Sam Harris On The Ramparts

A while back I noted that Sam Harris has a new book out (The Moral Landscape), in which he argues that it is possible to develop an objective, entirely naturalistic science of human morality that would be not just descriptive, but prescriptive as well. From a philosophical perspective this is a hugely audacious assertion, because it says, contra just about everyone, that you can in fact derive an “ought” from an “is”: that even in a Godless world there are objective moral facts.

I still haven’t read his book, but I’ve been awfully skeptical that Harris can pull this thousand-pound rabbit out of the hat. Many have tried, and all have failed, and I have no doubt that most philosophers will greet this latest attempt as just another perpetual-motion machine. Reason tells us the thing can’t be done; any stack of “oughts” must ultimately bottom out on some subjective valuation, or on the whim of God — take your choice.

Nevertheless, it looks as if Dr. Harris is really serious about this, and in a long response to the book’s many harsh critics, he has mounted a spirited defense. His point is that there are various “facts of the matter” about human well-being, and that it is within our grasp to develop a moral code that tends to increase, rather than decrease, that well-being. (Utilitarianism, in other words, harnessed to a forthcoming metrical science of human happiness.) He argues that the vicious philosophical regress of “oughts” can be foreclosed by simple common sense; it’s just obvious that we “ought” to favor a moral framework that moves the world in the direction of decreasing human misery.

I probably shouldn’t say much more about it until I’ve read the book.

Among the linked items in Harris’s response is a televised “debate” on the question “Does God Have a Future?” Brandishing the pikestaffs of rational naturalism are doughty Sam Harris and Michael Shermer; arrayed against them are the grotesque New Age flim-flam man Deepak Chopra (who reminds me more and more, as time goes by, of Liberace) and a spectacular hot-air balloon by the name of Jean Houston, awareness of whose existence I had been spared till now. (Serious intellectual theism, sad to say, went entirely unrepresented.)

Have a look here, and watch words lose all meaning.


  1. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm – I, too, am dubious of Harris’s project. But I don’t think valuation need be subjective. It’s my sense that facts and values are not in opposition. Rather, values are a particular species or subcategory of facts. Of course, many people think that values would be queer sorts of facts; but I think it a queer notion of ‘fact’ that excludes values.

    Posted February 6, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink
  2. Dom says

    Malcolm, if you have children, would you raise them as atheists? I wouldn’t, and didn’t. I seriosuly believe that theism is a necessary fiction, and it does nothing but good for children, or at least standard christianity does. I just think there has to be a phase in which children are taught, as I was taught, that there is an uncreated creator, before whom we are all the same, and who demands, as a father would, that we treat each other fairly. Because without that you can never achieve a moral life. I am so certain of this that it actually unnerves me to think a child might be raised without a belief in god. In later years, theism can be brushed off, but the moral precepts will remain. I’ve often wondered if that is hypocritical of me, but I don’t see any alternative.

    Posted February 6, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Well, Dom, I do have children, both now grown.

    My lovely wife and I didn’t raise them as atheists, but rather as we both were raised: without any religion at all. Somehow our kids grew up to be decent, moral, conscientious adults nevertheless.

    Religion does serve a useful function in human groups, and I’ve argued elsewhere that secular societies may even be at a Darwinian disadvantage. But religion isn’t necessary for morality; we have morality built right in.

    Posted February 6, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Bob, I don’t think I understand how what you are saying addresses the question of the existence of objective moral facts. It is certainly an objective fact that we make subjective valuations; I’d also say that the fact that living creatures have interests gives us a good objective basis for understanding why they make the subjective valuations they do.

    But to get to the real normative bedrock most people are looking for when they talk about the objectivity of moral truth, it’s not enough that we make the valuations we do, as a matter of fact; it is further required that there be a “fact of the matter” about what valuations we ought to make.

    Can you explain more clearly how you see values-as-facts as providing a foundation for objective moral truth? (Maybe you aren’t saying that at all, and I’m completely missing your point.)

    Posted February 6, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    I’m reminded now that we’ve had some interesting threads on this topic before.

    Posted February 6, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Permalink
  6. Dom says

    I’m certain your children are decent. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that moral values are built in. You have raised your children without a belief in god in a society that largely believes in god. That’s like not vaccinating your children in a society that is mostly vaccinated. No harm in that. You won’t catch anything because, thanks to others, there is nothing to catch. Just hope no one else gets the same idea.

    But sometimes — like when I read Theodore Dalrymple on modern British society — I start to think, “This is what happens when everyone gives up the way I did.”

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    There have been attempts to argue that facts (of the matter) are, as it were “definitionally” exhausted by purely descriptive terms, but I think such arguments turn out to be question-begging. And when we look to the criteria for “objectivity” employed in presumably “purely descriptive” domains, there’s nothing about those criteria that should make them inapplicable to a domain that includes “evaluative facts.” Finally, it is an open question whether there actually are “pure descriptions,” since it might well be possible to systematically “translate” descriptions into prescriptions in the form of imperatives. This last point was discussed in some depth back when cognitive scientists were engaged in the so-called “procedural vs declarative” debates. In other words, I see no good reason, given the present balance between knoweldge and ignorance in these matters, to stipulate that values are not a species of objective fact (even if I don’t think Harris’s effort to make the case is at all promising).

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says


    If I understand you, then we are the declarative “black box” program that, when applied to the input data (the environment) directly yields the answer (the valuation). But what’s in the box and what’s in the environment are just facts, so the resulting valuation is a fact as well.

    Something like that?

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says


    You seem to be arguing that secularism leads to moral decay, on the grounds that morality isn’t “built in”. In other words, contra my position (that we come “from the factory” with moral instincts, similar to our language-acquisition instincts, and that religion simply provides a handy scaffolding for codifying and reinforcing each culutre’s particular moral system), you are saying that it is religion that is primary, that morality emerges only from religion.

    So let me make sure I understand you: are you saying A) that moral truths actually originate in God? Or are you only taking the more pragmatic position B) that regardless of whether there are objective moral facts, and regardless of their origin, a stable and effective moral system requires belief in God, whether or not God even exists?

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  10. bob koepp says

    Malcom –
    I’m not sure if the box is entirely black, since we have a few clues about some of the processing that goes on. But they are only clues, and we might well be misreading them. We need to be careful, though, not to conflate evaluations with values. There’s no question that we make evalutions — it’s a fact that we make them. But that’s not what it means for values to be a species of fact. When a box (black, grey, dappled, whatever) does yield an answer/evaluation, we need to bear in mind that such boxes (ourselves) are well-known to be quite fallible. Presumably, actual evaluations might not track evaluative facts very reliably. In other words, we probably are no better at judging evaluative facts than non-evaluative facts (assuming it even makes sense to maintain that distinction).

    Of course, I have no positive theory about the metaphysics of value — just lots of experience with positive theories that seem promising until one tries to be explicit about the details.

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  11. Dom says

    I think B comes closest. But let me put it this way. It was once pointed out to me that certain examples of irrationality are actually advantageous. A child that is bitten by a dog, and then avoids all dogs, is making a bad generalization, but it is probably a good (and cheap) defense mechanism. Maybe the (irrational) belief in an uncreated creator-father is evolution’s way of instilling in us a (advantageous) belief that we must do unto others, etc. That may explain why the spread of christianity accompanied the development of the west. And since we all carry the remains of ape-like fur that we no longer use, why should we not carry the remains of beliefs that are no longer needed?

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Why should we not carry the remains of beliefs that are no longer needed?

    Well, the principal difficulty for me is that I don’t believe them. It’s also quite evident that societies can move past religiosity without descending into moral chaos.

    It does seem, though, that secular societies might be at a disadvantage when it comes to between-group competition with strongly religious ones, which suggests that something is needed to provide cohesion, and keep the birthrates up, once religion is gone. I’d like to think this is possible — that we can fly without clutching religion’s magic feather — but I admit that there is a liability here, and possibly even a fatal one. We might not clear the trees on takeoff.

    I find it very difficult to feign belief in propositions that I think are almost certainly false.

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Bob, am I right that you seem to be holding out for objectively normative facts, about which we can be objectively right or wrong when we make our own evaluations?

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  14. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Yes, that’s right. I’m “holding out” for objectively normative facts in the sense that I think they represent a “live possibility.” I don’t think the arguments against objective norms are persuasive. The best of the lot is probably Mackie’s “error theory,” which I think has some problems with coherence.

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  15. Dom says

    “I find it very difficult to feign belief in propositions that I think are almost certainly false.”

    I must have used a very ineffective analogy to make you think that. I meant only, Isn’t the belief in a god something built into us? And perhaps, in certain cases, its a belief that confers an advantage on us.

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    Dom, you did say that theism — belief in God — is a “necessary fiction”.

    Certainly the capacity to believe in God is common enough in humans (though personally I’ve never believed in God for so much as a single minute of my life.) I think it’s also likely, or at least very plausible, that believing in God might, as you say, confer advantages on both individuals and groups.

    My only point is that if it’s just a “fiction”, as I think it is, then it’s very difficult for me to feign belief in it, and I’d rather not try.

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says


    So Smith says, for example, that to engage in homosexual activity is morally wrong, and Jones says it isn’t. Your claim, then, it seems, is that it is possible that one of them is objectively right, and the other is objectively wrong — not as a matter of social convention, evolved preferences, or subjective valuation, but as a matter of objective, normative fact.

    Have I understood you correctly so far?

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  18. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – In a word, yes.

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    To what objective feature of the world, then, can Smith and Jones appeal to resolve their disagreement?

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  20. the one eyed man says

    There is nothing morally wrong about homosexual activity, provided the homosexuals can handle the guilt feelings those disgusting habits must inevitably cause.

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  21. bob koepp says

    I don’t know what they can appeal to in order to resolve their disagreement. But I’m pretty confident that the fact of my ignorance isn’t a good reason to view the issue as objectively irresolvable.

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  22. Kevin Kim says

    I’m reminded once again of the dialogue between Steven Pinker and Robert Wright over at re: the question of objective morality. Pinker, from the transcript of that discussion:

    “I think there are a couple of answers. One of them is that, even if you think of morality as something like color vision, or our sweet tooth or, you know, our stomachache as just a figment of the brain, it is one that evolved in response to a real fact about the universe, namely, that in a social species, when people interact, not all codes of behavior are going to lead to outcomes that everyone wants, and that there is a logic to morality that benefits people who simultaneously adopt it compared to them all abjuring it. That’s what your own book, Nonzero, in large part was about. So… it isn’t as arbitrary as responding to light of a certain wavelength and then some other species — like bees they they can detect ultra-violet light which we can’t — leading to the fear that our morality, like our vision, is something that arbitrarily could have gone the other way around if our evolutionary history was slightly different.

    I think this might also tie to a notion that philosophers bat around which they call moral realism: that there may be a sense in which some moral statements aren’t just figment or artifacts of a particular brain wiring, but are part of the reality of the universe, even if you can’t touch them and weigh them/ In the same way that some mathematicians say subscribe to mathematical realism that 1 and 1 equals two or the Pythagorean theorem, aren’t just things that we concocted as a fantasy; there’s a sense in which they’re really true, independent of our existence — they’re out there in some sense it’s very difficult to grasp, but we discover them, we don’t hallucinate them. It’s conceivable that moral truths have something of that status that we discover them…”

    Wright almost gets Pinker into a corner at one point, corralling Pinker into confronting the commonalities we see in the cooperative strategies of different living creatures, almost as if some sort of mathematical (or Platonic) dynamic were in play. From roughly minute 35 onward in the exchange, Pinker and Wright politely wrestle over the question of whether the universe has some sort of teleological component that is funneling moral behavior always in a certain direction. It’s a fascinating discussion, and at least somewhat relevant to what you’re covering here.

    Apologies for linking this dialogue yet again, but just as it’s an endlessly fascinating topic, that video gives us an endlessly fascinating exchange.

    Once you get past Wright’s blandness.

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  23. howsurprising says

    As long as we remember that in the evolutionary context relevant to the evolution of moral faculties, religion looked very different than the sort of religion most of us are familiar with. One must be very cautious.

    A few references:
    Rappaport, Roy A, and ebrary, Inc. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Lee, Richard B., and Richard Heywood Daly. 1999. The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. Cambridge University Press.

    Posted February 9, 2011 at 3:29 am | Permalink

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