I want to begin by thanking the Center for Philosophy of Religion for the invitation to participate in tonight’s debate. The question of the correct foundation of morality is one that is not only of tremendous academic interest, but also one that has enormous practical application for our lives.
Now to begin with an important point of agreement: Dr. Harris and I agree that there are objective moral values and duties. To say that moral values and duties are objective is to say that they are valid and binding independent of human opinion. For example, to say that the Holocaust was objectively evil is to say that it was evil, even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was good, and it would still have been evil even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everyone who disagreed with them, so that everybody thought the Holocaust was good.
One of the great merits of Dr. Harris’ recent book The Moral Landscape is his bold affirmation of the objectivity of moral values and duties. He inveighs against what he calls “the over-educated atheistic moral nihilist[s]” and relativists who refuse to condemn as objectively wrong terrible atrocities like the genital mutilation of little girls.1 He rightly declares, “If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, … the only question would be how severely that person should be punished. ...”2 What is not in question is that such a person has done something horribly, objectively, wrong.
The question before us this evening, then, is, “what is the best foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties? What grounds them? What makes certain actions objectively good or evil, right or wrong?” In tonight’s debate I’m going to defend two basic contentions:
1. If God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.
2. If God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.
Now notice that these are conditional claims. I shall not be arguing tonight that God exists. Maybe Dr. Harris is right that atheism is true. That wouldn’t affect the truth of my two contentions. All that would follow is that objective moral values and duties would, then, contrary to Dr. Harris, not exist.
So, let’s look at that first contention together: If God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. Here, I want to examine two subpoints with you.
First, theism provides a sound foundation for objective moral values. Moral values have to do with what is good or evil. On the theistic view objective moral values are grounded in God. As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore the highest Good. Indeed, He is not merely perfectly good, He is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth. Thus if God exists, objective moral values exist, wholly independent of human beings.
Second, theism provides a sound foundation for objective moral duties. On a theistic view objective moral duties are constituted by God’s commands. God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commandments which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with His holy and loving nature. Our duties, then, are constituted by God’s commandments and these in turn reflect his essential character. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the whole moral duty of man can be summed up in the two great commandments: First, you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength and with all your soul and with all your heart and with all your mind, and, second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On this foundation we can affirm the objective rightness of love, generosity, self-sacrifice, and equality, and condemn as objectively wrong selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, and oppression.
In summary, then, theism has the resources for a sound foundation for morality: it grounds both objective moral values and objective moral duties; and hence, I think it’s evident that if God exists, we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.
Let’s turn, then, to my second contention, that if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.
Consider first the question of objective moral values. If God does not exist, then what basis remains for the existence of objective moral values? In particular, why think that human beings would have objective moral worth? On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On atheism it’s hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, anymore than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being. This is what Dr. Harris calls “The Value Problem”.3
The purpose of Dr. Harris’ book The Moral Landscape is to explain the basis, on atheism, of the existence of objective moral values.4 He explicitly rejects the view that moral values are Platonic objects existing independent of the world.5 So his only recourse is to try to ground moral values in the natural world. But how can you do that, since nature in and of itself is just morally neutral?
On a naturalistic view moral values are just the behavioral byproducts of biological evolution and social conditioning. Just as a troop of baboons exhibit cooperative and even self-sacrificial behavior because natural selection has determined it to be advantageous in the struggle for survival, so their primate cousins homo sapiens have evolved a sort of herd morality for precisely the same reasons. As a result of socio-biological pressures there has evolved among homo sapiens a sort of herd morality which functions well in the perpetuation of our species. But on the atheistic view there doesn’t seem to be anything that makes this morality objectively binding and true.
The philosopher of science Michael Ruse reports,
The position of the modern evolutionist … is that humans have an awareness of morality … because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. …Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. … Nevertheless, … such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, … and any deeper meaning is illusory …6
If we were to rewind the film of human evolution and start anew, people with a very different set of moral values might well have evolved. As Darwin himself wrote in The Descent of Man,
If … men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.7
For us to think that human beings are special and our morality is objectively true is to succumb to the temptation to species-ism, that is to say an unjustified bias in favor of one’s own species.
If there is no God, then any reason for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens on this planet as objectively true seems to have been removed. Take God out of the picture, and all you seem to be left with is an ape-like creature on a speck of dust beset with delusions of moral grandeur.
Richard Dawkins’ assessment of human worth may be depressing, but why, on atheism, is he mistaken, when he says, “there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . . We are machines for propagating DNA. . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being”?8
So how does Sam Harris propose to solve the Value Problem? The trick he proposes is simply to re-define what he means by “good” and “evil”, in non-moral terms. He says, “We should “define ‘good’ as that which supports [the] well-being” of conscious creatures.9 So, he says, “questions about values . . . are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”10 And therefore, he concludes, “it makes no sense . . . to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good’.”11 Why not? Because he’s redefined the word “good” to mean the well-being of conscious creatures. So to ask, “Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is on his definition the same as asking, “Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures’ well-being?” It’s just a tautology. It’s just talking in circles! So Dr. Harris has “solved” the Value Problem just by re-defining his terms. It’s nothing but wordplay.
At the end of the day Dr. Harris isn’t really talking about moral values at all. He’s just talking about what’s conducive to the flourishing of sentient life on this planet. Seen in this light, his claim that science can tell us a great deal about what contributes to human flourishing is hardly controversial. Of course, it can--just as it can tell us what is conducive to the flourishing of corn or mosquitoes or bacteria. His so-called “moral landscape”, which features the highs and lows of human flourishing isn’t really a moral landscape at all.
Thus Dr. Harris has failed to solve the Value Problem. He hasn’t provided any justification or explanation for why, on atheism, moral values would objectively exist at all. His so-called “solution” is just a semantical trick of an arbitrary and idiosyncratic re-definition of the terms “good” and “evil” in non-moral vocabulary.
Second question: does atheism provide a sound foundation for objective moral duties? Duty has to do with moral obligation or prohibition, what I ought or ought not to do. Here, the reviewers of The Moral Landscape have been merciless in pounding Dr. Harris’s attempt to provide a naturalistic account of moral obligation. Two problems stand out.
First, natural science tells us only what is, not what ought to be, the case. As the philosopher Jerry Fodor has written, “Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it wouldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are.”12 In particular it cannot tell us that we have a moral obligation to take actions which are conducive to human flourishing.
So, if there is no God, what foundation remains for objective moral duties? On the naturalistic view, human beings are just animals, and animals have no moral obligation to one another. When a lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra, but it doesn’t murder the zebra. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it doesn’t rape her--for none of these actions is forbidden or obligatory. There is no moral dimension to these actions.
So if God does not exist, why think that we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes these obligations upon us? Where do they come from? It’s very hard to see why they would be anything more than a subjective impression ingrained into us by societal and parental conditioning.
On the atheistic view, certain actions such as rape and incest may not be biologically and socially advantageous, and so in the course of human development have become taboo, that is, socially unacceptable behavior. But, that does absolutely nothing to prove that such acts are really wrong. Such behavior goes on all the time in the animal kingdom. On the atheistic view the rapist who chooses to flout the “herd morality” is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably, the moral equivalent, if you will, of Lady Gaga. If there is no moral lawgiver, then there is no objective moral law, and if there is no objective moral law, then we have no objective moral duties.
Thus, Dr. Harris’s view lacks any source for objective moral duty.
Second problem: “ought” implies “can.” A person is not morally responsible for an action which he is unable to avoid. For example, if somebody shoves you into another person, you’re not responsible for bumping into him. You had no choice. But Sam Harris believes that all of our actions are causally determined and that there is no free will.13 Dr. Harris rejects not only libertarian accounts of free will but also compatibilistic accounts of freedom. But, if there is no free will, then no one is morally responsible for anything! In the end, Dr. Harris admits this, though it’s tucked away in the endnotes of his volume. Moral responsibility, he says, and I quote, “is a social construct,” not an objective reality: I quote: “in neuroscientific terms no person is more or less responsible than any other” for the actions they perform.14 His thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties because on his worldview we have no control over what we do.
Thus, on Dr. Harris’ view there is no source of objective moral duties because there is no moral law-giver, and no possibility of objective moral duty, because there is no free will. Therefore, on his view, despite his protestations to the contrary, right and wrong do not really exist.
Thus, Dr. Harris’s naturalistic view fails to provide a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. Hence, if God does not exist, we do not have a sound foundation for objective morality, which is my second contention.
In conclusion then, we’ve seen that if God exists, we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and objective moral duties, but that if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. Dr. Harris’ atheism thus sits very ill with his ethical theory.
What I’m offering Dr. Harris tonight is not a new set of moral values--I think by and large we share the same applied ethics--rather what I’m offering is a sound foundation for the objective moral values and duties that we both hold dear.
Thank you very much.
I just want to say, it’s an honor to be here at Notre Dame, and I’m very happy to be debating Dr. Craig, the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists. I’ve actually gotten more than a few emails this week, that more or less read, “Brother, please, don’t blow this.” So, you will be the judge.
Now, as many of you know, I’ve spent a fair amount of time criticizing religion. And one of the perks of this job is that you immediately hear from all the people who think that criticizing religion is a terrible thing to do. And, strangely, the reason people rise to the defense of God is not that there’s so much evidence that God exists, but that they believe that belief in God is the only intellectual framework for an objective morality. And, clearly, Dr. Craig is among their number.
Now, the sense is, that without the conviction that moral truths exist, that words like “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “evil”, actually mean something, humanity will just lose its way. That’s the fear. And I actually share that fear. I’ve come to believe that this, this concern that many religious people have, of the erosion of secular morality, is not an entirely empty one.
Now I once spoke at an academic meeting on these themes, and I, and I said, as I will say tonight, that once we understand morality in terms of human well-being, we’ll be able to make strong claims about which behaviors and ways of life are good for us and which aren’t. And I cited, as an example, the sadism and misogyny of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that was less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing. And it turns out, that to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy, and after my remarks I, I fell into debate with another , invited speaker, and this is more or less exactly how our conversation went.
She said, “How could you ever say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong from the point of view of science?” I said, “Well, because I think it’s pretty clear that right and wrong relate to human well-being, and it’s just as clear that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags and beating them, or killing them when they try to get out, is not a way of maximizing human well-being.”
And she said, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” And I said, “Well, okay, let’s make it even easier. Let’s say we found a culture that was literally removing the eyeballs of every third child, ok, at birth. Would you then agree that we have found a culture that is not perfectly maximizing well-being?”
And she said, “It would depend on why they were doing it.” So after my eyebrows returned from the back of my head, I said, “Okay, well say they were doing it for religious reasons. Let’s say they have a scripture which says, ‘Every third should walk in darkness.’ or some such nonsense.” And then she said, “Well, then you could never say that they were wrong.” Okay, and so I, I—you should know, I was talking to someone who has a deep background in science and philosophy. She’s actually since been appointed to the President’s Council on Bioethics. She’s one of thirteen people advising the President on the ethical implications of advances in medicine and, and , related sciences and technology, and she had just delivered a perfectly lucid lecture on the moral implications of neuroscience for the courts. And she was especially concerned that we could be subjecting captured terrorists to lie-detection neuro-imaging technology–—and she viewed this as, as really an unconscionable violation of cognitive liberty. So on the one hand, her moral scruples were very finely calibrated to recoil from the slightest perceived misstep in ethical terms in our War on Terror; and yet she was quite willing to forgive some primitive culture its fondness for removing the eyeballs of children in its religious rituals. And she seemed to me quite terrifyingly detached from the real suffering of millions of women in Afghanistan at this moment. So, I see this double standard as a problem. And strangely, this is precisely the erosion of basic common sense that many religious people are worried about. I hope it’ll be clear to you, at the end of this hour, that religion is not an answer to this problem, ok. Belief in God is not only unnecessary for a universal morality, it’s, it’s, it’s, it is itself a source of moral blindness.
Now, it’s widely believed that there are two quantities in this universe—there are facts, on the one hand, and of course science can give us our most rigorous discussion of these; but then there are values, which many people, like Dr. Craig, think science can’t touch; questions of meaning, and morality, and what life is good for. Now of course, everyone thinks that science can help us get what we value, ok, but it can never tell us what we ought to value, ok, and therefore it cannot, in principle, be applied to the most important questions in human life–—questions like how we should raise our children, or what constitutes a good life. Now, it’s thought, from the point of view of science, and Dr. Craig just gave voice to this opinion, that when we look at the universe, all we see are patterns of events–—just one thing follows another–—and there’s no corner of the universe that declares certain of its events to be good or evil, or right or wrong apart from us. I mean, our minds—–we declare certain events to be better than others. But in doing that, it seems that we’re merely projecting our own values and desires onto a reality that is intrinsically value-free. And where do our notions of right and wrong come from? Well clearly they’ve been drummed into us by evolution. They’re the product of these apish urges and social emotions; and then they get modulated by culture. If you take sexual jealousy, for instance. This is an attitude that has been bred into us, over millions of years, ok. Our ancestors were highly covetous of one another, despite the fact that everyone was covered with hair, and had terrible teeth; and this, this possessiveness now gets enshrined in various cultural institutions like the institution of marriage, ok. So therefore, a statement like, “It’s wrong to cheat on one’s spouse”, ok, seems a mere summation of these contingencies. It seems like it, it, it’s an improvisation on the back of biology, ok. It seems that, that, that from the point of view of science, it can’t really be wrong to cheat on your spouse, ok. This is just, just how apes like ourselves worry, when we learn to worry with words, ok.
Now here is where religious people, like Dr. Craig, begin to get a little queasy, as I think they should. And many see no alternative but to insert the God of Abraham—–an Iron Age god of war–—into the clockwork, as an invisible arbiter of moral truth. It is wrong to cheat on your spouse because Yahweh deems that it is so. Which is curious, because in other moods, Yahweh is perfectly fond of genocide, and slavery, and human sacrifice. I must say, it’s pretty amusing to hear Dr. Craig in his opening remarks say that I’m merely focused on the flourishing of sentient creatures on this planet. If that’s a sin, I’ll take it. One wonders what Dr. Craig is focused on.
Now, incidentally, you should not trust Dr. Craig’s reading of me. Half the quotes he provided “from me” as though I wrote them were quotes from people I was quoting in my book and often to different effect. So you’ll have to read the book.
Now, in claiming that values reduce to the well-being of conscious creatures—–as I will–—, I’m introducing two concepts: Consciousness and well-being. Now, let’s start with consciousness—–this is not an arbitrary starting point. Imagine a universe devoid of the possibility of consciousness–—imagine a universe entirely constituted of rocks. Ok, there’s clearly no happiness or suffering in this universe; there’s no good or evil; value judgments don’t apply. For, for changes in the universe to matter, they have to matter, at least potentially, to some conscious system.
Ok, what about well-being? Well, the well-being of conscious creatures, and the, and the link between that and morality, may seem open to doubt, but it shouldn’t. Ok, here’s the only assumption you have to make. Imagine a universe in which every conscious creatures suffers as much as it possibly can, for as long as it can. Ok, I call this “the worst possible misery for everyone”. Ok, the worst possible misery for everyone is bad. Ok, if, if, if the word “bad” applies anywhere, it applies here. Now, if you think the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad, or maybe it has a silver lining, or maybe there’s something worse, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And what’s more, I’m pretty sure you don’t know what you’re talking about either.
The—what I’m saying is, the minimum standard of moral goodness is to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. If we should do anything in this universe, if we ought to do anything, if we have a moral duty to do anything, it’s to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. And the moment you admit this, you admit that, that, that all other possible states of the universe are better than the worst possible misery for everyone. You have the worst possible misery for everyone over here, and all these other constellation of experiences arrayed out here, and because the experience of conscious creatures is dependent in some way on the laws of nature, there will be right and wrong ways to move along this continuum. It will be possible to think that you’re avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone—–and to fail. You can be wrong in your beliefs about how to navigate this space.
So here’s my argument, for moral truth in the context of science. Questions of right and wrong, and good and evil, depend upon minds. They depend upon the possibility of experience. Minds are natural phenomena. They depend upon the laws of nature in some way. Morality and human values, therefore, can be understood through science, because in talking about these things, we are talking about all of the facts that influence the well-being of conscious creatures. In our case, we’re talking about genetics, and neurobiology, and psychology, and sociology, and economics.
Now, I view this space of all possible experience as a kind of moral landscape, with peaks that correspond to the heights of well-being, and valleys that correspond to the lowest suffering. And the first thing to realize, is that there may be many equivalent peaks on this landscape. There may be many different, but morally-equivalent ways for human beings to thrive. But there will be many more ways not to thrive. There will be many more ways to fail to be on a peak. There are clearly many more ways to suffer unnecessarily in this world than to be sublimely happy.
Now, the Taliban are still my favorite example, of a culture that is struggling mightily to build a society that’s clearly less good than many other societies on offer. Ok, the average lifespan for women in Afghanistan is 44 years. Ok, they have a 12% literacy rate. They have the highest, almost the highest infant mortality and maternal mortality in the world—–and also almost the highest fertility—–so this is one of the best places on Earth to watch women and infants die. Ok, it seems to me perfectly obvious that the, the best response to this dire situation—–which is to say the most moral response—–is not to throw battery acid in the faces of little girls for the crime of learning to read. Now of course, this is common sense to us, unless you happen to be a bioethicist on the President’s commission at this moment. But I’m saying, at bottom, it is also, these are also truths about biology, and neurology, and psychology, and sociology, and economics. It is not unscientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality, that the moment we notice that we know anything at all about human well-being, we have to say this.
Ok, now some people with a little philosophical training may be tempted to say, “What if a father wants to burn off his daughter’s face with battery acid? Who are you to say that he’s not as moral as we are? What if he has an alternate conception of well-being that’s just as legitimate?” or, “Who’s to say that we should care about the well-being of little girls?” This is the kind of email I get, incidentally. Now, moral skeptics of this kind, and Dr. Craig has essentially endorsed this position, in a way, without God, think that the only way to judge one person’s values to be wrong are with respect to another person’s values, and all such judgments have to be on a par. Ok, this is not true. There, there are many ways for my values to be objectively wrong. They can be, they can be wrong with respect to deeper values that I hold. They can be wrong with respect to deeper values that I would hold if I were only a deeper person. It’s clearly possible to value things that reliably make you miserable in this life. Ok, it’s clearly possible to be cognitively and emotionally closed to experiences that you would want if you were only intelligent and knowledgeable enough to want them. It is possible not to know what one is missing in life. So things can be right or wrong, or good and evil, quite independent of a person’s opinions.
Now, some of you might worry that I haven’t defined “well-being” enough. How can something this loose as a concept be the, the, the benchmark of, of, , objective values? Well, consider by analogy the concept of physical health. Physical health is very difficult to define, you know. It used to be that if you were “healthy” you could expect to live to the ripe old age of forty. Even now, our lifespan, our life expectancy has doubled in the last 150 years. What, what does “health” mean? Well, it has something to do with not always vomiting, ok, not being in excruciating pain, not running a fever. Ok but how fast should a “healthy” person be able to run? That question might not have an answer, but this does not make the question of health vacuous. Ok, it doesn’t make it merely a matter of opinion, or of cultural construction. The distinction between a healthy person and a dead one is about as clear and consequential as any we ever make in science. Ok, and notice that no one is ever tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like, “Well, who are you to say that not always vomiting is healthy? What if you meet someone who wants to vomit, and he wants to vomit until he dies, ok? How could you argue that he is not as healthy as you are?” In talking about morality and human values, I think we really are talking about mental health and the health of societies.
And the truth is, science has always been in the values business. We simply cannot speak of facts without resorting to values. Consider the simplest statement of scientific fact: Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. This seems as value-free an utterance as human beings ever make. But what do we do when someone doubts the truth of this proposition? Ok, all we can do is appeal to scientific values. The value of understanding the world. The value of evidence. The value of logical consistency. What if someone says, “Well, that’s not how I choose to think about water. Ok, I’m Biblical chemist, and I read in Genesis 1 that God created water before he created light. So I take that to mean that there were no stars. So there were no stars to fuse hydrogen and helium into heavier elements like oxygen; therefore there was no oxygen to put in the water, so either God created, either water has no oxygen, or God created special oxygen to put in the water—but I don’t think he would do that, because that would be Biblically inelegant.” Ok, what can we say to such a person? Ok, all we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn’t share those values, the conversation is over. Ok, if someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?
Ok, so this, this, I think this split between facts and values should look really strange to you on its face. I mean, what are we really saying when we say that science can’t be applied to the most important questions in human life? Ok, we’re saying that when we get our biases out of the way, when we, when we most fully rely on clear reasoning and honest observation, when, when intellectual honesty is at its zenith, well, then those efforts have no application whatsoever to the most important questions of human life. That is precisely the mood you cannot be in to answer the most important questions in human life. It would be very strange if that were so.
You’ll recall in my first speech that I said I was going to defend two basic contentions tonight. First, that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.
First, I explained that if God exists, then objective moral values are grounded in the character of God himself, who is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, generous, and so forth.
Here Dr. Harris didn’t have anything by way of disagreement to say, but I do want to clear up a possible confusion. He represented this by saying that if religion were not true, then words like “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil” would have no meaning. I’m not maintaining that. That is to confuse moral ontology with moral semantics. Moral ontology asks, “What is the foundation of objective moral values and duties?” Moral semantics asks, “What is the meaning of moral terms?” And I am not making any kind of semantical claim tonight that “good” means something like “commanded by God”. Rather, my concern is moral ontology: What is the ground, or foundation, of moral values and duties?
To give an illustration, think of light. Light is a certain visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum. But obviously, that isn’t the meaning of the word “light”. People knew how to use the word “light” long before they discovered its physical nature. And, I might also add, they certainly knew the difference between light and darkness long before they understood the physics of light. Now, in exactly the same way, we can know the meaning of moral terms like “good” and “evil”, “right” and “wrong”, and know the difference between good and evil, without being aware that the good is grounded in God ontologically.
So, that is the position I am defending tonight, that moral values are grounded ontologically in God.
Second, that our moral duties are grounded by God’s commandments, which are a necessary reflection of his nature. Here the only response that I detected from Dr. Harris was to refer to the atrocities in the Hebrew Bible. But I think this is quite irrelevant to tonight’s discussion; there are plenty of Divine Command theorists who are not Jews or Christians and place no stock whatsoever in the Bible. So this isn’t an objection to Divine Command theory that I’m defending tonight. Now, if you are interested in biblical ethics, I want to highly recommend Paul Copan’s new book Is God a Moral Monster?, which examines those passages in the Hebrew Bible in light of the Ancient Near East.15 And I can guarantee you, it will be a very enlightening and interesting read. But this issue is strictly irrelevant in tonight’s debate.
So we’ve not heard any objection to a theistic grounding for ethics. If God does exist, it’s clear, I think—obvious even—that we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.
Now, what if God does not exist? Is there a sound foundation, first of all, for objective moral values? Now here, Dr. Harris said, “You don’t need religion in order to have universal morality.” Again, that’s a confusion. Of course, you don’t! Remember, the Nazis, for example, could have won World War II and established a universal morality. The issue isn’t universality, the issue is objectivity. And I’m maintaining that in the absence of God, there isn’t any reason, any explanation, for the existence of objective moral values.
Now Dr. Harris says, “But we can imagine creatures being in the worst possible misery, and it’s obviously better for creatures to be flourishing—the well-being of conscious creatures is good.” Well, of course, it is. That’s not the question. We agree that, all things being equal, flourishing of conscious creatures is good. The question is rather, if atheism were true, what would make the flourishing of conscious creatures objectively good? Conscious creatures might like to flourish, but there’s no reason on atheism to think that it would really be objectively good.
Now here Dr. Harris, I think, is guilty of misusing, , terms like “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, in equivocal ways. He will often use them in non-moral senses. For example, he’ll say there are objectively good and bad moves in chess.16 Now that’s clearly not a moral use of the terms “good” and “bad”. You just mean they’re not apt to win or produce a winning strategy. It’s not evil, what you’ve done. And similarly, in ordinary English, we use the words “good” and “bad” in a number of non-moral ways. For example, we say Notre Dame has a “good” team. Now we can hope it’s an ethical team, but that’s not what’s indicated by the win-loss record! That—that is a different meaning of “good”. Or we say, “That’s a good way to get yourself killed!” or “That’s a good game plan” or “The sunshine felt good” or “That’s a good route to East Lansing” or “There’s no good reason to do that” or “She’s in good health”. All of these are non-moral uses of the word “good”. And Dr. Harris’s contrast of the good life and the bad life is not an ethical contrast between a morally good life and an evil life. It’s a contrast between a pleasurable life and a miserable life. And there’s no reason to equate “pleasure/misery” with “good” and “evil”--especially on atheism! So there’s just no reason that’s been given, on atheism, for thinking the flourishing of conscious creatures is objectively good.
But Dr. Harris has to defend an even more radical claim than that: , he claims that the property of being good is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing. And he’s not offered any defense of this radical identity claim. In fact, I think we have a knock-down argument against it. Now bear with me here; this is a little technical. On the next-to-last page of his book, Dr. Harris makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his “moral landscape” would no longer be a moral landscape.17 Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and bad people, or evil people, alike.
Now what’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book, Dr. Harris explained that about three million Americans are psychopathic.18 That is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others. They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape. The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people. But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either. For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A. So if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.
Now since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and goodness are not the same, as Dr. Harris has asserted in his book.
Now it’s not often in philosophy that you get a knock-down argument against a position. But I think we’ve got one here. , by granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Dr. Harris’s view becomes logically incoherent.
And all of this goes to underline my fundamental point that on atheism, there’s just no reason to identify the well-being of conscious creatures with moral goodness. Atheism cannot explain the reality—the objective reality—of moral values.
What about objective moral duties? I first argued from the is/ought distinction that there is no basis on, , atheism, for thinking that we have any moral val—, duties. And here Dr. Harris says, “If we have a moral duty to do anything, we have a duty, , to avoid the worst possible misery”. But the question is the antecedent of that conditional: “If we have a moral duty to do anything.” What I’m arguing is that on atheism, I don’t see any reason to think we have any moral duties to do anything.
Moral obligations or prohibitions arise in response to imperatives from a competent authority. For example, if a policeman tells you to pull over, then because of his authority, who he is, you are legally obligated to pull over. But if some random stranger tells you to pull over, you’re not legally obligated to do so. Now, in the absence of God, what authority is there to issue moral commands or prohibitions? There is none on atheism, and therefore there are no moral imperatives for us to obey. In the absence of God there just isn’t any sort of moral obligation or prohibition that characterizes our lives. In particular, we’re not morally obligated to promote the flourishing of conscious creatures. So this is/ought distinction seems to me to be one that’s fatal to Dr. Harris’s position and has been widely recognized as such by reviewers of The Moral Landscape.
But secondly, the problem that’s even worse is the “ought implies can” problem. In the absence of the ability to do otherwise, there is no moral responsibility. In the absence of freedom of the will, we are just puppets or electro-chemical machines. And puppets do not have moral responsibilities. Machines are not moral agents. But on Dr. Harris’s view, there is no freedom of the will, either in a libertarian or a compatibilistic sense, and therefore, there is no moral responsibility. So there isn’t even the possibility of moral duty on his view.
So while I can affirm and applaud Dr. Harris’s affirmation of the objectivity of moral values and moral duties, at the end of the day his philosophical worldview just doesn’t ground these entities that we both want to affirm. If God exists, then we clearly have a sound foundation for objective moral values and moral duties. But if God does not exist, that is, if atheism is true, then there is no basis for the affirmation of objective moral values; and there is no ground for objective moral duties because there is no moral lawgiver and there is no freedom of the will. And therefore it seems to me that atheism is simply bereft of the adequate ontological foundations to establish the moral life.
Well, that was all very interesting. Ask yourselves, what is wrong with spending eternity in Hell? Well, I, I’m told it’s rather hot there, for one. Dr. Craig is not offering an alternative view of morality. Ok, the whole point of Christianity, or so it is imagined, is to safeguard the eternal well-being of human souls. Now, happily, there’s absolutely no evidence that the Christian Hell exists. I think we should look at the consequences of believing in this framework, this theistic framework, in this world, and what these moral underpinnings actually would be.
Alright, nine million children die every year before they reach the age of five. ok, picture, picture a, a a Asian tsunami of the sort we saw in 2004, that killed a quarter of a million people. One of those, every ten days, killing children only under five. Ok, that’s 20, 24,000 children a day, a thousand an hour, 17 or so a minute. That means before I can get to the end of this sentence, some few children, very likely, will have died in terror and agony. Ok,, think of, think of the parents of these children. Think of the fact that most of these men and women believe in God, and are praying at this moment for their children to be spared. And their prayers will not be answered. Ok, but according to Dr. Craig, this is all part of God’s plan. Any God who would allow children by the millions to suffer and die in this way, and their parents to grieve in this way, either can do nothing to help them, or doesn’t care to. He is therefore either impotent or evil.
And worse than that, on Dr. Craig’s view, most of these people—–many of these people, certainly—–will be going to Hell because they’re praying to the wrong God. Just think about that. Ok, through no fault of their own, they were born into the wrong culture, where they got the wrong theology, and they missed the revelation. Ok, there are 1.2 billion people in India at this moment. Most of them are Hindus, most of them therefore are polytheists. Ok, in Dr. Craig’s universe, no matter how good these people are, they are doomed. If you are, if you are praying to the Monkey God Hanuman, you are doomed, ok. You’ll be tortured in Hell for eternity. Now, is there the slightest evidence for this? No. It just says so in Mark 9, and Matthew 13, and Revelation 14. Ok, perhaps you’ll remember from The Lord of the Rings, it says when the elves die, they go to Valanor, but they can be reborn in Middle Earth. I say that just as a point of comparison.
Ok, so God created the cultural isolation of the Hindus, ok. He engineered the circumstance of their deaths in ignorance of revelation, and then he created the penalty for this ignorance, which is an eternity of conscious torment in fire. Ok, on the other hand, on Dr. Craig’s account, your run-of-the-mill serial killer in America, ok, who spent his life raping and torturing children, need only come to God, come to Jesus, on Death Row, and after a final meal of fried chicken, he’s going to spend an eternity in Heaven after death, ok. One thing should be crystal clear to you: This vision of life has absolutely nothing to do with moral accountability.
Ok, and please notice the double standard that people like Dr. Craig use to exonerate God from all this evil, ok. We’re told that God is loving, and kind, and just, and intrinsically good; but when someone like myself points out the rather obvious and compelling evidence that God is cruel and unjust, because he visits suffering on innocent people, of a scope and scale that would embarrass the most ambitious psychopath, we’re told that God is mysterious, ok. “Who can understand God’s will?” Ok and yet, this is precisely—this, this, this “merely human” understanding of God’s will, is precisely what believers use to establish his goodness in the first place. You know, something good happens to a Christian, he feels some bliss while praying, say, or he sees some positive change in his life, and we’re told that God is good. But when children by the tens of thousands are torn from their parents’ arms and drowned, we’re told that God is mysterious, ok. This is how you play tennis without the net.
And I want to suggest to you, that it is not only tiresome when otherwise-intelligent people speak this way, it is morally reprehensible. Ok, this kind of faith, is, is really the perfection of narcissism. “God loves me, dontcha know. He, he cured me of my eczema. He makes me feel so good while singing in church, and, and just when we had given up hope, we found a banker who was willing to reduce my mother’s mortgage.”
Ok given all the good—all that this God of yours does not accomplish in the lives of others, given, given the, the misery that’s being imposed on some helpless child at this instant, this kind of faith is obscene. Ok, to think in this way is to fail to reason honestly, or to care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings. And if God is good and loving and just and kind, and he wanted to guide us morally with a book, why give us a book that supports slavery? Why give us a book that admonishes us to kill people for imaginary crimes, like witchcraft. Now, of course, there is a way of not taking these questions to heart, ok. According to Dr. Craig’s Divine Command theory, God is not bound by moral duties; God doesn’t have to be good. Whatever he commands is good, so when he commands that the Israelites to slaughter the Amalekites, that behavior becomes intrinsically good because he commanded it.
Ok, well here we’re being offered—I’m glad he raised the issue of psychopathy—we are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude. It’s psychotic because this is completely delusional. There’s no reason to believe that we live in a universe ruled by an invisible monster Yahweh. But it is, it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the, from the well-being of human beings. It, this so easily rationalizes the slaughter of children. Ok, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr. Craig can s—can say against their behavior, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God. If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on Divine Command theory.
Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr. Craig, or all religious people, are psychopaths and psychotics, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own. If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is gonna turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, ok, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.
And, and I’m not the first person to notice that it’s a, it’s a very strange sort of loving God who would make salvation depend on believing in him on bad evidence. Ok, it’s, it’s, I mean, if you lived 2,000 years ago, there was evidence galore, I mean, he was just performing miracles. But apparently, he got tired of being so helpful. And so now, we all inherit this very heavy burden of the doctrine’s implausibility. And, and, and, and the effort to square it with what we now know about the cosmos and what we know about the all-too-human origins of Scripture becomes more and more difficult. Ok, and, and, and it’s not just the generic God that Dr. Craig is recommending; it is God the Father and Jesus the Son. Christianity, on Dr. Craig’s account, is the true moral wealth of the world.
Well, I hate to break it to you, here at Notre Dame, but Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice. Christianity is not a religion that cel—that repudiates human sacrifice. It is a religion that celebrates a single human sacrifice as though it were effective. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” John 3:16. Okay, the idea is that Jesus suffered the crucifixion so that none need suffer Hell—except those billions in India, and billions like them throughout history. Ok, this is, this is, this is astride, this doctrine is astride a contemptible history of scientific ignorance and religious barbarism. We come from people who used to bury children under the foundations of new buildings as offerings to their imaginary gods. Ok, just think about that. There, in vast numbers of societies, people would bury children in postholes–—people like ourselves—–thinking that this would prevent an invisible being from knocking down their buildings. These are the sorts of people who wrote the Bible. Ok, if there is a less moral, moral framework than the one Dr. Craig is proposing, I haven’t heard of it.
The less moral framework is atheism! Atheism has no grounds for objective moral values or duties. And it’s interesting that in that last speech, I was disappointed to hear no defense given of that crucial, , second contention that I offered against Dr. Harris’s view. Remember, we talked about the Value Problem. I gave what I consider a knock-down argument to show that the moral landscape is not identical to the continuum of human flourishing. We talked about objective moral duties, the “is vs. ought” distinction, the “ought implies can” problem. None of these have been responded to. So if you want a really desperate moral system, try atheism! There’s no foundation for objective moral values and duties there.
Now, what about theism? Does it do any better? Well, in the last speech, we heard some attacks on my first contention, that God provides a sound foundation for morality. Unfortunately, it seems to me that most of these were red herrings. A red herring is a smelly old fish that’s dragged across the path of the bloodhounds to distract them from their true quarry, so they get distracted and go off following the dead fish. And I’m not going to be distracted by the red herrings that were offered in that speech!
For example, in response to my claim that if God exists, then objective moral values exist, we heard that I haven’t truly offered an alternative to his view because the goal on theism is to avoid Hell. Honestly, that just simply shows how poorly Sam Harris understands Christianity. You don’t believe in God to avoid going to Hell. Belief in God isn’t some kind of fire insurance. You believe in God because God, as the supreme Good, is the appropriate object of adoration and love. He is Goodness itself, to be desired for its own sake. And so the fulfillment of human existence is to be found in relation to God. It’s because of who God is and his moral worth that he is worthy of worship. It has nothing to do with avoiding Hell, or promoting your own well-being.
He then responds, “But there’s no good reason to believe that such a being exists. Look at the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelized.” Both of these, as I explained in my opening, are irrelevant in tonight’s debate because I’m not arguing that God exists. Maybe he’s right; maybe these are insuperable objections to Christianity or to theism. It wouldn’t affect either of my contentions: that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we have no foundation for objective moral values and duties. So these are red herrings.
Now I have written on each of these problems, the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelized, and you can find much of what I’ve said at our website www.reasonablefaith.org. If you’re interested, go ahead and look at that. Or, as Michael Rea suggested, talk to one of your philosophy professors. Michael has written extensively on the problem of evil, and I’m sure he’d love to have a conversation with you about, , those things.
Notice, , secondly, I would want to say, evil actually proves that God exists because if God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist! If evil exists, it follows that moral values and duties do exist, namely, some things are evil. So evil actually proves the existence of God, since in the absence of God, good and evil as such would not exist. So you cannot press both the problem of evil and agree with my, , contention that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist because evil will actually be an argument for the existence of God.
Notice that Dr. Harris has no moral foundation for saying that Christian beliefs are morally execrable, because he has no foundation for making such a judgment. If atheism is true, what objective foundation is there for affirming that one view is execrable and another is not? There’s simply no basis for such judgments. So if he wants to have a debate on theism, I will happily, , engage in one with him; but that’s not the debate for tonight.
He also says it’s “psychopathic” to believe these things. Now, that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting. It is absurd to think that Peter van Inwagen here at the University of Notre Dame is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr. Tom Flint, who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic. , this is simply, , below the belt.
So it seems to me that we’ve not been given any refutation of the view that if God does exist, then his essence, his character, is determinative for the existence of objective moral values.
What about objective moral duties? Here I explained that God’s commands must be consistent with his nature. And Dr. Harris continues to press the point, “Oh, but the Bible supports slavery”. Again I’ll refer you to Professor Copan’s book,19 which shows that that is a gross misrepresentation of ancient Israel, which did not in fact promote slavery as we understand it, , in light of the experience in the American South.
But, again, that’s simply not relevant, ’cause I’m not—, that isn’t relevant because I’m not defending, , the Bible tonight! I’m saying that, , for a theist—whether Jew, Christian, deist, Hindu—, moral duties will be grounded in the divine commands, which are based in his nature.
He says, “But then what about people like the Taliban, who say that God has commanded them to do certain atrocities?” I would say the very same thing to the Taliban that Dr. Harris says, namely, “God did not command you to do those things.” That’s exactly what Dr. Harris would say. The reason he thinks that is that he doesn’t believe that God exists, but I would say that because I think that the Taliban has got the wrong God, that in fact God hasn’t commanded them to commit these atrocities, and, indeed, God will only issue such commands are—as are consistent with his moral nature and for which he has morally sufficient reasons.
So I don’t think this first contention is really in much dispute tonight. I think it’s obvious that if God exists, then obviously objective moral values exist, independently of human opinion—they’re grounded in the character of God—and there would be objective moral duties, if God exists, because our duties arise in response to the moral imperatives that God issues to us.
So the real debate is on that second contention: can atheism provide a foundation for objective moral values and duties? And I think we’ve seen powerful reasons to think that it cannot.
Well, you, , perhaps you’ve noticed Dr. Craig has a charming habit of summarizing his opponent’s points in a way in which they were not actually given, so I will leave it to you to sort it out on Youtube. Needless to say, I didn’t call those esteemed colleagues of his psychopaths, as I made clear.
, in any case, Dr. Craig has merely defined God as being intrinsically good. It’s, if you want to charge someone with merely semantic games, it ap—the shoe’s on, on the other foot as well. There is, there is no reason that I can see why there couldn’t be an evil God, , or several. Ok, he, but his God is intrinsically good, goodness is grounded in his very nature. That is a, a, a definitional move that he has made.
Now, I have presented a positive case for grounding an objective morality in the context of science. And thinking about moral truth in the context of science should only pose a problem for you, if you imagine that a science of morality has to be absolutely self-justifying in a way that no science ever could be. Ok, every branch of science must rely on certain axiomatic assumptions, ok, certain core values. And a science of morality would be on the same footing as a science of medicine, or physics, or chemistry. You need only assume that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding, and indeed, the worst-case scenario for conscious life. And if science is unscientific, if this, if, if, if, if having a value assumption at the core renders science unscientific, what is scientific?
Now, Dr. Craig is confused about what it means to speak with scientific objectivity about the human condition. He says things like, “from the point of view of science, we’re just constellations of atoms, and we’re no more valuable than rats or insects”, ok, as though the only scientifically objective thing that could be said about us that we’re constellations of atoms. Ok there, there are two very different senses in which we, we use these terms, “subjective” and “objective”. Ok there, there is, the first is epistemological. It relates to how we know. And when we say we’re reasoning or thinking objectively in this sense, we’re talking about, about the style in which we’re thinking. We’re talking about the fact that we’re, we’re, we’re seeing through our biases, which is to say, trying to jettison bias. We are reasoning in a way that’s available to the data. Ok our minds are open to counter-arguments. , now this is the, this is the absolute foundation of science, and this is what, this is what opens such an invidious gulf between science and religion, the difference, here, in the approach to objectivity. But science does not require that we ignore the fact that certain facts are subjective, ontologically subjective. Ok there are facts about the human condition that science can understand and study, that are first-person facts, facts about what it’s like to be you. Ok and, and we can study these facts, and our study of them reveals how much deeper and richer and more meaningful our lives are than the lives of cockroaches. Ok so this is a false reductionism that he’s purveying here.
Now, so there are subjective facts. If you happen to have an intact nervous system, being burned alive will be excruciatingly painful. The painfulness of pain is a subjective fact about you. Ok I’m—but what my argument, , entails is that there, there are, we can speak objectively about a certain class of subjective facts that go by the name of morality, that relate to questions of “good” and “evil”, and that these depend upon the well-being of conscious creatures, especially our own.
And by this light, we can see that it’s possible to value the wrong things. I mean, if you think you prefer to be neurotic and in pain, and incapable of creative work, and completely disconnected from other people, there’s something wrong with you, ok. Objectively wrong with you? Yes! In that you are closed to higher states of consciousness. Higher with respect to what? Higher as in further from the lowest possible state of consciousness, the worst possible misery for everyone.
Is the worst possible misery for everyone really bad? Once again, we have hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question. Now, I want to take a brief moment to speak about these higher possibilities, because it’s often thought that nonbelievers like myself are closed to some remarkable experiences that religious people have. That’s not true; that’s not true. There’s nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing self-transcending love and ecstasy, and rapture, and awe. There’s nothing that prevents an atheist from going into a cave for a year, like a proper mystic, and doing nothing but meditate on compassion. What atheists don’t tend to do is make unjustifiable and unjustified claims about the nature of the cosmos or about the divine origin of certain books on the basis of those experiences.
Now, the, the prospect of somebody becoming a true saint in life and, and inspiring people long after their deaths, is something that I take very seriously. I’ve, I’ve, I’ve spent a lot of time studying meditation with some very great wise old yogis and Tibetan lamas who’ve spent decades on retreat, I mean really remarkable people, ok. People who I actually consider to be spiritual geniuses, of a certain sort. And so I can well imagine that if Jesus was a spiritual genius, you know, a palpably non-neurotic, and charismatic and wise person, I can well imagine the experience of his disciples. I can well imagine the kind of influence he could have on their lives, ok. We do not have to presuppose anything on insufficient evidence in order to explore this higher terrain of human well-being. We don’t have to take anything on faith. We don’t have to lie to ourselves, or to, to our children, about the nature of reality. If we want to understand our situation in the world, along with these deeper possibilities, we have to do it in the spirit of science. Ok given, given that people have had these experiences in every context, while worshiping one God, while worshiping hundreds, while worshiping none, that proves, that a deeper principle is at work. That the sectarian claims of, of our various religions can’t possibly be true in that context. And all we have is human conversation to capture these possibilities. We can either have a first-century conversation, as dictated by the New Testament, or a seventh century conversation as dictated by the Qur’an—or a twenty-first century conversation that leaves us open to the full wealth of human learning.
Please think about these things.
In my closing statement, I’d like to draw together some of the threads of the debate and see if we can come to some conclusions.
First, I argued that God, if he exists, provides a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. By the time of last his rebuttal, the only argument that I heard Dr. Harris offering against this position is to say that you’re merely defining God as good, which is the same fallacy I accused him of committing. I don’t think this is the case at all. God is a being worthy of worship. Any being that is not worthy of worship is not God. And therefore God must be perfectly good and essentially good. More than that, as Anselm saw, God is the greatest conceivable being, and therefore he is, , the very paradigm of goodness itself. He is the greatest good. So once you understand the concept of God, you can see that asking, “Well, why is God good?” is sort of like asking, “Why are all bachelors unmarried?” , it’s the very concept of the greatest conceivable being, of being worthy of worship, that entails the essential goodness of God. And I think it’s evident, that if God exists, then, we do have objective moral values and duties.
Secondly, I argued if God does not exist, we have no foundation for objective moral values or objective moral duties. Um, I showed that on his view there is—it is logically impossible to say that the moral landscape is identical to the landscape of the flourishing of conscious beings, and that therefore his view is incoherent. We also looked at the is/ought distinction, and the “ought implies can”, to which Dr. Harris has never replied in the course of this evening’s debate.
In his last speech, he said, “But we simply must rely upon certain axioms”. Well, that’s the same as saying you’ve got to take it by faith! And if these axioms are moral axioms, then I think he’s admitting my point, that on atheism, there simply is no ground for believing in objective moral values and duties. He just takes them by a leap of faith.
He says, “Well, there are different senses of the word objective.” Yes, of course; and in my opening speech I made clear the sense in which I was defining the term: I mean “valid and binding independent of human opinion”. And moral values are not objectively binding and valid in that way on atheism. He says, “Science can study subjective facts; for example, pain is a subjective fact.” Granted, that’s certainly true. So my question is: Is the wrongness of an action a subjective fact? On atheism, it’s hard to see how it couldn’t be any more—anything more than a subjective fact, in which case you cannot say, as Dr. Harris wants to say, (and I agree with him) that the genital mutilation of little girls is objectively wrong, not just a subjective opinion.
He says, “Well, but, , if you’re psychopathic or neurotic, there’s something wrong with you!” Granted, I agree with that; there is something wrong with you! But the question is, on atheism—if atheism were true—, would there be anything objectively morally wrong with doing what the psychopath does? He hasn’t been able to show that. Indeed, there are no moral duties on his view, and remember he himself admitted that psychopaths could occupy the peaks of well-being on his so-called “moral landscape”, and that therefore it is not a moral landscape at all.
To conclude, I want to quote from a remarkable article that appeared in the Duke Law Journal, by, , Arthur Allen Leff, called “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law.” Dr. Leff’s difficulty is the same as Dr. Harris’s. He wants to find a foundation for moral values and duties, in this case, for the law, that would be, , independent of human opinion—it would be objective and it would be in the world. And he can’t find one. He says any attempt to ground values is open to the playground bully’s retort, “Who sez?” And this is how his article concludes:
All I can say is this: It looks as if we are all we have. . . . Only if ethics is something unspeakable by us [that is, something transcendent], could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved. . . .
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
(All together now:) Sez who?
God help us.20
I’m curious: How many of you consider yourselves to be devout Muslims? Let’s see a show of hands. Don’t mean to single anyone out, but not many. Now, you’re all aware, of course, that the Qur’an exists, and claims to be the perfect word of the creator of the universe? You’re aware that once having heard this possibility and rejecting it, you’re all going to Hell, for eternity? I mean, needless to say, Dr. Craig and I are both going to Hell if this vision of life is true. The problem is that everything Dr. Craig has said tonight, with a few modifications, could be said in defense of Islam, in fact has been said in defense of Islam, ok. The logic is exactly the same: We have a book that claims to be the word of the creator of the universe. It tells us about the nature of moral reality and how to live within it. But what if Muslims are right? What if Islam is true? How should we view God in moral terms? How would we view God in moral terms, or I should say, Allah? Ok, we have been born in the wrong place, to the wrong parents, given the wrong culture, given the wrong theology. Ok, needless to say, Dr. Craig is doomed. He’s been thoroughly confused by Christianity. I mean, just appreciate what a bad position he’s now in to appreciate the true word of God. I have been thoroughly misled by science. Ok, where is Allah’s compassion? And yet, an eter—He’s omni—He’s omnipotent; he could change this in an instant. He could give us a sign that would convince everyone in this room. And yet he’s not gonna do it. And Hell awaits. And Hell awaits our children, because we can’t help but mislead our children. Now, just hold this vision in mind, and first appreciate how little sleep you have lost over this possibility ok. Just feel in this moment how carefree you are, and will continue to be, in the face of this possibility. What are the chances that we’re all going to go Hell, for, for eternity, because we haven’t recognized the Qur’an to be the perfect word of the creator of the universe? Please know that this is exactly how Christianity appears to someone who’s not been indoctrinated by it.
Our scriptures were written by people, who by, by, by, by virtue of their placement in history, had less access to scientific information and facts, and basic common sense, than any person in this room. ok, in fact, there’s not a person in this room who has ever met a person whose worldview was as narrow as the worldview of Abraham, or Moses, or Jesus, or Mammad. And most of the people, with a few exceptions, had, had a moral worldview that was more or less indistinguishable from that of an Afghan warlord today. Ok and yet, Dr. Craig insists that the authors of the Bible knew everything that they had to know about the nature of the cosmos, and about how to live within it, to guide us at this moment. Ok I want to suggest to you that this vision of life can’t possibly be true. Ok, it would, just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality. Whatever is true about our circumstance in moral terms, and in spiritual terms, is discoverable now, and can be talked about in, in language that is not an outright affront to everything that we’ve learned in the last 2000 years. What remains for us to discover are the facts, in every domain of knowledge, that will allow the greatest number of us to live lives truly worth living in this world. I mean, how is it that we can build a global civilization, a viable global civilization, of now destined to be 9 billion people, where the maximum number of people truly flourish. That is the challenge we face. Sectarian moral denominations, ok, a world shattered, Balkanized by competing claims about an invisible God, is not the way to do it. Apart from the fact that there’s no evidence in the first place that should be compelling to us to adopt that view.
The only tool we need is honest inquiry. And I would suggest to you that, if faith is ever right about anything in this domain, it’s right by accident. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to talk to all of you.
1 Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), p. 198. He adds, “I sincerely hope that people like Rick Warren have not been paying attention.”
2 Ibid., p. 46, citing Donald Symons.
3 Sam Harris, “A Response to Critics,” Huffington Post (January 29, 2011); http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/a-response-to-critics_b_815742.html.
4 Harris, Moral Landscape, p. 102.
5 Ibid., p. 30.
6 Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262, 268-9.
7 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd edition (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1909), p. 100.
8 Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow (London: Allen Lane, 1998), cited in Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things before Breakfast (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 215. Unfortunately, Wolpert’s reference is mistaken. The quotation seems to be a pastiche from Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: a Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1996), p. 133 and Richard Dawkins, “The Ultraviolet Garden,” Lecture 4 of 7 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (1992), http://physicshead.blogspot.com/2007/01/richard-dawkins-lecture-4-ultraviolet.html. Thanks to my assistant Joe Gorra for tracking down this reference!
9 Harris, Moral Landscape, p. 12.
10 Ibid., p. 1.
11 Ibid., pp. 12.
12 Cited in ibid., p. 11.
13 Ibid., p. 104.
14 Ibid., p. 217.
15 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2011).
16 Moral Landscape, p. 8.
17 Ibid., p. 190.
18 Ibid., pp. 97-99.
19 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, chaps. 12-14.
20 Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal 1979, no. 6, p. 1249.