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Sam Harris, the Moral Landscape

The case for objective morality without any reliance on God or faith in God

Sam Harris wrote The Moral Landscape which argues that science gives us real and objective morality by showing that pain must be avoided.
 
Question: What is science? Any reliable or reasonably reliable method of testing truth claims. We are all scientists - it is only that some of us use equipment. We live and breath science. We know we want sugar in our tea and put it in and that is science. Science is not all about labs, it is about life and the hearth and the home and everything. Everything is science - what is called unscientific is in fact not unscientific it is just bad science.
 
Question: is pain that will do you no good or not enough good a problem or is it only a problem because an authority such as God or some moral code decrees it is?
 
The question is in two parts: part one asks if such pain is bad in itself the other part denies it is bad in itself. In other words something outside of it has to define it is bad. In other words it is in fact not bad at all and we need a moral authority to make it bad for us. This is pure magic and has no logic.
 
Variants of the question: is pain that will do you no good or not enough good a problem or is it CHIEFLY a problem because an authority such as God or some moral code decrees it is?
 
Or: is pain that will do you no good or not enough good a problem? If so then is part of the problem how an authority such as God or some moral code decrees it is a moral problem?
 
These also involve saying that nothing can be that bad unless some authority adds something to it to make it bad. That is as ethical as saying drinking poison is not unhealthy enough so you add more poison it to make it harmful and therefore immoral. That is not morality but trying to catch people out.
 
If morality is redefined as the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of feeling good and happy in the best way then what more do you need? And it follows that as science can test for pain it follows science not religion is morality's only true and good friend. If science is not living up to its duty that it science's problem not morality's. Science is the reason it is objectively wrong (that is wrong no matter how many are convinced it is right) to kick a baby around for fun. Any other kind of morality is just objective evil in disguise.
 
Pain asks to be removed and is that not moral mandate enough? To say some authority must condemn is as bad as saying that needing water is not warrant enough for taking a drink and you always have to wait until you get told to take it.
 
The objection that knowing that x causes pain unnecessarily does not imply, "You should not and ought not to do x" is hiding something. It is hiding that it is in fact morally irrelevant so you need some tyrant in the form of a God or moral code to make it morally blameworthy. It explains why moralistic people are so unpopular and why we hate being corrected on our morals.

 

IN DEPTH EXPLORATION

 

Why Science needs Ethics and Ethics needs Science
 
The main point made in Sam Harris' book the Moral Landscape is that good is real and wrongdoing is real.  They are so real that science can teach us about morality.  In this approach, it is wrong to destroy the wellbeing of a say a child for no reason no matter who says it is right or at least not wrong.  He is careful to redefine good as being about wellbeing. 

 

It is said that he does not define it in moral terms.  But it depends on what you mean by moral.  Moral for believers in God means law - God decrees that something is evil and to be punished or that something is good and therefore to be rewarded.  Good and moral good have a lot of overlaps but they are not the same thing.

 

The idea that God does not bother with bad deeds but just rewards good deeds is not considered for they want to bring in punishment - punishment for wrong is portrayed as being one half of what morality is while the other half is about the reward for goodness.

 

Strangely enough a schizophrenic who thinks that poisoning the water is good for the populace will not be rewarded by God or man for heroically pouring the poison in.  Morality is more about dogma than it pretends.  It dishonestly poses as being about moral facts.

 

The vindication of Sam Harris

 

Good as in wellbeing matters more than good as in being morally good.  If a gun were put to your head and you had to support and endorse one it would have to be wellbeing.  Paradoxically morality would say you are right to drop it in favour of wellbeing when there is no choice.  This is the absolute proof that Harris is right.

 

Describing something as morally good is a judgement on what is already good as in wellbeing in the first place.  Good does not depend on moral good but moral good if it exists depends on good.  But it is always a potential option - never a full option.  What do I mean?  When it can be discarded if you are forced it is obviously not.  Thus Harris stands vindicated as being the true defender of good and true opponent of bad.

 

Craig

 

William Lane Craig praises Harris for holding that goodness is objectively real and not just a matter of opinion.  The alternative is to hold that right and wrong are just opinions and have no factual basis (relativism).  But Craig says you need to bring in the idea of a moral God who commands moral goodness otherwise talk about what is objectively good makes no sense.  In that case then how can Craig praise Harris?  To have the wrong kind of objective morality is far worse than having an unabashedly relativist one!  It will have consequences and threaten real morality. At least the relativist is never sure her moral code is right!  So there is hope!

 

Plus if God is the ground of objective morality it is objectively moral to recognise that and it is a basic duty.  So the atheist is not a fan of objective morality but cherry-picking objective moral rules which amounts to making a mess of it.

 

The answer to Craig that it is better to sense that goodness is objectively real even if you don't know why.  If a gun were put to your head and you had to decide between just believing morality was real or real because a God decrees it is you know which one would be the most important.  The importance given to God is counter-moral.

 

Proof that whatever Grounds Objective Morality it is not God

 

Religion argues that God sending earthquakes to kill people is good so in reality religion thinks natural evil like that is not bad it is good so that means the only evil there is is moral evil - that which human beings do.  Assessing evil as moral evil means you declare you have the right to assess actions as morally evil even if they are not.  Not taking the risk of being wrong is itself seen as immoral.  This does not mean you can call somebody a murderer if there is a chance that they didn't intentionally kill the person and if the evidence says to consider such a chance.  It means that you are saying murder is always wrong even though there is a risk, perhaps small, perhaps nonetheless significant, that it is not always wrong.  So the way religion will not apply the moral code about risk to God is immoral.  Man alone is accused when God should be included in that accusation.  This is neither loving, fair or honest.  It proves God cannot ground morality.

 

The argument that God is all good and never makes evil claims that evil is not a power - it is simply a good thing in the wrong place and the wrong time. This if you look carefully is denying that evildoing and sin are real. If it is not about the action but about where and when it was done then can you call that morality? No. It is evil to punish people as if their actions are the problem when they are not. God cannot give us or teach us morality. God can only give us a "morality" that is counterfeit and evil.

 

Think of it this way.  You will consider it bad to hate somebody just because of their race or beliefs.  The hate hurts you, it makes you see things in a distorted way and it risks you hurting the other person and it gives bad example to others.  The ingredients then are: self-hurt, misperception, risks another person and hateful views spread to others.  To say that each of these individual things is good but is just in the wrong place and time makes no sense and shows no idea of what goodness means.  See what is happening?  It is not about the action - its not action its actions.  There is no such thing, strictly speaking as an action ever.  It is not too hard to see an action as an absence of good but when you see that the action is just a sum of several individual actions it becomes impossible.  To say that your deed is just in the wrong time and place is to try and pretend you are looking at the wood not the trees.  It is based fundamentally on a lie.

 

Moral contradictions arise when you try to base morality on God or on what God commands.  The end result may do a good job at looking moral but it is in fact anti-moral.

 

Evidence

 

Science’s cardinal doctrine that claims and opinions must have suitable support from evidence. The scientist is searching for truth. Truth is an ethical matter. Thus science indicates a need for the scientists to follow ethical principles. Science values truth and thus it is endorsing an ethical principle in doing so.  Even love and compassion are about truth.  You cannot value a person unless the person should be made happy.  It has to be true that the person needs to be happy.

Psychology is a branch of science. It shows how we consider things moral if these things are better for our group or community. We do not think of all humanity but of our group. Science seeks knowledge for all humanity and not just any group.
 
Science deals with the biological and psychological causes of our ideas about morality. It examines the innate moral tendencies we have. Science can only be morality or ethics in a very broad sense. In the case of detailed moral arguments it cannot pick a side. For example, pain by definition is bad so science will determine that a baby is being hurt and so bad is being done to it. But what it cannot do is test if those who say this hurting is needed for a better good are right. At least it asks if it is or isn't. That is a moral question. No matter what you try to ground morality in you are faced with that question. Morality is about the question.

 

Can you really separate harm and suffering from moral questions?

 

No.  Some say you can. 

 

If you believe in abortion you may have a problem with it if you feel the foetus suffers and is hurt.  Science can certainly tell if it is in pain.  If pain is a consideration when something is to be judged moral or immoral then pain and immorality are somehow linked.  You cannot have one without the other.

 

Objections

 

There is no real need to consider objections to Harris but let us look at them anyway.
 
Sam Harris asserted:
 
#Morality is whatever improves human wellbeing.
 
#Science can measure wellbeing. Harris means science in the broad sense of the word.
 
#Wellbeing is a state of the human brain and the science of neurology can tell us if the person is well. It is also a physical state such as when you are healthy and fit.
 
#Therefore morality can be based on science.
 
There are objections to this. Can the objections be answered? Let us see.
 
*The fact that people are or can be well does not prove they ought to be.
 
Maybe it doesn't prove it but if it indicates it that is enough. Most of the time, we do what we think is right not what we know is right. Morality tells us to do what we can. It is not our fault if we have to go by inconclusive hints that an action is the right one. Belief in morality is based on the perfectly reasonable assumption that if people can be happy or well they should be as long as it is in a way that allows them to stay happy and well.
 
If people being well or being able to be well does not prove that they ought to be then that amounts to saying that if you are trying to work out what is moral, wellbeing does not come into it. This is incoherent. It means our morality is pretending to intend to do good. It opens the door to fanatics who say that as morality is unconcerned about wellbeing God can be moral and command you to eat your baby for lunch.
 
If science cannot tell us what we should value, it is clear that it enables the question to be asked. It shows you that a baby given good nourishment will be healthy. Without that you cannot ask if you should value this. So science is far more important than the moral question in one sense.  In another sense, it is moral to be scientific.  You need to be before you can talk about what the baby needs.
 
*There is no real way to test if a person is happy or how happy she is.
 
But we have an idea if they are and that is enough.
 
*A good life is not necessarily a safe or happy one. What about people who make continual sacrifices for others?
 
It is not good for you but for others. This is a very odd objection.  Your good life is not safe for those who had to suffer and die to pave th way.
 
*If machines can do everything for us, why don't we take a happy pill that makes us deludedly happy all the time?
 
Because truth is too important. If you take the happy pill to fool yourself you cannot know if you are fooling yourself in a good way or a bad one. Once you detach from reality anything terrible can happen. Better to adhere to truth and hope for the best than to seek the best without truth.

 

Science is based on the notion that we must follow truth no matter what it leads to or if it makes us unhappy.  It is adamantly opposed to using those happy pills.  That is another reason Harris is right to say that science is morality.

 

Your happiness is certain if the pill works.  If there is no pill then it is uncertain.  But you are robbed of the chance to make your happiness and to earn it.  The pill makes you feel happy but robs you of the happiness of being self-made happy.

 

We have to see that this happy pill objection is the essential and principle objection - it was the other objections are trying to get at.  Refute it and you vindicate The Moral Landscape.

 

* Christians say, "Scientists have abused people and animals in the name of research and science." But abused is not the right word. The sentence should be, "Scientists have needed to use and hurt people and animals in the name of research and science." It has to be a real pressing need. The Christians are trying to demean science. But in fact, what is demeaning is to oppose science which had to be done and which had to learn at great cost in terms of human and animal suffering. They are demeaning those people and animals - it is not science.

 

They are the first to benefit from how people and animals have suffered in the name of science.

 

* Is a scientist to look at pain and suffering in a detached and clinical way? If he is then does it make sense to talk about morality being an outgrowth of science? What about scientific morality when a baby suffers? Am I right to expect a scientist to see pain as something to be prevented meaning bad and not merely as something to be analysed?

 

To look at pain coldly means you see it as pain in theory and nothing else. That is not seeing pain and its not scientific. Science requires that you fine tune your sense of reality as best you can.  The senses are what do science through the experiments and the machines so it is scientific to look at pain in an attached way.

 

* What about the view that if those who weaken the human gene pool were sterlilised then that would be scientifically good and thus you can say science requires it?

 

It is very important to answer this question for Nazi style eugenics is the biggest fear people have of science.  But science does not demand that we exercise eugenics for science does not engage in it itself.  Most of us are born without any such manipulation.  It is man using science that does eugenics.  Science does not make man do so or demand that man must do so!
 
* Many believe that science helps us discover morality but morality is not based solely or mainly on science.
 
If science does not ground objective morality but grounds its discovery then at a stroke religion is eliminated as having any moral value. 

 

What if morality is not based solely or mainly on science?  A link of some kind is enough.  Morality is not based solely on what your parent tells us but their direction suffices if there is nothing else.  You still cannot have morality without science.
 
Harris gives us a morality that arises from the authority of science. God does not come into it and God is only degrading it. If we can work out a moral authority without bringing in God as Harris is trying to do, then clearly the religious doctrine that God exists is advocating a religious perception and a perception can be close to the reality but is not the reality. That means that what people think about God is substituted for God.
 
Morality comes from science so God is only an obstacle. God is immoral if Harris is correct. And so is any religion that loves God.
 
Morality has to involve several concerns. One could be stress. Stress is always bad in the sense that it feels bad. It can be bad in other ways too. Science does not measure and test stress just for computer readings. It presupposes that it is worthy of attention for it affects people - that is a moral stance.  Stress is a moral issue just because it feels bad. Science can measure stress.  Science even if it is not about ethics is still tied to it and needs it.  If stress is a moral issue or even a bit of the issue then ethics can be built on science.  And we need not be able to produce the perfect ethics.  Having enough will do.


Not all world views care about ethics. Some say ethics is nonsense. But it is said that to say that is to say that it is unethical to say ethics exists which is a complete contradiction. So do all worldviews really care about ethics after all? Yes even scientific worldviews!


If morality is not objectively true or cannot be known to be, what then? Scientist Jerry Coyne says it becomes merely advice as to the rational thing to do. It is a guide. If the content of the guide is not objective morality, it is still objectively moral to have a guide. Science certainly tests as a means to being guided so in that sense Harris is right that morality and science can relate to one another.

 

Some ask how you can say morality can come from and be grounded by science when science cannot prove that you are better or more important than a brick.  But it does prove that.  Science shows you can have experiences and to say different is to say that you and the brick have no differences.

 

PROCESS OF ELIMINATION

A process of elimination can still help you find and work out a morality.  It does not follow that if you want moral beliefs that you have to work them out directly - it is enough if you have a list of options and find what is left after you dismiss them.

 

Let us see.

 

Here are two options.

 

If I do the good I do because I feel happier for doing so then the downside is that I am resolved to care most about what I feel instead of doing good.

 

If I do the good simply because of the other person then the downside is I am denying that my happiness is important too. That is following a rule and rules never satisfy.  I am kind of telling them that if my happiness does not matter then theirs does not so we have a complex mixture with passive aggression being one ingredient.

 

We are stuck with the problems but involving a God who grounds or commands either action only makes it worse. It is not right to say a perfect being grounds or sanctions something that can only be imperfect. Why would you want to?

Real goodness does not need or care about being commanded.  It is just done because you want to do it.  Morality when linked to commands from a person such as God is just self-contradictory nonsense.  By a process of elimination and a simple one we should agree with Harris.  Objective goodness is grounded in science not God and certainly not religion.

 

OBJECTION

 

The main objection to Harris argument that science can show there are goals that make us healthier and happier and closer together needs consideration. Harris is claiming that science and morality can and do go together. The chief and essential objection to that is that evolution does not care if these goals are there or if they are reasonable.  The tree does not care if you get shelter under it or not but that does not mean you cannot treat it as if it exists just for that!  You can use evolution in your favour.  Its coldness and indifference is not the point.

 

The failure of this objection then means Harris is right enough or simply right. If Harris' scheme is unreasonable then it is not morality.

To ask if the universe should be better and different seems to confuse an is with an ought or an is not with an ought.  But it does not change the fact there is a should there even if not a moral one.  There is a descriptive should.  Unless there is a descriptive should there cannot be any moral should so the former in a sense is more important.

 

Evolution is a description not a force or power or principle therefore it does not matter if it is unsupportive of reason or happiness. It lets them happen and that is enough.

 

Harris then is absolutely correct.

 

AN ESSAY

 

Are morals facts or objectively true in other words?

 

What if one says there are no moral facts? Then one can have no objection to acid attacks on little children. This thought puts big pressure on the person to accept morality as a collection of facts.  So even if we need morality desperately can we really have it when that is the pressure we have?  No - being compelled to be moral means you are compelled to go through the moral motions!  You are not being moral!

 

Facts are so important it is better to have things you wrongly think are facts than not to care if you have facts or not.  Thus morality demands that you adopt moral ideas as facts even they are not.  The intention to be right matters more than being right.

Sam Harris like many of his critics seeks and defends objective morality. All agree with Harris that if morality is about being well and healthy then science then can show you how to do be moral. But they say he has the wrong definition of morality. On that basis, they are adamant that science cannot ground and teach morality. If so then you cannot say science shows we should be moral and what morality is.

The objectors are saying then that morality is about right and wrong and not about what makes people well. Defenders of Harris say he is only saying right and wrong and wellbeing and not being well are just the same thing.

Critics of Harris often seem to be coming from the angle that he talks about something that is like Utilitarianism but they do not consider Utilitarianism a moral theory.  Utilitarianism is about consequences.  If moral consequentialism is true then hypothetically if you could murder Muhammad, Moses or Jesus to avert religious murder and wars then you should. You can kill them in the cot in a parallel universe.  It becomes a binding enforced duty to murder.

 

But even if it is true this would be hypothetically right Utilitarianism is about the non-hypothetical.  It is about life as it is.  So though it has a dark side on the hypothetical level that does not matter.

If you lay out all the possible moral theories and not one makes sense then Utilitarianism by a process of elimination becomes a moral theory. If moral rules end up being rubbish all you can do is just say people must aim for the greatest happiness of the greatest number and leave it at that. Morality whatever it demands certainly demands trying to be practical and if no theory works that means Utilitarian as hard to practice as it is will have to do.

 

What if Harris might be right or might be wrong?  Critics cannot say he is definitely wrong. It is best and therefore moral to assume he is right.

SUMMARY OF OBJECTIONS

Most who say morality is not about wellbeing are people who think that good or moral is whatever God says regardless of whether it helps us or not.  But what if we said that God says morality is whatever is good for us?  So we are going around in circles.

Others say that the proof that morality is not wellbeing by definition is:

1 Worrying about wellbeing says nothing about what conditions it should be given out under. It does not care about fairness.

2 how people can end up being better off by being less fair. Hypothetically, if torturing a baby before the whole world’s eyes had the power to make it happy. So not only do we have no concern for fairness we have a situation where unfairness is made to prevail.

 

Against both it can be said that giving good things to the bad and good equally cannot lead to a good situation in the end.  It does in the short term.  So wellbeing belongs to those who will use it well.  Wellbeing does ask for fairness to be considered otherwise it is not really wellbeing.

 

And even if the points are right they are not strong enough to warrant discarding the view that wellbeing and morality are interchangeable.  They have to have enough regard for fairness to work.  It doesn't matter if it is not perfect when you cannot expect anything else.

There is an argument that being well is important but that does not tell us morality is meant to be chiefly or only about wellbeing.  But if it is 51% about being well then that will have to do.  To argue that it is not about being well more than anything else is divorcing morality too much from what people want and need.  It amounts to saying it is all about rules not what is good for you.

It is pointed out that happiness from donating to the poor is important and the happiness from watching porn does not compare.

It may be the case that the best way to defend objective morality is not an option. If that is God, God is not an option for it leads to ludicrous scenarios.  So we choose the next best thing which can only be science.

CONCLUSION

 

What is the difference between wellbeing and right/moral?

Harris says the two are the same thing. Against that it is argued that morality is not by definition about wellbeing. But surely it has to be about it sufficiently to make that hair splitting of no consequence?

 

Moral principle says if you have no idea of what is objectively moral or what it means then it is objectively moral to make an attempt. You need objective morality and the concept is forced on you even if you say morality is relative – such a saying is unnatural and forced and warped. It is better to guess and live the morality you have for errors will show up in time if it is wrong or needs fixing. Guessing and testing is more important than grounding it or caring or knowing why it is morally correct. Practicing what you understand to be objective morality is a principle and the most foundational and important and basic moral principle of all. If you have to guess the best guess is that morality is about maintaining the well-being of others and yourself.  Harris says objective morality is grounded in science and if that is a guess there is no better guess.  It is objectively moral to guess it.

 

It makes no sense to argue that morality cannot be grounded without a God to decree it or acknowledge it.  If it needs grounding does it matter what does the grounding?  Surely something can ground itself best rather than having to depend on something else to ground it?  Morality is being abused to turn it into a case for God!

 

It is wise to hold that if objective morality cannot stand up for itself and ground itself then it is not objective morality at all.  A fact is a fact and is independent of what anything even God wants.  If there were no God or anything it would be an objective fact that there is nothing.  Morality is about what is real and the realest way to do things so it needs no grounding or validation outside of itself.