Friday, May 30, 2008

Morality according to Sam Harris

I just finished reading Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation." The number of thoughts I could share is voluminous, but I decided to narrow it down to a few general impressions and one brief observation.

Overall, the book was one of the most vitriolic defenses of atheism I have ever seen. Mr. Harris' recurring theme throughout his book is that his point of view is intuitively obvious and anyone who disagrees with him is intellectually bankrupt. Very often he makes conclusory statements without even attempting to provide any evidence for his conclusion. Again, the theme is that his perspective should be obviously true to anyone with even a bare modicum of common sense. Ironically, at one point in the book Mr. Harris calls Christians "arrogant" when the entirety of his book could the the poster child for intellectual arrogance. Mr. Harris makes no attempt to respect those who disagree with him. He makes no attempt to engage in a polite, respectful discussion of the issues. If you agree with him, you are a genius. If you disagree with him, your opinions do not even belong in the marketplace of ideas.

The one point I want to address here, though, deals with Harris' conception of morality. Without explicitly saying so, Harris firmly establishes himself as a utilitarian. He argues that all morality stems from concepts of suffering and pleasure. He then goes on to Christian morality, claiming that it disregards a large degree of suffering that its moral views cause.

Obviously, I disagree with Harris' description of Christian moral theory, but I will confine the remainder of this post to one simple point, and it is a criticism that could come from proponents of both Christian and other non-utilitarian moral theories. Mr. Harris ... if all morality is solely derived from suffering and pleasure, this would mean that an act that causes no suffering should be morally acceptable. So if you could painlessly euthanize a homeless person who has no family or friends to speak of to even notice he or she is gone, is that OK?

If Mr. Harris is correct and there is no God, no afterlife, simply our material world, then that homeless person will experience nothing after death, so there is no post-mortem suffering. The act of death itself is without suffering, and there is no one remaining behind who is suffering as a result of the death. So this should be perfectly permissible under Harris' formulation of morality.

I believe that it is reasonable to state that most people believe that cold-blooded murder is never morally acceptable, no matter who your victim may be. The morality of murder does not depend upon whether it can be carried out painlessly, or how big the victim's circle of friends may be. But these factors do weigh into Mr. Harris' moral theory.

At some point respect for human life must enter the picture, and not because of some imprecise concept of suffering, but because of the inherent value that life holds. An acceptable moral theory cannot hinge on suffering. Suffering can be one component (as I believe it is in Christian moral theory), but it cannot be the "be all and end all" of your theory. Without taking into account human dignity any moral theory, including Mr. Harris', will collapse.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Ken Coughlan speaking appearances

There are two dates coming up when you can come here me speak if you like, both at Grove Presbyterian Church, 50 East Bel Air Avenue, Aberdeen, Maryland:

Sunday, June 1, 2008 10:30 am
I will be delivering the children's message during the worship service.

Sunday, June 15, 2008 10:30 am
I will be in the pulpit leading worship and giving a special Father's Day sermon on sanctification.

After the worship service on June 15 we will also be holding a fund raising plea for the Ten Minas Disaster Relief Project. I hope to see some of you there. If you are able to make it, please come up and introduce yourself during coffee hour. God bless.