Monday, June 27, 2011

Dr. Sam Harris: Atheist Morality - Part 1

I recently watched a fascinating video of a Richard Dawkins production.  It is a brief lecture at Oxford by Sam Harris entitled, "Who Says Science has Nothing to Say About Morality?"

Sam Harris identifies himself as a secularist and an atheist, but admits that he is troubled by the prospect of a world without "a universal moral framework."  He points out that religious people have long suggested that atheism would lead to an erosion of moral standards.  Dr. Harris says that he shares the concern that "unless we have a universal moral framework... a sense that good and evil and right and wrong really mean something, then humanity will lose its way."

Harris outlines his theory for atheist morality beginning with the premise that "the worst possible misery for everyone is bad."  To him this seems obvious.  Since that is so, he says he has a basis for morality quite apart from religion.  According to Sam, the universal consensus should be that it is good to seek the "well being" of conscious creatures.

Sam focuses on the the "sadism and misogyny" of the Taliban in Afghanistan as an example of he thinks must be agreed upon as being truly bad.  He describes the misery and peril of women and girls in Afghanistan.  He points out that women there die at world record levels.  He uses the example of a father throwing acid in his daughter's face as punishment for learning to read.

Harris mocks an unnamed woman who apparently shares his atheism/secularism but who, in discussion with him, said that the sadism and misogyny of the Taliban was not objectively evil, but only evil in Sam's opinion.  Harris laments the irony that it is the religious dogmatists that agree with him about the moral evils of such things.

I empathize with Dr. Harris over the his feelings that we need a universal moral framework.  But I disagree completely with his idea that any consensus of human opinion can ever be an adequate basis for any moral standard.  I believe that a true moral standard is determined by its correspondence to a morally perfect Creator God.

For one thing, if moral standards depended on the consensus of human beings there would never be moral standards because there are very few things that we could reach a consensus about.  A consensus is much more than a simple majority.  A consensus requires general agreement.  Even in the matter of Harris' example of the Afghan Taliban Sam would not be able to come up with at consensus that it was morally wrong.  As he points out, his fellow secularists and atheists think it is just a matter of opinion.  The billion or so Muslims in the world (14% of earth's population) might object to his views.

For another thing, even if consensus over morality were possible, we would still be left without the desired "universal moral framework... a sense that good and evil and right and wrong really mean something."  This is because such a consensus could (and almost certainly would) change over time.
Besides that, the consensus would not mean anything universal.  The "evildoer" in Dr. Harris' example, who throws acid into the face of his little girl might be hailed as a hero in his Afghan village - or even in the wider Muslim community - for putting his piety above his family.  If this were the case, how does Dr. Harris' belief that this act is "evil" really mean anything at all?

Unless there is a personal moral being who is greater than man and who can bring man into judgment, then every man will be a law unto himself.
(Judges 17:6 NKJV) In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

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