Can we justify real morality in a godless world?

Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape, promises us that morals can be objective and scientific with no reference to a deity.  All we have to do is accept the supposedly common sense idea that morality is nothing else than the well-being or happiness of conscious creatures.  Since, according to Harris, humankind is just material in makeup, happiness is simply physical and psychological.  He thinks that brain scans and neuroscience are key to unlocking more of our moral questions.  Well-being just is morality and morality well-being, so to speak.

The problem with this is that well-being and morality do not appear to be identical.  To figure out if two things are identical, we just need to consider whether they have the same properties.  For example, if I say red is the same as blue, we can determine quickly that they are not the same.  If I say that my wife, Meridith, is the same as Cleopatra, then all of the two women’s attributes would have to match.  In the same way, morality and well-being would have to be identical for them to be the same thing.

Are they?  Nerp.  Not exactly.  Let me illustrate.  It is possible to experience well-being upon sipping a cup of coffee or climbing a mountain.  Does that mean we have done something moral?  What about moral choices where our own well-being is negated, such as sacrificing our joy for the sake of another?  Further, what if we simply handed out medication to increase serotonin levels and make everyone happy?  Would that make the world moral?  I don’t think so.  Simply put, since well-being and moral actions do not have the exact same properties, they cannot be the same thing.  Well-being is part of morality, surely, but it is not the whole thing.

But let’s take this further.   Does it even make sense to say that physical states of well-being are the same as moral states?  I’d say no.  This is because of the is/ought problem.  What is this?  The philosopher, David Hume, pointed out that material things, or the “is,” can never imply a moral “ought.”  Stay with me here.  According to Hume, there is nothing about the world itself in its matter that could justify us saying, “you shouldn’t act like that.”  My brain states or chemistry can never produce a moral ought, such as “it’s wrong to take my Eggo waffle.”  Make sense?  It’s hard to wrap the mind around this, which is why Harris can get away with his casual dismissal of the is/ought problem.  Another example comes to us from the classic movie, “Psycho.”  As the murderer creeps up to the shower with his knife in hand, is there anything about that state of affairs that makes it so that he ought not kill the hapless woman?  Not really.  There is no ought coming from the killer or the knife or the shower curtain or the blissfully ignorant woman.  Moral duties or “oughts” need to come from some from somewhere, such as a non-physical being, adequate to explain moral experience.  Theists explain this with God, an all-powerful, good, and loving law-giver.  Harris’s best counter argument against the is/ought distinction, however, is simply to dismiss it out of hand and scoff at it.

One part of his argument is true, however; we can investigate nature and come to understand ethical situations better through various sciences.  Psychology might teach us more about why people behave with bias, giving us more compassion for others when they display it.  Social science shows us that a close connection with a mother and a father are vital for a child’s development and that a good relationship with a father figures curb violent tendencies in males.  Looking to nature to inform ethics is called natural law, an idea which helped form the foundation of our legal system.  But Harris’s anti-God worldview leads to a universe where there is no ultimate purpose, value, or meaning.  Unfortunately, even conscious creatures like us do not have the miraculous power to endow nature with these bountiful gifts.

2 thoughts on “Can we justify real morality in a godless world?

  1. Harris’ view also leads us to the mistaken idea that there are no moral absolutes, and every situation or moral dilemma can be resolved through situation ethics as it were. Moral relativism, erroneous and amoral as it is, leads eventually to moral nihilism (which is what we find today in millions of people living empty hedonistic and self-absorbed lives).

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  2. While I agree with you that Harris’s view tends towards nihilism, he vehemently denies that does. This is because he is arguing for an objective form of morality called ethical-non-naturalism. This is the idea that morality is reducible to a natural state of affairs like well-being. I don’t think his view makes sense, but it is an attempt to be an atheist while avoiding moral nihilism.

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