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.

7 comments:

Reader said...

Did we read the same book?

You said: "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."

The recurring theme is something different entirely. The book focuses on the dangers of religious belief. While he presents examples of real harm caused by religion, he never actually states that anyone who disagrees with him is "intellectually bankrupt." Your characterization is not accurate what so ever.

You said: "Very often he makes conclusory statements without even attempting to provide any evidence for his conclusion."

The book is less than 100 pages long. He does not take time to back up every statement, but he writes in an intelligent manner and supports his abstract statements with explanations and statistics or quotes.

You said: "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."

Actually he does the exact opposite of what you claim. He has written a book that attempts to discuss important issues concerning religion. The fact that he wants to have a discussion about religion meant that he does have respect for those who disagree with him. If he didn't care about what religious believers think than he never would have written the book. The fact is that Mr. Harris respects Christians enough to make this appeal to them. He cares enough to take the time to write to you. Just like you take time to write in your blog and preach to others. While a lot of the content of his book may be offensive to a Christian, his aim is never to offend, but to discuss real issues. You couldn't be more wrong in this case.

Clearly you have mischaracterized this book. Your issue with Mr. Harris' concept of morality is important, but Mr. Harris spent little time fleshing out his concept of morality in this book. He spends more time pointing out real examples of harm caused by religion; choosing not to focus on semantics as much as the real problems we face.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Thank you for your comments. By way of reminder to anyone else joining us, my comments that you appear to disagree with were as follows:

"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 be 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."

Keep in mind that you are defending a book that proudly displays on its front cover the description given by the New York Times as "A breath of fresh fire." But I will leave that aside. It is possible that Mr. Harris had nothing to do with the cover.

Rather than write out a detailed response in my own words, I prefer to let Mr. Harris do the talking for me. I ask you and anyone else reading this to try to objectively step back, regardless of whether you agree with Mr. Harris or not, and ask whether or not I am correct in arguing that Mr. Harris believes his position to be intuitively obvious. Ask whether he really sounds respectful to the opposition when he is describing their position. If you want to have a bit of fun, try counting all the times Mr. Harris uses the word "obvious" or some form thereof to describe his own position. To make it even more interesting, you could add in all the references to reasonableness or intellectual honesty.

Now allow me to let Mr. Harris speak for himself:

"The truth is, you know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims. Isn't it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves? Isn't it obvious that anyone who thinks that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe has not read the book critically? Isn't it obvious that the doctrine of Islam represents a near-perfect barrier to honest inquiry? Yes, these things are obvious. Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions." Page 7

"There are obvious biological reasons why people tend to treat their parents well, and to think badly of murderers, adulterers, thieves, and liars." Page 21

"One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering." Page 25

"...relieving suffering seems to rank rather low on your list of priorities." Page 26

(Both of these last two comments, by the way, show that Mr. Harris has a woefully inadequate grasp of Christian moral theory)

"Your qualms about embryonic stem-cell research are similarly obscene." Page 28

(Since when is calling your opponent's position "pernicious" or "obscene" considered a respectful dialogue?)

"The choice before us is simple: we can either have a twenty-first century conversation about morality and human well-being - a conversation in which we avail ourselves of all the scientific insights and philosophical arguments that have accumulated in the last two thousand years of human discourse - or we can confine ourselves to a first-century conversation as it is preserved in the Bible. Why would anyone want to take the latter approach?" Page 50

"Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious." Page 51

"Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs." Page 51

When speaking of people praying during disasters, Harris says:
"Do you have the courage to admit the obvious? These poor people died talking to an imaginary friend." Page 52

"There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction, like Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom most sane human beings now ignore." Pages 55-56

"It is time we acknowledged a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn't. Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies." Pages 64-65.

When speaking of a Catholic conference on the doctrine of "limbo", Harris states:
"How can any educated person think this anything but a hilarious, terrifying and unconscionable waste of time?" Page 66

"While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society." Page 67

"Any intellectually honest person will admit that he does not know why the universe exists." Page 74

"There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer." Page 74

"An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse." Pages 74-75.

And finally...
"We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith." Page 87

I see no point to trying to back up my arguments when Mr. Harris has done such an admirable job for me. This is just a small sampling that I managed to come up with by scanning through the book for about 20 minutes after reading your comment. I am certain I did not catch them all. But to look at this sampling, it seems "obvious" to me that Mr. Harris believes his position is intellectually obvious, and anyone who disagrees with him (i.e., religious believers) are not being reasonable or intellectually honest. I will leave it to others to review the above comments and arrive at their own conclusions.

You state, "The fact that he wants to have a discussion about religion meant that he does have respect for those who disagree with him." Also, "If he didn't care about what religious believers think than he never would have written the book."

1 Peter 3:15 teaches Christians to be prepared to give an answer for what they believe, but to do so with "gentleness and respect." The reason for this is quite simple. You will catch more bees with honey, etc. I guess only Mr. Harris will know if he truly wrote this book out of concern for Christians or whether it was simply another avenue to rally like-minded people around him. I will not presume to answer that for him. But if he is truly concerned for Christians, perhaps next time he should avoid describing them as "pernicious", "obscene", "reprehensible", "arrogant", "odious", "unconscionable", mad, stupid, unreasonable, intellectually dishonest, and denying the obvious.

Thank you for your comments.

Ken

DagoodS said...

Ten Minas Ministries,

I see this a bit of “whose ox is being gored.” The first disclaimer I should note is that I have not read Harris’ book. Too many other books to read. The second item I must note is that I agree with you. Words such as “odious,” or “intellectually honest” do not foster good conversation, but rather cause the conversation to become antagonistic, and the other person to become more agitated an defensive.

However, such words do sell books. Sadly, we have become a society of hyperbole, overreaching, and flamboyance. Scary movies in which only one person dies (“The Shining”) are passé—who is scared by that? Now we must have multiple deaths, and more and more gore.

In the same way, books that take on opposing theistic beliefs do not sell with rationale, quiet argument of the lines “We each have good arguments, here is why I think mine are a bit better.” The de rigueur has become accusations, name-calling and exaggeration. Don’t say, “You know, it might be better to give your children a broad religious education, including non-theistic beliefs.” That doesn’t sell. “If you teach your children to follow your religion, this is akin to child abuse.” That will get the books flying off the shelf.

This is not limited to the non-theist side. Ravi Zacharias suggests I, as an atheist, am best served by killing myself. D’Souza considers me to be an enemy of America. Bush, Sr. figures I am not entitled to be an American citizen. And on a more personal note, I recall you using the phrase “intellectually honest” when questioning how someone could judge God. None of us are above tossing a phrase or two.

Probably the hardest word to wrestle with is “obvious.” At one time, it was “obvious” to me there was a god. To think otherwise was as ludicrous as contemplating gravity doesn’t happen, or there is no such thing as daylight. My mind couldn’t even begin to grasp the inkling of the possibility of the concept of anything else.

I could easily see, at that point in my life, talking to an atheist and saying, “Isn’t it obvious there is a God? See the world? See the logical consistency of Christianity? See the historicity of the Resurrection? Obvious.”

Times change. Despite having believed in a God once, I could not now. Not if my life depended on it. While I empathize with such a belief, and would not necessarily say it is “obvious” there is no god, there are certain facets or claims about a God I could see myself saying the word “obvious.” Perhaps the best example, in line with Mr. Harris, is that it is “obvious” to me prayer provides the same supernatural results as non-prayer. None. (There are some beneficial therapeutic results for the person.)

I do understand what is “obvious” to me may not be “obvious” to you and vice versa. So I tend to ignore the word when written; finding it a character of speech. Like “surely.” Just cause you say it, doesn’t make it “sure.”

When Christians tell non-theists they are missing the obvious, or imply they are intellectually dishonest, the non-theist cries, “Foul! Not right!” Yet when the non-theist does the same to the Christian, the same cries are heard. Like I said, a question of whose ox is being gored.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Hello again DagoodS! Sorry I've been off the radar screen for a while. I've had too many other commitments lately (including helping to find a new pastor for our church and the Disaster Relief Project), so blogging has fallen by the wayside. I've only had time to respond to this latest comment, frankly, because I have been home sick this week with a throat infection. Can't work, can't talk. About the only thing I can do is type!

I appreciate your comments, and you are right. Reflecting back on my own past, I have been known to use the phrase "intellectually honest" before (or its converse), and to that extent I was wrong.

My problem with Mr. Harris is that he does this, combined with not backing up many of his propositions. Don't get me wrong. It is nto universal. Several of his comments he does try to back up. But many he does not. He just relies on belittling his opponent and saying how obvious his position is.

Its what I refer to as the schoolyard bully approach to argumentation. Most of us probably, when we were growing up, saw a bully picking on someone else. In those circumstances, many children are far more likely to try to befriend the bully than the victim. Why? Because they don't want to be the next victim. It has nothing to do with the bully actually being right.

This type of argumentation, when it is not supported by anything, tends to make people think that the bully's opponent is ridiculous (without any factual basis for that belief) and they do not want to be considered ridiculous too. So they just side with the bully. But if you rationally examine it at the end, the bully hasn't really said anything of substance.

This is why I always enjoy our conversations, because you try to give reasons why people should believe you, not just attacking your opponent. In many instances, Harris doesn't. That's the meat of my objection.

Yes, you are right, that is what sells books. If it didn't, they wouldn't describe it as a "breath of fresh fire" on the cover. Sometimes I just wish it were otherwise, because I really do not believe that does the marketplace of ideas any favors.

By the way, could you give me a reference to what you are referring to regarding Ravi Zacharias? I've seen many Christians engage in this inappropriate argumentation, but he has not been one I would typically place in that category. However, if you can point me to an example, I will be the first one to admit to being wrong. Thanks.

Ken

DagoodS said...

Can Man Live without God? Pages 50-51.

Ravi Zacharias suggests the logical conclusion of atheism is suicide. (A bit of projection from his own life, perhaps?) In looking for the exact reference, I see Francis Schaffer suggested the same.

(I admit I was curious whether the recent change in the PC-USA would bring out a blog entry.)

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Thanks for the Zacharias reference. I have many of his books, but unfortunately that is not one of them. If I get the chance I will check it out.

It seems to me that atheism is completely inconsistent with suicide, at least from a logical standpoint. On first blush anyway, it seems impossible to say that death, under an atheistic worldview, is "preferable" to life, no matter how much suffering you are undergoing. After all, if there is nothing but oblivion after death, then it is impossible to "prefer" anything in that state. How can you say it will be "better" after you die when there is quite literally no referent after death to compare to your current state of existence?

Admittedly, this is a logical analysis, not an emotional one, and I am not saying that people cannot make an emotional choice for suicide. But I am assuming that Dr. Zacharias was making a logical statement, as in "Given the atheistic worldview, it logically follows that atheists should opt for suicide", or something to that effect. If that is the essence of what he said, I disagree.

As for the recent PCUSA happenings, I will blog about it shortly, but frankly it may not be all you are expecting, as I don't see the point to revisiting the underlying issue that I have already addressed time and time again.

Ken

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Dagoods,

You may not even be checking this anymore, but I thought I'd post something for you just in case. I still haven't read "Can Man Live Without God?", but I did just finish Zacharias' book "The End of Reason" in which he hits on this same topic (i.e., suicide). In that book he does not seem to be saying that suicide is the logical outworking of atheism in the sense that you are "best served" by killing yourself, but rather that atheism CAN lead to a loss of hope for some people (as it did him) with suicide as the result. At least in this latest book he never said that atheists would be "best served" by killing themselves.

This has been more of my experience with Zacharias' position on this matter, but he admittedly may have said something different in "Can Man Live Without God?" I'm sure I'll get to it eventually.

Ken