The Library Basement
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Tag atheism

Letter to Sam Harris on objective morality

I have some free advice for Sam Harris: stop worrying and embrace subjective morality.

At some point I will have to read Harris' The Moral Landscapeto make a fully qualified judgement of his position. However, from what I have gathered elsewhere, it seems to me that Harris attempts to construct an atheistic objective morality because he is uncomfortable with the moral relativism and nihilism which has been embraced by other atheists and naturalists. He feels the need to make this morality objective and scientific because he believes those are the terms upon which his enlightened friends will accept his assertions. I am not convinced that he really believes in objective morality. Rather it seems like a rhetorical device for a utilitarian end.

I have written before about how so-called objective morality is problematic. The weakness of atheistic objective morality led to [William Lane Craig's excellent performance against Harris in a recent debate][]. The topic of debate was "are the foundations of moral value natural or supernatural?" As it happens, both participants argue for an objective morality, but upon different bases. Craig argued from theism (divine command theory), while Harris argued that objective morality can be derived scientifically in an atheistic worldview.

Craig truly demolished Harris' position on the philosophical merits. First of all he is clearly a superior debater to Harris. Craig presented the following two propositions:

  1. That theism provides a good basis for objective morality
  2. That atheism can provide no basis for objective morality

Craig kept his arguments centered in these propositions, which led to his overall presentation and rebuttal to be very thematically tight. Harris, on the other hand, wandered far and wide in his arguments.

In my opinion Craig's second proposition was the stronger. He rightly pointed out that there must be some implicit subjective value in Harris' system. Also, Harris never responded to the problem that materialistic determinism seems to preclude free will and therefore moral culpability (and with it moral objectivity). Craig handled his arguments and rebuttals so well that it seemed Harris abandoned his defense of atheistic objective morality after his opening statement. He proceeded to make arguments that Christianity is distasteful, which was clearly outside the scope of debate. It came off as somewhat desperate, and Craig rightly termed Harris' arguments as "red herrings."

While Craig performed very well over all, his crucial weakness in the debate actually was exposed by a student question, which I paraphrase: "if there is indeed a divine command, why should we obey it?" Rather than trying to argue for atheistic objective morality (against Craig's second proposition), this student turned the question of the fact/value distinction against theism (attacking Craig's first proposition). I believe an implicit subjective value can be found in any moral system which claims to be objective (even theistic systems). So I was proud when the student, dissatisfied with Craig's explanation, replied "then you have unstated premises." At this point Harris made some of his best arguments of the debate which were apropos to the subject. He questioned why we should obey the commands of a competent moral authority.

I think the best theistic morality is nonetheless subjective. It is based in the affections, instead of in ontology:

If you love me, keep my commandments.

The implicit value in theistic morality is love for God and a desire to please him. I think this is a better way to talk about morality in a theistic context than divine command theory.

My advice to Harris is to abandon objective morality. Rather than attempt to argue from scientific truth, I think his purposes would be better served by simply stating his values and their benefits, and asking people to agree. Just get out there and convince people without appeals to objective truths. Yes, it is subjective, but it has a more solid foundation, and consequently I think it will be more effective.

Craig and Harris really have a lot in common in their moral values. Harris' ideal that we should maximize the well-being of conscious creatures is well in line with Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It seems to me that these two should be united in opposition to moral relativism and nihilism, rather than debating each other.

[William Lane Craig's excellent performance against Harris in a recent debate]:

The Atheist Christian

Browsing through a Christian book catalog the other day I noticed this title:

The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn't Exist by Craig Groeschel

This reminded me of Slavoj Žižek's talks about belief. I believe that if he were to write this book, it would have the converse title:

The Atheist Christian: Denying God but Living As If He Does Exist

I think this may the position for many people in the church. They attend services and do their best to apply Christ's teachings, but they doubt God in their heart of hearts. In a way this is superior to the premise of the book cited above, at least when read through the lens of James 2.