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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]:

Christianity and Copyright (3): The Ethical Problem

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that had been kept secret for long ages, but now is disclosed, and through the prophetic scriptures has been made known to all the nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be glory forever! Amen.

You may copy and distribute up to five (5) paragraphs of this epistle without obtaining permission from the author. To obtain a license to distribute this epistle in its entirety, please contact Paul, care of Silvanus.

\~ Romans 16:25-28, NET Bible

The above is absurd, of course. The biblical authors never placed copy restrictions on their text. Even if the modern notion of copyright had existed when the various books of the Bible were composed, the authors would not have used their rights to restrict the copy and distribution of their works. The practice in the early church was to freely and widely share what was written amongst believers.

Moreover, the scriptures are God's Word and the canon of the Christian Church. It is presumptuous for modern scholars to place restrictions on how those texts may be copied. Why should they have the right to have a say on such matters? The spread of the Bible goes hand-in-glove with the spread of the gospel. Since the Bible is integral (if not essential) to Christian life, I believe it is imperative for Christians to encourage its spread (and translation), and not to restrict it at all. I also believe that this ethical judgment is intuitive for Christians.

So why do Bible publishers today use copyrights to restrict the copy and distribution of Bible texts? To raise money. I have not found any other justification. Raising money is not a bad thing. Biblical scholarship can be expensive, so placing copyright restrictions on the texts has been an effective way to monetize the output of such scholarship. "The worker is worthy of his wages."

The ethical question is: does the right of a worker to receive his wages via copyright override the right of believers to copy and distribute the scriptures? I say no. The importance of sharing the scriptures amongst the Christian community far outweighs the utility of raising funds via copyright. The good news is that there are plenty of ways for the worker to receive his wages nonetheless.

Sadly the ethical problem with using copyright to restrict the distribution of the Bible seems to be lost on publishers. For example, when the German Bible Society's FAQ page asks, "How can the Word of God be copyright protected?", their answer is essentially "it is perfectly legal to do so." We as Christians need to aspire to a moral standard beyond the laws of the secular state.

So how should works of Christian scholarship be financed since it is unethical to use copyright restrictions to that end? As it turns out, there is more than one way to raise money for Christian scholarship. There are even ways to allow free sharing while reaping royalties only from commercial sale of the scriptures. Also, there is a growing trend among publishers to use more permissive licenses for Bible works. I will examine these prospects in my next post on the subject.

Christianity and Copyright (2): The Practical Problem

For many people, the shutdown of Zack Hubert's Greek website is the epitome of the practical problem of copyright restrictions on Christian texts. The website was well-known, well-used, and well-loved. It was ahead of its time. But it met its demise because the MorphGNT text upon which it relied was the subject of a German Bible Society takedown request due to copyright claims.† There was a tremendous loss felt by the users of this remarkable resource.

To sum up the practical problem of restrictive licensing, I'd say that it makes texts harder to work with and therefore less useful. When users have to worry about complicated licenses, fees, and the like, it makes it more difficult (or even expensive or risky) to utilize a particular text in its published form.

One of the assumptions I am working from here is that scholars create Bible texts and translations so that they can be utilized in the church. I think it is a safe assumption. People are not doing it for their own careers are for publishing royalties or any of that. They want their work to bear fruit in the church. So when license problems prevent a work from being used to its fullest potential, I think it is safe to assume that the content owner must be upset on some level.

License fees, terms of use, requests for permissions, and the like all contribute to making a work more difficult to use. Ease of digitization and data portability are key to creating Bible resources in the modern technological milieu. Most of the commonly used licenses for Bible texts make them difficult to use effectively in digital systems, without licensing fees paid to the publisher.

As an illustration of this, I'll point out that the Open Scriptures project only currently has importers written for public domain (KJV and Tischendorf) and permissively licensed (SBLGNT) texts. We do not have the UBS Greek or its apparatus, nor the NIV, because a license is required. (Fortunately the Open Scriptures api is being designed with a federated structure, so that people may choose to use the software to serve any text for which they have a license.)

Another practical problem that has arisen in the more permissively-licensed texts of late is the variety of license terms which have been applied to each work. For example, the SBLGNT, the Lexham English Bible, and the NET Bible each have (slightly) different terms which can make them confusing to work with. I would prefer that copyright holders use license families like Creative Commons, which are widely used and understood. Of course I do not want to diminish the contribution of these texts. Their licensing terms are absolutely a step in the right direction, but I think there is still room for improvement.

Restrictive copyright licenses make Bible texts difficult to use, especially in the digital age. If scholars would like their works to be useful, I encourage using a standard permissive license. This way the text can have the maximum benefit within the ministry of the church.

† I will address the moral issue of using restrictive licensing on Christian texts in the next post in this series. I also dispute that an eclectic text and textual apparatus reflecting ancient documents should be copyrightable. That opinion is informed not by legal expertise but by common sense. I will not be expanding on this point, however.

So-called objective morality

When I first learned about the fact/value distinction in college, it really clicked for me. That something 'is' does not necessarily mean that it 'ought' to be. So I've come to the firm opinion that every ethical or moral system is predicated on at least one value (another was of saying opinion), regardless of whether that system claims to be "objective," "scientific," or "empirical." It is interesting how the purveyors of so-called objective morality are blind to their own values which shape their systems.

In a recent Scientific American there was a short blurb by Michael Shermer in praise of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape. Harris' "neuroethics" is described thus:

Sam Harris . . . wields a sledgehammer to the is-ought wall. Harris’s is a first-principle argument, backed by copious empirical evidence woven through a tightly reasoned narrative. The first principle is the well-being of conscious creatures, from which we can build a science-based system of moral values by quantifying whether or not X increases or decreases well-being.

Allow me to point out the implicit opinions in Harris' system. I should note that I have not read this book, but I probably should. I will post corrections if I find that I am portraying Harris' argument unfairly or inaccurately.

First is the question of how the "first" principle came to be first. I am not sure how Harris would argue that this principle, as opposed to any other, should be the ultimate principle. As a matter of fact, Ayn Rand's system of objective morality had a drastically different first principle, namely that the each person should act to their own advantage, without regard for others. Given that there have been at least two proposed first principles for objective morality, there must be some value which Sam Harris holds which lead him to his choice. There simply is no innate property of the universe or human biology which can solve this problem. It is a matter of opinion.

Second is the problem of defining "well-being." There are so many values underlying any single determination of "well-being" that it would be difficult to identify them all. As a common example, we can examine the case of corporal punishment in child-rearing. Both sides of the spanking debate stake claim to the "well-being" of the child. How do we objectively parse out which approach really leads to greater well-being for the child? We have to rely on our own opinions to determine that.

Thirdly and finally, there is the interesting opinion that non-conscious creatures need not be the recipient of well-being, at least not as a first principle. We can further complicate this point by noting that consciousness does not have a definite scientific opinion and is therefore also the subject of opinion.

Objective systems of morality are not possible. I think the reason for this lies at the very heart of morality and ethics: they are a discipline which studies how people think the ideal is different from the real in society. If someone wants to articulate a how behavior ought to be different, it must be expressed via an opinion. And I think this problem is further exposed with the following question: if there is an objective (yet not merely descriptive) morality, why hasn't humanity found it, agreed upon it, and embraced it?

Empirical evidence, facts, logic, and reason are of course indispensable tools in morality. After all, how else could we tell if our actions were in line with our moral principles? How else would we be able to explore the implications of our morals for new areas of consideration? But facts and logic are ultimately just tools. They are not and can not be the building blocks of morality. This point is so obvious to me that I do not understand why such brilliant minds can miss it. Perhaps I am just deeply deceived, but I know that I have a lot of excellent philosophy on my side.

Using standard licenses for Bibles

It seems that Simon Cozens and I are fellow-travelers when it comes to our experiences with Bible licensing. I agree with Simon - more Bible copyright holders should license their work under "standard" licenses like Creative Commons. There have recently been some encouraging steps in the right direction in the world of Bible licensing, but each publisher seems to craft their own license (e.g. NET, SBLGNT, LEB, etc.). Each of these licenses has various provisions, some of which are confusing for end users. Yes, let's move forward with Bible copyright holders choosing freer, easier-to-implement licenses.

I found Cozens' post via Better Bibles Blog, which in its commentary included the following:

Let me just add that there isn’t a “one-size fits all” solution for Bible licenses. Some Bibles can and should be given away while others which have been produced at great financial expense need to recoup the investment.

Here you can see how the commercial model of financing Bible translations has become dominant. Bible translation need not be a cost-neutral, break-even endeavor. It need not be an investment which expects a return. Or rather, the return is not monetary. Christians gladly fund so much without any expectation of recouping an investment (or profits). The most prominent example is missionary work.

Bible translation should not be any different. We as a church translate the Bible as a necessary function of our discipleship, not because it is an "investment." We should be happy to pay up-front costs for the process. Once the need for "recouping" the costs is removed, it becomes easy to permissively license Bible texts. Let's avoid "the effect of tying down translations with excessively restrictive licenses" entirely.

Christianity and Copyright (1): Publishing Technology

In the course of considering Christianity and Copyright, I think it is important to point out that advances in publishing technology make a difference in the ethical and practical facets of this topic. I do not think that copyright restrictions on the scriptures were wholly excusable previously. However, the advent of computers and the internet worsens the problems associated with enforcing copyright.

There are three basic periods in the history of the transmission of the scriptures. The first is hand-written. It took a tremendous amount of effort to copy the Bible, and you only received one copy for your efforts. Copying was time-consuming, expensive, and subject to errors. Then came the printing press. Typesetting a Bible for the first time was very time-consuming, but the effort was rewarded with an unlimited number of copies. The text was consistent between each copy. Now we are in the digital age. Translations are typically composed digitally, so there is no transcription process. Unlimited copies can be distributed instantly virtually anywhere in the world without any further effort on the part of the translators or publishers.

The advent of copyright law was in the age of the printing press. The purpose of copyright was to encourage new publishing while at the same time rewarding the time and effort it took to create and typeset works. Authors and publishers were given a 14-year monopoly in which they had exclusive rights to publish their work. This way they could recoup their investments. At the same time, in order to have continuing publishing success, new works would have to follow. (There is plenty of space for comment on the endless expansion of the term of copyright, but not in this series of posts). Copyright law provided a new way to monetize publishing.

The digital revolution put some interesting pressure on copyright, particularly in the case of the scriptures. Since the biblical authors are long gone, what we had been paying the publishers for in the age of the press was the translation and the physical copy of the Bible. That copyright restrictions were placed was not a great hindrance for Christians, since it was much easier and cheaper to purchase a copy of the work from the publisher than to make one's own copy. However, now that copying and distributing texts is arbitrarily easy, the copyright restrictions which were once benign are now burdensome.

In the next post, I'll explain some of the practical problems with placing copyright restrictions on the Bible. It is useful for raising funds for scholarship, but it gets in the way of using the biblical texts in new and creative ways.

Christianity and Copyright (0): Paying for Christian scholarship

How do we pay for Christian scholarship? It is an important question. After all, we modern American English-speaking Christians (and this can apply to any nationality and language) depend upon scholars to translate and explain our scriptures. This is never-ending task due to the constant evolution of our languages. And we know from Jesus that "the worker deserves his wages." Scholarship is difficult, highly specialized, and time-consuming work? So how do we as Christians afford it?

I'll put forth the NIV and Biblica as an example funding model, since the translation is so popular. The NIV translation effort was started by the New York Bible Society in 1965. The project was so large that the bible society (and its various financial backers) had trouble paying for it. They even sold their historic headquarters for \$1 million to help pay for the effort. Sounds like a familiar tactic for Christian fundraising. However, the project was still short on funding. In 1971, Zondervan invested in the NIV translation effort by means of advanced royalty payments. In return, Zondervan was granted exclusive publishing rights in the United States. To make a long story short, the NIV became the world's best-selling English translation of the Bible and Zondervan reaped a substantial return on its investment.

So far as I can tell, this has become the standard model for financing translations (and many other products of Christian scholarship): a publisher pays advanced royalties in exchange for exclusive publishing rights. The concepts of "royalties" and "exclusive publishing rights" rely on copyright law. Content creators exercise their copyrights to prevent their work from being copied and redistributed by any unauthorized party (under threat of lawsuit and criminal penalties). In the case of Bible translations, the publishers have even extended fair use rights significantly in order to make it easier for churches and others to make use of their translations.

This is an incredibly effective and profitable business model for financing Christian scholarship. But there is a problem in this model's reliance upon copyright law. Due to the changes of the digital age, copyright law has a different ethical bearing on this subject than it did before. This has created two new problems. The first is practical and the second is ethical. I will be exploring each aspect of the problem and some solutions in a forthcoming series of posts.

Strange cohort of capital punishers

Gallup has released a new poll on American public opinion on the death penalty in cases of murder. Sixty-four percent of Americans favor the death penalty in general terms, and the recent trend is fairly flat. The last time that public opinion was against the death penalty was in the 1960s (you can see details in the charts published in the Gallup link).

Here is some interesting context flagged by Andrew Sullivan:

The use of the death penalty has been declining worldwide, with most of the known executions now carried out in five countries -- China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Now that is a strange cohort. These are four countries which are often associated with the phrase "human rights violations" within the US media. I am not aware of any case in which any of these nations is held up as an example to aspire to. Yet on this one issue, we are with them and against our friends.

And we are with them in a big way. Nearly two thirds of Americans support the death penalty, so its not just a partisan divide. I found a telling illustration of this in an article by CNN focusing on the jury in the case of a gruesome triple murder:

Jurors who convicted a man of three murders in a 2007 Connecticut home invasion and recommended he be put to death for his crimes said Tuesday that serving on the case changed their lives -- and took an emotional and sometimes physical toll.

"This has strengthened my faith," Paula Calzetta told In Session on the truTV network. "We all came together. It was amazing, how it worked out, and we came to the right decision. I know that this is, for me, God's plan, and I think I'm honored to be a part of that."

That is, the administration of the death penalty is, for at least some people, a spiritual experience. I am not particularly surprised by this sentiment. After all, America is a Christian nation, and many Christians in this nation support the death penalty insofar as it was instituted by divine command.

This is a difficult issue for believers. I think there is solid scriptural support both for the legitimacy and illegitimacy of capital punishment for Christians. I think a Lutheran "two kingdoms" theology is probably the easiest way to reconcile the fact that Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek while Paul admonished us that government is right in executing God's judgment.

I have two inherently Christian objections to capital punishment. First, Jesus said "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." I'm aware of the textual controversy surrounding this passage, but I think it is irrelevant, since it is in the canon nonetheless. The point is that Jesus halted the judicially righteous and justified execution of a guilty person. Furthermore, he challenged those carrying out the sentence as hypocrites. There is an interesting interpretive question of whether he was challenging them on the grounds of the particular sin of adultery (i.e. "judge not lest ye be judged") or all sin in general. However, it seems unlikely that so many righteous stoners would implicitly admit to adultery by backing off, so I am going with the "all sin" interpretation. Capital punishment may be justifiable, but I can't carry it out. If I can't carry it out, I can't ask someone else to.

Secondly, capital punishment in our society lacks divine assurance. I don't care if the unanimous jury has 12 or 100 members - I don't trust that we can make a judgment accurate enough to warrant death. In Israel, it was apparently possible to appeal to divine wisdom for an answer on these matters. I know that was not the final standard in every capital case, but I think it is important.

Because of these reasons (along with some others), I do not support capital punishment in the United States. The perpetrators of that terrible crime in Connecticut deserve death, but I am not going to give it to them.

To correct or not to correct

As I was growing up, I was something of a know-it-all. Encyclopedias, record books, and almanacs were my favorite reading material, so I did know quite a bit of (marginally useful) information. Combine that with the fact that I always wanted to correct people when I perceived they were mistaken and you can see how I would have been annoying.

So having been trained in biblical studies, I am probably an even worse know-it-all, though more useful for the edification of the church. I sometimes encounter teachings in sermons or Bible studies or praise songs which my critical mind tells me are problematic for whatever reason: exegesis of the English text, problems with the use of original languages, disregard for context, theological discrepancy, etc. And here is the dilemma I face: when is it helpful for me to offer correction when I encounter such mistakes?

I was just recently listening to a teaching which I thought was problematic (in this case, it was due to the speaker exegeting his English translation). In my opinion, the point he was making was proper, godly, and edifying. The problem was simply that the scripture he was referencing was by no means making the same point. This is a fairly easy case which is the most common, and I handle it by letting it go. Perhaps the mistaken individual would truly appreciate the correction, but it is not such a big problem, and it is probably best for my own ego to forgo the correction. Now the real test would be if a mistaken teaching was more significant - if it were being applied in support of a heterodox teaching or ungodly behavior. In that case I might feel compelled to correct the teacher and request that he correct his audience (and such a move would have to be in conjunction with proper church leadership procedures). Needless to say, I hope I am never in that position, but I suppose it is an implication of my training for which I need to be prepared.