspicion. See info from JPH on that below.

Finally, Harris says the following on page 53:

And the fact that millions of people use the term “morality” as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time.

More often than not, people who think like this I call “new atheists” and I am thankful Harris realizes that I do not have to accept his terminology until the end of time.

While I have finished this chapter, more is coming, and I was not even able to comment on all I saw in this one. The founder of Project Reason needs to use some.

On Deuteronomy: Here and here.

Jealousy: See here, Ex. 20:5.

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