January 24, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Atheist Morality Theory Under Fire

Theists would naturally take issue with an atheist’s natural explanation for morals, but when evolutionists take issue in leading secular journals, it’s worth finding out why.  Both Science and Nature reviewed Sam Harris’s new book on the evolution of morality and had some concerns with his philosophy and logic.
    Both reviewers recognized David Hume’s contention from the 18th century that one cannot determine an ought from an is: i.e., observation of things that exist cannot specify what ought to be.  In Nature,1 Pascal Boyer [Washington University, St Louis] reviewed The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris (Free Press, 2010), and began by citing Hume’s proverb, noting that Sam Harris disagrees with it.  Harris thinks a consensual morality can be derived from evolution.  “His thesis is compelling, but he underplays the extent to which our decisions are rooted in intuition, preferring to portray decision-making as a calculated maximization of our well-being,” Boyer, affirming natural selection, complained.  To him, Harris goes too far in claiming that morality is man’s attempt to rationalize instincts honed by natural selection.  Harris claims not only that you can get morality, but you can go further and infer what makes “the good life.”
    Without a deity, Harris must ground morality on particles in motion.  Boyer explains his position: “Harris’s brand of consequentialism – the ends justify the means, so what is good is what maximizes well-being – excludes transcendent sources.”  He justifies what is good on the quantifiable results.  This is pragmatism: the most good for the most people.  Well-being is the measure of morality.  Boyer worried, though, that many of our moral positions are not based on our sense of well-being: “an issue such as abortion is more difficult:”, he said: “our feelings are grounded in our intuition about whether a fetus is a person.”  While enjoying the work of a fellow atheistic evolutionist, Boyer did have problems with the book:

A moral optimist, Harris suggests that people can be persuaded to abandon harmful behaviours, such as the stoning of adulterers.  Here, social scientists may feel that he rides roughshod over some solid findings of moral psychology.  Consequentialism is not the heuristic of most humans.  Experiments show that assessments of well-being are of less importance in moral decision-making than a gut feeling that actions are wrong or right.  For example, beyond its genetic risks, people maintain that sibling incest is wrong, even in cases where no children result.
    To be persuaded that some actions are immoral because they diminish well-being, people need to accept that welfare is the most relevant criterion of morality, which may require a special education.  This and many other difficulties stand in the way of Harris’s moral reforms, but they are all reasons to read his lucid, deep and uncompromising essay.

It sounds like Boyer said that people would have to be educated out of their gut feelings of what is moral to accept Harris’s thesis – but what (or Who) put those gut feelings there, if not evolution?
    Michael Goldman [San Francisco State U] reviewed the book for Science.2  Goldman likes to put a rational spin on whatever subject matter is at hand, though he admits, “I know I live in a society that isn’t always sympathetic to cold, calculated, scientific reason.”  But he was almost stunned by Harris’s brutal attacks on religion.  “At once, I shrink before the impudence of his conclusions, and I admire his brutal honesty.”  The book is filled with the hostility toward religion for which Harris is famous: “A self-avowed atheist, Harris isn’t choosy when it comes to vilifying religions,” Goldman noted.  In fact, the villain getting “the brunt of Harris’s fury” was none other than theistic evolutionist and avowed Christian Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health.  Harris called Collins’ book The Language of God an exercise in intellectual suicide.
    But Harris cannot build a morality by debunking religion alone.  After describing the pragmatic consequentialism of the book, Goldman explained how Harris tried to derive a non-subjective, non-relativistic, unambiguous morality without God.  Controversies and disagreements, Harris would say, are just peaks converging on the same mountain: all evolutionary roads lead to the same basic morality.  Thus he disagrees with relativism: the contention that all moral systems in disparate societies are equally valid.  A society that stones adulterers, Harris would argue, is immoral.  Surprisingly, Harris would agree with some theists by debunking the fact-value split: “Multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance—these are the familiar consequences of separating facts and values on the left.  My goal is to convince you that human knowledge and human values can no longer be kept apart.”
    Settling in with those strange bedfellows, Goldman still had problems with Harris’s consistency and logic:

Although intellectually exciting, the book isn’t what one would call inspiring.  Harris tries for a more uplifting final chapter but only goes as far as saying that “Today, we are surely more likely to act for the benefit of humanity as a whole than at any point in the past.”  He contends that “The claim that science could have something important to say about values (because values relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures) is an argument made on first principles.”  Of course, the book’s claim is that science has everything to say about human values—a far more controversial position.
    One might conclude that although at one time the best way to define and enforce moral behavior was through revealed faith, as science and reason advance, we can chip away at the old edifice and build anew.  Stories of a young-Earth creation now look rather untenable, but in the past they might have been the only way to instill awe and teach a new and meaningful moral code.  Rather than nonoverlapping magisteria, the domains of science and religion are intermingling all the time.  The Moral Landscape may represent a new beach-head in this quest.  In practical terms, however, this is perhaps just a different version of Collins’s view that a creator set in motion a set of scientific laws, including an evolutionary process, that are still with us today.


1.  Pascal Boyer, “Ethics: The Good Life,” Nature 469, p. 297, 20 Jan 2011, doi:10.1038/469297a.
2.  Michael A. Goldman, “Philosophy: A Means for Ought from Is?”, Science, 21 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6015 p. 286, DOI: 10.1126/science.1199445.

It is funny watching moral beings created in the image of God trying to deny that image and derive it from stuff.  Their tangled logic borrows from what they hate and depends on what they dismiss.  You can dismiss Goldman’s simplistic refudiation of young-earth creation and revealed faith (refute and repudiation; see Sarah Palin Dictionary); because without a Moses and a Ten Commandments, none of these guys could measure the well-being or goodness of anything.  What is an “uplifting final chapter” when you don’t know which way is up?  Did Harris miss the 20th century, when scientific atheistic communism came up with its well-reasoned, enlightened, evolutionary view of the good life – killing 148 million people?
    It was genuinely funny to watch Harris portrayed as a Tweedle-dumb of the Tweedledee he hates, Francis Collins.  But Collins, calling an evolutionary process a scientific law, is the partially blind leading the fully blind into the ditch.  If evolution is a law, it is the Stuff Happens Law: the refudiation of law, unlikely to lead to any mountain of morality outside Mt Sinai, or to an unambiguous measure of well-being.  Morality?  Stuff happens.  Something else might happen tomorrow.  If evolution were to produce a society stoning atheists, who would Harris, Goldman or Boyer be to complain?  Undoubtedly evolution would have acted for the well-being of the population by eliminating self-refuting dogmatists posing as wise men.  That’s natural selection for you.  Reason your way out of that one.  Oh; but you can’t use reason, dear atheist: reason is the gift of God, unless you can derive that from hydrogen.
    The correct response is, of course, to weep rather than to mock.  Despite the Harris happy mask on this anti-religion rant posing as a positive explication of moral principles, it is evident that all three of these men are really struggling with what they know in their gut is true and right.  That Imago dei cannot be excised from their souls.  It would take a lot of humility for them to backtrack now, so many miles from that phony turn-off that said “Reason and Science: Next Exit” from the straight and narrow, even when one is waddling in the dark in a morass of inconsistency.

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