This post is a response to Can there be good atheists? A response to Pastor Rick Henderson by James A. Lindsay, Ph.D. I would like to state that I have benefited from this exchange. James is probably much smarter than me and I appreciate that anything I have to say would merit a thoughtful response by him.
For some time prominent atheist thinkers have been laboring to demonstrate a foundation for objective moral values. If they cannot do so they are left with only two choices. The first is to reject the notion of objective moral values all together. Some have. Thankfully, many others like Sam Harris find that unconscionable. The only other option would be to jettison their claim for atheism. That is not to say that they would be theists. Rather, the furthest they could remove themselves from theism is agnosticism.
This sort of option isn’t suitable for those with a keen mind like Sam Harris. Should he retreat to agnosticism, there would be no discernable foundation for objective moral values, leaving us defenseless to the movements of those who assert a worldview that is hostile to our own well-being. A third possible option is to muddle along in an endless web of self-contradictions. But this has no appeal to any serious minded person.
Of all the heroes of atheism, I believe Sam Harris comes the closest to providing a foundation for objective morality that is consistent with atheism. Since we are not tossing horseshoes or hand grenades the question is, does he succeed? Getting close doesn’t really get us anywhere.
Before getting into the meat of Sam Harris’ proposal, we should first define what we mean by objective morality. It is any moral value that is true independent of human construct, opinion or agreement. We don’t have to like it for it to be true. We don’t have to want it to be true. We don’t have to develop a system of thought to make it true. It would be true regardless.
You can digest his thoughts for yourself by reading his book, The Moral Landscape. For further enjoyment you can watch him defend his claims in a debate with William Lane Craig here. Because we are also talking about worldviews, it’s important to identify the necessary parameters of a worldview. Below are 3 necessary affirmations of any expression of atheism. You can certainly refuse these but you can’t refute them and be a consistent atheist.
1. The universe only material. If the universe is not purely material (natural), then we are conceding the existence of things beyond the natural. These would be things that exist beyond natural explanation. That is by definition supernatural. If there is supernatural reality atheism is not true. This is not offered as a proof of Christian theism.
2. The universe is scientific. If the universe is not knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics, we have no confidence in asserting atheism. That would allow for unknown and unexplained forces, i.e. the supernatural or a god. This allows room for agnosticism, but not atheism.
3. The universe is impersonal. If the universe has a consciousness or will, we are affirming pantheism at the very least, so atheism is defeated. If the universe is guided by a consciousness or will, we are asserting some kind of theism or polytheism, so atheism is defeated.
These are the unforgiving boundaries of serious minded atheism. Prominent atheists have noted repeatedly and forcefully that there is no basis for meaning in such a universe. It is in opposition to his brethren that Sam Harris steps into the arena.
In The Moral Landscape and the debate mentioned above Harris asserts that the bedrock of moral value is the avoidance of unnecessary suffering and the promotion of well-being. Further, these ideas are woven deeply and strongly into the core of every person demonstrating that they are actually the real and best understanding for our ideas of evil and good.
It is at this point that we should note one very serious problem. He has essentially redefined good to mean well-being and evil to mean unnecessary suffering. If you watch the debate you will see how Harris is talking in circles by modifying moral terms.
- Good produces well-being. Well-being produces well-being.
- Well-being is good. Well-being is well-being.
- Evil produces unnecessary suffering. Unnecessary suffering produces unnecessary suffering.
- Unnecessary suffering is evil. Unnecessary suffering is unnecessary suffering.
These statements are identical. Yet, this serious problem is not his most pressing problem.
Harris is smart, engaging and funny. I’d love to share a beer with him. His argument for objective morality is stimulating and at points compelling. But if we take him seriously, he utterly comes off the rails before moving one significant step toward his desired end. Tragically, his argument, though grand, rests on no foundation at all.
Logical Suicide: killing his own argument before he even starts
Harris admits that every branch of science is built on certain axiomatic assumptions. He goes on to concede that you have to assume that the worst possible suffering is bad and worth avoiding. While Harris will not have a hard time finding people who want to avoid suffering and enjoy the sublime, he asks us to take this supposed objective truth on faith rather than evidence.
Let’s not gloss over the fact that Harris has let the cat out of the bag. He is right when he contends that assuming axiomatic truths does not render science unscientific. This shows that science, though absolutely indispensable, is insufficient on its own to account for knowledge.
Additionally, this is where Harris commits the same fault of all others who attempt to build a moral argument from reason. You have to assume a moral starting point. That starting point is neither a necessary conclusion within atheism nor demonstrated through evidence. It has to be assumed. That is the same as saying it must be accepted on faith.
If it’s not a necessary implication of atheism nor demonstrated by evidence, upon what basis would any good atheist accept this as objectively true? Harris is now asking us to ignore the confines of atheism and play by a new set of rules. If he has the authority to do so, he has not taken any effort to demonstrate why would should trust him as the authority.
His response to this objection is that the only way to object to his view is if there is something wrong with you. Though he is not a religious fellow this sounds suspiciously religious. It is rather god-like to say, “If you disagree there is something fundamentally wrong with you.”
If there is any evidence for his case it is that all people, unless there is something fundamentally wrong them, concede that this is true. One, that is another way of saying since we want it to be true it must be true. Or, since most of agree that it is true then it must be true. This falls perilously short of demonstrating any objective moral values.
If by some evolutionary chance in the future the number psychopath’s outnumbered the non-psychopaths the continuum of human well-being would look quite different from what it does today. The well-being of psychopaths is expressed in their utter disregard for others and delight in suffering. William Lane Craig points out that this means that the continuum of human well-being is not identically the same as a moral landscape. You can read more on that here. Seen in this light, Harris’ moral landscape could be ever changing, thus not objectively true.
This should be enough to dismiss Harris’ serious but unsuccessful attempt for grounding objective morality. But if we press it even further, the unravelling becomes inescapably clear. Harris’ view can be summarized, since we all prefer well-being we should necessarily prefer the well-being of all. That is not a necessary conclusion. One could start at the exact same point as Harris and just as reasonably argue for personal well-being, ending up at nihilism.
Finally, consider 2 cases that could not be considered immoral in Harris’ world:
- Raping a comatose, terminally ill patient (child or adult) and then pulling the plug. There is no diminishment of well-being for the supposed victim.
- Stealing $500,000 from a billionaire. What possible diminished well-being could the billionaire experience?
If we were to take Harris’ position seriously what grounds would we have to punish those who committed these acts? We could conceive of many other similar immoral actions in which no perceived well-being is diminished. Yet, we all, or at least most, would feel a sense of justice if we were to convict such persons. Is that sense of justice objectively true or a common delusion?
When I say that Sam Harris is not a good atheist I am not saying he is not a good person. Rather, I am pointing out areas where he thinks, acts and advocates in contradiction to the necessary implications of his own atheism.
I will happily concede that there is nothing in this post that serves to validate my own position of objective morality being rooted in the character of an eternal God. I’ve already written too much for a single blog post.
So, what can we know? We can know that Sam Harris is caught on his own hook. Rather strangely he does not attempt to respond to these objections. He prefers to attack the God and morality of Biblical theism. He is free to do so. He may be right about atheism. But if he is, he is wrong about objective morality.