Sam Harris: Still Chasing the Moral Butterfly

Sam Harris is at it again, chasing the gaudy butterfly of the good-in-itself. Somehow, although Aristotle patiently explained why Sam’s “latest scientific ideas” about morality wouldn’t work two and a half millenia ago, and it’s been 150 years since Darwin put the last nail in the coffin of the notion of disembodied good and evil swimming around out there in the luminiferous ether, Sam is still pretending that the blank slate never died. Forget the fact that morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits. Forget its connection with predispositions that are hard-wired in the brain. Forget that it is utterly dependent on subjective emotions in the minds of individuals for its very existence. Sam still believes that the butterfly is out there, and that, if he can only catch it, he can just hitch it up to his wagon full of dubious notions about the “scientific good,” and, with a flash of its wings, it will magically transport us to Sam’s Brave New World of “human flourishing.” In an article that turned up on Huffpo he writes,

Secular liberals, on the other hand, tend to imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist. While John Stuart Mill might conform to our cultural ideal of goodness better than Osama bin Laden does, most secularists suspect that Mill’s ideas about right and wrong reach no closer to the Truth. Multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance — these are the familiar consequences of separating facts and values on the left.

Guess what, Sam, John Stuart Mill was much too smart to believe in anything as contrived as “objective answers to moral questions.” He clearly and explicitly rejected the notion of “scientific good,” or what he referred to as “transcendental morality,” existing as an independent thing. His utilitarian ideas were fine as reasonable hypotheses about the principles according to which modern human societies might best be governed. His mistake was in believing that he could just tack on morality to make everything work better. If he had written a little later, after Darwin’s ideas had time to sink in, I doubt that he would have made that mistake.  He was much too brilliant a man not to put two and two together.  As for secular liberals “tending to imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist,” it’s neither here nor there, because they act as if they do regardless. Show me one secular liberal of any intellectual significance who doesn’t think his notion of the “good” is superior to Rush Limbaugh’s, and maybe I’ll change my mind.

Sam continues,

It should concern us that these two orientations are not equally empowering. Increasingly, secular democracies are left supine before the unreasoning zeal of old-time religion. The juxtaposition of conservative dogmatism and liberal doubt accounts for the decade that has been lost in the United States to a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research; it explains the years of political distraction we have suffered, and will continue to suffer, over issues like abortion and gay marriage; it lies at the bottom of current efforts to pass anti-blasphemy laws at the United Nations (which would make it illegal for the citizens of member states to criticize religion); it has hobbled the West in its generational war against radical Islam; and it may yet refashion the societies of Europe into a new Caliphate.

In other words, our “orientation” should not conform to the truth, but to what Sam thinks is “empowering” as a means to an end.  We must all become zealots of Sam’s new secular religion, not because anything as zany as disembodied “good” really exists, but because it’s necessary to pretend that it does to make sure that Europe doesn’t turn into a new Caliphate.  Continuing with this “utilitarian” theme, Sam writes,

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them “Adam” and “Eve.” Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer #1: They could smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, it seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on this planet would be better off if they recognized their common interests — like getting food, building shelter and defending themselves against larger predators.

As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?

In other words, here’s how the logic works:

a.  Adam and Eve make a rational decision to maximize their well-being.

b.  Adam and Eve discover via experiment that smashing each other in the face with rocks diminishes their well-being.

c.  Adam and Eve decide that they should therefore alter the DNA associated with the complex emotions responsible for their moral behavior in order to avoid throwing rocks at each other.

Do you notice a disconnect between steps b and c?  So do I.  Hitler had some fine ideas about how to exploit human moral behavior to bring about the flourishing of the German people.  It resulted in the Holocaust and tens of millions of needless deaths.  Marx had another fine idea about how to exploit human moral behavior to bring about the flourishing of the workers.  That swell idea killed tens of millions more.  Now Sam wants us to swallow the idea that, if we just tinker with morality a little more carefully next time, we’ll finally get it right, and there will be a new dawn of human flourishing.  I have a better idea.  Next time we put our heads together to come up with better ways to live together, lets leave morality out of it.  If we really want to flourish, we’d best learn to thoroughly understand our moral behavior, and avoid trying to “adjust” it to suit the latest intellectual fashions.

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.

2 thoughts on “Sam Harris: Still Chasing the Moral Butterfly”

  1. Interesting. I know a lot of people insist on assigning more meaning to the term “atheist” than mere disbelief in a God or gods, but that’s all it means to me. I don’t associate my own atheism with secular humanism, relativism, veganism, or any other kind of ism.

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