#208

April 11, 2011

Sam Harris on Objective Moral Values and Duties

Dear William,

I have a few questions in the context of your recent debate with Sam Harris.

1. In relation to the contention that objective moral values can be grounded on God, I have the impression that the two of you were talking past each other. You defended the view that it is ontologically possible for God to ground objective moral values, to which at the Q&A session Sam appeared to agree. Sam's objection was that the God of Bible-centric Christianity does not in fact ground objective moral values, simply because in the Bible He makes some commands which are objectively wrong. At the beginning of the debate you made clear that the irrelevance of the question of the existence of God. I wonder if it wouldn't have been better to also have made clear at the beginning that whether God is in fact how the Bible describes or how anybody understands the Bible, is also irrelevant.

2. At the Q&A session a participant suggested the following argument:

a) You can't derive an "ought" from an "is".
b) The existence of God is an "is" statement.
c) Therefore you can't derive an "ought" from the existence of God.

(c) appears to contradict your contention that objective moral values are grounded in God. Your response appeared to be that this is indeed why God's commands are needed.

Now I have always understood that (a) is true only on naturalism, and that on theism one can ground (both in the epistemic and ontological senses) an "ought" on an "is": On theism all existence is grounded on God who, being a person, has a moral dimension. So facts about contingent existents (such as actions or states of affairs) can have a moral dimension too.

Moreover theism offers a natural semantic understanding of ethics: God created the universe with a purpose. Actions and states of affairs in the universe are morally good to the degree that they further or comport with that purpose, and are ethically evil to the degree that they conflict with that purpose.

I wonder about your thoughts concerning the above.

3. I think that your "knock-down" argument against the identity between the moral landscape and the personal well-being landscape is valid, and that it is a pity that Sam did not try to respond. Couldn't he have responded that even though it is true that the two landscapes are not identical his basic argument does survive because it is reasonable to believe that the two are nevertheless sufficiently close? Indeed, doesn't Jesus' talk in the Gospels about what profits us or about creating eternal treasure, imply the idea that the moral landscape and the personal well-being landscape are so close that one can effectively use the later to find out about the former?

And in any case, do you think there is anything wrong with agreeing with Sam's project on the epistemic level? Can't a Christian agree that one can find out about objective moral values using the non-theistic epistemic means that Sam proposes, while pointing out that this is only possible in a theistic reality?

Dianelos

Greece

It’s gratifying to think that folks as far away as Greece were following this debate on the internet!

1. Your first question has to do with my first contention, that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. I argued that on theism God Himself, as the greatest conceivable being, is the paradigm and locus of moral value and that His essential character is expressed toward us in the form of divine commandments, which constitute our moral duties.

I think the problem was not that Harris and I were talking past each other but that Harris was unable to raise any substantive objection to my Divine Command Theory and so reverted to his usual anti-Christian shtick, inveighing against biblical doctrines like hell and Christian particularism. That this is the case is evident from the fact that I explained clearly in my second speech that these issues were irrelevant to the topic at hand, since Divine Command Theorists include theists who are neither Jews nor Christians nor place any stock in biblical infallibility, and yet Harris persisted merely in reiterating his points. Harris’ criticisms are red meat for his partisans in the free thought community, but they had nothing to do with the debate topic that evening, being, in effect, attacks upon the reliability of the biblical portrayal of God. In short, I think I said exactly what you say I should have said, along with recommending Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? for those who are interested in pursuing the question of biblical ethics.

2. Your second question has to do with the second part of my first contention, namely, that theism provides a sound foundation for objective moral duties. The strategy of the questioner was to try to show that I was caught in the same difficulty that I pressed against Harris’ view, namely, that while science can tell us what is the case, it cannot tell us what ought to be the case. In regard to this objection, I think you’re absolutely correct that (a) is a problem for naturalism, not for theism, which is why I was careful not to generalize my objection by saying that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.” For my take on this, see Question of the Week #165. As I explained in the debate, it seems to me that moral obligations arise as a consequence of imperatives issued by a competent or qualified authority. In the absence of such imperatives, objective moral duties do not exist. On theism, God, as the Good, is eminently qualified to issue moral commands.

Where the questioner made a misstep was in thinking that on my view, moral duties spring simply from God’s existence, which is not the view. Suppose that God never created a concrete world at all or a world in which the highest life form was rabbits, so that there were no created moral agents. In that case, God would not issue any commands, and so there would be no moral obligations or prohibitions of any sort. I suspect the questioner was confusing moral values with moral duties (these are not the same: it would be good for you to become a doctor, but you’re not morally obligated to become a doctor). The former are grounded in God Himself, the latter in God’s commands.

Be careful, however, not to confuse moral semantics with moral ontology. As I explained during the debate, moral semantics has to do with the meaning of moral terms like “good” and “right.” Theists are not offering theistic definitions of moral terms. We are not saying, for example, that “obligatory” means “commanded by God” or some such thing. We are using the terms in their ordinary sense in English. What we are doing is offering an ontology of moral values and duties that grounds them in the reality of God and His commands. This is very important because Harris was making a semantic claim, defining “good” as “the well-being of conscious creatures.” It was only on this basis that he could dismiss as senseless the obvious question, why, on atheism, is the well-being of conscious creatures objectively good? The problem for him is, not only does the English word “good” not mean what he says (look in any dictionary), but his re-definition is arbitrary and idiosyncratic.

3. Your third question has to do with the first part of my second contention, that on atheism we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values. Since my “knock-down” argument against Harris’ position was rather technical, let me reproduce it here from my second speech:

On the next to last page of his book, 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; rather it would just be a continuum of well-being, whose peaks are occupied by good and evil people alike (p. 190).

What’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book Harris observed that about three million Americans are psychopathic, that is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others. On the contrary, they enjoy inflicting pain on other people (pp. 97-99).

That implies that there is 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 is any possible world in which A is not identical to B, it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.

Since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and moral goodness are not the same, as Harris has asserted.

It’s not often in philosophy that one finds a knock-down argument against a position, but we seem to have one here. By granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Harris’ view becomes logically incoherent.

The point is that if the referents of two terms (like “3” and “√9”) are identical, they are necessarily identical. But Harris admits that the moral landscape and the continuum of well-being can fall apart. That is absolutely fatal to his attempt to identify moral goodness with the well-being of conscious creatures. It turns out that they cannot be the same thing. But then his whole ethical project collapses.

It’s of no avail to say that they are sufficiently close to each other because he has then failed to stave off the question: why, on atheism, is the well-being of conscious creatures objectively good? Remember that his escape from that question was to say that the question makes no sense because he has re-defined “good” to mean “the well-being of conscious creatures.” But since goodness and the well-being of conscious creatures are not identical, the question clearly is meaningful and pressing for his view.

But you mean, I think, “sufficiently close” to serve as a guide to moral behavior. This question, however, conflates moral ontology with moral epistemology. This conflation is so pervasive among students that if there were one distinction I could drill into them, it would be this. Moral ontology deals with the reality of moral values and duties; moral epistemology deals with how we come to know what moral values and duties there are. As I repeatedly explained, I am making no claim whatsoever about how we come to discover what goods there are and what duties we have. I’m honestly open to any sort of moral epistemology my interlocutor might propose. (That’s why some of the advertising for the debate was misleading in characterizing my position as being that we discover moral values through divine revelation. I neither argue for nor believe such a claim.)

Now in Harris’ case, I don’t think that the well-being of conscious creatures is a good guide to discovering our moral duties. Indeed, it seems to me that it leads naturally to eugenics. That would be curtains for people like Stephen Hawking—or even myself! On Harris’ view if torturing a little girl to death would somehow happen to lead to greater well-being of conscious creatures, then not only is it permissible, but you are morally obligated to torture her to death, which is unconscionable. Harris is aware of these problems (remember his example of the doctor who could save five lives by harvesting the organs of one healthy patient?), and his attempts to avert the consequences of his theory are utterly unconvincing (we can imagine that the doctor knows that no one will find out what he has done). So while I agree that, all else being equal, it’s good that conscious creatures flourish, I don’t think that this will be a reliable guide to discovering our moral duties.