Warning: The attached link to Sam Harris’ video includes some fairly small ‘magazine images’ to demonstrate Western views on the female body. He does not condone western views as morally correct, and in fact I think his point of view is in alignment with our values. But I was not comfortable including the video directly on a Mormon website where people might click on it and watch it without realizing what they were about to see.
Sam Harris’ speech on science and morality made the rounds amongst Internet circles a while back. A non-LDS friend brought it to my attention and was curious what I thought of it. He later told me that he found it enlightening, but felt there was something wrong with it, though he couldn’t put his finger on it.
The idea that “science” (and by that we really mean scientific epistemology of conjecture and refutation) has the ability to explain and answer questions of morality is very appealing to me because it fits properly into my view of an explainable reality, including an explainable God.
I believe that this first part of Sam Harris’ presentation is spot on. I agree with him that “Values are facts about well being of conscious creatures.”
Can Science Define Morality?
Morality isn’t some otherworldly thing. It is not even meta-physical. Morality is a simple statement of facts and thus we should expect these facts to be explainable and rational. Even as a theist, I find myself agreeing with this militant self-proclaimed atheist’s views; for morality to mean something, it can’t just be an arbitrary set of choices made by God. It must exist for a rational reason.
I too, look forward to the day when science really can begin to answer questions on morality. Indeed, in a limited fashion, it had already begun to. Psychology has been working on serious questions of morality for decades already.
Harris also asks, “How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view worth considering?” He then goes on to assert: “We can no more respect and tolerate vast differences.”
Again, I agree with him. Surely every culture brings some value worth considering. But such a statement misses the point that all cultures are not morally equal. Harris here is stating what to me is obvious: either morality does exist objectively or it’s just a preference. If it’s just a preference, then we have no right to judge others moral views. Yet holding a moral view is by definition to judge other’s moral actions or views. Therefore, subjective morality is really a self contradiction.
If you are judging another’s moral views – let’s say judging 19th century slavery to be immoral – then you are already tacitly admitting you believe morality to be objectively real. And if that is the case, then accepting each other’s moral views when they conflict with our own is, by definition, to be immoral.
So as far as Sam Harris’ main thesis, I am in complete agreement.
If Morality Can Be Defined, Can Atheism Be True?
But this thesis seems to me to undermine Sam Harris’ own atheism. Nothing shows this more than his treatment of Muslim women choosing to wear veils.
I particularly enjoyed how Harris here shows some real balance, contrasting how the Muslim world’s practice of completely covering up women and the Western world’s practice of completely uncovering them is more or less cut from the same moral fabric.
But Harris’ weakness in presentation is that he emphasizes the use of legal violence and force to justify his anti-religiousness.
I think we can all agree that the fact that in many Muslim countries there are laws that force women to cover up under penalty of violence (for that is what law is, a legal monopoly on violence) is morally wrong.
But what about when the woman actually chooses to wear a veil for religious reasons? Harris’ assures us that he has no issue with a woman choosing on her own to wear a veil any more than he chooses for them spike their hair, wear a mohak, or a tattoo.
But the telling exchange is when a questioner asks Harris about how a Muslim woman might herself look at wearing a veil. As he points out, Muslim women often seem to sincerely believe that it enhances her womanhood and that she is herself choosing to wear the veil.
What is voluntary in a context where men have certain expectations… and your guaranteed to be treated in a certain way if you don’t veil yourself…? We have to be honest about the constraints these women are placed under. We shouldn’t be so eager to always take their word for it.
He goes on to make the claim that one day science will be able to understand all the positive and negative qualities about our beliefs, and therefore prove or disprove if the various Muslim arguments in favor of veils are sincere or just a lie.
At this response, the questioner asks:
And if the results come out that actually, the do, are you prepared to shift your instinctive current judgment on some of these issues?
Harris responds is interesting. He say that it is possible to love someone within the context of a truly delusional belief system. He uses a made up example of a father loving his gay son by chopping his head off so that he won’t go to @#!*% .
This exchange shows the irrationality of Harris’ position. He apparently still has a problem with a woman choosing to wear a veil if it’s for religious reasons because religion is, in his view, just a delusion. Apparently only western raised women who choose veils for non-religious reasons can do so morally in Harris’ view.
None of which surprises me in the least about Harris, for Harris is not really an atheist at all, but a half-theist.
Is There One Morality, or Multiple Moral Preferences?
To understand why this exchange proves this we must all, for a moment, accept for the sake of argument that Harris is correct that morality isn’t just an arbitrary set of choices made by God but exists as factual statements about the well beings of conscious beings. (Remember, I personally agree with him, but if you don’t agree, I’m only asking you only to accept it for the sake of argument.)
Consider his example of the Dali Lama and Ted Bundy. Harris’ argument is that the Dali Lama is an expert in morality and Ted Bundy is not, thus we can ignore Ted Bundy’s view for the same reasons Physicist can ignore Harris’ own views on String Theory, which he admits he knows nothing about.
Now, granted, we all know science is authority based. (I’m joking.) But that isn’t even the real problem with Harris’ argument. The real problem is that his argument is a tautological argument. He is choosing upfront to define “morality” as “what the Dali Lama believes.” Given this definition, yes, it is true that the Dali Lama is an expert and Ted Bundy’s views should be ignored. But this only pushes the real question back: Why should Ted Bundy care? If it makes Ted Bundy happier to kill people instead of being compassionate to them, so what? Doesn’t he have every right to make up his own moral preference?
Given any specific arbitrary view of morality like this, science can test it, I agree. But Harris’ own professed views are insufficient to establish even one view of morality other than arbitrarily. So why does he assume his understanding is the sole and only correct one? How could he possibly rationally justify that view out of his professed atheist worldview?
Let’s, for a moment, suppose that Ted Bundy has decided that even though he’s well aware of the societal norms of morality, he has decided that life for him isn’t worth living unless he gets to kill and rape people. Furthermore, Ted Bundy assumes that morality is just an illusion anyhow. It’s an evolution derived survival mechanism that could just as easily have been ignored just as we often override our natural impulses for the sake of morality. It’s just a choice and Bundy has decided to not assume the moral choice is better or worse than the alternative.
Given this scenario, is it still possible to defend moral decisions rationally? If so, how?
Muslim Women Being Brainwashed?
This same problem repeats with the Muslim women choosing to wearing veils. Harris’ argument that delusions should be ignored, giving the example of a religion person beheading a homosexual, is intentionally misleading: he is comparing one person imposing their will on another to a person choosing to wear a veil due to religious beliefs. So Harris’ analogy is impotent here.
That’s what makes the questioner’s question so interesting. He hypothetically assumes that this can be show to be benefical to a woman’s well being, yet Harris still can’t accept it. But the truth is, that our moral intuition is still bothered by this, isn’t it? But why? What is the rational reason for us feeling that even a Muslim woman choosing to wear a veil is somehow wrong whereas a western woman choosing to wear a veil for non-religious reasons is okay?
One common argument is that the Muslim woman is brainwashed. But for a professed atheist like Harris, this is a useless argument. If we are going to start with the assumption that anything a person taught since childhood is brainwashing, then all is brainwashing.
This is really just begging the question anyhow. The argument that the woman would be better off if she had been raised differently simply can’t be justified from an atheist/materialist worldview. If we are presupposing that there is no spirit in the woman and no life after death, can Harris’ view of morality ever be justified? It seems not. For if “I” comes from a group of chemical elements organizing themselves through evolution, and nothing more, than we see that “if raised differently” is synonymous with “if she were a different person.”
So that argument tells us nothing. If we can show she is better off staying indoctrinated (as Harris supposes) as a Muslim then that’s the end of the story.
Delusion and Well Being
Likewise, positing that “religious delusions” should not count is to merely miss the point: a person can be happier with a delusion. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that our brains are wired for certain types of self-delusions precisely because delusion is often better than reality for our well being. So why does Harris’ moral world view assume that truth trumps delusion? The idea that the truth trumps delusions pre-supposes an afterlife where the truth will be known, so Harris doesn’t get to use this Theistic argument if he wishes to coherently claim to be an atheist.
The main point here is that there is no possible rational way to justify Harris’ (and our) moral intuition that it’s wrong to raise Muslim woman from birth to believe in veils without first positing a non-atheist worldview. Likewise, there is no possible rational justification to elevate someone that chooses morality over immorality, no matter how we choose to define morality, without first positing an afterlife and therefore a God. It would seem you can’t coherently delink objective morality, afterlife, and God.
Do Atheists Have Delusions?
So then we must ask, is Harris being delusional about his moral view? After all, isn’t he also refusing to justify his moral worldview rationally — including a belief that truth trumps delusion — yet he’s continuing to adhere to his moral intuitions as if objective fact?
His view that science can answer moral questions is correct, but only for an arbitrarily chosen moral standard. Isn’t he just refusing to accept the truth that morality doesn’t exist except as an arbitrary standard? (Be it societal or evolutionary, it matters not.)
This is why I call Harris a half-theist. He organizes his life around his moral worldview, yet this moral worldview is treated as absolute rather than a preference. His whole argument is that it is not relative and it’s factually defendable. If he is wrong, and it’s just a preference, then his own life is a lie. Furthermore, when confronted with even a hypothetical situation where factual justification goes against his moral intuition, than Harris chooses his moral intuition, thereby undermining his point. It’s a vicious circle.
We must therefore either assume that Harris worldview is just as delusional as a Muslim woman’s, or we must accept that his moral view is right but that there is no possible way to rationally justify it within a non-faith based worldview. In other words, he’s a faith based Theist. In short, he’s a half-theist not an atheist. He is merely switching between the two views on an as needed basis.
Morality and the Meaning in Life
I’m struck by how important morality is to Harris’ He’s made pursuit of atheist morality (and religious immorality) the focal point of his life.
Now it seems to me that this implies that his moral sense imparts a sense of meaning to his life. But if morality is just an evolutionary adaption and nothing more, than there can never be any impulse, moral or immoral, that can be raised one above the other except – perhaps – on whether or not it helps replicate your own selfish-genes. But if that is our “best” impulses, then Genghis Khan is the most moral man to ever live. As Barbara Oakley points out in her book, Evil Genes,
From the Great Khan’s six Mongolian wives, as well as the many daughters of foreign rulers that he also took on as wives, and the great numbers of beautiful women he demanded as his due from conquered territories, the Great Khan is thought to have sired an enormous number of children. … The fact that so many men are direct descendents of either the Great Khan or one of his near paternal ancestors indicates that virtually everyone on the Asian steppes is, through some line of descent, carrying the DNA of the Great Khan’s family. (p. 267)
Oakley also points out that, a monster of a man that rapes a woman who then raises his child was morally “successful” from an evolutionary standpoint.
Evolution tells us nothing about true morality. It can only help us understand why we have a biological intuition for it. But evolution itself is the prime directive, not morality. And usually the two are at odds with each other.
For morality to “be factual” it must be a fact that even if Ted Bundy was never caught, one day he would have regreted his actions. It must be that death wasn’t an escape for him after all. For no world that ends at death can ever have objectively real morality, only subjectively chosen ones.
But in a world with only subjective morality, it would perhaps be better to learn to accept that there is nothing in life to live for but delusion, so our delusions are paramount to us.
For in a life without inherent meaning, everything meaningful in life is a delusion by tautology.
Given that assumption, it is therefore wrong (or at least not meaningfully “right”) to elevate a western woman’s choice to wear a veil over a Muslim woman’s or to elevate the Dali Lama’s choices for happiness over Ted Bundy’s. It just is what it is, and nothing more. Even turning Bundy into a monster becomes little more than a strategy to brainwash or constrain others into not following the dictates of their own conscience.
If we start with the assumption that it’s wrong to raise a Muslim girl to believe wearing a veil enhances her womanhood on the grounds that we are “forcing” her through brainwashing, then morality itself becomes equally questionable for the same reason.
Can Objective Morality Be Saved?
If we wish to save morality from meaninglessness, and life’s meaning along with it, then we do have to assume that morality is meaningful because it’s always – without exception – true. Ted Bundy should not kill people because there is an afterlife where he will regret it and have to hellishly pay for it. The Muslim woman is wrong to believe she should wear a veil because the Muslim religion is a delusion and some other religion (or belief system) is not – therefore, she should give up the practice of the veil because in the afterlife she’ll have to anyhow to accept the one true belief system. Therefore religion isn’t just a preference.
There seems to be no other possible way to rationally justify our moral intuitions.