Sam Harris and his Butterfly Net: An Account of the Capture of the “Real, Objective” Good

The human brain is a wonderful survival mechanism. It endows our species with unrivaled powers of reasoning, allowing us to discern truths about subatomic particles and distant planets that our unaided senses can’t even detect. It has also supplied us with self-constructed, subjective “truths” about things that exist only in our own minds, endowing them with a legitimacy and reality of their own. Morality is such a thing. It does not and cannot have an independent existence of its own, but believing that it does has promoted our survival. Therefore, we believe. Our brains are wired to perceive good and evil as real things, and so we do. In spite of our vaunted logical powers, some of the greatest thinkers among us cannot rid themselves of the illusion. At some level they have grasped the truth that everything about us, including our minds, emotions, and predispositions, have evolved because they have promoted our survival. On the other hand, they truly believe that one such evolved trait, morality, which we happen to share with many other animals, somehow corresponds to a real thing that has an independent reality of its own. Logically, they cannot justify their belief that good and evil are real, objective things, but, still, they believe it. Nature insists.

The “Big Three” among the “new atheists,” Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Sam Harris, provide interesting examples of the phenomena. None of them would be any more capable of providing a logical basis for their belief that there is a real, objective good and a real, objective evil, and that they know the real objective difference between the two anymore than Euthyphro could demonstrate the same to Socrates. Nonetheless, all three of them are convinced that that which their brains are wired to perceive as real must actually be real. They all believe in the objective existence of good and evil, and they all believe that their own moral standards apply not only to themselves, but to others as well. Read their books and you will find all of them laced with the moral judgments that are the artifacts of this belief.

I have pointed out in earlier posts the logical absurdity of the belief that morality, an evolved emotional trait, not only of humans but of other animals as well, somehow has an existence of its own, independent of the minds that host it. Let us consider how one of the “Big Three,” Sam Harris, has nevertheless managed to convince himself that what he perceives as real must actually be real. Harris is a neuroscience researcher. He set forth his thoughts on the subject in an essay entitled, “Brain Science and Human Values,” that recently appeared at the website of the Edge Foundation. After a discussion of the process of discovering scientific truth, Harris asks,

“But what about meaning and morality? Here we appear to move from questions of truth—which have long been in the domain of science if they are to be found anywhere—to questions of goodness. How should we live? Is it wrong to lie? If so, why and in what sense? Which personal habits, uses of attention, modes of discourse, social institutions, economic systems, governments, etc. are most conducive to human well-being? It is widely imagined that science cannot even pose, much less answer, questions of this sort.”

Here, Harris has begun the process of self-obfuscation. Let us set aside the issue of what he actually means by “conducive to human well-being” for the time being and focus on the question of morality. There is no more a logical reason to consider that which is “conducive to human well-being” objectively good than there is a logical reason to consider it objectively good to follow Pythagoras’ admonition to avoid the eating of beans. However, making the logical leap from fact to fiction is no problem for most of us. We “feel” that “human well-being” is a legitimate good. We might even feel the emotion of shame in denying it. If someone demanded that we defend the assertion that “human well-being” is not objectively good, we would likely feel some embarrassment. It is mentally easy for us to associate “human well-being” with “objective good” in this way. It is also illogical.

Instead of simply claiming that good and evil exist because he feels they must exist, all Harris is doing is adding an intermediate step. He points to a “self-evident” good and props it up as a “gold standard,” as “real good.” In essence, this “gold standard” serves the same purpose as God does for religious believers. They believe that God must really be good, and, because He is the standard of that which is good, His laws must really be good as well. Harris substitutes his “gold standard” for God. It must be “really good,” because, after all, everyone agrees it is good. Who can deny it? Everyone has the same perception, the same conviction, the same feeling. In reality, he is just chasing his tail. Instead of simply claiming that the existence of objective good and evil are self-evident to begin with, he claims that it is self-evident that “human well-being” is an objective good. Once we have accepted this “gold standard,” it follows that, since we have established that it is “really good,” then “real good” must exist as well as the basis for making this determination in the first place. Once he has established this “gold standard,” Harris cuts to the chase:

“Much of humanity is clearly wrong about morality—just as much of humanity is wrong about physics, biology, history, and everything else worth understanding. If, as I believe, morality is a system of thinking about (and maximizing) the well being of conscious creatures like ourselves, many people’s moral concerns are frankly immoral.”

In other words, we are to believe that morality isn’t merely a subjective predisposition, but a real thing. It is simply a question of determining scientifically what it is. Once we have done that, then we really should do good and avoid doing evil. Harris continues:

“Morality—in terms of consciously held precepts, social-contracts, notions of justice, etc.—is a relatively recent invention. Such conventions require, at a minimum, language and a willingness to cooperate with strangers, and this takes us a stride or two beyond the Hobbesian ‘state of nature.’”

Here Harris commits the fallacy of associating “Consciously held precepts, social contracts, notions of justice, etc.,” with morality itself. They are not morality, but merely manifestations of morality in human beings living in the modern world. Morality itself predates human beings by millions of years, and many other animal species act morally in addition to ourselves. The most significant difference between us and them is that they lack the capacity to speculate about whether morality is objectively real. Indeed, for them, morality is likely a more effective evolutionary adaptation than it is for us. They simply act as they are wired to act, and feel no need to invent objective reasons for their actions in the form of Gods or Harris’ ersatz god, “the imperative to act for the well being of conscious creatures.”

Harris would do well to go back to square one and consider what morality really is. It is an evolved subjective predisposition that exists because it promoted our survival. Furthermore, it promoted our survival at a time when we existed in small communities of genetically related individuals. It is a dual phenomena. We apply one standard of right and wrong to our interactions with those within our “in-group,” and another standard of right and wrong to “out-groups.” It is reasonable to assume that the wiring in our brain responsible for our predisposition to behave morally, which evolved at a time when we lived in small hunter-gatherer communities, is not ideally suited to similarly promote our survival in a world of gigantic nation states equipped with nuclear weapons. Instead of understanding this problem and addressing it rationally, Harris claims to have discovered the “real good,” in the form of “that which is conducive to human well-being.” In reality, Harris is as religious as the most phantastical southern Baptist. The only difference between him and them is that he believes in a “True Good” instead of a true God. He insists that, instead of understanding our own nature and accommodating ourselves to it, we should all be required to change our nature to conform to his phantasy that a scientifically discernable version of this “True Good” exists. In other words, he wants to take a giant step backwards to the era of the behaviorists and the “new Soviet man,” when it was assumed that human nature was infinitely malleable and could be molded as needed to conform to whatever arbitrary definition of “good” one chose to adopt. He won’t succeed any more than the Communists or all the other architects of heavens on earth have succeeded. Human nature is what it is, and won’t jump through hoops, even for Sam Harris. He thinks he can simply wave his hands, and inconvenient aspects of human morality, such as the Amity-Enmity Complex will just disappear. Others have tried that before him. It doesn’t work. It not only doesn’t work, but, in a world full of nuclear weapons, it is extremely dangerous. If we are to avoid self destruction, it will behoove us to understand our own nature. Creating “brave new moralities” out of thin air and insisting that others conform to them does not promote such understanding. Rather, it amounts to a deliberate burying of our heads in the sand.

I can only suggest that Harris go back to his neuroscientific research. Who knows, one day he may turn up at my doorstep and present me with a vial of distilled “Good”. However, I rather suspect it’s more likely he will eventually come to a more rational understanding of human morality. At least I hope he will, and I hope the same for his two illustrious peers, Hitchens and Dawkins. It happens that the latter has a wonderfully designed website with forums for the philosophically minded. It pleases me to see that, based on their comments, some of the brighter visitors to these forums “get it” when it comes to morality. I suggest that Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and the rest of the intellectual gentry at take the time to read them.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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