A disingenuous argument

The AV Club has published an interview with “new atheist” Sam Harris about his new book on morality and how it can be grounded in science if everyone accepts his standard of morality-

With his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris has shifted from the more philosophical and social arguments he’s made against the world’s religions and used his background in neuroscience to argue that moral truth exists and science is the best tool to employ for its discovery. If we can agree that morality is based upon the notion of human and animal well-being, Harris argues that we can then begin to make factual claims about what is right and what is wrong.

And what is his standard? The nebulous “human well-being” or “society’s well-being”-

What’s interesting is that there’s actually much more consensus on moral truth than there is on any other scientific claim. Many more people agree that being cruel to children is wrong—that’s almost universally subscribed in every culture—than agree that evolution occurred, or that the special theory of relativity has any truth to it. Our core moral principles are actually quite well subscribed. So what I’m arguing in my book is that we are actually free to define our terms in our conversation about morality in the same way we’re free to define our terms on any other scientific topic.

For instance, in physics we talk about things like causation and laws and theories and matter and energy and we talk about these things within certain constraints and people who don’t obey those constraints really can’t talk the talk of physics. If they show up at a physics conference, they don’t make any sense. There’s nothing wrong with that. You have to define your terms in science. But here we run into another double standard. On the subject of morality, when I define morality as relating to the well-being of conscious creatures—humans and animals for our purposes—people say, “Well you can’t just define morality as related to well-being. Who says it’s related to well-being?” People seem to worry that merely defining your terms puts morality on very shaky ground, whereas it doesn’t in any other scientific discipline.

But this is a case of running around in circles. The constraints that we place while talking about physics are not arbitrary in nature (We can verify our arguments, empirically, as physicist Sean Carroll says in response to Harris’ thesis). While those that he places in the case of morality are. This is a simple case of scientism. And intimidation

Sam Harris invites us to understand “moral” claims and “values” as being propositions that are “concerned with the flourishing of conscious creatures in a society” and he challenges: “what else would it relate to?” He argues that simply attempting to define terms is the first necessary step to studying these concepts scientifically. He thus argues that discussions that have no bearing on those elements are simply not moral discussions, according to this scientific definition of morality.


Harris also stresses the importance of defending this definition since it is the first step to being able to make various important scientific judgements. He argues that scientists frequently, and rightly, exclude individuals for not conforming to agreed-upon terms of discourse (e. g. young earth creationists). Harris then suggests that it is even more important that scientists exclude from empirical moral discussions those who are not interested in a society’s conscious flourishing (e. g. psychopaths). If scientists were to simply accept Harris’ definition of “moral”, for example, any individual who opts to define “moral” as “that which pleases Leprechauns” would have no place in scientific discussions.

If someone were to define moral as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior” and hold that the standard is the life of the individual, Harris might just as well say: “not individual, but society.” I have no problem with “human well-being” because in my mind it is equivalent to the flourishing of the individual and if this were the standard, utilitarian, deontological and consequentialist ideas and policies that don’t mind sacrificing the individual to the mob would be a strict no-no. But Harris’ past record is very clear. He, and his merry band of new atheists, are all altruists to the core and just as bad as the religious zealots they condemn, as this article in The Objective Standard points out-

[H]arris advocates altruism, the notion that being moral consists in living for the sake of others, or, more precisely, in self-sacrificially serving others. And although Harris acknowledges that “there are millions of people whose faith moves them to perform extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others,” he claims that “there are far better reasons for self-sacrifice than those that religion provides.”

The best “reason” for self-sacrifice, says Harris, is that “the social feeling of love is one of our greatest sources of happiness; and love entails that we be concerned for the happiness of others.” This, he says, “suggests a clear link between ethics [by which Harris means altruism] and positive human emotions. The fact that we want the people we love to be happy, and are made happy by love in turn, is an empirical observation.”

The happiness that Harris advocates is not the happiness that comes from the achievement of one’s own self-interested, life-promoting values. Rather, it is a “higher happiness,” which allegedly comes from sacrificing one’s own interests for the sake of others.

What if someone, in his self-sacrificial service to others, fails to achieve this “higher happiness”? Harris says that he should rectify the situation by meditating and liberating himself from the “illusion of the self” that is the “string upon which all [his] states of suffering and dissatisfaction are strung.” And what if this person still fails to intuitively grasp the sacrificial essence of ethics? Then, says Harris, he may be precluded from “taking part in any serious discussion” of morality.

Altruism is an ethical system suitable for a society of cannibals. I wonder if, under the guise of looking for a scientific basis for morality, he’s looking for a scientific basis for a particular brand of morality: altruism. The old bait-and-switch trick.

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