Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Problem with Sam (The Final Prelude)

I’m going to let you into an open secret.

Atheists, along with scientists and academics, disagree with each other.

I happen to disagree with Sam Harris about a thing or two, which I will get to shortly, but I also disagree with a number of other atheists on various things.  For example, I think that Richard Dawkins should try to keep his cool a little more and that his arrogant pose isn’t helpful.  I do sympathise with his plight, since he’s an evolutionary biologist and it must eventually get on one's nerves to be continually told by ignorant amateurs that your life work is bollocks because a musty old book contains, along with a raft of ridiculous claims that no-one holds to be true anymore, a barely coherent alternative.

I recently got slightly singed (I won’t say burnt, that would be over-doing it) after straying too close to a heated academic battle, complete with two opposing factions steadfastly failing to agree on the Bertrand Paradox.

So disagreement happens.  However, since I am not a monochromatic type, just because I think that Sam is wrong about one thing this should not necessarily lead to thinking that he must therefore be wrong about everything.  He’s a perfectly pleasant, erudite and genial chap who has a lot of interesting things to say.  It’s just that he has said a couple of things that are somewhat less brilliant.

The first, of course, is the little joke (if that’s what it was) about William Lane Craig putting the wind up atheists – made in opening statements in a debate against the very same William Lane Craig.  Craig is irritating and devious, but he’s not frightening by any stretch of the imagination.  Even if Craig’s ability to lie barefaced is one of the characteristics one normally associates with a psychopath, the likelihood of WLC being a psychopath is probably not high and hence he is (probably) not that frightening.

The second thing is what truly and deeply annoyed me with his book, “The Moral Landscape”.   In many ways this is a very good book, the mission associated with it is laudable (that is not a typo, I meant “laudable”, not “laughable”).  But in my view, the book would have been an excellent book if he had not made what I consider to be a massive and unnecessary concession to the theist camp.

In his book, and in his debates, Sam repeatedly insists that there is such a thing as objective morality.  He does this even when debating with philosophers and apologists.  The problem is that there isn’t objective morality, not even in Sam’s world – at least not in the sense that most philosophers and apologists would interpret the term.

I discussed objective moral values and duties in WLC3: When Morality Arguments are Bad because Craig asserts that objective moral values and duties exist.  It is clear in his supporting arguments that by these terms he means the moral values and duties that derive from an absolute morality, which supposedly originate in the essential nature of his god.  If something is morally wrong, it is always morally wrong irrespective of the circumstances.  One would expect also that if something is morally acceptable then it’s always morally acceptable irrespective of the circumstances.  Objective morality is usually more the preserve of theologians even though it creates problems for the types of people who base their world view on what is written in ancient documents.  If the Bible were to reflect the objective morality of an eternal god, then homosexuality should still be morally abhorrent and incurring the death penalty while slavery should still be morally acceptable (while homosexuality still attracts the death penalty in some nations, to the best of my knowledge none support slavery).

A careful read of The Moral Landscape reveals that Sam doesn’t mean anything like this by his use of the term “objective morality”.  Instead, what he means is something that could, if the term were not already taken, be called “moral relativism”.

I suspect that a major contributor to Sam’s attempts to avoid being seen as being any sort of moral relativist is the fact “moral relativism”, and the related “moral subjectivism”, seem to have almost as bad a rap in the US as “atheism” has – no doubt due in part to the fact that they are associated with secularism.  Moral relativism is charged with a number of crimes: for example being a form of moral nihilism (in which nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral), being incoherent in a number of senses (including self-refutation) and so on.

Clearly Sam doesn’t want to be associated with moral nihilists.

In his book, Sam doesn’t really spend much time addressing what he means by moral relativism, but the clearest indication is found in a section of Chapter One titled “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance’”.  Sam describes a form of moral abdication in which liberal Westerners tacitly condone all manner of horrendous acts because they are carried out in the context of another culture.  It is a mixture of cowardice and cultural shame that leads to tolerance where tolerance is unwarranted.

While it’s understandable that Sam wants to be associated with neither moral nihilists nor the idiot extreme of moral cowardice generally labelled as “moral relativism”, he should not want to be associated with moral absolutists and for that reason he should avoid using the term “objective morality”.

If I understand his intent correctly, Sam uses the term “objective” in the same sense that a scientist would use “objective” measures to ascertain the success or failure of an experiment.  For example, an objective measure for the success of an experiment on the efficacy of prayer on cancer would involve standard recovery rates for various types of cancer, the involvement of a control group, measures of sample sizes to ascertain margins of error and a statistical analysis could then say, for example, that if positive effects were observed in 10 more patients who were prayed for than in the control group, then there is a statistically significant effect.  Either you get that number (or more) and prayer might work, or you don’t and prayer probably doesn’t work.  You actually get a slightly higher proportion of complications in people who know that they have been prayed for, probably because they don’t take as good care of themselves, leaving their recovery up to a god who either doesn’t exist or doesn’t get involved in health issues, or maybe they are nervous about the fact that whenever science looks for god, he never turns up.

A subjective measure might be to use the responses, from the recipients of prayer, to a question about whether they felt better as a result of having been prayed for.

Objective measures used in scientific research are not absolute and in fact almost everything we measure is relative in one way or another.  In this sense, Sam’s suggested “objective morality” is actually relative – relative to the two extremes he describes: a world of unrelenting suffering and a world of maximal well-being.  If an act results in a move towards more suffering, it’s bad.  If an act results in a move towards more well-being, it’s good.

Can I suggest the use of another term altogether, perhaps “rational morality”?  I suggest this option because despite Sam’s protestations, there is no “objective morality” that science can discover.  Instead, what we can say is that rational maximisation of well-being is a suitable basis on which to build a moral framework (or an ethical structure) and that science can be used to determine which acts tend towards maximising well-being, via neuroscience and so forth.


Some of you might ask “what is this ethical structure of which you speak?”

I’m so glad that you asked.

Over the next few months, I shall be posting a series of articles taken from a document that I first started working on many years ago.  These will culminate in a smaller number of articles in which I discuss a proposed model for representing the ethical structures in which we all operate.

The first of those articles is The Moral Animal.  The previous two preludes are Saving the Dog and Being Bad.


  1. I see some interpretive problems here. If you do a search on "moral objectivism" - - you find that it's a pretty common position among moral philosophers. "Objective" refers basically to whether there are mind-independent moral *truths* which are not merely matters of opinion, convention, etc., and that they can be discovered by normal epistemic procedures. Values being objective is still consistent with values arising only in relation to beings like us; the truth-status of those values is not alterable by us, even if we need to be around in order for there to be moral values. This position can be seen as the appropriate "middle ground" (really, an *alternative* to a purportedly exhaustive division) between values being relative or "absolute" in a religious sort of sense.

    1. Philosophically, "moral objectivism" doesn't really seem to exist, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for example, which we both have access to, has four entries which mention the term but no entry on the topic per se. (There are two entries that mention "objective morality".)

      If you go to Wikipedia, which any philosopher can correct, if so inclined, the "moral objectivism" page is a stub informing you that the term may refer to "moral realism" or "moral universalism" which is just a weak form of "moral realism". If you follow through to moral realism, you see a reference to Sam Harris, so ... we can assume that we are really talking about moral realism, yes?

      To the extent that moral realism is a form of cognitivism and that this is a prevailing school of meta-ethics and most within it believe that some propositions are true, then yes, it seems that it is common to believe that there are mind-independent moral *truths*. However, there is still some way to go.

      What do you mean by "true"? Do you mean something that derives directly from some arbitrary principle - such as Sam Harris' maximisation of well-being, so that if that is assumed then it is a moral fact that rape is bad? Or do you mean something that is founded on some other truth (which in extremis must be a non-moral truth)?

      I've got no problem with the former, maximisation of well-being is a rational basis for morality, although I'd suggest another. With the latter, you end up diving down the rabbit hole looking for the basis to your ethical structure, which you can't find unless you assume something like a God, in which case, you've got a god to prove and it's turtles all the way down from there.

  2. Yeah, moral objectivism may very well reduce to moral realism; I don't know how I'd distinguish the two. I think they affirm the same thing, though there are sure to be variants of the core moral realist or objectivist idea. The core idea is that moral truth occurs whatever our state of mind; it is mind-independent.

    What I mean by true is what I understand to be a correspondence theory of truth: our proposition asserting some X is true if an only if what is asserted in X is what is the case in the world. (Something like that.) As to how we come to know or establish something as true, which is what I think you are asking in your follow-up questions, that's what the whole enterprise of moral theory is all about and the answer isn't easy or succinct. Harris is apparently endorsing some version of ethical naturalism in which there are natural descriptors for "well-being." But there are moral realists who aren't naturalists, who are probably intuitionists. I am in the naturalist group myself, though how exactly I am I haven't totally figured it out. But it closely resembles at the very least Aristotle's view about goodness in terms of actuality (the "is") and potentiality (the "ought"), with the self as the potentiality for the agent to actualize (as in "self-actualization" or eudaimonia). That's what I mean by good, but grounding that thesis beyond its initial high plausibility is something I'm working on without having fully worked out. I'd say the conceptual common denominator of our term "good" has to do with meeting of needs, and the Maslow hierarchy represents a fairly popular idea of what the progressive stages of need-fulfillment might look like. For human beings, the fundamental root source for how we fulfill our needs is the fullest application of our intellectual capacities; on that I'm a staunch Aristotelian.

    I don't see why one would have to accept that a God must be in the justificatory picture in order to for there to be truth, moral or otherwise, but I'll leave the ball in your court for that.

  3. Hi there,

    Read your post with interest, as it addresses an issue that I think is often poorly understood - objective morality. I haven't read "The Moral Landscape", but the mere idea of a claim to objective morality is highly dubious to me. In the end, any line of moral thinking always hinges on an unverifiable value statement. e.g., even in an idealized case where Choice A leads to an improvement in happiness, wellness and fairness, and there are no cases in which this or that person is less well off, and Choice B had the exact opposite effect, it doesn't follow that the chooser is objectively morally bound to pick A. Since when is the chooser morally obligated to care about happiness, wellness and fairness?

    How can one prove that stealing or murder are objectively wrong without ultimately grounding their moral position out in a value judgment that they cannot validate beyond a restatement of their moral convictions?

    This doesn't mean that people shouldn't have moral positions, but lets just be honest about what we claim to know.

    I've blogged about this issue before:

    As for Richard Dawkins, can you send me a link to a video wherein he has come off as particularly caustic, aggressive, or arrogant? There was a time - many years ago - when I would have thought similarly to you. i.e., that he is extremely smart, he is right, he has good reason to be frustrated, but that he can be too harsh and condescending at times. However, I eventually came to see things very differently when I realized that I was treating issues of religion differently than issues pertaining to anything else. I was implicitly holding atheists speaking on religion to a much higher standard of softness than I would expect of anyone talking about just about anything else (the only sort of exception I can think of off-hand is in talking insultingly about someone's spouse, child or recently-passed loved one). I've yet to see Dawkins speak of religion in a way that would not be construed as fully within bounds - often even polite - if the subject matter had been, say, libertarian versus left-leaning policy issues, or Red Sox versus Yankees debates, .... Once I treated religion as being no more or less sensitive than secular moral/political debates, I typically found him to not only be within the bounds of decency, but very often he was positively polite! Having said all of this, though, that one quote where he characterizes the God of the Bible as being a capricious, arbitrary malevolent bully is very, very, very strong - but as per usual with Dawkins, totally justified.

    Keep up the good blogging!

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for that.

      Your comment (slightly elided) "Since when is the chooser ... obligated to care about happiness, wellness and fairness?" links closely to what I was referring to when I used the term meta-meta-ethics in the article issued just prior to this one, Being Bad ( That term was attacked as being unnecessary, but I disagree - as I will argue after the "Morality as Playing Games" series comes to an end.

      With respect to Richard Dawkins, I had another look at his worst examples of tetchiness to see if I have been holding him to insupportably high standards. He does seem to come over as being arrogant, but that may well be his accent and his way of speaking (and I know the problem - I am told that I sound very confident when I speak, even at times when I know that I am not feeling that way. As a consequence people sometimes think that I'm absolutely certain about something that I am just pondering on). Dawkins tends to get caught out by the stupidity of others and his response is, at times, unproductive. For example, he got swept up by Cardinal Pell's comprehensive ignorance (shown here along with some other classics). By far the best response in that situation would have been to just keep feeding Pell rope until he hanged himself. It's not as if Pell needs much.

      It's unfair to paint Dawkins as rude, but I do think one would be accurate in saying he has flashes of arrogance and testiness. Would I be better in his position? No, I sincerely doubt it.

  4. I wonder if part of Dawkins strong response is as a defense mechanism. I mean, much of the time when he gets a silly question, it is from a Creationist and often times, even though it's silly, it can come with an illusion of sensibleness to the ignorant. So perhaps he responds with arrogant dismissiveness in part to communicate to everyone "hey, this is a stupid point". It also buys him another second or two to think of an answer. This here, by the way, isn't me defending or criticizing him. Just speculating.

    Along the lines of defense mechanism, he probably does have his back up to a very real degree. He's an intellectual titan who deeply cares about his causes of science, reason and atheism. He doesn't want to represent himself or his causes poorly, so he's probably always at partly on the defensive.

    And then there's just a lack of personal tolerance for ridiculousness and persistent disillusionment and astonishment at how unbelievably biased, ignorant and ridiculous people can be.


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