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Sam Harris and the Moral Failure of Science

Updated on September 30, 2011

Sam Harris, who received a BA in philosophy from Stanford and a doctorate in neurobiology from UCLA, is easily the most radically ideological of the “New Atheists” or “Four Horsemen” as they are also called. Along with the other horsemen, journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens, Biologist Richard Dawkins and Philosopher Daniel Dennett, he has become one of the most famous and outspoken critics of religion in the modern world. He is also the most controversial. If you look up criticisms of Harris you will find that many of his critics are atheists themselves and that despite associating himself with the political left he is as blasted by left leaning voices for his intolerance as he is by the right for his views on Christianity. Even after all the ink against him I still feel that nobody has really realized how dangerous some of the ideas that Harris has proposed really are. I am about to unleash a no holds barred attack on Sam Harris and the ideology that he has proposed which I find as dangerous as even the most radical religion.

Despite the inflammatory title this article is not meant to appeal to the religious but to those who are not religious, and specifically to people who consider themselves agnostics, atheists and even anti-theists. This does not mean that I do not invite an audience of religious people or their comments but even though I am certain to say some things that you will like I will also almost certainly say things that you do not like. I myself am an atheist and a strong believer in scientific realism but at the same time I am in no way interested in discussing whether religion is true or not. I think this is a completely useless conversation to have and resent being dragged into it. I don’t think the religious question hinges on truth but I agree with the views of the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who despite coming to totally different conclusions, agreed that the value of religion did not come from its relation to reason.

The subject of this article, Sam Harris, would certainly not agree with this statement. Neither would any of the other new atheists that he is associated with. In many ways Kierkegaard and Nietzsche should have ended this discussion. Despite the fact that Christian Apologist Dinesh D’Sousa is fond of using Kierkegaard’s example of romantic love as a leap of faith that has value, he then misses the whole point of Kierkegaard by claiming that Christianity has evidence to support its claims. If there is evidence then it isn’t faith and if you need evidence you aren’t a real Christian. Kierkegaard would look at D’Sousa with nothing but derision. Similarly, Sam Harris is the embodiment of Nietzsche’s worst nightmare. In his most recent book, The Moral Landscape, Harris claims that not only is morality based on religion faulty (not a hard thing to prove) but claims that objective morality can be derived from science. One of Nietzsche’s primary concerns was that if science replaced religion as the primary moral authority we would be in far worse shape than religion ever put us in.

I’m already getting ahead of myself. In many ways the term “New Atheists” is a complete misnomer since their main concern is not whether religion is true but that it is immoral. Despite the fact that this is really what it comes down to claims that religious values and atheist values are somehow either inferior or superior usually are based on both sides using the exact same faulty logic.

1. Appeal to Authority

Religious people assume that because Atheists do not have an ultimate moral authority other than their capacity to reason then they have no incentive to be moral. This is, of course, wrong and the reason it is wrong will be revealed in the common anti-theist attack on the religious. Anti-theists will often cite an offensive passage from the Bible or other holy book and insist that in order to believe in the religion as a whole they must believe this passage and believe it literally, not as a parable, metaphor or having a different historic context. This is logic you would never apply to anything else but religion. Most people wouldn’t call somebody a hypocrite for voting for a candidate they disagreed with on ten percent of the issues. You wouldn’t throw out a scientific theory that had been 90 percent effective at predicting outcomes, you would instead form a new hypothesis to try to account for the ten percent that did not conform to the theory. Some people would say I’m being generous giving religion a 90 percent positive rating but we’d just be playing a numbers game. If more than 50 percent of religion is positive then it is still worth keeping those moral values. But ultimately my point is that we get our moral imperatives from the same place whether we are religious or non-religious. We get them from reason and not a higher authority. If you are religious you can say God gave us that capacity for just that purpose and though the atheist disagrees he cannot argue that many religious people are perfectly able to disregard dubious morality they find in scripture.

2. Confusing Ideology with Religion

While ideology can be informed by religion it is not the same thing. One example that comes up in these arguments is slavery. Anti-theists make the claim that slavery was supported by Christians and that scripture was used to defend it. The religious make the claim that it was Christians who worked tirelessly to abolish slavery and scripture was used against it. Who was right? Both are right and each account is completely true. The Southern Baptist and Southern Methodist churches split off from the rest of their denominations because of the slavery issue. In these cases one religion produced two different ideologies that were directly morally opposed to each other. This line of argument always leads to the inevitable, “who killed more people, the religious or the non-religious?” These arguments ultimately go nowhere because when we are talking about massive historical events saying that one idea or ideology was completely responsible is impossible.

So you might be asking, what does any of this have to do with Sam Harris and his claims of scientific morality? I suspect that deep down Harris knew that these arguments were not working. He said in many interviews that “the only people who think that there is an absolute morality are the religious.” This is not a true statement. As one of the critics of Harris, Kwame Anthony Appiah, was quick to point out, the vast majority of ethics professors agree that there are absolute answers to most moral problems. Appiah should know because he is an ethics professor at Princeton University. When being interviewed by John Stewart on The Daily Show, Harris was asked if whether he was confusing the idea that the right thing to do is difficult to ascertain and the idea that it was unknowable. As Harris usually does with any philosophically hard question he changed the subject.

This is why I believe that Harris was playing in the realm of philosophy for strictly ideological reasons. It seems that Harris believed that in order to truly destroy religion he needed a morality that was equally as rigid. As I have watched him give speech after speech it is obvious that no matter how ridiculous his arguments are his audiences can do no more than gush. He has not created a new workable moral theory as he claims, but a cult of personality. He is a left wing Ayn Rand in the making and if he chooses to push his “philosophy” in later books he could become just as dangerous if not more dangerous than her views are. Like Rand, he claims his morality is based on objective science and just like Rand his philosophy shows a dangerous disregard to the concept of basic human rights.

Because of his educational background I do not have the luxury to consider Harris naïve or ignorant. It seems that he does not know the implications of what he is saying and that he is just naïve but then he pulls out objections to his arguments that reveal his philosophy background. When he mentions David Hume’s contention that “an ought cannot be derived from an is” and just like Ayn Rand he dismisses it without making much of an argument, it makes me cringe. “We not only can derive an ought from an is,” Harris says during one of his speeches, “but we can derive an is from an ought. We ought to be rational. We ought to consider evidence.” I don’t know who this is more insulting to, philosophers or scientists. There is no morality involved in science. We base scientific validity by its ability to predict. That is pretty much deriving an is from an is.

His basic moral theory is that what is good and bad comes from brain states. So he says that what leads to the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people is the greatest good. Anybody who knows anything about philosophy knows that there is already a theory that makes this very same claim and that theory is Utilitarianism. The one thing that Harris adds to it is that he claims it is derived from science alone with no moral assumptions. When an audience member asks the question, “Isn’t that still a moral assumption?” Harris seems genuinely puzzled. He claims that there is no other version of morality that can be argued for and that when people say that there is another value other than good consequences, “I think they don’t know what they are talking about.”

This is the point that I became convinced that Harris was either a manipulative liar or willfully stupid. As hard as it is to believe that he got through college without reading Immanuel Kant, it is even harder to believe that he didn’t consult any research materials about modern ethical theories that mention Kant. Kant gives two values outside of simply maximizing pleasure. Kant says that all human beings should be treated as ends in themselves and not means to an end and that the point of morality was not to maximize human happiness but to increase human autonomy. For instance, if I told you that I could plug you into a virtual reality machine where you would have the ideal life that you could imagine but that you would have to stay in this fake reality all your life, what would you say? Philosopher Robert Nozick proposed this objection to Utilitarianism in the 1970s and when psychologists ask people the question the vast majority of them say that they would rather be free than happy. By his own standards this proves the thesis formed by Harris to be false.

But if Harris was just a bad Utilitarian this wouldn’t be such a big deal. My point goes further than that though. One of the most controversial claims that Harris has ever made was a Huffington Post article where he defends torture. What makes Harris so dangerous an ideologue is not his argument itself but the way he argues it. He begins with that old chestnut about being in a situation where there is a bomb about to go off and the only way that you can get the information to save the world (he imagines it is a nuclear bomb) is to torture a terrorist suspect. He argues simply that if you can imagine such a circumstance then you are saying that there is no rule that could prevent you from using torture.

First of all, Harris is once again showing his ignorance or outright inability to deal with the problems of Utilitarianism. While we expect politicians to use such sloppy logic to get this from somebody who so many think of as a “respected intellectual” is really disappointing. The question is, at what point do we know enough information that torture would be okay? In order to really know enough that we could act with certainty of good consequences is that we would already have to know: a bomb exists, that the suspect knows where it is, that it is an imminent threat, that we could get enough information in time to stop the bomb. Now, could you even plausibly imagine such a situation? How could a situation arise where you know enough information to know that the torture would stop a disaster but still not have enough information to not know where the bomb is?

Harris then makes an analogy with collateral damage. He says that if collateral damage of innocent people when we are pursuing the enemy is morally acceptable then torture should be acceptable. After all, the torture victim is guilty (because obviously we tried and convicted him before the torture because that is how it works) and the victims of collateral damage are innocent. Many people pointed out to Harris that one is intentional and the other isn’t but he dismisses this. Once again his Stanford philosophy education has failed him. In one of his speeches Harris mentions the famous “trolley problem.” In one scenario a runaway trolley is on a track and going to run over four people but you can flip a switch and put it on the other track where another person is. In the second scenario you are standing next to a fat man who you can push in front of the trolley to save the four people. In the first case almost everyone says pulling the switch is okay but almost nobody says pushing somebody in front of the trolley is okay. Harris mentions this but doesn’t even have a point. He just says that the two acts are “different” but doesn’t clarify.

If he had bothered to think about it for even a second he would have seen that the first example is collateral damage. There was no malice in the flipping of the switch but it was the act that was necessary to save the four. If the other person was to see the trolley and jump out of the way then their death would not be necessary. In the case of the man being pushed in front of the trolley we are using another human being as a means to an end and that is unacceptable to most of us. Sam Harris said it himself. He doesn’t see what else is important other than the maximizing of human welfare, so your religious rights don’t matter, your civil rights don’t matter, due process doesn’t matter. Kant claimed that every human being had intrinsic value and an inherent right to be free. Kant thought that it was better to let humans be free to make bad choices than to enslave them in the interest of their well -being. For the last few hundred years civilizations that have lived by these principles have done pretty well.

For those who think I have been unfair to Dr. Harris I just want to bring up a point. When Sam Harris debates he shows how religion was harmful by bringing up the crusades, the Spanish inquisition and Islamic terrorism and says religion was the cause. When apologists debate they mention Hitler, Stalin and Mao and claim atheism is the cause. But may I suggest that if all of these ideologies share one trait that this single trait connecting them all might very well be the cause? All of these atrocities share a trait with the “moral theory” of Sam Harris in that they deny the intrinsic value of human beings and that they do not respect the rights of human beings based on cultural, religious or racial differences. They deny the central premise of Kant’s ethics and if every atrocity in history does this shouldn’t we as theists and non-theists come together to protect this one principle?


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    • Tensins profile image


      6 years ago

      Nice article. I like listening to Sam Harris and think that he speaks like a minister giving a sermon. He resonates certain truths that his listeners, albeit followers, have and want to hear. His book The Moral Landscape is a bit of an apology that science is not further along in defining a morality that can compete with religion (although he does believe that it is possible). He does not think that such a scientific morality would be dehumanizing, however, others, such as Martin Heidegger (Being and Time) would disagree and Martin Heidegger is probably correct. Sam doesn't seem to fully appreciate the depth and scope of investment humans have in morality and thinks that it can be reduced to predictability according to the signals that a brain may relay to a machine under certain stimuli. This is the problem though. If a machine is programmed to define morality; - the programer must also be included. The programer must not be excluded and must have no remaining control over the morality that the machine defines or the programmer remains the ultimate moral authority and that would not be scientific. This is the pitfall, even for religions wherein morality is defined. For example; - Pope Paul V, in 1606 during the Reformation confronted the Venetian ambassador and asked; "Do you not know that too much reading of the scriptures ruins the Catholic religion?" (The Reformation - Diarmaid MacCulloch - P. 406). In Italy, bibles were publicly and ceremonially burned like heretics. Between 1567 and 1773 (206 years), not a single Italian language bible was printed anywhere on the Italian peninsula. The Roman Catholic Church wanted to control the message from a position of possessing the moral authority. The programmers would not release the program. Sam is also neglecting the fact that he practices the same morality that religion is teaching while complaining of the same. For example; - Martin Heidegger revealed that scientifically "Nothing touches." and "There is no side to side." He is speaking of objects as they exist and is accurate scientifically. These are scientific truths that may be taught but are not. Sam would never tell his daughter that his scientific morality was such that ; - "Nothing touches.", "There is no side to side.", "There is no you and I.". Why? Because that is the morality of a machine. It is not the fault of religion if science is not competitive in the realm of morality if those that advocate science do not practice its tenets and chose not to follow its edicts.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Andrew Petrou 

      7 years ago from Brisbane

      There has been an undeniable neglect of ethical evolution with the current view that religion has nothing to offer: all culture, philosophy and ethics slowly evolved out of religions. By discarding the principle of evolution in the study of ethics proponents have opened themselves to charges of hypocrisy and unleashed bizarre anarchic ideas (eg Singer with his bestiality/infanticied and Dawkins with his total religious intolerance).

    • Ben McLean profile image

      Ben McLean 

      9 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Great job! My hub pages on C. S. Lewis's "The Abolition of Man" attack Sam Harris's sophistry indirectly by attacking utilitarianism in defense of natural law.

      "He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if He had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science."

      - Thomas Jefferson

    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      The passage you are quoting is in reference to the similarities between religious atrocities and supposed atheist atrocities. I do point out that the morality in the Moral Landscape has some similarities to this, not out of malice but out of what it omits.

      Even if one wants to argue for Utilitarianism there are vast differences between Mill's Utilitarianism and Singer's Utilitarianism and the one advocated by Harris. These former theories compensate for the worst qualities of the theory overall, but because the one advocated by Harris is purely "realist" he has no restrictions for which committing genocide would not be morally acceptable if such an act led to the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

      As much as I am always convinced by anybody who makes their point writing in caps, most of what you are writing is like Harris, in that you assume things are self evident which inevitably lead to a logical contradiction.

      Ayn Rand's arguments for egoism are also based on the "self-evident" truth of science. Rand argues that because it is necessary for us to be selfish in order to survive, then selfishness is a virtue and altruism is a vice and this is ALWAYS true.

      Rand and Harris both appeal to the "objective" truth of science to build moral theories that are completely opposite of each other. Both theories involve a moral "ought" value assumption that is not scientific or realist or natural. (Rand assumes you should put yourself before all others, Harris assumes that total happiness is of the greatest value) but both deny that there is any assumption being made, and that their theory is simply self evident.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      " they deny the intrinsic value of human beings and that they do not respect the rights of human beings based on cultural, religious or racial differences."

      With all due respect, even though Sam is rather a neo con at times when it comes to Islam and the middle east issue and blames Islam for the root of it ( which is ridiculous), as a scientist, I find a lot of issue with the comment I just quoted above. Science tells us the REALITY of the world, that is, as human animals, we are never really wired the same but what we all share, is the urge for survival and the fitness quest to survive. Only a blind fool would NOT see this historically or presently to be the case with the human species ( or any other species that share NATURE with us). Therefore, you can teach moral philosophy for as long as you want, if it is NOT NATURAL, meaning, TRUE IN NATURE AS IS, it fails on its face and it often does. Utalitarisnism is the BEST way to understand how REALITY of NATURE works, and unless you live in a bubble, you cannot stay OUTSIDE nature and fool yourself. It's NOT about morality or ethics, but torture as an example is sometimes necessary so most of us keep our fitness rank high enough to survive. Sorry to break it to you, the world is imperfect and it's NOT really into humans and their desires. The world is the world, a rough wild place for all kinds of organisms that are in a race for survival and nature ALWAYS wins, no matter how much you would like to prevent it or change it, something has to give won't work without the sacrificial lambs and any philosophy that ignores NATURE fails on its face. That is how science and understanding how science works, which in turn is the ONLY tool that let us conceptually understand how nature works is the BEST and ULTIMATE philosophical tool for a rational realist morality, that is self centered in a utilitarian way with enough room for release of endorphins and happiness for most who understand the game and participate in it.

    • Stagger Lee profile image

      Stagger Lee 

      9 years ago from Earth

      Now that you say that, I'm tempted to give it another go. Unfortunately, I find myself lacking motivation after spending all of my righteous indignation in the writing process.

    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      Sure...sure...I know it was a gem.

    • Stagger Lee profile image

      Stagger Lee 

      9 years ago from Earth

      For the record. I just completed a five-point refutation of your argument, Robephiles, here at the WSU computer lab. I then stepped away to answer a phone call and upon return, someone had logged me out and taken my computer. I did not save or send. I am also too lazy to rewrite it. Just know that I own you.

    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      My main beef with Harris is how he ignores sociological and political factors when discussing religion and how he ignores the works of Kant, Virtue ethicist going all the way back to Plato and even post Bentham Utilitarians like Mill and Singer who saw problems in the theory and tried to fix them. I'm amazed how many people listen to his lectures and don't see the problem with some of the things that he is saying.

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      LT Wright 

      9 years ago from California

      Interesting hub! I'm one of those nonbelievers who is really uncomfortable with a lot of the ideas of Sam Harris. I agree with some of what he says but a lot of his ideas seem really extreme to me.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      " I think we do have enough moral basis for us to live good lives if we are willing to consider all sides of the moral debate."

      That, my colleague, is the heart of wisdom, regardless of your beliefs.


    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      You bring up a lot of points so I will try to address them all.

      1. Morality has no real connection to religion as a necessary component. I agree. However, many moral ideas did originate from religious thinkers. Free will and inaleinable rights are both religious concepts. Do we need religion to justify them anymore? No, but Harris has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

      2. Science can tell us about how the brain works but do we really need that to know what causes pleasure and what causes pain? I really don't see what science contributes to this debate at all beyond giving us new facts to consider. But that is what science has always done.

      3. I can respect the idea that both torture and collateral damage are morally wrong and that both flipping the switch and pushing somebody in front of the trolley are wrong. But Harris thinks that there is no difference between them and because there is no difference then they are both right. that is a big difference than saying they are both wrong. Also Harris implies terrorist suspects have no rights because they have forfeited them. There is a moral theory that makes this claim. It is Natural Law ethics and it was developed by the Catholic Church on the basis that morality comes from God.

      4. I respect the claim that war is always wrong but you will find that very few people believe there is no such thing as a "just war." It would be hard to make the case that World War 2 was unjustified but it is our respect for human rights that have helped us make sure another war like that hasn't happened since. It may be the last just war though. Now you are correct in saying we simply use war as a political tool.

      5. You are right to point out good and bad are personal and not universal. Our moral delimma may be unsolvable because we can't ever completely balance what is good and what is right but I think we do have enough moral basis for us to live good lives if we are willing to consider all sides of the moral debate. Thank you for your comments.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      @ Trish_M

      "that it is wrong to do things that cause harm and suffering and right to do things that prevent harm and suffering ~ "

      I agree. Now, how did we learn that? By being subjected to harm and suffering, either as witnesses or as victims.

      Does that make harm and suffering good? by no means.

      Does it make it necessary? I submit that it may.

      As parents, we frequently punish children. Is this harm? Is it suffering? (depends on the punishment)

      Doctors and dentists frequently inflict suffering, though usually to prevent harm. Patients often willingly submit to it, but often, espcecially in the case of children, unwillingly. Parents then have to allow the suffering to occur. (Chemo, amputation, spinal taps).

      The law causes suffering, even as it tries to prevent it.

      While I believe suffering is bad, I also believe that it is a part of reality for a reason. Either it is a misapplication of the pain reflex, or it is an element of a teaching reality. (Or both).

      Suffering is always bad to the sufferer. We have many social mechanisms to excuse or forgive the causing of it, however.

      Good and bad are personal, not universal.

      cheers again

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      (always more to say)

      "pulling the switch is okay but almost nobody says pushing somebody in front of the trolley is okay."

      Of course pushing someone is not okay (neither is pulling the switch, but that's a longer debate)

      If I really believe that a body in front of a trolly is the only way to save lives, than the only ethical solution is to be that body myself. The person who pushes the bystander is saying the following:

      I see a danger to others

      I see a way to prevent that danger, but it will cost 1 life

      I choose the life that will be spent

      It will not be mine, but this other person's.

      If I'm the 'I' in this scenario, I have seen a solution and have chosen to enact my vision onto someone else.

      I have made my vision more important than someone else's life.

      Now, if I'm not large enough to stop the trolley (no one is, by the way, but leave that for now)then I am still choosing one person's life over another, for no ethical reason other than numbers.

      Perhaps the person I push is about to crack the god question for the good of all humankind.

      Perhaps the 4 projected victims are plotting a terrorist action.

      The point is, I cannot arbitrarily AND ethically remove someone's freedoms. I can choose to do so, but must accept that it was wrong. Does it balance out with the good I did? Only if there is in fact a balance sheet after it all comes down. Do you believe in karma? (or other religious balancing ledgers)

      Collateral damage is not just the 'regrettable but necessary cost of war.'

      It is the ethical reason to stop using war as a political tool in the first place.


    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Religion is a human artifact.

      Morality is an individual and collective expression of right and wrong.

      All religion is is a collection of like-minded individuals on the nature of their own morality and belief in the foundation of the universe.

      In this, I agree with Harris. Religion has no automatic and natural connection to a universal morality.

      Science may have a methodology to discover it, but I have my doubts it will have sufficient data, since everyone's values are a matter of so many unique events in their lives that to come to a 'universal morality' is at best problamatic.

      "Harris then makes an analogy with collateral damage. He says that if collateral damage of innocent people when we are pursuing the enemy is morally acceptable then torture should be acceptable."

      Clearly, neither is a universal question. An innocent person suffering and/or dying for someone else's cause or reason is bad for the innocent, but okay for the cause. This is always true. There is nothing else in it. No universal issue is being measured here.

      Personally, I find collateral damage equally repugnant to torture. The notion that my cause is so great that the lives of total uninvolved strangers is unimportant in curtailing my actions is the height of immorality.

      There is much more to this topic than in the hub, but you have introduced me to new aspects of the debate.

      Thanks for writing.


    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      First of all, I did watch the video in its entirety, read all three of his books, read articles by him on the Huffington Post and his own website. A way you might have been able to figure that out is that I quote from the video several times.

      Yeah, I'm kind of aware of the whole history of ethics. That is why I made it clear that his philosophy is like Utilitarianism, and specifically like Bentham's Utilitarianism. If it was more like Mill's Utilitarianism or Singer's Utilitarianism it would not be as problematic. His denial of free will, which I don't get into in the article, is also troubling but Nietzsche denied free will as well. He didn't then contradict himself a bunch of times immediately afterward.

      Of the four horseman I think Sam Harris is the least intelligent. He is however the most handsome and charming. He is The Zeppo of the Four Horsemen to Hitchens Groucho, Dennett's Harpo and Dawkins Chico. I don't see what his being an American has to do with it.

      i am also not sure which debate you mean. The debate that religion is false does not really need a champion at this point. the debate that religion is inherently harmful is a dubious one. His ethics are childish and ideological rather than scientific.

      Daniel Dennett is an American. I don't see why this matters but he is and much smarter than Harris. Dennent is also an ethical Kantian (most philosophers of science are) and believer in free will. I would love to see Harris and Dennett debate on his idea of morality but that will never happen because of the sentiment you have stated here.

      The implication of your comment is that I should support Harris because he is an atheist and debates theists. I don't see the logic in this. the whole point of being an atheist is that I don't have to conform to dogma. I can attack bad ideas wherever I find them, whether they come from theists or atheists.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Hello Robephiles,

      Very interesting hub - enjoyed reading.

      I haven't seen this particular video but I have seen other clips of the same presentation. In reply to your opinion; I agree with your immediate impression, but I disagree with you overall.

      Have you actually watched the video in its entirety? Do you feel uncomfortable contemplating morality as a mathematical equation (rather than an inexplicable property)? Are you aware that this subject has been tackled many times before?

      Sam Harris is not the best of the bunch, but he is at least American. He is the BEST American when it comes to this kind of debate. All the others seem to shy away from the limelight. Let's at least encourage more Sam Harris's to take to the stage and be vocal!

    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      All I am saying is that maximizing welfare alone is not the ONLY criteria for what is right. Harris is taking a step backward by denying rules altogether in favor of observable phenomenon. (Most Utilitarians today are "Rule Utilitarians") There are other criteria. In his book Harris says that his final goal is to get people to change their views about ethics to conform to science.

      This is the opposite of how philospophers have been doing it since the beginning. For over 2,000 years we have examined what we think is right or wrong and then worked backwards from there to figure out the justification for these intuitions. Everybody who has tried what Harris is doing has failed miserably. (So has he. His book got almost unanimously nad reviews from philosophers.)

      This is why I compare Harris to Ayn Rand. He argues that morality proceeds from facts just as Rand does. I say that morality proceeds from intuitions. If you look at Rand's philosophy she argues that science teaches us to only care about our own well being. Harris says the opposite. To get to the point where we say we should care we need an intuition.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      10 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hhmm, interesting. That's not how I interpreted it at all, but I'll give the matter some more thought :)

    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      I strongly rejected Kant when I was younger. I considered myself much more of a Utilitarian when it comes to ethics but Utilitarianism has logical inconsistencies as well. My rational for rejecting Kant was because his ethics were too absolutist. He even insists that you cannot lie and wrote a whole essay about how lying was never permissible.

      Later philosophers such as Phillipa Foot and John Rawls did better with Kant's ethics then I think Kant did. However, even most Utilitarian’s would take issue with Harris and how he has framed the moral issue. John Stuart Mill is the greatest Utilitarian philosopher and his political theory was an attempt to try and justify why basic human rights were still in play even after we have accepted a Utilitarian philosophy.

      I wouldn't be so disturbed by Harris if he acknowledged the other side at all. He not only doesn't but suggests that there is no other side. This is a mistake that a philosopher just wouldn't make. He also doesn't seem to understand the philosophy of science which is odd because most of the professors I had in both biology and classes in neurology in college seemed to understand those issues just fine.

      There are a lot of things that Harris just doesn't make clear. He denies free will but then says that we can still be held responsible for our decisions. When he explains his stance he basically describes the compatibilist theory of free will which most philosophers have. His only reason he seems to deny free will is because he thinks it is a religious concept.

      You do not really have to know the entire history of ethics to understand ethical reasoning but at this point the main issue is between "the right" and "the good." When we talk about the welfare of different creatures we are talking about what is good. When we are talking about individual rights, such as free speech we are talking about what is right. The KKK does not serve the greater good in any way but denying them their free speech rights is wrong. It has nothing to do with the maximizing of pleasure or brain states.

      If we are to take Harris seriously then we would have to reason like this. Two groups want to come and have events in your town. One is the KKK and the other is a group that promotes astrology. Neither group promotes what you would call a good value (both beliefs are false) but the astrologers would make people happy while the kkk would upset people. So we decide that the astrologers get to come but the KKK does not. That is the decision we would make in his theory.

      Also keep in mind religion makes billions of people across the world happy. It hurts peoole too but how can we measure that? How can we measure what is moral and immoral by what makes people the happiest? Also eating cupcakes makes me happy but if I eat enough of them it will make me sick. We must also measure short term and long term happiness.

      It seems to me that Harris doesn't understand his own theory. He says in the Q & A that gay marriage should be justified not because it is a human right, like Kant might say if he were alive today, but because it would generate happiness. What about the people that it really upsets? Also, what about fifty years ago. Gay marriage would have caused more pain to people fifty years ago then it would have pleasure so that would mean fifty years ago it was wrong and now it is right.

      Slavery is the same thing. If enslaving one group of people made the majority much happier but made that small minority miserable then why would it be wrong? If we accept Kant then it is wrong but if we accept Harris he gives us no real reason.

      I could go on but I won't. My main beef with Harris is how hge refuses to deal with objections no matter how good they are.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      10 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi again :)

      I have enjoyed reading Harris's essays, etc, for a few years, now, and have never been particularly unhappy with anything that I have read.

      Harris, here in the video, says that he doesn't want to be 'churlish and boorish' ~ and he doesn't come over that way, to me. He thinks that morality concerns the 'better good' of living creatures.

      It seems to me, that it is wrong to do things that cause harm and suffering and right to do things that prevent harm and suffering ~ to the best of our ability.

      In the video you provide, this seems, also, to be what Harris is saying. (Sometimes his words are a bit complex and difficult to follow.) And all opinions are open to interpretation and discussion, of course.

      He may be critical of bad behaviour resulting from religion ~ but I think that this is fair. Certainly, there may be bad behaviour that is unrelated to religion, but this is not the point. Religion should not encourage bad behaviour, nor should it be excused when doing so, simply because, for some reason, people think that they have to respect religions and religious views.

      Some aspects of the Bible, for example, seem totally immoral to me, because they are about inflicting needless suffering.

      I have now read your item on Kant, and discussed it with my daughter, who has been studying him. She finds many of his ideas illogical and isn't too impressed with his ideas.

      Anyway, I enjoyed this video and agreed with much of it. I don't see any need for someone, who has views on morality, to have studied all philosophies.

      I hope that I have understood your arguments ~ I may have to read through them again.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      10 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)


      I have been impressed by Harris's work, since I came across it, but I shall have to give your ideas some more thought.

      I always feel that one should look at ideas and then draw one's own conclusions. I tend to do this with people like Harris.

      For example, though I also admire Dawkins, and enjoy his work, I find his dogmatic atheism a bit too much.

      After all, we cannot really know, for sure, that God does not exist.

      And we know that, though much evil has been done in the name of religion, human nature is such that bad things will be done, anyway.

      Furthermore, religion has done a good for some people ~ eg Salvation Army soup kitchens for the poor.

      But we do need people to speak out against the wrong and illogical aspects of religion and belief.

      I have not read Kant's work.

      As I said, I'll give this more thought.

    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      Thanks, I actually expected a lot of negative comments on this hub but I have yet to see any. It might just mean that not enough people are reading it.

    • mattdigiulio profile image


      10 years ago from Los Angeles

      Very well thought out, voting up!


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