Today, we’re going to look at Harris’s Chapter on morality. Now some of you might be surprised to hear that there are many things in this chapter that I agree with. However, I don’t think he has a foundation for the things he says that I agree with. This will be explained further though as we get into the chapter so put it on the backburner.
Harris does admit that once we abandon belief in a rule-making God, the question of why becomes open to debate. I note though that it seems he has snuck in a voluntarist interpretation of morality where X is moral because God decides it’s moral. If God had decided rape was moral, then rape would have been moral. If someone wishes to defend that view, let them. I find that it seems to make God a temporal being though.
For Harris though, right and wrong are questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures, as he himself says. One wonders though if he has defined happiness. Mortimer Adler has noted that one of the mistakes of our time is saying that happiness is the same as “having a good time” whereas for the ancients, it was a life of moral virtue. For now though, let it be noted that he has a utilitarian ethic.
Harris rightly notes also that though people of different times and cultures disagree on morality, we should not be troubled. It says nothing about the status of moral truth. I agree and in fact, disagree that there is this huge divergence in morality. There are arguments that there are basic principles that all people in all times in all places seem to agree on even if the acting out of those principles is different.
Harris also gets into the problem of evil with saying “No perfect God could maintain such incongruities” when he speaks about various “evils” he sees in the world. The problem is though, “How does he know this?” How does he know that a good God is not allowing a certain amount of evil in the world because that is the way to bring about a certain good that wouldn’t be there otherwise?
Harris also says he wonders about those who believe in such a deity and see the end result as Hitler, Stalin, and the H-bomb. To quote him on page 173, “This is a devastating observation and there is no retort to it.” To say it is devastating is one thing. It might be a difficult observation even, but the ridiculous part is to say there is no retort. Here, I think Harris is being dishonest. Even if he doesn’t think the retorts work, he should at least speak of some theodicies. While he does use the term in his book, don’t expect him to actually deal with any of them. My answer is that Harris has not seen the end result. I believe it will be far better on the good scale than what he’s mentioned is on the evil scale.
Harris also says most of our religions haven’t been supportive of moral inquiry just as they haven’t been of scientific inquiry. First off, I as a Christian do want scientific inquiry. I want to see how this world is that God created. Second though, has he never read anything by a Christian on the topic of Christian ethics? This is definitely welcomed in Christian circles and we are constantly debating moral issues. Recently, for instance, someone sent me a message asking about lust. It’s an ethical question and one especially for young Christian men.
Harris also rightly says that we need to be sure what we mean by human beings. He admits that he does not have an answer, which I respect. What will be the criteria for humanness? On the secular viewpoint, I think it would be interesting to see if there could be an underlying human nature shared by all humans to make us all equal in some sense.
Harris also rightly condemns moral relativism saying on on 178 “But most forms of relativism–including moral relativism which seems especially well subscribed–are nonsensical. And dangerously so.” For this, I have to agree. My qualm though is I don’t think on a secularist viewpoint Harris can escape moral relativism.
I also agree with Harris on intuition, which he says seems to play a part in morality. If you had to ask me “Well why is murder evil?” I think I could give an answer. However, if you were thinking “I’m still not sure I’m sold,” well first off, I’d be wanting to get away from you as fast as possible. Second, I’d send some foolhardy messenger to tell you to get counseling now.
I also agree with his stance on pacifism. I am no fan of war and would prefer it wasn’t there, but I believe it is a sad reality and I think there are times that Christians can legitimately take up arms be they in individual battles, such as saving the life of one on the street, or in a war, such as stopping an evil nation in its plans with weaker ones.
I also applaud Harris’s story that he tells in here of how he saved a girl once. Ultimately, there is really a lot of good in this chapter on ethical theory. The problem is that it’s good with no basis. Consider again utilitarianism. Utilitarianism says that it seeks to bring about the greatest good for the most people. In a sense, that should be our goal. However, the question arises “What is good?” It isn’t always pleasure. Consider this example.
Let’s suppose the organization in question is a frat house and there is a beautiful lady in their midst. The guys there could consider their greatest good sexual pleasure and then believe that they should all sleep with the lady as much as they want. Thus, this lady is repeatedly raped by these guys resulting in their pleasure at the cost of her dignity.
We then have to ask “Is this pleasure really the highest good?” No. Even though it makes the most people happy, it isn’t really happiness and I hope none of us would call it good. Even in a utilitarian ethic, you still have to have some idea of good beyond the ethic and there’s even the problem of “You ought to do what brings about the most good for the greatest number of people.” Why? Why not do just what brings about good for me? “Well that isn’t good for the greatest number of people.” Why should I care about them?
In closing, I like a lot of what Harris says in this chapter. I will say when Harris isn’t throwing out straw men and showing his ignorance in areas of religion, there is good that can be gained from many of the things he says. However, I see no ethical theory in his work that has any grounding and I do see a strong one in Christian theism, giving me more reason to believe that it’s true. Physicalism just can’t explain my intuitions. Good and evil are not physical qualities after all. If Harris wants to try to find them in science, good luck. I believe his effort will be in vain though.