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Sam Harris and The Moral Landscape

February 15, 2011     Time: 00:25:38
Sam Harris and The Moral Landscape


William Lane Craig discusses Sam Harris and his book The Moral Landscape, as well as their upcoming debate.

Transcript Sam Harris and The Moral Landscape


Kevin Harris: Welcome to the Reasonable Faith podcast—we're so glad you're here. Kevin Harris and Dr. William Lane Craig in studio. And it immediately lit up the blogosphere when it came out a few months ago, Bill, Sam Harris, his book The Moral Landscape, the subtitle is: How Science Can Determine Human Values. That ought to get your attention right away. Not only are we looking at Sam Harris' book here, but you have a debate with him coming up scheduled in April.

Dr. Craig: That's right, Kevin. I'm very excited about this. The University of Notre Dame has invited me to participate in a debate with Sam Harris on April 7th. And we'll be discussing some of these issues pertinent to the foundations of morality in theism, or not.

Kevin Harris: What are your thoughts on the book after looking through it?

Dr. Craig: Well it's a very interesting book. What he is arguing against are on the one hand, those who would ground moral values and duties in God, in some transcendent source, and who therefore think that science is morally neutral – science cannot make moral judgments. And he acknowledges this to be the majority point of view. In fact he said this is the received opinion in intelligentsia, that science makes factual statements about what is the case, but science cannot make normative statements about what ought to be the case in a moral sense. So he's arguing against those who would try to ground morality in some transcendent standard or sphere. On the other hand he's also arguing against those who are relativists and subjectivists, and say therefore there are no moral values; moral values are purely subjective, they are just the products of socio-biological evolution and they could be quite different, and therefore there are no objective moral values and duties. Against them Harris wants to affirm a strong moral objectivism, that it really does make sense to talk about the good life, or about things that are evil and wrong, and wants to affirm this kind of moral objectivism. And he will attempt to therefore take a position where he will ground moral values in science. Science will tell us or furnish us a sort of science of the good and what it means to lead the good life.

Kevin Harris: It's almost like he wants to rescue what disbelief in God takes away, in a sense; or at least in the minds of many people. Who is he trying to convince here? It's like, okay, we're atheists, we're secularists, we're agnostics, but that doesn’t mean we have to be moral relativists.

Dr. Craig: I think that's the aim. He wants to provide an alternative to the sort of moral nihilism that modernity has been heir to ever since Nietzsche and his declaration of the death of God. And a good many atheists like Russell and Sartre, for example, have said that in the absence of God there are no objective moral values and duties, ethics is basically a subjective illusion of human beings. We are primates on this little planet beset with delusions of moral grandeur about our own value and worth. And so it's against that sort of moral nihilism, I think, that Harris is reacting here. He wants to show his fellow atheists that they too can be moral objectivists.

Kevin Harris: Wow, it's once again, though, a popular book. You know, the audience seems to be limited, but Sam Harris' books tend to sell well. This is what he says in an interview with Amazon: “Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures.”

Dr. Craig: That's the key.

Kevin Harris: “If there are more and less effective ways for us to seek happiness and to avoid misery in this world—and there clearly are—then there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.”

Dr. Craig: Oh man, okay, see, it's all there, Kevin, it's all packed into that sentence. He equates human well-being with the good. And something that doesn't contribute to human well-being is therefore not good. And so notice the contrast between happiness and misery. And this is given a moral interpretation. So in the book this is what he says, and I quote: “Questions about values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” He says he wants to develop a science of human flourishing. [1] And my reaction to that is to say, well, wait a minute, why equate human flourishing with the good? Certainly I don't have any problem with the idea that science can tell us what contributes to human flourishing, human well-being, just as it can tell us what will contribute to the well-being of corn. If you want to grow corn then there's a whole agricultural science that will tell you how to produce the healthiest, most productive corn—what contributes to the well-being of corn; or what would contribute to the well-being of slime mold in the laboratory: the moisture, the temperature, the nutrients that need to be present for the well-being of slime mold. And similarly I don't see any reason to think that science couldn't develop a science of human flourishing—what will contribute to the well-being of this primate species Homo sapiens on the planet earth. But on atheism, on naturalism, I see absolutely no reason to invest that with moral value, and to equate human well-being with the morally good. And this is the unspoken assumption of the book, which so far as I can see, he doesn't attempt to justify.

What is the moral landscape in Harris' view? Well, this is how he defines the moral landscape: he says, “The moral landscape is a space of real and potential outcomes who's peaks corresponds to heights of potential well-being and who's valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.” So that's just a fancy way of saying that the moral landscape is a sort of space which comprises the highs and the lows of human well-being, and the highs are when people really flourish well, and the lows, the troughs, are when people really suffer the most. And so he says the moral landscape is just this sort of graphic display of the highs and the lows of human well-being, and science can develop findings about what will contribute to the highs and the lows of human well-being, to which I would say, well of course it can. But why think that this is a moral landscape? It seems to me that there is a fundamental assumption here that is being made that what contributes to human well-being is good, and what detracts from it is bad. And in a moral sense I see no reason to think that's true on atheism.

Kevin Harris: Amazon asks him, “Are you saying that science can answer such questions?” And he says,

Yes, in principle. Human well-being is not a random phenomenon. It depends on many factors—ranging from genetics and neurobiology to sociology and economics. But, clearly, there are scientific truths to be known about how we can flourish in this world. Wherever we can act so as to have an impact on the well-being of others, questions of morality apply.

Dr. Craig: Ah, but that's the issue—do they apply? Why on atheism think that when questions of the flourishing of the human species arise that this is a moral question? And here I think Harris gets away with equivocating on moral and non-moral uses of the terms 'good' and 'bad'. For example, he gives himself the analogy that in the game of chess there are both objectively good moves and objectively bad moves. And I would certainly agree with that. There are good moves in chess, there are bad moves in chess, that are objective. But notice, Kevin, that is not a moral use of the word 'good.' These moves in chess are not evil, or they're not morally praiseworthy—they're good or bad with respect to the goal of winning the game. Similarly we can say that the landscaper you hired to do your yard did a good job on the landscaping, or he did a bad job, but you don't mean that in a moral sense, that there's an evil job, or a morally bad job. Or we'll say that that was a good argument, or that's a bad argument; but you're not saying that it's evil or morally good. There are all kinds of uses of the term good or bad which are non-moral uses.

Kevin Harris: Let's contrast a moral good with, what would the other be? A logical good?

Dr. Craig: Well, I think there's a variety. One would be pragmatic goods. I think that very often there are goods with the view toward some goal. [2] For example, if you want to win the chess game then there are good moves and there are bad bad moves.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, that would just be a technical good.

Dr. Craig: It's a sort of pragmatic or consequentialist use of the word, that with respect to this goal there are things that you should do.

Kevin Harris: And there wouldn't be a moral dimension to it.

Dr. Craig: No, it's not a moral dimension at all. Or when you say that “That's a good idea” you're not using the word 'good' in a moral sense. Or somebody suggests another idea and you say, “No, that's a bad idea.” You're not condemning him as having said something morally reprobate. So there are clearly lots of ways in which we use these terms that are non-moral, and what Harris will do is he'll equivocate on this by giving examples of human suffering and saying this is a bad life and examples of human flourishing and saying this is a good life, and then moving from that to saying that these are morally good and bad. And, of course, on atheism that is precisely the question that needs justification, or the position that needs justification. There is no explanation on his view for why human flourishing has the moral dimension of goodness about it.

Kevin Harris: Interesting. Does he make the leap, then, from 'is' to 'ought', what is to what ought to be?

Dr. Craig: Yes, he does. And he deals with this in the book. He recognizes that the dominate view today is that there is this fact/value divide and that from what is, as science describes it, you cannot infer what ought to be. But he says that this is illusory in three senses. And here's his three arguments as to why this is an illusory distinction.

First, he says, whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures must translate into facts about brains. So the flourishing of conscious creatures will translate into facts about brains. Well, whether that's true or not that's irrelevant, that says nothing about the moral quality of why the flourishing of conscious creatures has this moral property of goodness attached to it.

Secondly, he says, the very idea of objective knowledge has values built into it. For example, you must value logical consistency, reliance on evidence, and so forth. So when you say you have objective knowledge you are making statements that have certain norms applied to them. Well, this, again, I think, is a good example of this equivocation between moral and non-moral uses of the word ‘good.’ Yes, it's good to be logically consistent, but you don't mean that in an ethical sense. The person who is logically inconsistent isn't evil as a result of being inconsistent. Someone who fails to rely on the evidence is using a bad argument, but that doesn't mean he's doing something morally wrong. So he's, again, equivocating on these different uses of the term.

Thirdly, he says, beliefs about facts and beliefs about values arise from similar processes in the brain. Well, again, that's just irrelevant. It may be the same portions of the brain, the same neural firings that bring about beliefs about facts and beliefs about values – fine – but that doesn’t do anything to show that facts about what contributes to human flourishing are therefore moral facts—that this is something that is normative.

So it seems to me that he has just failed to give any justification for equating the flourishing of conscious creatures with the moral good. And in fact he says on page twelve that we should define the good as that which supports the well-being of conscious creatures. You just define it that way. And therefore he says it makes no sense to ask whether maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures is good. It make no sense because that's the way you've defined it. It's just stipulated.

Kevin Harris: So you define it into existence.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, you just define the flourishing of conscious creatures as the good, and then it makes no sense to ask, well, why is the flourishing of conscious creatures good? Because you've just defined it that way.

Kevin Harris: Okay, so he sees that as the stopping point, then; as the end.

Dr. Craig: Yeah. And I would argue – as I have in my published work – that that is simply a sort of stubborn humanism which is premature. It is arbitrary and lacks any kind of explanatory power. [3]

Kevin Harris: Man is the measure.

Dr. Craig: Yes, or at least conscious beings are the measure. It's interesting, here, there's a kind of sop thrown to the animal rightists – you know – conscious life is the measure. And I wondered, as I read this, I thought, well gee, I wonder why he discriminates against non-conscious forms of life? The poor non-sentient creatures get kind of left out here. I mean, after all, there is a science of what contributes to the flourishing of corn, or there's a science of what contributes to the flourishing of slime molds or conchs or slugs. They kind of get left out here. There's a science of what contributes to their flourishing, but that isn't defined to be part of the good. And I wondered, well, on what basis? Again, it seems there's a sort of speciesism going on here, where one is simply adopting an unjustified bias toward one's own species.

Kevin Harris: So he has gone beyond man is the measure to sentient beings.

Dr. Craig: Sentient life is the measure.

Kevin Harris: We're privileged when we can be getting the president of Reasonable Faith, Dr. John Haring. John, thank you so much for joining us and I understand we have a little road trip planned.

Dr. John Haring: Looking forward to it, Kevin. It's going to be a lot of fun, formative, and a great time of fellowship with Reasonable Faith in Israel.

Kevin Harris: Well, that's a road trip that might involve a plane at some point.

Dr. John Haring: It definitely will. We're looking so forward to our time together with our friends from Reasonable Faith. It's the first time Reasonable Faith has done this type of tour. We couldn't be any more excited about the place – the Holy Land – to experience all the sites, and the sounds, the smells, just the atmosphere. It is tremendous, Kevin.

Kevin Harris: May 21st through May 30th.

Dr. John Haring: Yes, it will be. We have the opportunity for people to join us from all over the United States and, Kevin, so far we've got an international crowd, as well. We've got people coming, really, from all over the world to join us on this tour.

Kevin Harris: What are some of the highlights of the tour?

Dr. John Haring: It is an amazing place. It is truly a remarkable place to be where, for the Christian, the Bible comes alive. Everywhere you go across this country – which is really quite small in U.S. standards – to see the history, the biblical history come alive, New Testament history, Old Testament history—it's all around you. It is truly remarkable. We'll start off in Tel Aviv. We'll land there at the international airport, a modern airport, a modern city – Tel Aviv – and we'll get to experience that for one night as we gather our group from, really, all over the U.S. We have three gateway airports – Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta – and so we'll all gather at a hotel there in Tel Aviv for our first night together and a meal. And then we'll prepare to begin our tour the next day as we travel up the coast to visit the Mediterranean shores of Israel. We'll visit some wonderful sites as we head on in to the Galilee.

Kevin Harris: Are there still some seats?

Dr. John Haring: We do have some seats available. We alternate between the tour being open and a wait list based on the numbers. But right now we are accepting people to come on the tour. We were on a wait list, but we're open again. And we just encourage people to go to the website, you'll see a place where you can click 'Israel Tour 2011' and you can register for the tour. If we're on a wait list it will let you know, and you'll just make a deposit. If we can't accommodate the person, if they're on the wait list, they'll get a 100% refund if they're still on the wait list. We hope to accommodate everybody—we're very, very excited about this tour.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Haring, thank you for all that you do for Reasonable Faith.

Dr. John Haring: Thank you, Kevin.

Kevin Harris: I'm curious, Bill, if we did an experiment in society for twenty years wherein we eliminated everyone over the age of sixty-five, executed them, put them to sleep, and we saw a huge spike in quality of life as far as economics, less traffic, less health care costs, less burden on society, and all this. And you saw this flourishing, this human flourishing all of a sudden. I think that Sam Harris would point to that and say, yeah, but, these people over the age of sixty-five are humans and they're conscious and we ought not do that.

Dr. Craig: I'm sure he would say that, but the question is doesn’t his view impel one toward that conclusion? I think, Kevin, here, we begin to see the really sinister side of this view of the moral good. He says in the book that a piecemeal account is now emerging of how human beings flourish. And it immediately occurred to me, wouldn't this lead to eugenics, where in order to promote the flourishing of human beings you would practice infanticide or abortion on any children that are born with physical deformities that are hereditary, which would have eliminated someone like me, for example, who has a genetic neuro-muscular disease, as well as people with other sorts of handicaps. [4] The vision of the eugenicist was to craft a kind of super-race that would be free of all genetic defects and inherited diseases and would lead to this great flourishing of human beings at the relatively small cost of just eliminating these defective people.

Kevin Harris: What a nightmare.

Dr. Craig: Oh, I think that this is a very dark side to Sam Harris' ethic of human flourishing here.

Kevin Harris: This is what I think: if you're going to go by strictly scientific measurements it's going to lead to all kinds of things like that, eugenics and eliminating “undesirables” and things like that.

Dr. Craig: Well, yeah, and obese people, for example, and other sorts of undesirables would not contribute overall to human flourishing because it would promote more disease, more economic hardship on the rest of us, and so forth, as we have to support these people.

Kevin Harris: Stephen Hawking would be one of the first guys to go.

Dr. Craig: Oh my goodness, yes. Yeah—there goes Hawking.

Kevin Harris: Boy, he's right in line, it seems, with Peter Singer on a lot of things like this—he's very controversial. And I don't think he's that radical, or he's trying not to be. But what it seems to me, Bill, is that science may measure the results of certain actions. Suppose everybody in the community decided to be more loving, and we were actually able to see some spikes and peaks on a scientific graph – if we were to graph that somehow – that would only be a reflection of the moral activity that took place. Maybe science can measure certain things but that doesn’t determine . . .

Dr. Craig: I see no objection whatsoever to developing a science of human flourishing, as he wants to do. He seems to regard this as controversial, which is interesting. He admits we don't really have it yet, it's only piecemeal, but he's hoping that we can develop a science of what really contributes to human well-being. And that's great. I think that's fine. But I just don't see any moral dimension to that, on atheism, as to why that would be something that would be good. And quite the contrary, as you're most recent remarks have suggested, this is open to abuse in the most frightening of ways in that it could lead to kind of eugenics and end of life issues, and so forth, where you would justify moral atrocities in the name of human flourishing.

Kevin Harris: Again, it's a nightmare. Amazon asks Sam Harris, What do you think the role of religion is in determining human morality?” His answer:

I think it is generally an unhelpful one. Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life, and this makes them terrible guides to securing it in this one. Of course, there are a few gems to be found in every religious tradition, but in so far as these precepts are wise and useful they are not, in principle, religious. You do not need to believe that the Bible was dictated by the Creator of the Universe, or that Jesus Christ was his son, to see the wisdom and utility of following the Golden Rule.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that's a red herring. Of course not. We don't think that you need to believe in God or Jesus in order to discern your moral duties, or to realize that certain moral values are objective, like love and self-sacrifice for another, and tolerance, and so forth. And of course that's not the argument. The argument that we're claiming is that in order to ground moral values and duties objectively you need to have a transcendent source—they need to be grounded in God.

Kevin Harris: Well, once again, this has been an attempt to rescue morality from the religious realm and put it firmly in the secular realm, and it seems, at the same time, missing some issues along the way.

Dr. Craig: I think what it is is it's one more example of how atheists blink when they stare into the face of atheism and see its consequences. So few modern atheists have the courage that Nietzsche had to look atheism in the face and understand the consequences of the death of God, and they cannot live with the sort of moral nihilism that results. And so you get these salvage operations which make gratuitous assumptions about the nature of the good and human flourishing, and therefore try to provide a kind of secular substitute for a religious foundation for morality.

Kevin Harris: Here's what an Amazon reviewer said, who is an atheist: He said,

Of course, a belief that makes people happy is no more likely to be true than one that makes people miserable, but if you're writing a book about the importance of well being . . .

The book is a conversation starter, to be sure. But by the time I got to the end, I was left with no real answers and with a feeling that Harris, like everyone else, is just frantically dog-paddling to escape the quagmire of moral emptiness that's forever sucking at our postmodern minds--while tipping an intellectual bow in its direction.

Here's the point where a reluctant nihilist fails to find moral direction in science and has another beer.

[laughter] [5]