Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape," Chapter 2

Today I will definitely be short on time (unlike Tuesday, that won't change) so here again is Nick Peters with a look at the next chapter in Harris' tome.


Chapter 2 of Harris’s book is called “Good and Evil.”
And yet, the whole chapter never once defines good and evil.

Harris wants to dispel at the start the myth that evolution entails selfishness as a biological imperative. He tells us “Selection pressure at the level of ‘selfish’ genes would surely incline creatures like ourselves to make sacrifices for our relatives, for the simple reason that one’s relatives can be counted on to share one’s genes."

Well, that takes care of the misconception for me.

Why bring this out? Because atheists are constantly telling us about how they’re good people for the sake of being good people. It sound like Harris disagrees. We’re good because it’s beneficial to our genes.

As Harris goes through this chapter, he tells us on page 59 that “Morality---in terms of consciously held precepts, social contracts, notions of justice, etc. --- is a relatively recent development.”

I almost thought I’d drop the book at that one.

I’d love to see his evidence of a human civilization that did not have a concept of justice. Now has there been refinement? Of course. Still, the concepts were there in the past. Perhaps he should read some works talking about justice such as the Republic by Plato or the Nicomachean Ethics. It’s statements like these that make me wonder just what philosophy exactly was Harris studying to get his degree?

When speaking about good and evil and using terms like worse and better, Harris says that our intuitions tell us what is meant by these terms. Whose intuitions however? While I do believe we all know the basics of right and wrong and you could call that intuition, on the finer points, intuition is a terrible guide. Why do I suspect however that Harris’s sources of intuition will be people in 21st century America, especially atheistic scientists?

Still, whenever Harris brings up intuitions, as he often does, I want to know why we should trust our intuitions. If we are the result of an accident, why should I think the brain that is the result of an accident can get anything right about something like the concept of right and wrong outside of the brain? Why should I think my brain is correct in telling me what is right and wrong?

Of course, on page 62 and onward, Harris takes a swipe at religion noting that those who believe in God also go by consequences, such as receiving the benefit of having pleased God. The problem is that yes, we Christians do seek to bring glory to God. However, our morality is not determined just by what we think brings glory to God. Note that Paul said we are not to do evil that good may result. (Romans 3:8) The action is also important as well as the intent behind the action. Good morality does not ignore consequences, but it also realizes that there is more than consequences. Harris is right in saying religious people care about consequences. He is wrong in saying that because we care about them, then that is all we care about.

On page 66, Harris makes the point that we do not need uniformity for answers to questions of right and wrong. I agree. He states that ignorance of a scientific worldview does not mean a scientific consensus should be called into question. I have no problem with this. I don’t think there needs to be consensus for there to be truth. So why bring this up? Just put this in the back of your mind for now.

My fear comes out about this book again on page 72 where Harris talks about the ideal world we would create if we rely on only consequences. He states that we might want to painlessly kill many of the least happy people alive to bring about well-being for the whole. Now I do not think Harris wants to do this. In fact, I am certain. However, if all we have are consequences and if morality is just brain states and the scientists determine that this will bring about our happiness, well why not?

Now we come back to page 66 for on page 78, Harris says why he dismisses revealed religion as a source of moral guidance. The first reason he lists is that there are many revealed religions available to us and they disagree.

But on page 66, we could say there are many scientific theories out there and they disagree. Why is it that consensus suddenly matters here Harris, but when it comes to your science, it doesn’t?

The second reason is practices like slavery are not condemned. Of course, Harris shows no understanding of slavery in the ANE. See the link below by Miller on slavery in the Bible.

The third is that what we use to validate religious precepts, such as judging the golden rule to be wise and the murder of apostates to be foolish, does not come from Scripture, but is rather what we bring to the Scripture.

This is the kind of statement that makes me want to scream.

No, Sam. It is not the claim that something is moral because the Bible says it is. Rather, the Bible records it as moral because it is. It is not being said that we did not know morality without the Bible and that we cannot have morality unless we have the Bible. Of course, you’d never know this since Harris gives no sources.

The final reason is just that he doesn’t see any evidence.

Yep. In one paragraph again, Harris thinks he’s done it. All high school level apologists sit back and laugh now. That’s all you really need to deal with Harris after all.

Interestingly, page 78 is in the middle of 66 and 86 and on 86, Harris cites two other scientists who think that the existence of moral controversy nullifies the existence of moral truth.

Remember everyone: Controversy only counts against truth when it’s in the case of religion.

In referring to one of these two, Jonathan Haidt, Harris cites Haidt as saying “If morality is about how we treat each other, then why did so many ancient texts devote so much space to rules about menstruation, who can eat what, and who can have sex with whom?”

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it could be because these were all standards of purity that were held in ancient societies. Maybe Haidt wouldn’t make a big deal, if he doesn’t understand purity, if I threw a handful of dirt on his carpet. Of course, who you can have sex with obviously has nothing to do with interaction. Surely none of us would mind if other people had sex with our spouses or if our children started sleeping together.

On page 89, we read the following from Harris:

Of course, it is now well known that our feeling of reasoning objectively is often illusory. This does not mean, however, that we cannot learn to reason more effectively pay greater attention to evidence, and grow more mindful of the ever-present possibility of error. Haidt is right to notice that the brain’s emotional circuitry often governs our moral intuitions, and the way in which feeling drives judgment is surely worthy of study. But it does not follow that there are no right and wrong answers to questions of morality. Just as people are often less rational when claiming to be rational, they can be less moral when claiming to be moral.

So Harris has just told us that the feeling of reasoning objectively is illusory and those claiming to be rational are often less rational.

Why should I trust his opinion then? Keep in mind he’s the one who heads “Project Reason.” He’s one of the ones trumpeting rationality. Now he tells us that those claiming to be rational are often less rational and that on top of that, their belief of reasoning objectively is often illusory.

Did he even read this book before it went to print?

From here, Harris goes on to talk about free-will with the end conclusion that free-will is an illusion. He even states that he is not free to change his mind. His mind instead changes him. (104)

And you’d think in all of this Harris wants us to change and respond to him. It’s just amazing.

There is not much else in this chapter. The work keeps getting shorter and shorter as Harris brings up the same lines he’s brought up several times before.



  1. J.P, which, if any, atheist books (or Christian books, or both?) would/could you recommend atheists read? (P.s just ordered your book "The Impossible Faith"). Thanks.

  2. It depends on their level of knowledge. For basics, on the Christian side, Strobel's are good gateways with the understanding that they ARE gateway books and not the most advanced case possible. For more advanced readers I have a large list of authors like NT Wright and Ben Witherington -- not specific books.

    On the atheist side...I honestly have read nothing I'd recommend. I have yet to read one that is up to snuff on the scholarship. Andre-Comte Sponville's Little Book of Atheist Spirituality was at least amenable though.

    Thanks for the good word...BTW keep in mind TIF is also a "gateway" book. :)

  3. Thanks for the reply and the recommendations, I've got Strobel's "case for" books, but have only started on one. I was going to get N.T Wright's stuff on the resurrection (the one Licona recommended in his interview on the Common Sense Atheism podcast, I forget the name, my girlfriend's reading Licona's book at the moment and she's in love with it), haven't heard of Ben Witherington, but will check him out. I was going to check out some of Tillich/Swinburne's work?

    I actually just read Spondville's book, thought it was good, different.

    I'm sure TIF will still be above my head in many places.

  4. Swinbrune is highly recommend...Tillich? That doesn't sound right. He's a theologian from some time early 20th century. Nick would be better for recommends in that subject area.

    Back tomorrow. :)

  5. Well, again, thanks for the tips :)

  6. Hey Robe. Good to see you again. Sorry I haven't been able to dialogue too much. It's been incredibly busy for me.

  7. Hey Nick, good to see you too :)
    Not at all buddy, I've been taking your advice, reading, and staying off the net, so I might learn a thing or two :)