Sam Harris Awarding Money To Anyone Who Refutes His Thesis That’s Already Been Refuted Since 1739.

Sam 2

Money, and, perhaps, fame, to the one who refutes, to Sam’s satisfaction, his contention that Science can determine moral values.

Really; Sam’s giving 2 thousand dollars to the winning essay — and, interestingly, 20 thousand dollars (inclusive of the matching pledge of one of his generous readers) to the essay that succeeds in changing his mind. Needless to say, changing his mind, or at least getting him to admit his mind had been changed, would be considerably more difficult then actually refuting his thesis — something which had been, as it were, refuted since 1739.

A few months ago, I entertained the thought of submitting one. The effort to do so, however, eventually seemed of scant worth, considering what would presumably be a large number of submissions unequivocally harping on the very argument I intended to make — indeed, the same argument, I think, everyone’s been making — against Sam’s thouroughly absurd thesis.

Sam is wrong; science does not — cannot ever — have the ability to determine moral values for precisely the reasons laid out by David Hume more than 200 years ago in A Treatise Of Human Nature.:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

Or, in short, Mr. Hume, in a rather overly verbose manner (as chaps of his time were wont to conduct themselves) is simply saying that one cannot derive an ought from an is; you cannot infer what ought to be from what is; or, if you like: since science merely describes what is, then it can hardly be able to tell us what ought to be.

Of course, that, above, should have been the whole story. Sadly, it isn’t for Harris.

Surprisingly competently, Sam realizes that moral goodness is a concept so amorphous as to be indeterminable (after all, people can’t always agree on what is good) so he substitutes (human) ‘well-being’ for ‘good’ because — or so we are told by him — ‘well-being’ as a metric succeeds in doing two things that can seemingly bridge Hume’s famous (or perhaps infamous) is-ought chasm: 1, it is something for which there can in principle be an objective unit of measurement, and 2, it proffers to actions a goal or purpose.

The obvious problem here is that well-being is, contrary to Sam’s claims, rather like moral goodness in that it is also objectively indeterminable. I mean, what is it? Sam simply puts the problem another step back, actually. How can we all even agree on what ‘well-being’ is?
Dahmer’s well-being, for instance, was predicated on the sodomization of young boys’ corpses. What would Sam’s answer be to this, one wonders. Dahmer was wrong because sodomizing corpses can hardly be said to add to someone’s well-being? But yes it can — people like Dahmer exist. Sure, we can cheerily rejoice in the fact that more people are of the opinion that sodomizing corpses reduces rather than increases ones well-being. But, on naturalism, that’s just an opinion, really — one that is, luckily, ascendant in society, but one that is an opinion no less.

Of course, Sam will argue that humans have evolved in such and such a way that makes us repelled by the sight of corpses, and therefore moreso with the prospect of having sex with them, making our collective anti corpse-sodomizing sentiments not merely an opinion but one for which a socio-biological component exists. Of course he’ll think this socio-biological underpinning furnishes us with a standard against which the morality of actions can be measured. But he’ll be wrong; for one can simply say that Dahmer was being unfashionable, or that Dahmer simply chose not to go with the flow, so to speak.

Swrong with that?

What, on naturalism, makes Sam able to say: “No, sodomizing corpses, bad!”, “Yes, well-being, good!”

Nothing, it seems.

Of course, this all poses zero problems for the theist who holds God to be good’s ontological base. After all, if the Christian God exists, then the universe was imbued with ‘oughts’ upon its very creation. Therefore theism furnishes us with a solid foundation for moral values and duties, while atheism, not so much.



Posted on January 6, 2014, in apologetics, philosophy, Religion, science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I agree that you and Hume have demolished Harris’ argument. The problem for theists, of course, is that until their God actually shows up, they can have no conviction in their particular set of oughts either. All theists are equally entitled to their “solid foundation for moral values and duties” since their law-giver provides justification for their oughts; the problem is that multiple competing systems of oughts are currently posited with equal fervor. To be sure, there is a lot of overlap between, say, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, but I’m sure there’s just as much overlap between these as there is with Harris’s list of oughts. Adherents of all 4 would likely call Dahmer immoral, but plenty of disagreements will also exist. So Harris is wrong, but among the Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist, two – or three – of them are wrong as well.

    • That’s fair. But I think you confuse epistemology with ontology. In ethics, epistemology would be how we attain knowledge of facts about morality and ontology would be the question of what morality is. I’m pointing out Harris’s morality has no ontological base, therefore it simply does not exist in his worldview.

      It suffices for me to show in this post that Harris (and the rest of ethical naturalist cabal) has absolutely no foundation for morality. The Chrstian theist does, despite that, given his epistemic position, there would be a lot about which he would rightly be uncertain.

  2. The serial killer argument seems to pop up often in bad critiques of The Moral Landscape. With so many references to “building a high functioning global society” in the book, I don’t understand how a completely one sided, self centered view of well being can be brought up (I vaguely remember a reference to well being not being a zero sum game). Increasing one’s own well being to the detriment, suffering and unsolicited sodomy of others was not advocated for in the book and you would know that if you read it.

  3. It can certainly be argued that religion is, if nothing else, an important source of well-being. The New Atheists would probably argue that this well being (which they call “comfort” but do not deny) is some kind of illusion but that would not be relevant since we’re only discussing well being and not some problematic notion of “true well being”. Therefore, can we argue that, according to Sam Harris “scientific” reasoning, religion is morally good?

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