I recently got around to listening to the much ballyhooed debate on God and morality between Bill Craig and Sam Harris at Notre Dame. Craig was arguing that atheism can provide no legitimate foundation for objective moral values and duties, and Harris was arguing that it can, based largely on what he has said in his recent book. As usual, I think Craig got the better of his opponent from a philosophical standpoint, but Harris made more effective rhetorical points.
I highly recommend the debate for anyone interested in the ongoing polemics between theists and atheists, but I won’t try to summarize it here. Luke at Common Sense Atheism has already done a fine job of that. I do want to make a few points, however, as an illustration of the schizophrenic world of the new atheists, they who fancy themselves as the champions of reason but often practice very poor philosophy.
Late in the debate, Harris completely abandoned trying to answer some of Craig’s charges about the insufficiency of atheism to provide a reasonable basis for moral values and duties. Craig made at least two arguments that I think are particularly poisonous to Harris’ position and that Harris never answered. For example, he pointed out that Harris was quite fond of equivocating on the varying uses of the terms “good” and “bad.” In fact I think Craig could have argued that Harris’ entire moral system trades on this equivocation, but Harris was fortunate that Craig didn’t press the point.
I will be glad to press the point, however. To illustrate Harris’ confusion, contrast the meanings of the following four propositions:
- That was a bad chess move.
- This milk has gone bad.
- This is truly a bad novel.
- Lying to his wife was a bad thing to do.
Follow the various disambiguations of the term “bad” here. In the first sentence it refers to poor strategy according to the rules of chess. The second usage refers to spoilage and therefore, undesirability. The third instance is an aesthetic judgment, and final case seems, prima facie, to be a moral judgment, but even it requires clarification as to what type of moral case is in view.
Basic moral philosophy requires these types of distinctions, lest one fall into a philosophical quagmire. Harris never makes them, and he never responded to Craig’s charge that his failure to make such distinctions significantly weakens his position. At best it leaves his position in a cloud of ambiguity. Perhaps Harris addresses this issue in The Moral Landscape, but he certainly avoided this charge by Craig during the debate.
These distinctions are important because Harris’ whole position in the debate traded on equivocating on such evaluative terms. He seemed to be claiming that, since moral categories such as “good” or “bad” are self-evidently defined in terms of human flourishing or human suffering, respectively, we need no other account of the truth of moral facts. Moral facts are just obvious or self-evident. A good act is one that contributes to the well-being of rational creatures, and a bad act is one that contributes to human suffering. Done. Next. To inquire further into the nature of moral facts or to ask what makes them true is to “hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question,” according to Harris.
This quote received much applause. It’s also the point at which many atheist defenders are claiming that Harris schooled Craig. It was also the stupidest, most philosophically inept statement of the evening. That the self-appointed champions of reason are heralding it as the highlight of the debate only accentuates their own philosophical incompetence. Questions about the foundations of moral truth have been debated for millennia by the greatest of human minds. But be advised ye seekers of wisdom: no longer! Sam Harris has declared such inquiries as stupid. The debate is over before it has begun! Seek not into the deep structure of the world. The deliverances of 21st century western morality are self-evident, or obvious, or axiomatic, or in some sense analytically true. Don’t dare ask which? Or why? Or in what sense? Most importantly, do not delve into questions about their ontological status. To ask is foolishness! Believe on the axiomatic moral principles. Believe in order that you may understand! We are the new atheists, the heroes of rationality and free thought. We walk by faith and not by sight.
And so forth. My caricature is not far off the mark. Craig rightly characterized Harris’ view as a faith position. I would go further: it is an ugly, fundamentalist faith position, the kind that does not merely frown upon asking questions but derides the questioner as well. This is the faith of screaming preachers and bus bombers. The very refusal to ask questions about the world that characterizes so many religious believers, and that Harris mercilessly abuses in his published works, is the position that he unrepentantly defends when it comes to moral duties.
It’s easy to see where Harris has made his mistake, and why he thinks as he does, and why he can make such statements with a straight face. When you fail to make proper distinctions between the various uses of evaluative terms, you risk collapsing all the competing meanings of the relevant terms into the simplest one. So from Harris’ perspective of equivocation, of course we know what terms like “good” and “bad” mean. They mean “contributing to human flourishing” or “contributing to human suffering.” So of course it’s a stupid question to ask about the nature of good and bad actions.
The obvious response is to point out that the function of moral terms in our everyday discourse (not to mention how moral terms have been understood throughout much of the history of moral philosophy) goes far beyond the simplistic definition of benefit and harm. Of course benefits and harms are good and bad, respectively. So what? Benefit and harm, flourishing and suffering: these are what are often called natural goods. So it’s good for a man to enjoy life, health, and personal relationships and it’s bad for him to rot away in a Venezuelan prison. Natural goods are determined by the natural makeup of their recipient.
Except on the crudest forms of utilitarianism, moral inquiry is not merely about asking in what way our actions do or do not promote human benefits and flourishing. Moral questions are questions about the correct type of action to take in a given situation, questions about whether there are such things as moral obligations, duties, and normative facts. Such questions are clearly distinct from questions about benefit and harm. The point that Craig pressed (and indeed, the point that practically all theistic critics of Harris have been pressing about his book) is that Harris has not moved one nanometer toward answering the normative question from an atheistic standpoint. There is clearly some connection between benefit, harm, and moral obligations, but Harris seems to think he can merely analyze moral discourse in terms of benefit and harm, while blithely ignoring the fact that even a rudimentary investigation into how those terms are used in human life reveals such an analysis to be insufficient, naive, and seemingly gerrymandered to fit the restrictive metaphysical requirements of naturalism.
Now let’s assume this inelegant version of utilitarianism is, on the final analysis, the correct understanding of morality. Very well. Utilitarianism is very popular among naturalists but it suffers from some serious difficulties (especially in squaring with basic moral phenomenology), but for the sake of philosophical transparency let’s assume it’s correct. Has Harris actually given us a reason to accept it? Has he actually argued for why and how this moral outlook fits our experience of the world? I don’t see how he has. He seems to assume it’s the only legitimate position and then mocks any further inquiry. The shovel of a stupid question and all that. Again, perhaps he goes into more detail in The End of Faith. It sits on my shelf. I haven’t read it. I will be reading it soon, since I have to review it for a philosophical journal, and perhaps at that point I may correct my understanding of Harris’ attempt at naturalistic norms. Until then I remain skeptical, and I can only remain incredulous at the hordes of atheists who accept Harris as some sort of luminary of reason.