Sam Harris’s Moral Desperation Move

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This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Sam Harris's Moral Landscape


Coming to the National Conference on Christian Apologetics? Look me up there, or send an email, please—I’d love to connect with you.

I’m waiting for a chance to read Sam Harris’s new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I like Harris’s thoughtfulness, his recognition of moral realities, and his stand against religiously motivated violence. That doesn’t mean his attempts to create a scientifically-based moral system make sense, however. He told Jon Stewart last week,
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I think the biggest challenge we’re facing is finding some way to create a global civilization based on shared values. We have to converge on the same kind of economic and political and social goals and so forth. We have to begin giving similar answers to the most important questions in human life; and the only way forward to do that I see is to begin to talk about morality and human values very much in the context of our growing scientific understanding of ourselves in the world….

To take a scientific perspective on moral questions can often be crucial. Consider global warming and carbon usage: if there is a link between carbon release and potential serious climate change, then carbon usage has moral implications. Our knowledge of that linkage and its potential moral repercussions depends on what we can learn through good, objective, hard science. Science really does inform moral decision-making.

But Harris wants it to do much more than that: not just to inform moral valuations, but to ground them, to function as their sole basis. In he stands nearly alone, for most thoughtful observers doubt science has the capacity to deliver right, true, and trustworthy answers to questions of morality and value. At least he recognizes how lonely his position is:

We have a problem. The only people on the planet at this moment who think that there are truly right answers to moral questions are religious demagogues who think the universe is 6,000 years old. Everyone else seems to think that there’s something suspect about the concept of moral truth.

Never mind his egregious distortion of religious belief there, which is too obvious to waste time or attention on. It would be fascinating to read the book and see how he justifies his idiosyncratic stance on science’s ability to ground morality. I seriously doubt he succeeds in that justification. There is, after all, a reason most people don’t think science can deliver us moral truth: it can’t. Not unless Harris has come up with something utterly earthshaking in the history of philosophical reflection. It won’t be this:

Morality and value clearly relates to human and animal well-being, and our well-being emerges out of the laws of nature; it depends on the way the universe is…. all of these domains fall within the purview of science.

Well-being? Define “well-being” on the basis of science, Mr. Harris? What constitutes the good life? Is that in your book? Are there scientific journal articles or conference proceedings to back it up? Science can, in some limited cases, describe how best to achieve life x as opposed to life y. If you assume life x maximizes well-being and life y accomplishes something less, then you might fool yourself into thinking science can show how to maximize well-being.

My guess is that when I read the book, I’ll find that life x‘s superiority will be taken as an implicit assumption throughout. I’m quite certain there will be no peer-reviewed, field- or laboratory-based agreement as to the value of life x; nor will there be consensus in other relevant fields of inquiry such as philosophy. (Harris claims that science is his only authority, but he’s practicing philosophy when he says that.)

What I’m saying is that we know at this moment in human history that the answer to that question [regarding burkas] is no; and to doubt this scientifically is to pretend that we know nothing about human well-being. A science of the human mind will understand how communities flourish, and it’s a myth that we can’t get there through science.

Here’s what I suspect is going on behind all these assumptions—just a suspicion, mind you. Harris is a moral realist (the opposite of relativist, for which I give him much credit) whose god of knowledge is Science. He is a monotheist in that sense: there is no other knowledge for him but what the Science-god can deliver. Therefore if there is moral knowledge, it must be scientific moral knowledge. It outlines this way:

1. There are moral truths.

2. There are no truths but scientific truths.

3. Therefore moral truths are scientific truths.

Therefore practically (if not logically) speaking,

4. I’ll figure out a way to wring moral truths out of the findings of science, and

5. Because I’m committed to (1) through (3), I’m going to publish something on (4) even though everybody else knows it’s wrong, impossible and false.

Harris has to find something to support (4), even if there’s nothing there to find. It’s a desperation move to salvage his beliefs in moral reality and the knowledge-god Science.

Also posted at First Things: Evangel.

Series Navigation (Sam Harris's Moral Landscape):Sam Harris: “Firmware” To Upgrade Your Ethics >>>Sam Harris: Where Reason Fails, Resort To Dogma >>>
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102 Responses to “ Sam Harris’s Moral Desperation Move ”

  1. I like that Harris is admitting, in so many words, that nature reveals the Glory of God – his divine moral nature – and that Harris is drawn toward the quest to discover it, know it and live it. It’s unfortunate that Harris continues to ignore the answer that has been sitting in front of him for all these years.

    We have a problem. The only people on the planet at this moment who think that there are truly right answers to moral questions are religious demagogues who think the universe is 6,000 years old.

    I find it ironic that Harris wants to form a new and improved group of demagogues who think the universe came with, or somehow developed, a moral law that science can discover and humans ought to live by.

  2. He is a monotheist in that sense: there is no other knowledge for him but what the Science-god can deliver.

    Reminds me of this post. Harris needs to “go one God further” before he can accept the one true God in its place.

  3. Harris’ utter misrepresentation of religion aside, I have to wonder if he realizes how much fire he’s playing with here. At a glance, it looks like Harris is saying that there are proper values, purposes, and ends in nature, and that we can discover these things by observation and reason.

    Last I checked, that wasn’t a line out of Dawkins’ camp. It came from the aristotileans, Aquinas, and others.

  4. “The only people on the planet at this moment who think that there are truly right answers to moral questions are religious demagogues who think the universe is 6,000 years old.”

    There is a sense where I think you give Mr. Harris too much credit in even addressing or in this case dismissing his claims in a serious manner. For someone to be taken seriously shouldn’t he take the subject matter he himself is addressing seriously. If, by his own admission, religion is the “only” place that offers “truly right answers” to moral questions then his above “egregious distortion of religious belief” shows his utter lack of respect for the subject he supposedly is so concerned with.

    He wants there to be right answers. He knows there must be right answers. He believes those right answers exist for a reason. Yet, he dismisses what he admits is the only known source of those answers. Even if he believes he offers an alternative, it’s self contradictory to dismiss a group which he agrees with in principal though might differ with in the details. It would make sense for him to be dismissive of those who don’t believe in moral rights and wrongs at all. Those would be the logical subjects of such scorn. So how do we take him seriously when he can’t even figure out what side he is on.

  5. gI think once you’ve read the book this will be clearer, but the point isn’t that the universe "came with" or "developed" morality and we just need to use the scientific method to "find" them. His point is that we can use reason and logic both to identify- in the sense of coming to a decision or agreement- basic principles and characteristics of a good quality human life (as opposed to a bad quality human life). If we can reasonably assess the best interests of humankind relative to the good life, we can determine morality on the basis of those best interests, using reason, logic and the scientific method to pursue means of perpetuating the values, sensibilities, social, cultural and technological advancements that further those best interests.

  6. "He wants there to be right answers. He knows there must be right answers. He believes those right answers exist for a reason. Yet, he dismisses what he admits is the only known source of those answers. Even if he believes he offers an alternative, it’s self contradictory to dismiss a group which he agrees with in principal though might differ with in the details."

    I have to say I don’t understand this at all. By that logic, it’s self-contradictory for any Christian to dismiss other religions, because you agree in principle (there is a supernatural higher power to which or whom human beings are subject), but differ on the details (the form and will of the higher power).

    And again, Harris is not conceding the religionist’s assertion of an extant moral law authored or codified by a force known or unknown. Quite the contrary, he is arguing that it is we who define morality, but not in that wishy-washy relativist "to each his own" way. That’s the whole point of the book. We can work together to identify some moral truths based on a rational estimation of what is in the best interest of a good quality human existence.

  7. Sue:

    it would help if Harris stopped caricaturing Christians and treated their beliefs with a semblance of respect. We’re not all young earthers, and to throw this out there serves to discredit rather than inform.

    Don’t you think that’s a reasonable value to which we can all aquiesce?

  8. I can see how it treads on painting with a broad brush to set up a straw man, but unfortunately the formats of short interviews on shows like this don’t lend themselves to much beyond such rhetoric. My impression was also that Harris was actually a bit disarmed by Stewart’s approach (which is always to be deliberately disarming, usually making for effective comedy, which is his job). I’ve not seen Harris, in his actual writings, characterize all Christians as young earthers. He is not wrong, though, to point out that there are definitely young earthers in (and certainly aspiring to be in more) positions of power. But that’s rather beside the larger point he’s trying to make, and probably wasn’t the most effective little byte to put out there in this interview, I agree.

  9. On the point of treating their beliefs with a semblance of respect… I don’t know about that. I think we can have conversations with respect for each other’s humanity and dignity without necessarily respecting each other’s beliefs. I think I might go so far as to assert that we can’t have an intellectually honest dialogue if we’re attached to the pretense that we respect beliefs we neither share nor endorse.

  10. Sue,

    Harris wants there to be morality. In fact, I think he knows there is morality. This runs exactly opposite to what any honest atheist believes not opposite what a theist believes. It seems he doesn’t believe “that it is we who define morality” he believes that the basis for morality can be discovered through science.

    But, of course, that puts him in a quandary. He wants morality to be discoverable but then wants to limit what he might discover to anything but what he admits is its only known source. That’s not exactly honest scientific inquiry.

    Further, if morality can be discovered through science then it must exist so that science can discover it. Science can’t discover things that don’t exist. So either he’s not being honest with his definition of science or he does believe “that it is we who define morality” and “in that wishy-washy relativist “to each his own” way” you so accurately described.

    As far as your statement that “it’s self-contradictory for any Christian to dismiss other religions” you’re right, it is. Christians don’t dismiss other religions claims that morality comes from God. Christians only differ in which God it comes from and in the specifics of its application. What Christians do dismiss is that morality can exist apart from God.

  11. I’m not understanding Harris to be arguing that morality is something that exists to be discovered, but rather that there may be a rational process of determining both a desirable end and a scientific process for discovering the best means to an end. To me, there’s a huge distinction there.

    So it’s not to say that morality is a matter of scientific revelation in that sense that it exists to be discovered, as you say, but rather to say that we may cognitively establish a broadly useful ethical code using logic and reason to identify key qualities of a positive human experience, and we can certainly use the scientific method to pursue means of propagating that positive human experience.

  12. Wow. Could I possibly sound less coherent? Yikes. I swear it makes sense in my mind. 😉

    Let me try again. “Harris wants there to be morality.” No, I don’t think so. I think Harris wants it to be possible for more people to have a good quality of life and fewer people to have a bad quality of life. I think he is saying that our sense of “morality” is useful only in the context of achieving this. This concept of “morality” differs drastically from the concept that it is a preordained thing to be discovered.

  13. Sue,

    “Harris wants it to be possible for more people to have a good quality of life and fewer people to have a bad quality of life.”

    Aren’t you using different words to describe the same thing. Isn’t what you describe Harris wanting a definition of morality or a moral society. This is the problem for all who try to fashion a moral orientation outside of an objective theistic perspective. The term “good life” implies morality. Why should a “good life” be preferable to a “bad life”. What does good or bad mean without a moral compass to inform us which is preferable and why. Here you steal the core definitions from a theistic moral orientation without establishing them outside of their traditional theistic definitions.

    As Tom mention in the main article “Well-being? Define “well-being” on the basis of science, Mr. Harris? What constitutes the good life? Is that in your book? Are there scientific journal articles or conference proceedings to back it up?’

  14. Sue:

    Many thanks for your responses. You actually prove my point: it will be hard to respect beliefs that are not true; so, inevitably, a moral consensus will be fraught with peril because there will arise major disagreements about various life issues.

    Keep in mind that Christians believe they are accountable to God for the way we treat others; it’s that transcendent rootedness that keeps these values universal and timeless. Such is not possible with the worldview that Harris espouses.

  15. ““Harris wants it to be possible for more people to have a good quality of life and fewer people to have a bad quality of life.””

    But ought they?

  16. Are we using different words to describe the same thing? Maybe we are, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure that the dogmas of religion have ever even pretended to equate morality with well-being. I think that sometimes they may happen to coincide on some points (do unto others/ an ye harm none, etc.), but they seem in direct conflict on other points. There are plenty of examples where religious moral directives are inherently dehumanizing.

    Where we really differ here is on the “ought” terms of the question of good and bad. Harris makes the case that morality defined in “ought” terms of obligation to an authority, is different from morality defined in “ought” terms of practicality as relates to improving the overall quality of life for humanity in general.

    He actually *does* devote quite a bit of the book to establishing some objective criteria for well-being… criteria, he argues, that we not only *can* favor reason over dogma to determine, but in fact, *must*. We need not be deliberately obtuse about making judgments about what is most likely or least likely to lead to a reasonably healthy, secure, comfortable existence. Certainly there are nuances to health, security and comfort, but the point is that we’re not even anywhere near ready to discuss those if we can’t at least agree that there’s a difference between, say, the quality of life of this person:

    http://thepioneerwoman.com/

    versus the quality of life of this person:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1568654/Rwanda-victim-inspires-Telegraph-readers.html

    and that one is preferable over the other, and that there are values and actions that facilitate one over the other.

  17. Oh, okay… upon re-reading I think I misunderstood your “ought” question. You are asking not what we “ought” to do in terms of what is likely to yield a desired result, but what we “ought” to do, for lack of better words, for goodness’ sake, right? See, I think it’s a debate over ethics being able to be determined practically and rationally.

  18. … and now that I think of it, I can see how it would be ideal to have practical ethical values that apply universally, but I’m not sure I agree that it’s possible for them to be timeless. Certainly what constitutes a reasonably good life now is different in many significant ways from what would have constituted a reasonably good life a century (or even just decades) ago, just taking into consideration basic advancements we’ve made as a civilized society…

  19. “He actually *does* devote quite a bit of the book to establishing some objective criteria for well-being…”

    And I should agree with his “objective criteria for well-being” why exactly? And his criteria is objective why? If it’s his criteria doesn’t that by definition make it subjective not objective. And again, why is “well-being” preferable “not well-being”. Why should I care about “what is most likely or least likely to lead to a reasonably healthy, secure, comfortable existence.”Lots of people didn’t and don’t care about those things or think that they are what is important or “good” for human beings. (I would make a list but it would go on almost indefinitely.)

    Don’t you see that you (and Harris) are making an assumption that a “a reasonably healthy, secure, comfortable existence” is a good thing. Who says? I say it’s a bad thing and that the acquisition of power over my fellow human beings is a good thing. Who are you to tell me and based on what criteria am I wrong.

  20. Sue,
    Which one of theses “practical ethical values” should be accepted by society in general?

    (A) We are justified in having contempt for other peoples religious beliefs because all religion is irrational.

    (B) We ought not to have contempt for what our fellow man believes and thinks.

    (Please read my comment on the parallel posting over at First Things.)

  21. Ahhh… okay. I kind of see where you’re going, I think.. are you saying that any differentiation between the most obvious examples of the best and worst conditions in which one can live their life (as in the examples of the women I previously referenced/ linked to), that saying such distinctions are empirical is akin to asserting that they are preordained/ discoverable. Or am I misunderstanding?

  22. BillT,

    Don’t you see that you (and Harris) are making an assumption that a “a reasonably healthy, secure, comfortable existence” is a good thing. Who says? I say it’s a bad thing and that the acquisition of power over my fellow human beings is a good thing. Who are you to tell me and based on what criteria am I wrong.

    Harris is saying that the acquisition of power over fellow human beings is a good thing, according to what I’ve read. He thinks there should be a scientific elite in charge of determining (or ‘discovering’ – take your pick) what is or isn’t moral, what we should or shouldn’t do based on that morality, and also who should or shouldn’t die (or perhaps be ‘re-educated’) based on the beliefs they hold. I suppose one could object “But he doesn’t think they should have power just for power’s sake! It’s because they can do so much good with that power!” Of course, I’m not aware of many political monsters who said otherwise.

    Nor is he terribly committed to the idea that ‘a reasonably healthy, secure, comfortable existence’ is the gold standard in some universal sense. Sacrificing the health, security, and comfort of some people is entirely on the table – after all, who’s to say the “science” – meaning the philosophical and even religious moral calculus Harris ends up slapping the “science” label onto – wouldn’t dictate this? As most reviewers have noted, Harris isn’t coming up with anything very new here. The gist I’ve seen in multiple professional reviews so far is “it’s just utilitarianism, with all the tough questions dodged or left unanswered”.

    Though I do have one question for any atheists who would defend Harris’ views, or even support the idea that “science” can and should determine morality. A what-if scenario.

    What if the consensus of “morality scientists” (let’s call them that) determined that the following “moral acts” were the best for society, and therefore should hold the weight of government behind their promotion and even enforcement:

    * Belief in God, complete with weekly attendance at religious services where particular beliefs and values were reinforced. (To anyone who says ‘you can’t compel a belief!’, for the sake of this example, the consensus of scientists in question disagrees.)
    * Strong discouragement of women joining the workforce, their absence in government and academia, and limits to their formal education (no greater than an eighth grade level, let’s say.)
    * Strong eugenics, meaning certain ‘types’ of people (determined by a combination of considerations) would be sterilized, with no concern as to whether said determination happened to correlate with particular ethnic groups.
    * Bias in media, in everything from news reports to entertainment, promoting the “morality” determined by scientists, and censoring media that would question it or otherwise be incompatible with it.
    * Drugging of the populace (say the good old-fashioned tainting the water supply scenario) to make people in general more pliable and open to suggestion from the right sources – and perhaps most importantly, more happy.
    * Sharply limiting representational government, and the consolidation of power into an oligarchic or even totalitarian structure.

    Again, for the sake of argument, this is what the consensus of “moral scientists” comes up with. And each of these ‘conclusions’ is in principle something that can be discovered to be in the best interests of humanity, for the purposes of maximizing well-being.

    So: Would you willingly submit to, or even promote the adoption of, these rules?

    Edit: And remember, the question isn’t “Do you like these rules?” But the assumption is the Moral Scientists have done their calculations, they’ve tallied up the data, and what you see before you are the obligations that, to the best of their knowledge, would promote the most happiness and well-being and so on.

  23. But it’s not a structurally sound argument if you start out assuming the premise. What you’re asking to be granted “for sake of argument” is pretty much the whole argument- that there can be no such thing as an empirical- as opposed to ordained- standard of basic human welfare. I do not accept this premise, as I believe there may indeed be empirical standards of well-being that can be scientifically supported and need not be dogmatically ordained. The actual scientific evidence available to us increasingly suggests that our ethical behavior is a product of evolutionary hardwiring as social beings who can behave in ways that are either conducive to surviving and thriving or destructive (which also can account for the proverbial problem of evil, since there have been and will always be aberrations- those who thrive by behaving in selfish, inhumane ways and those who fail to thrive despite behaving in kind, compassionate, caring, thoughtful ways that would normally be shown to be in the interest of both individual well-being and the overall welfare of the species). I would not voluntarily submit to any of the “rules” you presented whether or not they appealed to me personally if a sound argument could not be made for their empirical sensibility. I care whether or not what I believe is true, so I accept all kinds of provisional conclusions about objective truths on the basis of available evidence… conclusions that don’t always necessarily align with what I like or what I wish were true.

    Even if you were able to make a sound case for the impossibility of empirically defined standards of well-being, the “who are we to decide” question would still go both ways. Who are we *not* to decide? If there’s no empirical standard of human welfare, and such a standard must be ordained, then surely we could identify some broadly agreeable sensibilities when assessing the best and worst conditions in which a person might live, and the most rational means of achieving a decent average condition of human life (and none of the “rules” you listed would stand up to a shred of such reasoned, rational inquiry). And why should we? Well, why not? If we may never reach agreement of the desired end, of course there’s no hope of ever agreeing on the means. But if the desired end is not for the survival of the species and progress of civilization, what is? Excepting legitimately pathological cases where a person is utterly incapable of caring at all for anyone or anything beyond his or her own self-interests, what other possible desired end could we, as social beings, reasonably, rationally, intellectually honestly strive toward in “ordaining” some basic ethical imperatives? That isn’t meant to be rhetorical. I really would like to know. I can think of no other reasonable end goal that isn’t predicated on the assumption of a supernatural explanation/ directive.

  24. Crude,

    Nicely put. The answer to what you have posted is pretty obvious to all, I would think. We really should thank Harris and the new atheists. Their continued inability to put forth cogent argumentation in support of their positions has really been a boon to traditional religious thought. So many people have been able to successfully counter their arguments and offer a reasonable alternative. The publicity they generate through their friends in the media has really worked against them and exposed the shallowness of their beliefs.

  25. “So many people have been able to successfully counter their arguments and offer a reasonable alternative. The publicity they generate through their friends in the media has really worked against them and exposed the shallowness of their beliefs.”

    What do you mean by shallow? I’ve yet to see any apologetic for “traditional religious thought” offer anything in the way of a structurally sound argument for the very existence of their god, let alone their claims to authority about that god’s form and will. What reasonable alternative am I missing? I don’t think it’s fair to call people like me “shallow” when we are clearly seeking a deeper understanding of why we believe what we believe. If we were “shallow” this conversation wouldn’t matter at all.

  26. Sue,

    I didn’t know you counted yourself as one of the new atheists. Did I miss your book?

    I did not question your personal sincerity or your quest for a “deeper understanding of why we believe what we believe”. I was clearly addressing Mr. Harris and his well know compatriots.

    As far as your failing to see “any apologetic for “traditional religious thought” offer anything in the way of a structurally sound argument for the very existence of their god” I can only say you must not be looking very hard.

  27. BillT,

    We really should thank Harris and the new atheists. Their continued inability to put forth cogent argumentation in support of their positions has really been a boon to traditional religious thought. So many people have been able to successfully counter their arguments and offer a reasonable alternative. The publicity they generate through their friends in the media has really worked against them and exposed the shallowness of their beliefs.

    Actually, why counter their arguments at all? That’s what I find really interesting about all of this. There are already people who argue that we can derive moral ‘oughts’ from the empirical ‘is’s we find: Natural law theorists, among others. And I think a large part of the enthusiasm (and it’s by no means shared by most atheists – quite a number reacted with strong negatives when he explored this theme in the past) for Harris’ thoughts comes with the unspoken assumption that they pretty much know what the ‘moral rules’ will be in advance, and they happen to agree with them.

    Mind you, I’m not saying I agree with Harris. Far from it. But I’m pointing out just what he’s opening the door to – in principle, each and every one of the rules on my list is a possible ‘ought’ that may well be discovered by scientists.

    There’s an old Aesop’s fable about frogs asking for a king that I think is apt here. There’s some humor in the thought of people clamoring for science and scientists to tell them what morals and values to have, thinking they’ll get a Harris or a Dawkins, and whoops – turns out they’re getting a Francisco Franco.

    Sue,

    I would not voluntarily submit to any of the “rules” you presented whether or not they appealed to me personally if a sound argument could not be made for their empirical sensibility.

    You won’t submit to any rules ordered by “moral scientists” unless you agree with them anyway? Interesting!

    Do you think someone should object to scientific consensus and fight it if they personally did not believe the arguments were sound? That their objection to the consensus should be respected? Because if so, that puts Harris’ project (and quite a few other important ones) into the dirt already. And Harris, or those working from Harris’ vantage point, could always turn around and say your ideas about personal beliefs and consent, while adorable, are morally overridden. And, they could add, the science is on their side.

    Do you think Harris’ famous quote of “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” comes with the unspoken qualifier “That of course assumes that said people recognize that the arguments their executors were relying upon were sound and empirically sensible”?

  28. “I didn’t know you counted yourself as one of the new atheists. Did I miss your book?”

    Eep, yes, that was embarrassingly presumptuous of me; I apologize. I am used to ‘new atheists’ being a more broadly applied label to likeminded thinkers, but I understand your usage of it here and definitely do not count myself among the prominent figures.

    Yes, I think someone should object to scientific consensus and fight it if they personally do not believe the arguments are sound. I think it’s fair to scrutinize that way; I’m just most easily persuaded by the most soundly structured arguments supported by the most empirical evidence, so I guess if push came to shove, and I could be shown how and why science was not “on my side” I would have to accept that.

    I won’t pretend to have reached sound conclusions about even a fraction of the ethical dilemmas here. The last Harris quote is a doozy and it’s in the same category as war and the concept of justice for me… fraught with cognitive dissonance and difficult to come to a sound conclusion about where, precisely, I stand. It is truly food for thought; I wouldn’t even engage in such conversations if I didn’t think I might learn something or entertain arguments I hadn’t before considered.

  29. Here is Harris’ thinking about elitism:

    “What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance . . . Ask yourself: how has “elitism” become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn’t seem too intelligent or well educated. ” — Sam Harris
    http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/16593.Sam_Harris

    I don’t think that I need to point out the pejorative nature of the preceding quote nor the fact that Sarah Palin evokes both strong negative and positive feelings on the part of some people. But exactly where is Harris going here? How do you get the people that he thinks are elites appointed to high elected office in a democracy which doesn’t appoint people but elects them? Is that how he is going to get rid of religion? By getting rid of democracy? Is that how he is going to impose “enlightened” moral and ethical values on everybody?

    Imagine the outrage is some religious leader, like Rick Warren or some prominent Catholic bishop, had said something like this.

    Is there a double standard here? I think so.

  30. JAD,

    Ask yourself: how has “elitism” become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated.

    That’s one hell of a jump. Who says the elites in question are “extraordinarily talented”? Who is saying “Man, the last person I want to see become governor is someone who is really, really good at the job”? And what supporters of Sarah Palin (or any candidate) say “he/she’s confident and ignorant – just the way I like my candidates!”?

    That Harris seems to think “elite” means “extraordinarily talented and rigorously trained” says quite a lot about him.

  31. Interestingly, this thread is itself apologetic evidence for the existence of God. Harris, like Hitchens and virtually everyone else when being totally honest, understands that there is true and objective morality. But objective morality is, itself, evidence for God and difficult to account for without Him. Harris’ attempts here bear testimony to this. In fact, in his attempts to ground what he recognizes as necessarily objective values the best he can come up with is subjective arguments and an appeal to might.

  32. Over in comment section (#7) of the parallel posting of this article at First Things:Evangel I asked:

    “How in the world is Sam Harris going find a universal foundation for morality and ethics when his own ethic begins with contempt for what his fellow man believes and thinks?”
    http://firstthings.com/blogs/evangel/2010/10/sam-harriss-desperation-move/

    Lest anyone thinks I am exaggerating about how contemptuous Harris really is consider this comment (#16 “Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down“) by his friend Richard Dawkins:

    “Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

    You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it. We have scathingly witty spokesmen of the calibre of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Who have the faith-heads got, by comparison? Ann Coulter is about as good as it gets. We can’t lose!”
    http://richarddawkins.net/articles/3767

    Jesus taught that ethics begins with “Loving God… and loving your neighbor as yourself.” I can understand why an atheist might want to get rid of God (duh!). But, I can’t understand how you create a universal ethic that doesn’t begin with a fundamental respect (love) for your fellow man. Is the kind of contempt, contempt for what religious people believe and think, described by Dawkins ever justified?

    I don’t think it is the religious people who are the extremists here.

  33. I’ve got a busy weekend going on with a conference, but this morning is my chance to catch up here.

    Sue, you captured one of the things I like most about Sam Harris when you said this a couple days ago:

    I think we can have conversations with respect for each other’s humanity and dignity without necessarily respecting each other’s beliefs. I think I might go so far as to assert that we can’t have an intellectually honest dialogue if we’re attached to the pretense that we respect beliefs we neither share nor endorse.

    I would far rather have an honest debate with someone who disagrees than be subjected to the too-frequent “tolerance” rule that says we should respect all beliefs as equally valid. Sam Harris at least seems to believe in the objectivity of truth, and I appreciate that you’re taking that stance as well. Your re-purposing of morality as a means to the good life is interesting, and I expect Harris’s book would be, too, in that way. I still am at the disadvantage of not having read it, so I’ll respond to what you’ve written and not assume it applies to Harris.

    This is one of the more thoughtful and interesting discussions I’ve seen here in a long time, by the way. It’s certainly not shallow, in my view. On the one hand, you are affirming something I would also agree with strongly: that we can discern right and wrong by observing human experience, at least in part, and at least in easy cases such as the one you offered in comment #17. Humans have the capacity for empathy. We have consciences. We’re in agreement to that extent.

    But I would disagree with you on several significant points. One is science’s ability to determine the good. You have assumed (comment #17) that the objective of morality is to maximize health, security, and comfort. I think you would call that a partial list, and that you would not want me to take it that you consider morality’s objectives to be limited just to that. However you might expand the list, however, you would have to justify it ultimately in non-scientific terms. Recall that this is a list of primary objectives of morality. Is integrity a primary objective or a means to some other? How about empathy? Fidelity? Courage? Worship? On what scientific basis do you know?

    Another point of disagreement is here:

    The actual scientific evidence available to us increasingly suggests that our ethical behavior is a product of evolutionary hardwiring as social beings who can behave in ways that are either conducive to surviving and thriving or destructive.

    Actually the science indicates that we are wired for social behavior, which is just as consistent with biblical theism as it is with evolution, if not more so.

    … which also can account for the proverbial problem of evil, since there have been and will always be aberrations.

    No, that accounts for the problem of aberrations, not of evil. There’s a huge difference. But you threw that in parenthetically, so I’ll let my answer be just that brief and parenthetical.

    Are we using different words to describe the same thing? Maybe we are, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure that the dogmas of religion have ever even pretended to equate morality with well-being. I think that sometimes they may happen to coincide on some points (do unto others/ an ye harm none, etc.), but they seem in direct conflict on other points. There are plenty of examples where religious moral directives are inherently dehumanizing.

    I won’t speak for “religion,” but for Christianity: its doctrines are tied to well-being through and through, and what you wrote here is factually wrong. I suggest you re-read some of the New Testament to see what it says. I’m running out of time again so I can’t develop a further answer, but if you’re interested in pursuing this particular question let me know and I’ll start a new thread on it next week.

  34. I would actually love to pursue that question! This discussion has actually given me a lot to think about on the topic of moral behavior, and I confess that where I am finding a lot of resonance in “The Moral Landscape”, just talking through it here I am realizing there is still a lot of dissonance, too, and I’m torn on whether there can ever be such a thing as an agreed-upon objective standard of morality, and when the end hasn’t even been established, there’s little use talking means. It’s not that Harris doesn’t try to make a case for there being an objectively desirable ‘end goal’- but upon reflection, I’m not sure that I wasn’t so biased in favor of granting that premise myself that he didn’t *need* to make a structurally sound case for me to accept it, if that makes sense (someone called me out on that earlier up thread, actually). Now that I’ve been through it once, I want to take it in again with more skeptical eyes. Or ears. I’m a visual artist and I have a lot of work on my plate right now, so I’m downloading the audio book and listening to it while I work, and I’m really going to try to better scrutinize the case he makes for there being an identifiable, objectively desirable ‘end goal’ to be achieved in the so-called moral landscape of the human experience.

    On the issue of Christianity offering objective truth, yes, I would welcome a thread on that. I may take a bit longer to respond now that I’m approaching a lot of deadlines and have to keep my nose to the grindstone with my work (tempting as it is to engage in dialogue on this all day long, since it is a topic of great interest and importance to me- it’s complicated, but put simply, I just want to believe as many true things as possible, so I’m constantly examining and re-examining what I believe, why I believe it, and whether or not it’s likely to be true).

    It’s not that I’m not looking hard, and it’s not that I’m flip in my dismissal of apologetic arguments I’ve encountered thus far (and in coming to a website like this, I’m not trying to stir a pot so much as seeking ideas and perspective I’d not yet considered, and testing the sturdiness of my present convictions). It was actually a thorough reading of the bible that caused started me on the quest for objective truth in the first place (I was raised to accept the objective truth of Christianity on faith, through a convoluted lens, as I was raised in a family of devoted German-American Roman Catholics, but my mother became more of an Evangelical Christian during my adolescence).

    I appreciate your engaging me here, though, as I’m far from a scholar or great thinker… just a layperson trying to come to terms with it all.

  35. Charles Darwin was one of the earliest scientists to suggest that morality and ethics could be determined scientifically. His good friend and co-evolutionist Thomas Huxley begged to differ. His reasoning I think is quite revealing.

    “The thief and the murderer,” Huxley writes, “follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.”

    G. E. Moore argued that when one tries to explain what we mean by good reductively he commits what Moore described as the “naturalistic fallacy.” What we call good according to Moore is “one of those innumerable objects of thought which are themselves incapable of definition, because they are the ultimate terms by reference to which whatever is capable of definition must be defined”

    I think if I understand Moore correctly here “good” is something that is an abstract mental construct, or something that we know intuitively that we use to evaluate things in the world around us. Of course the problem here, as I see it, is that different people have different evaluations of what they consider good.

    Nevertheless I think there is something to Moore’s idea that a moral concept like “good” cannot be reduced to pleasure vs. pain or biological drives and instincts.

  36. If it that is conceded, though, what ‘God’ answer to any origin question doesn’t suffer from the inherent ‘god of the gaps’ problems?

  37. Unfortunately, although the phrase “God of the gaps” is widely and disparagingly used, and is understood by those employing it to refer to reasoning that is clearly fallacious, there has been little rigorous examination of this presumed fallacy.

    The problem with this line of criticism is that “gaps” arguments appear in other contexts in scientific reasoning without raising any concern regarding their legitimacy. As Ratzsch notes,

    there is nothing inherently unscientific in the idea of gaps in nature-of things that nature cannot do. Science, in fact, is littered with impossibility claims. Perpetual motion is impossible, acceleration across the light-speed barrier is impossible, simultaneous determination of energy and position of certain particles to arbitrary degrees of precision is impossible. Every conservation principle is a claim that permanent unbalanced changes in specified parameters are impossible. In fact, every statement of a natural law is logically equivalent to a claim that nature cannot produce certain (contranomic) phenomena. Thus scientific justification for the claim that nature does not or cannot produce some specific phenomenon turns out to be a routine, unproblematic aspect of scientific activity.18


    There is, then, nothing unscientific about the idea that there are things that nature does not or cannot do and that intelligent agents can bring about events that nature would not or could not otherwise do. We customarily attribute the operation of intelligent agency on precisely this basis and any recognition of alien intelligence, as in the case of the SETI project, proceeds on these two assumptions.

    Ratzsch is thus correct in his observation that “any stipulation that it would be scientifically illegitimate to accept the inability of nature to produce life, no matter what the empirical and theoretical evidence, has, obviously, long since departed deep into the philosophical and worldview realms.”22

    The real issue is not whether “God of the gaps” arguments are in principle inadmissible, but whether there is good evidence for the claim that natural causes are inadequate to explain certain phenomena.

    To claim, however, that the advance of science has provided empirical support for the view that natural causes will someday be uncovered to explain the phenomena typically appealed to in “God of the gaps” arguments is simply false.31

    I conclude that there is nothing wrong with the reasoning typically involved in “God of the gaps” arguments. The widespread dismissal of such arguments as unworthy of serious consideration is, therefore, unjustified.

    http://www.newdualism.org/papers/R.Larmer/Gaps.htm

  38. Sue asked:

    “If it that is conceded, though, what ‘God’ answer to any origin question doesn’t suffer from the inherent ‘god of the gaps’ problems?”

    When it comes to metaethical questions the problem, at least to many philosophers, is really not a gap problem but a grounding problem. In other words, if morality and ethics are universal what grounds them?

    Indeed there are atheists who readily concede this point. For example Joel Marks, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, recently wrote:

    “It used to be a standard argument for God’s existence that the obvious and abundant design of the universe, as manifested particularly in the elegant fit of organisms to their environments, indicated the existence of a divine designer. Now we know that biological evolution can account for this fit perfectly without recourse to God. Hence, no Designer, no Design; there is only the appearance of design in nature (excepting such artifacts as beaver dams, bird nests, and architects’ blueprints). Just so, there are no moral commands but only the appearance of them, which can be explained by selection (by the natural environment, culture, family, etc.) of behavior and motives (‘moral intuitions’ or ‘conscience’) that best promote survival of the organism. There need be no recourse to Morality any more than to God to account for these phenomena.”
    http://www.philosophynow.org/issue80/80marks.htm

    While not all atheists agree that atheistic ethics is ungrounded Marks is not alone. Indeed, Nietzche and Sartre, as well as Darwinists like Richard Dawkins, William Provine and Michael Ruse have made similar claims.

    Of course, everyone that I have cited would argue that since morality and ethics have no ontological transcendent ground they cannot be universal. Of course Marks has taken it one step further and claims that there really is no morality at all.

  39. Good old internet serendipity.
    Asks Crude:

    What if the consensus of “morality scientists” (let’s call them that) determined that the following “moral acts” were the best for society, and therefore should hold the weight of government behind their promotion and even enforcement:

    * Belief in God, complete with weekly attendance at religious services where particular beliefs and values were reinforced. (To anyone who says ‘you can’t compel a belief!’, for the sake of this example, the consensus of scientists in question disagrees.)

    Again, for the sake of argument, this is what the consensus of “moral scientists” comes up with. And each of these ‘conclusions’ is in principle something that can be discovered to be in the best interests of humanity, for the purposes of maximizing well-being.

    So: Would you willingly submit to, or even promote the adoption of, these rules?

    And says the internet:
    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/thomas-aquinas-patron-saint-of-evolutionary-psychology-i-think-not/

  40. “Of course Marks has taken it one step further and claims that there really is no morality at all.”

    And isn’t this just the problem. When Marks says “Just so, there are no moral commands but only the appearance of them, which can be explained by selection.” then morality is nothing but evolutionary hard wiring and why should we care about it. This view leaves us in the same place the existentialists have. Morality really doesn’t exist.

    But who really has what it takes to get behind such a view. A view that leaves the “torturing children for pleasure” a perfectly acceptable personal choice. It’s really the same problem that Harris has. Even if he can show that science can lead us to moral understandings, why should I care about them. It leaves us just where we started, in a world with moral standards we can choose to adopt or not. And if you can choose your morality, then you really have no morality at all.

  41. Just in! Just published in the NY Times yesterday, 10/17/10. After first doing some cheer leading for evolutionary psychology and making some rather scathing criticisms of religious fundamentalists, creationists and ID’ists, Dutch primotologist Frans de Waal writes this:

    “While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.

    Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.”
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/morals-without-god/

    It appears that it is just not theists who believe that “science” has it’s limits. The only other thing that I can add is to say, “Amen!”

  42. Perhaps the preservation and well-being of the species is too broad of a basis for grounding ethics. What if we simply began at the level of cultivating happiness and reducing suffering? And then further clarify by making a distinction between pleasure and happiness, as can be found in examples like Viktor Frankl or Buddhist refugees, those who experience great pain, a lack of pleasure, and yet are happy and content. There is a growing field of positive psychology that examines phenomena like happiness and well-being that can be incredibly helpful in this kind of a discussion.

    Beyond those broad strokes, I do want to address one comment:

    Actually the science indicates that we are wired for social behavior, which is just as consistent with biblical theism as it is with evolution, if not more so.

    How is it more so? The perpetuation of most organisms, particularly sentient organisms, requires social behavior. Since evolution itself requires “wired…social behavior”, how can the latter be more so an evidence for theism when evolution (or whatever we’re putting in contrast to theism) cannot function without it?

  43. Evolution requires wired social behavior? No, evolution is contingent. It requires nothing but this: that what has succeeded reproductively is that which has been reproductively successful. Evolution has no requiring power or agency. To say that evolution cannot function without wired social behavior is just obviously wrong, Kevin.

  44. Tom,

    I don’t see where I treated evolution as an agent; that’s an assumption you threw on my comment, not one that is there. The sentence previous to the one you are focusing on makes this clear: “The perpetuation of most organisms, particularly sentient organisms, requires social behavior.” Can you honestly say, if we assume evolution (of some kind), that we as a species (or really any mammalian species) could have survived without “wired social behavior”? It is essential to our survival as a species.

  45. Can you honestly say, if we assume evolution (of some kind), that we as a species (or really any mammalian species) could have survived without “wired social behavior”? It is essential to our survival as a species.

    So, if we assume evolution, then a species which has wired social behavior could not have survived without wired social behavior?

    What?

  46. Crude,

    Yes. As an opposite example, if we assume evolution, a species that is hard wired to experience a particular shade of yellow could potentially survive without being hard wired in that way. In other words, hard wiring for social behavior is significant, if not necessary, for the perpetuation of (at least) mammalian species, meaning that without it they could not survive.

  47. In other words, hard wiring for social behavior is significant, if not necessary, for the perpetuation of (at least) mammalian species, meaning that without it they could not survive.

    Are you saying that social behavior and sentient organisms are inevitable on an evolutionary view? If so, that’s some interesting teleology you’ve introduced to evolution.

    Are you saying that social behavior is part of being a mammal, and that therefore mammals would not be around if they weren’t wired for social behavior? If so, that sounds like a tautology – having wings is part of being a wasp. There would be no wasps if there no winged creatures around.

    Are you saying that evolution is compatible with hardwired social behavior? If so, that’s just setting a ridiculously low bar. Last thursdayism is compatible with hardwired social behavior.

  48. Hi Kevin,
    I’m having trouble seeing how your suggestion impacts morality.

    And then further clarify by making a distinction between pleasure and happiness, as can be found in examples like Viktor Frankl or Buddhist refugees, those who experience great pain, a lack of pleasure, and yet are happy and content. There is a growing field of positive psychology that examines phenomena like happiness and well-being that can be incredibly helpful in this kind of a discussion.

    How is it helpful in this kind of discussion? If the goal is happiness and if one can be happy while in pain and suffering what does this imply about my moral obligation toward him?

  49. Crude,

    Are you saying that social behavior is part of being a mammal, and that therefore mammals would not be around if they weren’t wired for social behavior? If so, that sounds like a tautology – having wings is part of being a wasp. There would be no wasps if there no winged creatures around.

    Yes, I am saying that, but I think you are misunderstanding exactly what a tautology is. Yes, “having wings is part of being a wasp” but “having wings” and “being a wasp” are not the same thing nor is having wings in itself a cause of being a wasp. The point I’m making is a causal one: if mammals were not hard wired for social behavior then any given mammalian species would have gone extinct pretty much at its inception.

    Also remember that my comment was in relation to Tom’s claim that hard wired social behavior was actually greater evidence for theism than it is for evolution. I countered with the claim that hard wired social behavior is essential for the evolution of (at least) mammalian species, therefore I couldn’t see how it had more evidentiary value for theism than for evolution when the latter requires it (not in an agential sense, but in a causal sense as a basis for the mere existence and perpetuation of the species).

  50. Social instincts are only necessary for evolution when creatures with social instincts evolved. Completely anti-social mammals could have evolved who live solitary lives, fight when they encounter one another, copulate with unwilling partners and then never engage them again, eat their young when discovered, etc.
    In fact, as the evolutionists are wont to point out when trying to explain the evolvability of this or that trait, each of these is seen now in the animal kingdom to varying degrees.
    Even the “social instinct” of rape was unnecessary for evolution because evolution could have created asexual mammals.

    Hardwired social behaviour is only essential for creatures with hardwired social behaviour.

  51. Charlie,

    I think it is pertinent on a number of levels. Whenever I suggest that wanting happiness and not wanting to suffer is a viable basis for ethics I immediately hear the retort, “But what about the guy who is happy only by being a pedophile?” The implied suggestion is that “happiness” is the same as “pleasure”, in that the individual in question gets pleasure from an admittedly heinous/unethical act. And this is a very common misunderstanding about happiness. Kant rather famously defined happiness as “the satisfaction of all our desires, extensively, in respect of their manifoldness, intensively, in respect of their degree, and protensively, in respect of their duration” (Critique of Pure Reason, The Canon of Pure Reason, Section II). Furthermore, we can find a plethora of examples of people who have extensive accessibility to pleasures and fulfilling their desires but are obviously unhappy, discontent. Therefore the connection between pleasure and happiness is tenuous at best.

    I pointed to positive psychology due to the fact that it is an example of scientific research on happiness and well-being (though not unproblematic). The data consistently shows that material wealth is only correlated with happiness up to a certain point (that is somewhere around the poverty level, or a little above), after which point it levels off, providing no statistical gain with a corresponding increase in wealth. Also, one of the common factors of those who are happy is consistent service to one’s fellow man, in both goods and services; the selfish pursuit of one’s own desires is negatively correlated with happiness.

    Most importantly, however, is the fact that this can be seen in our own lives if we simply look with a degree of precision. We can easily see the constant movement from satisfaction to dissatisfaction, our constant drive for the new, novel, or the latest model, how we get fixated on things we want but don’t need and how getting what we want only gives temporary pleasure rather than lasting happiness. Through this self-examination of our actions and their consequences we can find the causes of happiness and contentment as well as see what actions are deleterious to that cause, all without an appeal to any particular religious authority or dogma. So, I would argue, Harris’ “scientific” approach is not without precedent and already has a significant amount of research (though still not entirely unproblematic, but what research isn’t?) available for those who will just look.

  52. Early on the morning of March 23, 2008, in the Bering Sea off a Alaska, Coast guard rescue swimmer Abram Heller gave up his place on his Coast Guard helicopter to make room for a fisherman who had been stranded after the sinking his the fishing vessel the Alaska Ranger. Besides the crew the small cutter based HH-65 Dolphin helicopter only had room for four other people. Wearing only their survival suits there were a total eight men who had been stranded in the freezing water. By giving up his seat Heller made room for a fifth man.

    Now here is the interesting thing. It was not Hellers duty to give up his seat. What he did was clearly above and beyond the call of duty.

    How do we explain Heller’s action from an evolutionary perspective? Was he behaving this way because of the evolution of kin selection? But these men were total strangers. Was there some underlying selfish motive, the kind that Robert Wright claims is lurking behind all our ethical behavior? Or, did he do it because it some how made him feel happy?

    Where in the animal kingdom do we find an analogue for this kind of behavior? Please keep in mind that Heller would not have even faced this situation if the Coast Guard, a part of the US government, had not already made contingency plans to rescue stranded sea men. What other animal plans ahead to rescue its own kind. What compels us humans to think this way? I can’t think of any. But it is obvious that this kind of behavior is a deeply ingrained part of our moral makeup. We’re compelled to do these kinds of things. I think it gets just a little bit silly when we try to describe moral behavior like this in humans from an evolutionary perspective.

    Maybe it would be better for the evolutionists to concede that when it comes to explaining the evolution of moral behavior, we just do not know. Does the theory of evolution (TOE) mean that it is a theory of everything (TOE)?

    There is happy ending to the story I related above. A couple of hours later Heller’s helicopter returned to rescue both him and the three remaining fishermen whom he had been able to keep alive.

    For his heroism Heller received the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of our countries highest awards.

    Oh, by the way, March 23 2008 was a Sunday morning. Coincidently it was Easter Sunday morning.

  53. Charlie,

    My comments are quite specific: I am speaking of mammals, not any given species. And, no, it is not the case that “[h]ardwired social behaviour is only essential for creatures with hardwired social behaviour” as merely being hardwired for something is not a sufficient condition for it to be “essential”; Mozart’s being hardwired for musical acumen is not essential for either himself or the human species. However, it is the case that, for mammals, being hardwired for social behavior is essential for their function and perpetuation.

    Either way your focus on those issues is a departure from my original issue: Tom’s claim that hardwired social behavior is more of an evidence for theism than it is for evolution.

  54. Hi Kevin,

    Therefore the connection between pleasure and happiness is tenuous at best.

    The data consistently shows that material wealth is only correlated with happiness up to a certain point (that is somewhere around the poverty level, or a little above), after which point it levels off, providing no statistical gain with a corresponding increase in wealth.

    the selfish pursuit of one’s own desires is negatively correlated with happiness.

    Agreed. I was prepared to tell you the same.

    Also, one of the common factors of those who are happy is consistent service to one’s fellow man, in both goods and services;

    Through this self-examination of our actions and their consequences we can find the causes of happiness and contentment as well as see what actions are deleterious to that cause, all without an appeal to any particular religious authority or dogma.

    But what does this have to do with morality? Which oughts are discovered this way? Am I obligated to pursue my own happiness? Am I obligated to help another pursue his? Or force him to? What about the pedophile who doesn’t believe that, statistically speaking, he is going to be happier by refraining from his pleasure seeking? Am I obligated to convince him of his happiness, or just to stop him? Or either?

  55. Hi Kevin,

    However, it is the case that, for mammals, being hardwired for social behavior is essential for their function and perpetuation.

    I don’t believe this assertion. I argued this above. If it is not essential then how is it evidence? If we can’t predict (calling DL) it how is it evidence?

    I am speaking of mammals, not any given species.

    Is the existence of mammals essential for evolution? Is the existence of hardwired social behaviour essential? I don’t see why.

    And, no, it is not the case that “[h]ardwired social behaviour is only essential for creatures with hardwired social behaviour” as merely being hardwired for something is not a sufficient condition for it to be “essential”;

    I didn’t say that and the second half of your sentence does not refute the claim. Saying HSB is only essential for those hardwired for it does not say it is essential for all of those hardwired for it. It certainly isn’t essential for those without it, is it?

    Either way your focus on those issues is a departure from my original issue: Tom’s claim that hardwired social behavior is more of an evidence for theism than it is for evolution.

    Focus on those issues is essential to your original issue.

  56. Charlie,

    But what does this have to do with morality? Which oughts are discovered this way?

    Sue already talked about this:

    Where we really differ here is on the “ought” terms of the question of good and bad. Harris makes the case that morality defined in “ought” terms of obligation to an authority, is different from morality defined in “ought” terms of practicality as relates to improving the overall quality of life for humanity in general.

    The “ought” in this scenario is different. Doing such analysis shows the causal connection between certain behaviors and motivations and happiness and unhappiness. From there the course of action seems rather obvious.

    Am I obligated to pursue my own happiness?

    I don’t know about “obligated”, but wouldn’t you be rather stupid not to? Saint Augustine said, “The desire for happiness is essential to man. It is the motivator of all our acts. The most venerable clearly understood, enlightened, and reliable constant in the world is not only that we want to be happy, but that we want only to be so. Our very nature requires it of us.”

    Am I obligated to help another pursue his? Or force him to?

    Again, I don’t know about “obligated”, but if service to others is one of the primary sources of happiness, wouldn’t you be rather stupid not to help him? And you can’t force him as that would be a cause of suffering, an expression of violence that would disturb your own happiness and theirs. So forcing another to pursue their happiness doesn’t work.

    What about the pedophile who doesn’t believe that, statistically speaking, he is going to be happier by refraining from his pleasure seeking? Am I obligated to convince him of his happiness, or just to stop him? Or either?

    Reality is reality whether he believes it or not. If seeking the fulfillment of pleasure is not a source of happiness, but instead is a source of discontent, then he can disbelieve all he wants and continue in his ways, but that will not make him happy; he will continually be seeking his next fix, which is a constant source of discontent.

    On your second question, again, “obligated” is not the word I would use, but fully embodying this realization of the causes of happiness would naturally elicit (in an Aristotelian phronetic sense) from you acts of kindness and help to him. Thus you wouldn’t be acting from a place of obligation, but from genuine concern for him and his well-being. Faked concern is not a cause of happiness and forced action from “obligation” likewise.

    I find your constant focus on obligation as the basis for ethics to be interesting. It implies that truly moral behavior comes from following rules as opposed to, say, developing an altruistic motivation for others. Or, at best, it is saying that an action done from a place of pure obligation is just as moral as one done from a place of genuine concern for another. Interesting…

  57. From there the course of action seems rather obvious.

    Only if you presume oughtness and morality in the first place, ie, beg the question. The claim that we ought to be practical follows in no way from thinking we know what makes us happy.

    I don’t know about “obligated”, but wouldn’t you be rather stupid not to?

    Imperialists and Darwinists thought they could just educate people and they would become moral, but it doesn’t work. Morality is about obligation, not intelligence. Am I obligated not to be stupid?

    Again, I don’t know about “obligated”, but if service to others is one of the primary sources of happiness, wouldn’t you be rather stupid not to help him?

    Wouldn’t I be stupid to smoke cigarettes? Drink yummy Coca Cola? Get a girl pregnant at 16? Fail to get a colonoscopy at 50? If so, am I being immoral when I do these stupid things?

    So forcing another to pursue their happiness doesn’t work.

    So knowing what would make him happy actually has no bearing on my behaviour. I can make him wealthy, or reduce his suffering,but that doesn’t make him happy. And his happiness, and only his happiness, is worth pursuing with regard to him. So I have no moral obligation dependent upon knowing what makes one happy.

    Reality is reality whether he believes it or not. If seeking the fulfillment of pleasure is not a source of happiness, but instead is a source of discontent, then he can disbelieve all he wants and continue in his ways, but that will not make him happy; he will continually be seeking his next fix, which is a constant source of discontent.

    I know that. So should I force him to pursue happiness? No, you said I can’t. You said that would make me unhappy, and making me unhappy shows that I am stupid.

    On your second question, again, “obligated” is not the word I would use, but fully embodying this realization of the causes of happiness would naturally elicit (in an Aristotelian phronetic sense) from you acts of kindness and help to him.

    If you would not use the word “obligated” then what are you saying about morality?

    Or, at best, it is saying that an action done from a place of pure obligation is just as moral as one done from a place of genuine concern for another. Interesting…

    If it is not an obligation, if it is not what one ought to do, how is it a moral?
    I find it interesting that you claim to have an approach to discerning morality but don’t talk about morality.

    I find it interesting that you reduce morality to the selfish pursuit of happiness when you have already said that selfish pursuits do not lead to happiness.

    It implies that truly moral behavior comes from following rules as opposed to, say, developing an altruistic motivation for others. Or, at best, it is saying that an action done from a place of pure obligation is just as moral as one done from a place of genuine concern for another.

    These sound like rules to me: develop an altruistic motivation for others; be concerned for others. I am moral if I follow your rules and immoral if I don’t? Ought I to follow your rules?

  58. Hi Kevin,
    I must be off, so rather than await your response I will go to my next rejoinder.
    Since we know that people always choose to do what they most want to do we know they are always choosing to do what makes them happy. This is already the case, and I think we all agree that we have much immorality. So pursuit of happiness is not the same as morality.

    But, you will respond, that they are ignorant of what really makes them happy. So, I presume, we can not trust our own internal happiness monitors. Somehow we do not know what it is that makes us happy, and, thus, our feelings are not our gauges.

    So what is? Of course, it is science, or Buddhism, or Kevin, or some combination of the above. These disciplines will tell us how to be happy, and what we ought to do to be happy. They can’t tell us why we ought to choose their version of happiness over our own feelings, misguided though they be, but we know we are stupid if we disobey.
    So all you are doing is substituting one authority, science, eastern meditative wisdom and its practitioners, etc., for another.
    You are not eliminating the obedience to authority, but exchanging one for the other. You land us at the mercy, though, of an authority that told us that driving icepicks through our eye sockets and doping our children so they can go to school is a means toward this happiness.
    And in so doing you have removed the the oughtness and obligation from the injunctions.
    Not only so, but you have exchanged the truth for a lie, the permanence of God, the Creator, for the fallibility of man. All of your moral desires are already known and are embedded in the Laws that you think it is immoral to obey. God commands that we obey Him, and that obeying Him means loving Him (and vice versa). All of His commands are summed up in the command ‘love your neighbor as yourself”. Aren’t we told it is better to give than to receive? That we are to consider others before ourselves? That we should have the same love for one another that Jesus had for us, and that this is love: that He gave His life for us while we were His enemies? That we should control even our thoughts and desires in order to obey these commands?

    So in this Eternal Lawgiver we have everything you say that science can tell us to do (when science gets it right), but we also have the only infallible and immutable authority for these decrees. We also have the only source of its universality and our obligation to obey.

    I’m off,
    Have a great day!

  59. Charlie,

    The claim that we ought to be practical follows in no way from thinking we know what makes us happy.

    I didn’t claim it did. However, I am assuming that every human being has a degree of rationality such that if they knew what would make them happy then they do would such, or at least attempt it. Adding an “ought” does absolutely nothing to change that fact.

    Imperialists and Darwinists thought they could just educate people and they would become moral, but it doesn’t work. Morality is about obligation, not intelligence. Am I obligated not to be stupid?

    Of course it doesn’t work, because they are doing it from the basis of the “ought”. That is not the kind of education I am proposing: I am suggesting that if we could cultivate a culture of self-awareness and self-understanding that people would naturally gravitate towards what they learn about the causes of genuine happiness and would clearly see/realize that the endless search for novelty and pleasure isn’t it. Then, per my previous assumption, they would have the intelligence to know that such is in their best interest.

    Wouldn’t I be stupid to smoke cigarettes? Drink yummy Coca Cola? Get a girl pregnant at 16? Fail to get a colonoscopy at 50? If so, am I being immoral when I do these stupid things?

    Being stupid isn’t the same thing as being immoral, at least not in all cases. However, being ignorant of the causes of happiness (which is a more technical, generous, and, hence, correct term than “stupid”) does generally lead to immoral actions (=actions that cause oneself and others suffering and detracts from happiness). As with all virtue-based ethics, the motivation is of prime importance, not the merely external following of “oughts”.

    So knowing what would make him happy actually has no bearing on my behaviour.

    Please re-read my comment: “forcing another to pursue their happiness doesn’t work”. Yes, you knowing what will make another happy does have a direct bearing on your behavior (I said that already, yes? Let me refresh your memory: “On your second question, again, “obligated” is not the word I would use, but fully embodying this realization of the causes of happiness would naturally elicit (in an Aristotelian phronetic sense) from you acts of kindness and help to him. Thus you wouldn’t be acting from a place of obligation, but from genuine concern for him and his well-being.”). But you seem to be assuming that that bearing must be either (1) letting him go along his merry way or (2) forcing him to do what would actually make him happy. I think there are many more options that just those two.

    No, you said I can’t. You said that would make me unhappy, and making me unhappy shows that I am stupid.

    What a selective reading of my comment! No, I said that pursuing that course of action would make both you and he unhappy (to remind you: forcing another, even in relation to what would make them happy, is an “expression of violence that would disturb your own happiness and theirs”)! To not consider the latter (i.e. the state of mind of the other) is to seriously distort my claim, which leads to your mistaken claim that I’m proposing an inherently selfish sense of morality.

    If you would not use the word “obligated” then what are you saying about morality?

    That morality is not about “obligation”, or at least not primarily about it. Again, I am giving a virtue-based ethics, not a deontological ethic. You are assuming that ethics must be deontological in nature, which I would argue is wrong or, perhaps better put, at least one-dimensional. I’ve found this to be an excellent description of what I’m pointing to.

    I find it interesting that you claim to have an approach to discerning morality but don’t talk about morality

    But that follows only if you think that morality is synonymous with accruing and following obligations and rules. I don’t think such is the case. As you say in your next comment, I think ethics/morality is at bottom about love and compassion for others, which is a mode of being, not a set of external rules that I follow because I’m obligated to follow them or else some external being is going to punish me. Yes, we can extract a set of more or less accurate obligations and laws from that mode of being, but merely following those obligations/laws without the proper motivation is a seriously diminished form of ethics/morality.

    I find it interesting that you reduce morality to the selfish pursuit of happiness when you have already said that selfish pursuits do not lead to happiness.

    Where did I say that? Let me refresh your memory: “service to others is one of the primary sources of happiness”. Let me go ahead and put it more strongly: service to others is the greatest source of happiness. Or, as one of my favorite authors puts it:

    All the joy the world contains
    Has come through wishing happiness for others.
    All the misery the world contains
    Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.
    Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

    So, no, I am most certainly not proposing an ethic of selfishness.

    These sound like rules to me: develop an altruistic motivation for others; be concerned for others. I am moral if I follow your rules and immoral if I don’t? Ought I to follow your rules?

    Answer me this: is there no moral distinction between, say, visiting the sick because you are following a rule (and perhaps because you fear retribution from a divine figure) and visiting the sick because you are moved by genuine compassion for them? That is the distinction I am referring to and reducing my claim to mere rule following is a distortion of that distinction.

    I’ll do another post on your second “rejoinder” (this one is more than long enough), but not right now because I’m going for a run! :o)

  60. Kevin,

    I don’t want to knock your discussion with Charlie off track; it’s pretty interesting. Your answers here assign more agency or telos to evolution than you realize, I think; and I also think you misunderstand the relation of morality to obligation. Charlie has those topics well in hand, and I wasn’t intending to intervene, but this begs for it:

    I didn’t claim it did. However, I am assuming that every human being has a degree of rationality such that if they knew what would make them happy then they do would such, or at least attempt it. Adding an “ought” does absolutely nothing to change that fact.

    Really? I thought we were talking about morality here. Subtracting “ought” changes the subject entirely. What is it you think is the topic of discussion?

    Beyond that, I’m wondering what if I conceded that “if not more” was not necessarily the case? Does it really make that much of a difference to you? Or is it possible that you were LMU blogging when you brought that up? What did you think of the rest of the article?

  61. Just for kicks and giggles, here’s another Shantideva quote that describes the basic motivation that I am proposing as the ground for ethical/moral behavior:

    May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
    A guide for those who journey on the road;
    For those who wish to go across the water,
    May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

    May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
    And a lamp for those who long for light;
    For those who need a resting place, a bed;
    For all who need a servant, may I be a slave.

    May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of plenty,
    A word of power, and the supreme remedy.
    May I be the tree of miracles,
    And for every being, the abundant cow.

    Like the great earth and the other elements,
    Enduring as the sky itself endures,
    For the boundless multitudes of living beings,
    May I be the ground and vessel of their life.

    Thus, for every single thing that lives,
    In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
    May I be their sustenance and nourishment
    Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering.
    Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

    Selfish indeed! 😉

  62. Tom,

    Really? I thought we were talking about morality here. Subtracting “ought” changes the subject entirely. What is it you think is the topic of discussion?

    I don’t think so. I’m disputing whether the “ought” is really the basis of morality. I would claim that the “ought” is an abstraction from more concrete modes of being-in-relationship-with-the-other. So oughts can have a place in morality, but it is not foundational. Again, I am arguing for a virtue-based morality rather than a deontologically-based one. In phronetic activity we do not follow rules, but the correct action, with all the nuance and sensitivity that a high degree of skill has, is elicited from us by the situation. Again, this article is a good description of what I am getting at.

    On your other point, you could be right. But as I (and, I believe, Sue) has been arguing, the derivation of “ought” from “is” may not be the real issue as long as the more abstract “ought” is derivative of something more concrete. If that is right, then the argument you are giving may not be getting to the heart of the matter, though it does fit into common terms in much modern discussion of ethics and atheism. Similarly, if reductive physicalism is rejected in light of another kind of non-dualistic physicalism/materialism, then the argument again may not apply. It seems to be that only if we assume that things/objects must be merely externally related unless acted on by an immaterial being, then your argument can hold weight. But if we accept a different notion of the physical, then it may not follow.

    With saying that, let me say that I really don’t know enough about particle physics and quantum physics to make a strong case. However, I do know enough to know that I don’t know and can’t make any hard, extensive, or intricate analysis of the alternative. So let me just say that I have strong reservations about the prevailing reductivistic view accepted by most dualists and non-dualists.

  63. Hi Kevin,

    The claim that we ought to be practical follows in no way from thinking we know what makes us happy.
    I didn’t claim it did. However, I am assuming that every human being has a degree of rationality such that if they knew what would make them happy then they do would such, or at least attempt it. Adding an “ought” does absolutely nothing to change that fact.

    But would they be wrong not to? Would they be wrong to disagree that your metric actually predicts their true happiness over what their internal guide tells them? Is it immoral to disobey your science?

    I am suggesting that if we could cultivate a culture of self-awareness and self-understanding that people would naturally gravitate towards what they learn about the causes of genuine happiness and would clearly see/realize that the endless search for novelty and pleasure isn’t it. Then, per my previous assumption, they would have the intelligence to know that such is in their best interest.

    And would they be evil if they chose not to do what you say is in their [selfish] best interests?
    What if the science got it wrong and, as it did with the turn of the century Malthusian revival, told us that it is in our best interests, and that of humanity’s, in fact, to eliminate people groups and acquire more territory?

    However, being ignorant of the causes of happiness (which is a more technical, generous, and, hence, correct term than “stupid”) does generally lead to immoral actions (=actions that cause oneself and others suffering and detracts from happiness). As with all virtue-based ethics, the motivation is of prime importance, not the merely external following of “oughts”.

    Oops, there’s little borrowing going on here.
    Is immorality that which causes suffering? In other words, is it measured by its practical utility and its results? Or is it, as you say in your next sentence, determined by motivation?
    And I’ve said nothing yet about externality. I am talking about whether or not we are even describing morality.

  64. Let me refresh your memory: “On your second question, again, “obligated” is not the word I would use, but fully embodying this realization of the causes of happiness would naturally elicit (in an Aristotelian phronetic sense) from you acts of kindness and help to him. Thus you wouldn’t be acting from a place of obligation, but from genuine concern for him and his well-being.”). But you seem to be assuming that that bearing must be either (1) letting him go along his merry way or (2) forcing him to do what would actually make him happy. I think there are many more options that just those two.

    Thanks for the refresher. Let me guarantee you that I can read and my memory is good for at least a sentence or two.
    You said his happiness is not contingent upon his wealth, experiences or suffering (Buddhists, of course, in great suffering are blissfully happy). So my acts of kindness will make me happy, not the other guy. He is in charge of his own happiness, through being rational, educated and not stupid. I can’t make him happy, I can only make me happy. So my acts are only about my happiness. Is this not the case in your outline?

    What a selective reading of my comment! No, I said that pursuing that course of action would make both you and he unhappy (to remind you: forcing another, even in relation to what would make them happy, is an “expression of violence that would disturb your own happiness and theirs”)! To not consider the latter (i.e. the state of mind of the other) is to seriously distort my claim, which leads to your mistaken claim that I’m proposing an inherently selfish sense of morality.

    Yikes! Sorry to selectively read your comment. How dare I think that I should refrain from the activity because it makes me unhappy when you really said it would make us both unhappy? But I should still refrain, right? Isn’t it true that I can’t actually make him, if he is properly educated, unattached, actualized, etc., unhappy?

    As you say in your next comment, I think ethics/morality is at bottom about love and compassion for others, which is a mode of being, not a set of external rules that I follow because I’m obligated to follow them or else some external being is going to punish me.

    I didn’t say a word about punishment. I am talking about what you ought to do, what it is right to do, what you are obligated to do. That is morality. We haven’t begun to discuss whether or not that obligation comes from outside or not – we haven’t even established that to be talking about morality you are talking about oughts and obligations.

  65. Yes, we can extract a set of more or less accurate obligations and laws from that mode of being, but merely following those obligations/laws without the proper motivation is a seriously diminished form of ethics/morality

    Absolutely right – morality is more about the internal state than the external behaviour … or even about the external practical results. Morality cannot be determined by utilitarian measures of increased happiness or decreased suffering – whether they be our own or another’s – as you are still left with the question of whether or not we ought to obey your externally mandated rule about being properly motivated.

    So, no, I am most certainly not proposing an ethic of selfishness.

    It seems to me that you are. You have hidden it by changing words on me, though. I was talking about happiness, by your example, not “pleasure”. You want to educate people about how to be happy (do good deeds, as an example). You think, if they are smart, they will want to be happy and so they will do good deeds. You have plainly and repeatedly said that it is their rational pursuit of their own good (happiness) that will cause them to adhere to your rules.

    Answer me this: is there no moral distinction between, say, visiting the sick because you are following a rule (and perhaps because you fear retribution from a divine figure) and visiting the sick because you are moved by genuine compassion for them? That is the distinction I am referring to and reducing my claim to mere rule following is a distortion of that distinction.

    Ouch. Of course there is a difference. But that difference holds whether that rule is “do good to avoid punishment” or “do good to avoid unhappiness”.
    But one so sensitive to distortion might try extending a similar courtesy to others. “Ought” and “obligation” do not imply heartless, fear-based, law obedience. Jesus came up against many who thought they could obey the letter of the law and, washing the outside of the cup and dish, do what is right while disregarding the state of their hearts. He corrected that and showed them that doing what is right is about thoughts and motivations – the spirit of the law. He told us that it is right to be properly motivated, not that it would make us happy, or bring greater well-being to humanity (some have thought that increasing the “evolutionary” distance between civilised man and the higher apes would bring greater well-being). He told us that we obey because we love the One who loved us first, while we were yet sinners. Indeed, we are commanded to love God, as well as our neighbors. This is what is morally right, this is what we ought to do.

    You said above that you want to create a culture of self-awareness but we can only be self-aware when we know our own ends and Who created us. Our end is not happiness for happiness sake but joy in God. You never get beyond relativism or utilitarianism by gazing inward and creating idols.

    I’m off again.
    Hope you had a great run.
    Talk to you later.

  66. Hey Kevin, your giggly quote didn’t have anything in it about motivation so I can’t tell how it has anything to say about selfishness. Or why another ought to make such a list of “may I”s.

  67. Ack! I’m going to be late but forgot one other point…
    why the speciesism?
    There has been some science that declares man to be a blight on this planet, and that we should eliminate 30%, 60% or even all of mankind.
    Why should we not? Would not the well-being of the universe increase without our selfish, polluting, destructive species? Since the universe cannot have wanted us, and we can have no necessary end here, would we not better serve existence by removing ourselves? In fact, since our species is nothing but a mistake, the result of innumerable copying errors, should we not be happy and contented to do just that?
    If “science” tells us this are we not morally obligated to do so?

  68. Kevin Winters: “I’m disputing whether the “ought” is really the basis of morality. I would claim that the “ought” is an abstraction from more concrete modes of being-in-relationship-with-the-other. So oughts can have a place in morality, but it is not foundational. Again, I am arguing for a virtue-based morality rather than a deontologically-based one. In phronetic activity we do not follow rules, but the correct action, with all the nuance and sensitivity that a high degree of skill has, is elicited from us by the situation. Again, this article is a good description of what I am getting at.”

    According to Aristotle eudaimonia means ’doing and living well’. Usually translated ‘happiness‘, the Greek meaning is clearly much broader than that. However I question whether ‘eudaimonia’, even so broadly defined, is really an adequate basis for morality and ethics.

    Jesus also taught a virtue ethic but his foundation was other directed rather than inner or self directed. The first otherness that he taught about was an eternally transcendent personal consciousness (God) the second otherness was our fellow man. Our strength comes from God, not simply as an eternal lawgiver and guide, but a loving Father who daily provides for all our needs (Matt. 6: 25-34). Drawing on God’s strength by faith our relationship towards our fellow man is to be one of one of forgiveness and compassion.

    There is a lot of similarity between the virtue ethics of the Greeks and Christians. It is said that the Greeks gave us the virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage, the Christians added faith, hope and love for a perfect list of seven virtues.

    The problem that I have with Greek virtue ethics is that their theology was totally inadequate. For example the “gods” of Greek mythology were little more than petty super humans. Plato probably came closer than Aristotle to the Christian concept of God with his concept of a morally transcendent Good, but how can good exist apart from a mind? In Christian and Jewish theology God is conceived of as a personal being have not only a mind but feelings and a personal awareness of his subjects. If you read the gospels you will see that Jesus is continually encouraging his followers to direct there thoughts towards God as their eternal Father.

  69. Charlie,

    You stated a lot and I simply don’t have the time to deal with everything, so here’s a few points.

    First, no, I am not promoting an ethic of selfishness. There is no contradiction in saying that everyone wants to be happy and not suffer and that the best way to do so is to be more concerned with the happiness of others than with one’s own. Yes, one can do their best to serve others in order to increase their own happiness and such would be a small improvement over merely being self-absorbed and self-concerned. However, true happiness comes from genuine, selfless, and compassionate service for one’s fellow men. In saying this I am not hiding behind anything or performing some rhetorical sleight of hand; I’m simply pointing to the fact that selfless service with the motivation of compassion for others is the best source of personal happiness.

    Second, it is true that you cannot make someone else happy. However, you can do your best to be there for them, to not retaliate in a self-absorbed way if they attack you, and come to the realization that they are having the difficulties they are having because they don’t know the true sources of happiness (which itself should also increase our compassion). Many of us have experienced the disarming presence of someone who is genuinely present, not defensive in the face of our attacks, and therefore provides a rare space that neutralizes our aggression. There’s a lot you can do to provide for that space, to create a context and environment in which they can learn, grow, and let go of their self-absorption, to be someone they can open up to, let down their defenses so they can see the truth rather than their own neurotic patterns, etc. So even if you can’t make them happy, you can still do a lot, and that is how my \outline\ is not \only about my happiness\.

    Third, I am not proposing a utilitarian ethic. Virtuous and wholesome thoughts, words, and deeds are directly based on compassion and wisdom, not on the end results of the particular act. The very basis of my \giggly quote\ is genuine compassion and the deeds mentioned in it cannot be done without such a pure altruistic motivation (which you would have known if you had any idea about the background of the text, the context in which the quote itself is embedded). The basis of my ethic is compassion and loving kindness to all beings, not a calculus of end results.

    Fourth, and lastly for the evening, at this moment I don’t have an answer to your question about valuations of good and bad. Here’s what I know, though: first, that everyone wants to be happy and they all go through great lengths to get or achieve what they think will make them happy (see the Augustine quote above). Second, that there are such things as wholesome and unwholesome acts/motivations that are directly correlated with suffering and happiness, respectively. Third, that the second fact is something that anyone with any degree of self-understanding (or potentiality for such) can know if they simply stop and closely examine their lives and the effects of their actions. Fourth, that coming to really know the above through deep analysis will lead to an understanding that selflessness, compassion, and service to others is the greatest cause of happiness, which understanding will change the motivations of the analyzer from selfishness to selflessness (yes, it’s a more complicated process than that, but this works for now).

    These four facts are knowable phenomenal realities that are available to anyone who is willing to stop and genuinely look. And I’m not in any way asking people to defer to Buddha or me. In fact, both Buddha and myself are explicit in saying that no one should accept anything just because we say so. The basis of cultivating this ethic is self-understanding, self-analysis, not investing someone with authority and following their words, rules, or maxims. Look and see for yourself!

    Even though I’m sure it will continue to be ignored, again I’ll say that this article is an excellent description and analysis of my point in relation to the \ought\ in ethics (though Dreyfus doesn’t use that term, but rather talks about rule following).

  70. Oh, I just remembered an excellent resource on a non-ought discussion of ethics and teaching it. It comes from C. Terry Warner’s approach, which is greatly influenced by Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, as found in his Bonds That Make Us Free. His primary approach is through narrative to direct people to the phenomenal experience of self-betrayal (also though of as a betrayal of conscience). I would suggest that it is significantly more cogent than stringing together a slew of “oughts” (perhaps with “reasons” for them) and saying that doing so is teaching ethics (not to say the latter doesn’t have a place, but, again, it is not the most prominent). His book is very accessible and non-technical, and definitely worth a read.

  71. Here is a brief summary of Warner’s theory and approach, for those who don’t want to spend money on a book or waste time reading anything that’s suggested by me (which seems to be the pattern here ;o) )…

  72. Thanks for all the reading material, Kevin. I’m sorry it pains you so to have people engage you in conversation and then, having jobs and lives, not be eager the minute you provide links to read the dozens of pages and potentially tens of thousands of words you assign them instead of explaining your own self in your own dialogues.

    But I have read your 26 pages of Warner now and find nothing supportive of what seems to be your point nor contrary to mine. This is not a paper about moral behaviour and offers zero attempt at grounding morality.
    It does, though, contrary to what you say, discuss briefly moral oughts, duties, obligations, what must be done and what one is supposed to do. What it doesn’t ever do is tell us where these obligations come from. This is not a fault of the summary, as that doesn’t appear whatsoever to be its intent.
    Other than that, I am not quibbling with the author. He recognizes the duties and gives, rather than a grounding, a nice self-help perspective on ones own behaviours. He talks about fallen man, the duty to love, our falling prey to deception and the power of forgiveness. You might imagine that I find much here to be sympathetic toward.
    What was your point in referencing Warner?

    Sorry, I’m going to pass on the pdf I downloaded, though I was unsurprised glancing over it to see Heidegger and Dewey mentioned.

    p.s.

    The very basis of my \giggly quote\ is genuine compassion and the deeds mentioned in it cannot be done without such a pure altruistic motivation (which you would have known if you had any idea about the background of the text, the context in which the quote itself is embedded).

    You told me specifically that the quote itself described the motivation. It didn’t. It is a little sanctimonious to chide my ignorance of the background and context, knowledge of which would have been required to glean what you said you were forthrightly supplying.

  73. I would suggest that it is significantly more cogent than stringing together a slew of “oughts” (perhaps with “reasons” for them) and saying that doing so is teaching ethics (not to say the latter doesn’t have a place, but, again, it is not the most prominent)

    Whose position are you characterizing here as a stringing together of a slew of oughts?
    This is a poor representation, if that is what it is meant to be, of what we are saying when we ask about “oughts”.

    Case in point you said in another comment:

    Even though I’m sure it will continue to be ignored, again I’ll say that this article is an excellent description and analysis of my point in relation to the \ought\ in ethics (though Dreyfus doesn’t use that term, but rather talks about rule following).

    It is not about a list of rules, do this and not that, but grounding at its base one very basic question: why ought we do this instead of that? The “ought” in ethics is not about rule following.
    Why ought we act for the welfare of others and not for our own self-gratification, as Warner says we ought?
    Why ought we yield our hearts, forget ourselves, or be at one with others as he suggests?
    Why is it right, and not merely beneficial to do so?
    All he suggests is that we will avoid emotional problems and be in keeping with what (he claims) is true.
    If it were scientifically demonstrably beneficial and happy-making to put ourselves ahead of others or to act out on our anger would this make it right to do so?

  74. In saying this I am not hiding behind anything or performing some rhetorical sleight of hand; I’m simply pointing to the fact that selfless service with the motivation of compassion for others is the best source of personal happiness.

    That makes it a lucky break then, that those performing selfless love for others wind up being happy. It does not do what you claimed, and what you offered as an answer before, and that is to tell us why we ought to perform this selfless love. You said it was because it made us happy. So either you have the selfish reason, personal happiness, or you lose your ought.

    However, you can do your best to be there for them, to not retaliate in a self-absorbed way if they attack you, and come to the realization that they are having the difficulties they are having because they don’t know the true sources of happiness (which itself should also increase our compassion).

    You sure can. You can do a lot of things. I still ask why we ought to do this and not some other thing. The question was how my behaviour toward another was morally significant. You said it was because we are trying to increase happiness and human well-being. You can’t tell me why we ought to do that (except to say that it is stupid not to) and here undermine even that by acknowledging that we don’t increase others’ happiness with our actions. And that we don’t do it for our own happiness. We just do it if we aren’t stupid.

    So even if you can’t make them happy, you can still do a lot, and that is how my \outline\ is not \only about my happiness\.

    But your happiness is the only happiness in play here.

    The basis of my ethic is compassion and loving kindness to all beings, not a calculus of end results.

    So why, again, ought this to be the basis of an ethic? Why shouldn’t the basis be getting what you think you want when you think you want it? You admit everyone thinks they are making themselves happy, we are all doing what we think we want. So why shouldn’t we continue to do what we think we want f we think it is making us happy?

    Third, that the second fact is something that anyone with any degree of self-understanding (or potentiality for such) can know if they simply stop and closely examine their lives and the effects of their actions.

    So that’s our problem? People just don’t think hard enough? It seems some of greatest thinkers ever have been morally deficient in many egregious ways. Strange, then, how after all these years we are no happier than we’ve ever been even though our body of knowledge and our technology in all other matters keeps growing.
    It isn’t a matter of thinking, brain power or self-acquired knowledge.
    It is, contra Warner, about natures. We are not innately good and self-examination does not lead to Mother Teresa or St. Francis any more than it lead to Bundy and Dahmer.

  75. So here is my take on this, Kevin.

    Yes, when we do what is right we are more likely to flourish. This flourishing is not the reason that those actions/motivations/thoughts/emotions are right, however. And this is not why we do them.

    Yes, these things are objectively right, and indeed, it is good that we do them and bad that we don’t. We have sins of omission and sins of commission. And we can discover these things by rational reflection and by listening to our conscience, which is a flawed and broken guide, but a guide nonetheless.

    Pace Warner, and William James, and the Apostle Paul, we can, in fact, train our emotions as well as our actions, and we can eve train our thoughts. We are told to think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. We renew our minds every day and we train ourselves in our body and mind by various disciplines which lead us to inner and outward morality.
    We are deluded, as Warner says. We have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. The Heavens declare the glory of God but we ignore this and chase after idols of our own making – often making idols of our selves. We are deceived by our worldly natures and by the god of this world.

    So if we do not act morally to be happy why do we? What imperative is there to loving our neighbor and why should we feel obligated to do so? We do so because it is to live in keeping with reality, with the proper functioning of the cosmos. But why should we be obligated to do that if we don’t care about the consequences or are blinded to them? We do so because we and the cosmos are the creation of the true reality, our Personal Father who loves us, who designed us toward those ends, and who has told us that this is how we are to function. We are not accidents who accidentally flourish more often than not, all things being equal, by accidentally stumbling across the right behaviour. We love because we were first loved by the One who is Love. And He has told us that this is the proper fulfillment of our designed ends, in keeping with His nature and, thus with the nature of all reality.
    We ought to do so because there is an actual proper way for us to be and we have been told what that way is. If there is no proper way for us to be then there is no ought, no obligation and no morality. There are just accidents. And since there is no right way for things to be I even have to erase the word “lucky” describing those accidents.

    If you don’t know where you are going then any road will do. Likewise, if there is no proper way to be a human being, something that transcends our humanness, then any mode of being will do. If there is no correct end then there are no correct means.
    Peace.

  76. Sue, I think, is heading in the right direction. The things, the “facts”, that I posted are visceral experiential aspects of our existence. Warner’s approach, as with Buber and Levinas before him, focuses on the experience of self-betrayal and the experience of feeling obligated, not on following ethical rules. Aristotle did the same thing (perhaps with some intellectualist hedging) with phronesis (the Dreyfus paper goes into this):

    That practical wisdom [phronesis] is not scientific knowledge is evident; for it is, as has been said, concerned with the ultimate particular fact, since the thing to be done is of this nature. It is opposed, then, to intuitive reason; for intuitive reason is of the limiting premisses, for which no reason can be given, while practical wisdom is concerned with the ultimate particular, which is the object not of scientific knowledge but of perception–not the perception of qualities peculiar to one sense but a perception akin to that by which we perceive that the particular figure before us is a triangle; for in that direction as well as in that of the major premiss there will be a limit. But this is rather perception than practical wisdom, though it is of another kind of perception than that of qualities peculiar to each sense.
    Nichomacehan Ethics, 1142a25-30.

    And, yes, this is not mere intellectual/propositional knowledge, and that someone would attribute such a view to me is puzzling, especially since I’ve been trying to elucidate and argue for the importance of a non-propositional mode of understanding on this blog since I first came here (with no success in creating mutual understanding, I will admit). It is, again referring to Aristotle, phronetic knowledge, knowledge at the level of action and perception that works directly with particular situations and not with “limiting premisses” (though, again, those do have an important place within the scheme of things, just not as central as many would have you believe).

    With that said, yes, at this moment I cannot provide you with a ground. The best I can say is, “That is just the way it is and I’m just working with reality.” I experience and understand that when I am selfish and egoistic, that is when I suffer the most. I experience and understand that when I forget myself in service to others I am genuinely happy and suffer much less. I experience and understand that the “next best thing” cannot make me genuinely happy, though it can give me temporary pleasure, and therefore that, if I have the basic desire to be happy and avoid suffering, the approach of accumulating “stuff” isn’t the right way to do it. I experience and understand that as I come to know myself (and not just in the intellectual/propositional way) that I am naturally drawn into compassionate action and a desire to serve my fellow men (I don’t know how or why it happens that way, but it does, contrary to your claim).

    And I have scientific knowledge that, for example, the neurological space that is most strongly coordinated with happiness (the left prefrontal cortex) is also strongly correlated with compassion. I have scientific knowledge that expert meditators (estimated between 10,000 to 40,000 of meditation in their lifetime) performing compassion meditation had an increase in gamma waves that had never been seen before in all of the neuroscience literature (i.e. it was the first time an increase of neurological activity of that magnitude had ever been documented, which caused the researchers to think that the machine had malfunctioned, but it hadn’t). I have scientific knowledge that expert meditators who are fed sounds of suffering have significantly more firings in both the compassion and action centers of the brain (or those centers that are most closely correlated with compassion and action) than the control group, showing a readiness to act to help those who are suffering.

    So, again, it is true that I cannot at this time give you some transcendental ground for why this is so. But neither can I give you a good account of quantum gravity, yet I can move around in my world and even use gravity to assist me despite not having knowledge of that ground. And, yes, I can’t give a reason why “reality” is this way and not another, perhaps even one that I would personally find repugnant, but I’m more concerned with working with the reality I have anyway rather than waste valuable time and energy speculating about the literally limitless ways that things supposedly could have been (which, of course, points to one of the problems with possible world analysis: it’s very hard to know what exactly is or is not possible, especially since we disagree so much on what is real anyway).

    So I guess I’m going to stay with the basic intuition (grounded in my experience) that people want to be happy and to avoid suffering, that people can be (but are not always) mistaken about what does and doesn’t make them happy, and that genuine analysis of one’s experiences can teach one the real causes of happiness, if one is willing to step back from one’s habitual patterns and actually look at them, rather than simply being swept up in their wake. Oh, and that cultivating a phronetic understanding of these can bring about radical change in one’s motivations such that simply “knowing oneself” is a great cause for cultivating love and compassion for others. You can call me groundless, but I know of which I speak and I strive to help others see it for themselves rather than point to a book and say, “This says to do this and that.”

    P.S. I find it interesting that, in your last post, you did exactly what my supposed “poor representation” said: you gave a string of abstract maxims and reasons, not experiences and relations. Again, this is one of the biggest differences between our approaches to ethics: mine works at the level of experience and yours works at the level of abstract propositions. I act ethically because I am drawn to compassionate action by my fellow men; you act ethically because a being told you to in a book, without which divine dictation we wouldn’t have an “ought”. My “ought” is intimacy with, care for, and sensitivity to my fellow men; your “ought” is a commandment by a being who punishes you if you don’t do what he/it says (or so I’ve been told again and again by so many loving Evangelicals).

  77. How ironic. I address one of Kevin’s points (#78) and he blows by me like I don’t exist. Oh well, I guess just because you can pontificate about ethics doesn’t mean you need to be polite.

  78. JAD,

    I’m sorry that I do not have enough time to address your post at this time. Charlie has been my primary interlocutor and it was not meant as a slight to you that I haven’t addressed your post yet. My apologies if my silence offends. Like everyone else, I have time constraints…

    P.S. It has been pretty well argued that studying and teaching ethics has little bearing on whether one is in fact actually ethical in one’s dealings. 😉

  79. I’m just catching up on this whole discussion again tonight. After last weekend’s conference I came home to a sick wife, and it has been my obligation to help her this week: a moral obligation as well as one that reflects my inner self and love for her. (Inwardly directed desires and moral obligations can be congruent in humans; they are perfectly congruent in God, to the extent that it becomes meaningless to speak of them disjunctively.)

    Anyway, Kevin, as interesting as your discussion with Charlie has been, I would encourage you to take a closer look at JAD’s in #78. It’s quite pertinent.

  80. Hi Kevin,
    I’m glad you find things so interesting. I find you interesting as well.
    For instance:

    And, yes, this is not mere intellectual/propositional knowledge, and that someone would attribute such a view to me is puzzling,

    Did I do that? When?

    I experience and understand that as I come to know myself (and not just in the intellectual/propositional way) that I am naturally drawn into compassionate action and a desire to serve my fellow men (I don’t know how or why it happens that way, but it does, contrary to your claim).

    Which claim was that? You’ll have to be a little less elliptical if you are going to be so accusatory.

    Your scientific data are interesting as well. My pop level knowledge of neurology delights me and discussions of fMRI always intrigue. But observing ises doesn’t lead to oughts.

    You can call me groundless, but I know of which I speak and I strive to help others see it for themselves rather than point to a book and say, “This says to do this and that.”

    I’m glad you’re the authority, then. You and science.
    And you’re still missing the point about “oughts” if you think this is about a list of dos and don’ts.

    I act ethically because I am drawn to compassionate action by my fellow men; you act ethically because a being told you to in a book, without which divine dictation we wouldn’t have an “ought”.

    There you go again with your misrepresentation. It is not that we have no “ought” without His dictation, but that we have no “ought” without the Divine. Knowing your ethic is ungrounded and lacks transcendence you know this, but continually act as though you don’t. Interesting.

    My “ought” is intimacy with, care for, and sensitivity to my fellow men; your “ought” is a commandment by a being who punishes you if you don’t do what he/it says (or so I’ve been told again and again by so many loving Evangelicals).

    Wrong again. Willfully so?
    But I’m sorry, I’m having trouble parsing your sentences again. What do you mean your “ought” is intimacy? Do you mean that you ought to have intimacy/care/sensitivity, or that intimacy demands what you otherwise ought to do?
    Either way, I’m going to try this again.
    You have claimed that compassion is your motivation. Let me bundle in your “oughts” of intimacy, etc. The question is not whether or not you are motivated by them, or they make you feel you ought to this or that. The question is, “ought” you have compassion?
    What you don’t understand is that I, too, am motivated by my love of my fellow man. Unlike you however, I know that I ought to love him, have compassion, etc. And the things that this love tells me to do are also things I ought to do because the obligation of love is grounded. And it is grounded in the very reality and fabric of the ultimate cause of my being and of the cosmos. In your case, your actions are motivated by a love that is motivated by either your great intelligence or your biological urges. But feelings can lie and your great intelligence can fail you. I bet you’ve been wrong before, right? You might be wrong now, even though you scrupulously examine yourself and know yourself better than the average bear and are certain it is others and not yourself who have been deluded. So, with the findings of science subject to change (again), your facts awaiting revision and your feelings ebbing and flowing, your quest for objective morality crashes again to subjectivism and relativism.

    Like you, I act on my feelings and on my reason. Unlike you, however, I know that loving others as myself is the right thing to do, not just something that feels right. It seems to me that only of a creature has a proper end can it have a proper mode of being. There is nothing required of a mistake accidentally produced by random processes.

  81. Everyone,

    I have been enjoying this conversation and it has been challenging, in a good way. However, I am leaving for a meditation retreat in the morning so that I may increase my peace of mind and generate further compassion and love for my fellow men, thereby allowing me to serve them with purer motivations. I will be gone for a week during which I will have no internet or phone access. I will continue to ponder the points of this discussion and hopefully will be able to return to it when I get back. Either way, thank you for the stimulating discussion.

    P.S. Sheesh, Charlie, and I thought I was giving a lot of reading with my two links…will have to remember your last post whenever I consider giving you guys further reading. 😉

  82. BTW,
    That’s not a reading assignment to be completed and discussed by 4 pm EST. It’s a resource and start for someone who is clearly seeking a deeper understanding but has yet to see any apologetic for a traditional view of God.

  83. Yes, and my suggested readings always had a particular time-table along with a request for a 3-page response paper to be graded by yours truly and were intended merely to distract, not inform someone who has yet to delve into phenomenology (beyond the common misrepresentations by “traditional” philosophers)… 😉 🙂

  84. Hi Kevin,
    I’m about halfway through your pdf and am enjoying in. I’m going to comment now so I don’t lose my thoughts on this even though I realize the authors might answer some of my concerns as I continue to read.

    First, thanks for the page. It certainly shows me why you are using the language you are and I see more of what you mean. I see no reason you can’t actually explicate these things yourself, though, as they are not difficult.
    I know you’ll charge that I do not get it and that I am oversimplifying, but we all understand the concept (if not the mechanism) of operating on autopilot and intuitive tasking. We have had the discussion on this blog in other morality threads where I said I don’t even think about stealing, even when an opportunity arises. I was told then, that I am not being moral because I am not even faced with a choice. But the morality underlies this and the choice was made long ago in my training. The moral choice is made when I choose not to contemplate stealing, when I dismiss covetousness, when I do not place my affections on things, etc.

    I like the language of starting with rule-following, developing maxims, operating on principles, and then, finally, reacting intuitively based upon expertise. This language is helpful for me in my profession as I talk about performance and skill acquisition in this way all the time.
    This is not meant to hurt your feelings but I think I now see why you insist on trying to reduce my moral position to blindly following rules. In this paradigm rule-following is the mode of the naive beginner. You, of course, place yourself in the expert category by taking the stance of the intuitive actor.

    But there are two problems with this. One, in the article, to this point at least, the measure of moral goodness is feeling and emotion. In fact, the author tells us you can’t acquire the skills without recourse to emotional response and uses many examples to demonstrate this. As said in a previous comment, I can glean that from your own writing and , of course, this puts morality back in the realm of subjectivism.

    He then makes it relativistic in saying that the subject is trained to properly feel emotions appropriate to his society with regard to certain actions. He quotes Dewey and Aristotle on this, but could have gone to C.S. Lewis and St. Paul just as easily. Indeed, one needs to be of solid and well-grounded character to rely upon his emotional response. Lewis himself cites Aristotle on this point, saying that children must be taught what is good and bad and to appreciate the good when they are young so that they are thus-grounded. Paul repeatedly talks about training and equipping your mind, focusing on what is the Good, in order to reflect the good. Even the nefarious Old Testament tells us that a properly disciplined and trained child will be more likely a good adult.

    What you don’t get from this proper training is an OBJECTIVE morality. You may be trained up to feel the proper emotions based upon what your society has deemed good and bad, but that is relative to the society. Going back to each generation’s up-bringing will only keep pushing the problem back, it will never get you to objective values. You can’t bootstrap it this way.
    And combining relativistic training with subjective feelings with biological impulses will never get you to OBJECTIVE morality. You may get strong traditions, tons of agreement, and even longer life with more people reporting “happiness” (although we certainly do not see increase on the latter metric) but you do not get to the fact of true right and wrong. This discussion of morality as emotion-driven and intuitively exercised doesn’t seem to have changed or challenged anything said thus far.

    Of course, the author has many more words to share and maybe he’ll drop a shoe as he does….

  85. We already have “a global civilization based on shared values.” We value greed, pleasure, luxury, and pride. At least in ourselves; we want better from other people.

    If we valued those wonderful things he thinks we value, we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.

  86. I know I am late to this party but I really appreciated the way you ended this piece, about the paradigm of scientific materialism and how it colors Harris’s views. After all, if you set out to outline a system of determining what is moral and what isn’t, shouldn’t you also have the goal of getting people to pay attention to that system? And yet the overwhelming conclusion of scientists who study morality found that people make moral decisions based on their emotions, not reason. So why isn’t Harris’ theory developed in response to these findings? Why would you appeal to man’s rationality when it has been scientifically proven that an emotional appeal is what effects moral decision making? More here: http://fullobaloney.blogspot.com/2010/12/limits-of-paradigm-sam-harris.html