I just recently heard a fascinating debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, which addressed the questions of whether the foundations of moral values are natural or supernatural, and whether or not moral values of “right” and “wrong” actually exist as an objective fact independent of one’s opinion or beliefs. I have already stated at length in the last chapter, and in other previous chapters in this book, “Free Will” and “The Sacred and the Miraculous,” among other writings, why the notion of “supernatural causes” is impossible because the very idea is contradictory. This makes the notion of “moral values” coming from a “supernatural cause” invalid to begin with. Nevertheless, regardless of whether moral values come from a “supernatural cause” or from nature, we can still look further into the question of whether or not what we call “morality” is of our own invention, or an objective fact. I believe this is a far more relevant and important question than whether the foundations of morality are natural or supernatural.
At the start of the debate, Sam Harris well illustrated the fact that the world and what happens in it is intrinsically value free, and therefore requires conscious minds to create value judgments about what happens in the world. In other words, without a conscious system, there are no means by which to even make value judgments to begin with. Both Harris and Craig actually agree on the premise that a “conscious system” is necessary to make value judgments, but Craig, from the theistic point of view, believes it is God who is the “conscious system” that is the means by which objective moral value judgments are made, while Harris, from the atheistic point of view, believes it is human beings who are the “conscious system” that is the means by which objective moral value judgments are made. You would think this understanding of the necessity of a conscious system to make value judgments in the first place, and in the absence of an “objective moral law-giver” like God from Harris’ point of view, would lead him to the logical conclusion that what we value based on our varied human judgments is actually a subjective opinion rather than an objective fact.
Craig argued that from the point of view of atheism, there can be no objective morality since there is no “objective moral law-giver” to be the standard against which to make objective moral value judgments. In a sense, I agree with him. However, as Matt Dillahunty brilliantly rebutted a Craig apologist on his show, even God’s “laws” would still not necessarily be objective, but rather subjective, since these standards would be God’s opinion rather than someone else’s. While I agree with what Matt is saying, I also see what Craig means when he considers God the ultimate “standard” for “righteousness” – or the “objectivity” of God’s standard. However, I think both Craig and Dillahunty are in a sense, missing the point by being hung up on a semantics game of words. Whether we call something “objective” or “subjective,” “right” or “wrong,” “good,” or “bad,” is in my view irrelevant to what I feel is the larger question why we even need to concern ourselves with the idea of needing our moral values to be objective, instead of simply arriving at a consensus of the majority of that which is considered “moral” and “immoral,” even if it is not “objective,” or also observing the “golden rule” to do unto others as we would have done to unto us. This simple idea as quoted by Jesus in the Bible does not require God at all, ironically enough. It is striking to me why Harris did not plainly point this out to Craig. Dr. Craig, having the first word, was able to “set the rules” of what he would and would not argue, and sought to take control of the debate right away, challenging Harris’ premise in an attempt to distract Harris and take him off the course of his own prepared arguments. However, as the debate went on, it was clear that Harris was not going to take the bait and allow himself to lose control of the debate, as he at no point seriously engaged Craig in an all-out “tit for tat” war of words. While I can to some extent understand his use of this strategy, his lack of strong rebuttals to some of Craig’s points made Harris appear more vulnerable and evasive than strong. I am sure that was exactly Craig’s intention. I am also quite certain if Harris had pointed out the “golden rule” in his rebuttal, as evidence for “moral values” not requiring God, Craig would have cleverly responded the debate was about objective moral values, and not whether or not actions are desirable or not desirable, and the problem with conflating the two. This is ultimately the trap Harris fell into. He made the mistake of trying to get an “ought” from an “is” – to say that which factually serves the genuine well-being and flourishing of conscious creatures is what we “ought” to do. Harris believes we can get an “ought” from an “is” – that we can conflate “moral goodness” (ought), with that which contributes to the well-being and flourishing of conscious creatures, (is). However, this conflation is a logical fallacy as famously expressed by eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume – a conflation Harris was called on in this debate by Dr. Craig, and will be further explored in this chapter.
I would have conceded to Craig and agreed with him that there is no objective morality from the point of view of atheism, but that the “objective” moral question is ultimately an irrelevant one. I would have counter-argued that what is ultimately and honestly of genuine concern for most people, including most religious people, when it comes to “moral” issues, is what serves the genuine well-being of ourselves and others, not the theological exercise of how we judge actions “right” or “wrong” according to “moral standards” by a so-called “law-giver” that cannot even be proven to exist in the first place. Some such as Harris would say that which services the genuine well-being of conscious creatures is the very definition of morality itself – a definition which is almost universally shared by most people. I would agree with Harris that this is the essence of what most would consider “morality,” and with this definition we can most probably safely use the term “moral” and have an almost universal understanding of what we are talking about most of the time with others. Nevertheless, what is considered “moral” has changed throughout history, since human judgment of actions is how we determine what is considered “moral,” and many complex variables from cultural, religious, societal, and others are in play to formulate our “moral” views, which makes moral values in a sense, subjective, even if not arbitrary.
There are also more complex issues to be considered such as where specific beings and creatures fall on the hierarchy of the “moral” scale, making ethical questions seem much more complex than arriving at a mere agreement on what serves the well-being of conscious creatures. One immediate question could be, which conscious creatures get precedent in terms of well-being? For example, if one eats meat, than a conscious creature must obviously die for another to eat that meat. One conscious creature’s “well being” must take precedent over another’s. How do we decide which conscious creature takes precedent? This also brings up more ethical questions such as what beings are actually conscious? One could argue a plant is also conscious and so consuming plants is killing a living creature for the sake of feeding oneself, just the same as killing an animal. Of course if everything is consciousness itself, as stated previously in this book, then the question is not whether or not beings are conscious, but rather what is their capacity to suffer based on the complexity of their nervous system, which I would define as different from consciousness – what I would call the contents of consciousness rather than consciousness itself. So the particular value system of “who” or “what” gets precedent in the hierarchy of beings with the capacity to suffer could be said to be subjective since many of us value different things differently. Some may value animals more than plants. Some may value plants more than animals, and some may also value entire systems such as the Earth over any particular creature or species living within it. The point is, while what we value is not arbitrary, it is still necessarily subjective, and these subjective values often inform what we call our “moral decisions.” This is why I do not believe we can truly have a universal “objective morality,” even though most of us will agree on what we would call “moral” behavior since much of what the majority consider “moral” behavior appears to be “hardwired” into many beings, including human beings. In the fascinating book, “Why We Believe in Gods” by J. Anderson Thomson Jr. and Clare Aukofer, the authors state that other animals demonstrate compassion, empathy, grief, assistance, comfort, trust, forgiveness, a sense of justice, revenge, and much more, while Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom and his team found that infants as young as three months old have some innate sense of right and wrong, good and bad, even fair and unfair. When babies were shown a puppet climbing a mountain, either helped or hindered by a second puppet, the babies oriented toward the helpful puppet and away from the second one. They were able to make an evaluative social judgment, or a moral response in a sense.
During this debate, Craig said he was not trying to argue for or against the existence of God. The problem is, without proving the existence of God, his very premise is invalid to begin with, because it relies on an unknowable faith-based claim at its foundation, and not a knowable fact-based claim. While Harris said there is no reason to believe the universe is ruled by the “monster God” Yahweh, he never directly pressed Dr. Craig on the point that his premise was invalid unless he could prove God’s existence beyond a shadow of a doubt. In other words, Harris didn’t have to accept Dr. Craig’s false premise that proving God’s existence is somehow a “separate problem” from the objective morality argument. Craig had to prove God’s existence before he could even begin to make his “moral” argument in the first place since his very premise depends on the idea of God as an “objective moral law-giver.” This is something I feel Harris had to stress in order to take control of the debate, by reminding Dr. Craig of the fact the burden of proof was on him, since he was trying to defend a faith-based claim which could not be assumed before being demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt. While Harris may not have been correct on every aspect of his overall argument, at least his premise involved that which we know as a matter of fact actually exists – namely, human beings. Craig assumes God as a “given,” but he cannot assume any faith-based “givens” such as the concept of God, and therefore could not be taken seriously in this debate unless he could and did prove or demonstrate God’s existence beyond a shadow of a doubt, which he refused to do in this debate. The only “givens” are facts, not unproven or non-demonstrated faith claims.
While Craig correctly called Harris on the problem of conflating “moral goodness” with that which serves the well-being of conscious creatures – a definition which sounds good on the surface, but is nevertheless still a subjective opinion, even if shared by the vast majority, Harris was not the only one in this debate guilty of conflation. Craig’s conflating of faith with fact is a problem he shares with virtually all theologians and religious apologists. It is ultimately the reason why none of their arguments hold any credibility, including Craig’s. While Craig tried to gloss over the problem of using a faith-based claim in his premise, the problem cannot be glossed over by anyone with intellectual integrity, because intellectual honestly reveals the fact that faith-based claims cannot be an authentic basis from which to argue in the first place, since unless they are proven to be factual, or at the very least highly probable as demonstrated by data, evidence, and sound reasoning, they are therefore nothing more than irrelevant opinions. During this debate, Harris did an excellent job in one outstanding segment in particular, establishing why the Judeo-Christian God Yahweh cannot exist as a credible “objective moral law giver,” given this God’s own moral contradictions in the Bible, such as saying “thou shalt not kill,” while in the very same Bible ordering the murder of certain groups of people, including homosexuals, those who work on the Sabbath, and non-virgin, unmarried women at the same time. He also spoke of the disturbing psychopathy of the notion of “Divine Command” theory – the idea whatever God “commands” is good, even genocide. He also challenged the hypocrisy of the double standard theologians hold between the “moral values” of God, and the “moral values” of human beings when they say God’s “morality” doesn’t “have to” make sense to us “mere mortals.” In other words, according to many theologians and apologists, including Dr. Craig, God is not bound by “moral duties” and a “mere” human understanding of morality as we are. However, Harris further illustrated the problem with playing this “Divine Command” theory card to justify God’s moral contradictions and double standards as found in the Bible, by pointing out the fact that this “mere” human understanding of moral standards is precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. Therefore, theologians and apologists cannot describe what constitutes “moral behavior” for human beings on the one hand they say “comes from God,” such as loving others, not murdering others, not lying or cheating, etc., while at the same time say God doesn’t “have to” behave morally in the way human beings understand it, with the old adage, “who are we to judge God?” The funny thing is, apologists, theologians, and ordinary people judge God all the time, and they have to in order to determine his “goodness.” However, if apologists and theologians are going to be consistent and not hypocritical, then they need to judge both the good and the bad sides of God equally. The idea that God can do whatever he wants – including commanding the murder of certain groups of people as he does in the Bible – behavior which would not be considered “moral” behavior for human beings, while somehow maintaining God’s “moral” and “sinless” status at the same time, is precisely what Harris was talking about when he spoke of the psychopathy of such a moral attitude. Calling this moral attitude psychopathic was something Dr. Craig took great exception to, probably because he knows deep down inside just how psychopathic and absurd such a moral attitude is, even if he will never admit it. If such a moral double standard exists, then God can only be a hypocrite to tell his people to “do as I say, not as I do.” For if God is “only good,” and is the “moral example” of “moral behavior,” then he must behave morally as human beings understand it in order to be an intelligible moral example to human beings in the first place. Therefore, if God does not behave morally as human beings understand it, and behaves in ways which are not moral for human beings, while telling people to behave differently than he does to be “moral” at the same time, then God is a hypocrite and a poor example of “moral behavior,” just as any human parent would be if they held a moral double standard between themselves and their children.
The blatant and consistent application of contradictions and double standards, and the need to have things “both ways” to justify theistic positions no matter what they may be, especially with regards to morality, are hallmarks of all theistic thought, since it is only by holding double standards that theists can maintain their belief in the contradictory and therefore invalid concept of dualism – the very foundation of theism itself. For it is only the belief in dualism that allows for the belief in a separate and “independent” God as distinct and separate from “his creation” and “his people.” However, all of this dualistic thinking is rendered invalid by seeing the truth all is One, and never separate and “independent“ of anything else, which therefore takes all theistic thought off the table. As Harris brilliantly expressed during the debate, the holding of double standards is how theists manage to “play tennis without the net.” This is how theists can have it both ways to ensure they always “win” their arguments for God’s existence, no matter what happens in the world by saying such things like when good things happen, it means God is good, and when bad things happen, such as infants drowning in their cribs during a tsunami, it means God is “mysterious.” The problem with this dualistic, “have it both ways” thinking however, is that all non-falsifiable claims, such as claims for the existence of God are meaningless precisely because they are not falsifiable – that is, they cannot be proven false. Any claim which has any value to explain anything must be falsifiable – that is, the claim must be able to be proven false. If a claim holds up to good evidence and sound reasoning, and is therefore proven true, even if it could be proven false, then it has tremendous value, and at least has a chance of being a valid explanation of reality. Claims for God are unfalsifiable and therefore meaningless because you cannot technically prove or disprove God’s existence. If, according to the theist, “answered prayers” always come in the form of “yes,” “no,” and “wait,” then every prayer is an “answered prayer,” and is therefore a meaningless assertion since it is not falsifiable. Again, if you cannot falsify a claim, then the claim is a meaningless explanation of reality. Furthermore, as stated in previous chapters in this book, dualism is provably false, which renders all theistic beliefs which come from this foundational dualistic misconception provably false as well – taking all such theistic arguments off the table. All of these facts invalidate the idea of “Divine Command” theory to supposedly “justify” this convenient moral double standard between God and human beings.
Harris went on to speak of the blatant contradiction how a “moral” God of “love” could allow nine million children to die every year under the age of five by terrible means through no fault of their own, as well as the injustice of condemning non-Christians to Hell, particularly those who because of their cultural upbringing are not Christians, as well as the incredible injustice and lack of moral accountability in Christian theology which says “faith alone” in Jesus Christ is enough to “save” you from Hell, regardless of how one has lived their life.
“God created the cultural isolation of the Hindus. He engineered the circumstance of their deaths in ignorance of revelation, and then he created the penalty for this ignorance, which is an eternity of conscious torment in fire. On the other hand, on Dr. Craig’s account, your run-of-the-mill serial killer in America, who spent his life raping and torturing children, need only come to God, come to Jesus, on Death Row, and after a final meal of fried chicken, he’s going to spend an eternity in Heaven after death. One thing should be crystal clear to you: this vision of life has absolutely nothing to do with moral accountability.”
Harris also pointed out the blatant contradiction how this “just God” could have had his own son unjustly tortured and brutally murdered to “pay the price” for our sin through a grotesque human sacrifice, calling Christianity a cult of human sacrifice which acts as though this single sacrifice were effective. This also brings to mind a quote of Christopher Hitchens’ view of the blatant immorality of the concept of vicarious redemption – the very foundation of Christian theology.
“I find something repulsive about the idea of vicarious redemption. I would not throw my numberless sins onto a scapegoat and expect them to pass from me; we rightly sneer at the barbaric societies that practice this unpleasantness in its literal form. There’s no moral value in the vicarious gesture anyway. As Thomas Paine pointed out, you may if you wish take on another man’s debt, or even to take his place in prison. That would be self-sacrificing. But you may not assume his actual crimes as if they were your own; for one thing you did not commit them and might have died rather than do so; for another this impossible action would rob him of individual responsibility. So the whole apparatus of absolution and forgiveness strikes me as positively immoral, while the concept of revealed truth degrades the concept of free intelligence by purportedly relieving us of the hard task of working out the ethical principles for ourselves.”
The fact Christianity is founded on the principle of vicarious redemption in the first place – the idea of sacrificing the innocent for the sake of the guilty – an idea almost universally acknowledged as immoral and certainly unjust, is a fact that in and of itself completely invalidates Craig’s entire premise that the Christian God is the foundation for moral values. This should have ended the debate right then and there, but did not since Craig never bothered to prove how God is or at least could be a credible “source” for morality in light of God’s blatant moral contradictions in the Bible, and Harris in my estimation, did not sufficiently push Craig to do so.
Harris further spoke of the strikingly narcissistic mindset of those who believe they are “saved” from misfortune, while others perish in catastrophes. In the debate as well in some words on Harris’ website, which I will partially quote, I was struck by how incredibly clear, and how stridently sarcastic and sadly humorous Harris’ description was of the extent of the narcissism and self-deceit in the minds of the “saved.” This would be outright laughable were it not for the incredible lack of compassion involved in such dishonest thinking about our very real human predicament of suffering.
“This kind of faith is the perfection of narcissism. “God loves me. Don’t you know. He cured me of my eczema. He makes me feel so good while singing in church. And just when we had given up hope, we’d found a banker who was willing to reduce my mother’s mortgage.” Given all that this God of yours does not accomplish in the lives of others – given the misery that’s being imposed on some helpless child at this instance. This type of faith is obscene. To think in this way is to fail to reason honestly or care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings…
Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is – and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgments of their happiness for no good reason at all.”
Harris went on to say that the age-old problem of theodicy – the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil, is a problem we should consider solved. Harris, in expounding on the suffering of innocent children who die in a tsunami, put the solution in stark succinctness during the debate in a paraphrase of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.
“But according to Dr. Craig, this is all part of God’s plan. Any God who would allow children by the millions to suffer and die in this way, and their parents to grieve in this way, either can do nothing to help them, or doesn’t care to. He is therefore either impotent or evil.”
Rather than believe what many would consider the uncomfortable prospect of an impotent or evil God in light of suffering, the option of atheism – of believing in no God whatsoever, is perhaps the most palatable option that makes the most sense since it most honestly matches the facts of our reality, including the randomness of calamities as well as pleasant occurrences we are all equally subject to, with no regard to whether people are “good” or “bad,” “holy” or “not holy.” The facts of life also make it much more likely there is no “plan” nor “being” behind any of this, but instead the egoless, impersonal, mechanical laws of physics. The advantage to not believing in God is there is no one to blame. We cannot be a victim since no “being” is “responsible” for our circumstance, good, bad, or otherwise. Without anyone to blame or thank, we are then free to stop judging who or what is to “thank” or to “blame” for our life circumstances, and simply try to make the best of life as it actually is, and increase our compassion for one another in our profound understanding of the difficult circumstance we all find ourselves in that is the human condition. Nevertheless, Craig ignored all of these problems for a “moral” and “just” God that Harris presented to him, refused to engage in a debate with Harris on God’s credibility or existence, and also refused to argue for why the God Yahweh is not the “monster God” as Harris described. Craig simply made a reference to other resources early on in the debate which supposedly debunked the “misinterpretations” of God’s violent commands in Old Testament scripture, but never made a case for it. Given the debate was about the very source of morality, it was imperative Craig first establish the fact of why God exists, and then establish the fact of why God is “good” and a credible “source” for morality, rather than just make meaningless, faith-based assertions of God’s existence and “moral goodness,” which is irrelevant to genuine fact-based claims about the nature of reality.
Harris did a good job of exposing Craig’s flawed assumptions, but Craig managed to weasel his way out of genuinely defending God’s “goodness,” by again speaking only of a meaningless faith-based “given” – that God is the very “definition” of good – an unjustified conflation, and a fatal flaw in his premise. It is a conflation I believe Harris could have more aggressively pressed Dr. Craig to justify – by illustrating the fact Craig’s conflation of “moral goodness” with God is no different than Harris’ conflation of “moral goodness” with that which serves the flourishing of conscious creatures. Both claims for the “objective moral goodness” of God, and for that which serves the flourishing of conscious creatures are mere assertions, not facts. However, the reason Harris could not call Dr. Craig on this is because he either would not, or did not recognize his own conflation, thus shooting himself in the foot. That is why I feel the very argument for an “objective morality” to begin with, regardless of the “source” for morality, was a mistake on the part of both Harris and Craig.
Craig is a clever charlatan debater who technically “wins” arguments, but fails to see how certain aspects of his premises are contradictory and therefore false to begin with, which invalidates even his best sound reasoning, as I have pointed out before in this book. He uses clever bullying tactics such as baiting the opposition to rebut his objections, while refusing to rebut the objections of his opponent. He may “win” his battles through his bullying tactics, but ultimately loses the war, because while he often “wins” a logical argument in his debates, his premises for his logical arguments are still often based on false assumptions and contradictory ideas to begin with, which invalidates his arguments from word go. So while Craig technically “wins” many of his debates, he ultimately loses, even if he is unaware of why he loses, and more fundamentally, the fact he loses. As far as I’m concerned, both Harris and Craig lost this debate, ultimately because both of them had insurmountable flaws in their premises.
What is not subjective – that is, what is actually true, is what is an actual matter of fact. Factually speaking, at bottom there are only actions and consequences, and whether or not we desire the outcomes as a result of those actions. What we do or do not desire determines our values. Morality in its most basic form, is our attempted formal expression of these values. Because our values are based on our varying personal desires, whether conscious or subconscious, they are therefore subjective opinions rather than objective facts. This is true even if the vast majority agree on what is “desirable” or “not desirable.” While it is true that certain actions lead to certain consequences, that does not necessarily mean we “ought” to do something. It simply means if we understand the potential consequences of our actions, then we can therefore make more informed decisions based on what consequences we desire or do not desire. This has nothing to do with “ought.” It rather has everything to do with must – understanding what must be done to most likely achieve our desired result – understanding action and consequence, and making our decisions accordingly. Science cannot tell us what we “ought” to do because what we “ought” to do is an opinion based on our personal values. This is where I disagree with Sam Harris, who believes science can tell us what we “ought” to do. Science might be able to tell us what the potential and most likely consequences will be for given actions, but whether we do or do not want those consequences is determined by our individual values – some of which the majority agree on, and others the majority does not agree on. The question of why or how it is we value some things and not others, and the degree to which we value certain things over others is sometimes obvious, but in many other ways not so obvious, and is in fact the result of an infinite regress of causes, which therefore makes most of these causes ultimately unknowable. The bottom line is, the very word “ought” is meaningless when speaking of anything factual, because “ought” is a word which is used to describe values – or how we believe things should be, which is nothing more than an opinion, and not how things actually are, which is a fact. Since there is no factually objective standard against which to judge what something “should be,” then there is no such thing as an “objective ought.”
What we call “right” is often instead what we want things to be rather than how things actually are. The whole, the “big picture” is not an opinion. It is. Relativism is false because relativism is based only on our opinions and beliefs. But our beliefs and opinions do not necessarily define reality – what is actually true. They only define our reality – our subjective opinions of that which may or may not be true. This is precisely why the “moral values” we create in response to our varied opinions are false. Nevertheless, we do have a genuine “moral sense” if you will – or a conscience. This I believe ultimately comes from our awareness of the relationship between part and whole – of “self” and “big picture” if you will. We know deep down inside when we consider only ourselves. We also know deep down inside when we consider others as well as ourselves – the “big picture.” This “deep down,” or “gut level” knowledge of this distinction between part and whole is our awareness of this “big picture” truth, which I would call our conscience. When we look at the two parts of the word “conscience,” we can see the word “con” means “with,” and “science” means “knowledge.” So “conscience” can mean “with knowledge” or “with knowing.” The fact most of us even have a conscience at all demonstrates an almost universal awareness of non-subjective Reality – the Truth of the “big picture” of the whole and the fact our egos are only an apparent part of a whole. Those who lack a conscience could almost certainly be said to have a kind of disability – a cognitive inability to enable awareness of self and whole simultaneously, as well as the inability to empathize with others and consider more than themselves in their thought processes. When this inability becomes extreme, one could be correctly considered narcissistic, solipsistic, and delusional – believing the world truly does revolve around “me,” when it never does. Since “conscience” means “with knowledge” or “with knowing,” then to lack a conscience could be said to be the exact opposite – to be ignorant. If there is any truth to the idea of an “objective morality,” this is the closest thing to it, but this is still not “morality” per say as defined as what we “ought” to do according to some “objective moral standard” by an “objective moral law-giver,” but is fundamentally awareness of the “big picture,” and the truth of the fact our egos are merely apparent parts of a larger whole. This awareness does not require an “objective moral law giver.” It only requires we see what is. So in a way, our “moral sense” does come from objective facts – that we are part of a larger whole, and the cognitive dissonance – the psychological discomfort the majority experiences when choosing self alone over whole, along with the psychological comfort the majority experiences when choosing whole over self alone is that which fundamentally drives our “moral” intuitions. These phenomena of “cognitive dissonance” and “cognitive consonance” if you will, is the reason why when we act in conflict to the truth of being only a part of a larger whole, we feel “convicted” as it were – the violation of our conscience, or “moral sense;” and why when we act in harmony to the truth of being only a part of a larger whole, our conscience feels “clear.” This explains why selflessness – the choosing of the “big” picture,” or the whole over self alone, is the root of that which we almost universally consider “moral;” while selfishness – the choosing of self alone over the “big picture” of the whole, is the root of that which we almost universally consider “immoral.” Again – this “moral sense” if you will, or conscience, comes not from an “objective moral standard,” from an “objective moral law-giver,” but from awareness of the relationship between part and whole, and responding to our cognitive dissonance and consonance which result from acting in conflict or in harmony with that awareness. Of course, there must be a balance between unchecked altruism and rampant selfishness. Perhaps the most “moral” decisions we make are that which most closely matches an exquisite balance between the two – the “golden mean.”
The reason moral codes are created in the first place is because many of us do not act in ways which serve the best interests of the “big picture,” or the “group” over “self” alone. If we could and did act in harmony with the “big picture” before “self” alone, then moral codes would not have to exist to begin with. At its best however, morality is a tool created by a group of people, no matter the size, with the intention of helping ensure the well-being of those within the group. If there is enough popular consensus on a given value, such as “do not murder others,” then it usually becomes codified into our moral values. Punishments are put in place as a consequence for violating the moral code, since from the collective consensus of the majority, the violation of the moral code compromises the well-being and best interests of the group, and the punishments serve to discourage others from violating the code. History has shown that moral codes, while sometimes remain the same in some respects, also change over time; because popular consensus of value judgments – the very foundation from which these moral codes are created, also changes over time, and are therefore still subjective. This is different from objective facts about which actions do and do not lead to the well-being of ourselves and others. That is the difference between our subjective values – and thereby our “shoulds” and “should-nots,” and objective facts of what either does or does not lead to the true well-being of ourselves and others.
In this debate, Harris also described his genuine concern for the welfare of society if there is no such thing as an “objective morality.” Harris shares the concern of many that chaos might reign in a world in which there is no agreement on “objective moral values.” However, as stated previously, “moral values” need not necessarily be “objective” for the majority to agree on them. In other words, the “objectivity” or “subjectivity” of moral values is not relevant to a consensus of the majority of what does or does not serve the genuine well-being of ourselves and others. Harris appears to share the fear of many that if moral values are not “objective,” then there will be no solid foundation from which to base moral values. However, what human beings consider “moral” and “immoral” is not arbitrary, even if not objective, as also stated previously. It is based on a critical examination of an ever-evolving understanding of ourselves and the world around us, but that is not the same thing as moral relativism, or the belief that “anything goes” and all ideas are equally conducive for a well-functioning society as any other, which would be arbitrary. Allowing murder, rape, theft, and perjury to go unchecked even if one believes these things are “okay” has negative consequences for the majority and therefore not considered moral behavior by a consensus of the majority. Therefore the fear humanity will somehow fall apart into moral chaos if we do not have an “objective standard” against which to judge moral values is false. Even though values, moral or otherwise are by nature subjective and ever-evolving, that does not mean society as a whole is going to agree that murder, theft, rape, cheating, perjury, and slavery constitutes moral behavior. Again, the fact our moral values are not “objective” does not make them any less binding to us in everyday real life. However, I do believe Harris’ desire to believe in an “objective morality,” driven from his concern for a society in which an “objective morality” does not exist, was a key motivating factor to the creation of his premise. I also think the use of such words as “moral” in a title are helpful in selling books, as I cannot see how a book with the politically incorrect premise there is no such thing as “objective morality” would sell. Therefore, I believe Harris may have at least in part, been also influenced by potential sales success in shaping his premise of “moral goodness” being synonymous with that which serves the well-being and flourishing of conscious creatures in his book, “The Moral Landscape.”
Nevertheless, his premise is one I initially found quite reasonable and appealing, but as Craig rebutted and correctly pointed out, “bad” people can also flourish, even in the midst of what can be considered their “wicked” and “evil” actions towards others. That said, I would say people who are violent and abusive towards others, while still believing they are serving the well-being of others are delusional. An example of this would be a man who throws battery acid on the face of his wife for not wearing a veil in public, while believing he is doing a “morally justifiable” act that he believes “benefits” him in some way. Regardless of what such a man who engages in this behavior may believe, the fact of the matter is, he is not truly contributing to the well-being and flourishing of his wife, nor himself. Nor are religious fanatics who fly airplanes into buildings contributing to the well-being of themselves or others, regardless of what they may believe about receiving 72 virgins in paradise after death. In order for Dr. Craig’s notion of the origins of morality to be true, then moral values must come from an “objective moral law-giver,” as stated previously. In other words, it must be “Divine Command” that determines the “moral goodness” of something. The problem is, if that is the case, and God is “only good,” as Dr. Craig and Christian apologists claim, then anything God “commands” can be considered “good” and therefore morally justified as well – even slavery, rape, and murder, such as that which God orders or allows in the Bible, which apologists often spin as “good” within “historical context,” or within the “mystery” of God’s sense of “morality” we “mere mortals” cannot understand. They may also speak of the old standby excuse of the “misinterpretation” of Biblical scripture, or some other clever rationalization. This arbitrary, “anything goes” mentality for “moral goodness” is what makes Craig’s notion of “Divine Command” theory so scary and psychotic, as clearly illustrated by these above-mentioned examples. It is what ultimately renders Craig’s position untenable. Sam Harris summed up the problem with “Divine Command” theory quite eloquently in one outstanding passage from the debate.
“We are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude. It is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings. This so easily rationalizes the slaughter of children…. Muslims at this moment are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr. Craig can say against their behavior, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God. If they had the right God, what they would be doing would be good, on Divine Command theory… to me this is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own.”
After the debate, during the question and answer session, Dr. Craig’s lame response to the question of why religious fanatics, such as those who fly airplanes into buildings, are not morally justified by their religion, is that they are following the mandates of the “wrong God.” Craig blatantly validated exactly what Harris said about Craig having absolutely nothing to say against their behavior, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God – a damning conviction of Craig’s untenable position. As Harris pointed out, such a claim is just as meaningless and irrelevant as any other faith-based claim – including Christian faith claims. In other words, neither Christians nor Muslims are in any better position than the other to be able to validate and authenticate which God and which faith is the “right one,” because again – faith-based claims not proven to be factual are therefore irrelevant opinions, and therefore have nothing whatsoever to do with reality. The irrelevant question of which God and which religion is the “right one,” is beside the point of agreeing or not agreeing on that which does or does not contribute to the well-being of ourselves and others by a consensus of the majority. The fact the overwhelming majority of people completely ignore much of the Bible – particularly much of the Old Testament books such as Deuteronomy and Leviticus – passages in which God admonishes us to murder those who work on the Sabbath or to kill disobedient teenagers or women who are not virgins on their wedding night, are proof of the fact it is our own moral intuitions which drive our morality – not the supposed “objective morality” of the Bible. The truth is, we cherry-pick the Bible based on our moral intuitions of what we believe to be “right” and “moral” – or the majority consensus of that which serves the well-being of ourselves and others. Where is the need of the Bible for “moral guidance” when our own moral intuitions ultimately drive our moral decisions in the first place?
Craig later challenged Harris with the question of what would make the flourishing of conscious creatures objectively good. While Harris did not directly answer this question, my answer to Craig would have been there is nothing which would make the flourishing of conscious creatures “objectively good.” That is something I believe Harris felt he could not directly say out loud, because if he had, it would have appeared he was conceding the debate to Craig. Nevertheless, I would have pointed out to Craig that regardless of whether we judge something as “objectively good” or “objectively bad,” it is once again irrelevant to the facts of what does or does not lead to the well-being of ourselves and others. What we can say as an objective fact based on our observations, sound reasoning, as well as science, is that certain actions and conditions do lead to the genuine well-being and flourishing of ourselves and others, while others do not – even if one is mistaken about what they define as “well-being” and “flourishing,” as stated previously about the man who throws battery acid on the face of his wife, or religious fanatics who fly airplanes into buildings. Each action brings a consequence, whether we judge the consequence “good” or “bad.” That much almost everyone can agree on. However, judging things “wrong” or “right,” or whether something is “good” or “bad,” is an individual subjective opinion, entirely independent of the facts of what does or does not lead to the well-being of ourselves and others. In other words, flying an airplane into a building full of people is in fact, not an action which leads to the well-being of others, even if one judged it “good.” Judging such an action as “good,” “bad” or “evil” is merely an opinion and judgment of such an action. The bottom line is, the fact of something has nothing to do with our opinion or “value judgment” of it. That is all the difference between the two.
The problem for Harris is he conflated the two without ever bridging the gap between why flourishing is synonymous with that which is objectively “morally good,” as Craig correctly pointed out. “Flourishing” and “morally good” are not the same thing, as Craig also correctly pointed out. “Flourishing” is a fact, while “morally good” is a judgment. Facts are objective, and remain so regardless of changing opinions. Judgments, which can also be known as “values,” are subjective, and therefore subject to changing opinions. That is the difference. The temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit is an objective fact. How we each individually experience and judge the temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit as being “too cold,” “too warm,” “just right,” etc., is a subjective opinion. Again – facts are not opinions. As stated previously, opinions relate to what we believe based on our values, which gives rise to our feelings of what we “ought” to do, while facts relate to what must actually be done to achieve a desired result – what we must do to reach our goal, not what we “ought” to do. That is again why “ought” is equal to opinions, while “must” is related to facts. That is all the difference between the two. That is also why, contrary to Harris’ claim, one cannot get an “ought” from an “is,” as it is the exact same incorrect conflation of faith with fact.
Harris never answered the problem of his conflation as pointed out by Craig, probably because he had no answer he could give without conceding the debate, and indeed the very premise of his book, “The Moral Landscape.” The reason Harris had no answer, is because there is no answer to the question why flourishing is synonymous with that which is objectively “morally good,” since the very concept of morality itself is nothing more than a human construct based on what we personally believe “should” or “should not” be. Therefore, “morality” – the idea of what we “should” or “should not” do is a subjective opinion, not an objective fact. Hitler believed we “should” murder all Jews, while most everyone outside of Nazi Germany believed we “should not” murder all Jews. This clearly illustrates the subjectivity of “ought,” or “should.” That is why, contrary to Harris’ claim, science cannot answer the question of what we “ought” to value, but then again neither can religion, because there is no “objective ought” to begin with. The only way there could be an “objective ought,” is there would have to be, as Craig correctly pointed out, an “objective moral law-giver” to create this “objective ought.” But since this “law-giver” is a self-contradictory concept which is therefore false, and also cannot be proven to exist in the first place, then Craig’s idea of an “objective moral law-giver” is ultimately an invalid one.
Had Harris simply argued for the wisdom of the “golden rule,” and conceded there is no such thing as “objective morality” as such, he would have been fine. But since Harris argued for the idea of an “objective morality” from the point of view of science, he lost the debate before it even began, since his premise was fatally flawed to begin with. Due to his flawed premise, and due to him not pressing Dr. Craig to rebut his important objections as much as Dr. Craig pressed Harris to do so, Harris appeared more vulnerable than Craig, as if he had to tap dance around Craig’s objections to his argument for almost the entire debate, and at one point it was clear this debate became a game of talking heads who seemed to be carrying on completely different conversations and in different languages. While debates can be entertaining, watching this made me realize how impossible it is to truly learn anything new when you are locked into a point of view, and refuse to be open to the possibility of being incorrect. Then again, that is not what debates are about. It is clear that in a debate, the opponents are immovable objects, while the only hope for learning something new is with the viewing audience. If the debaters do learn something new, they cannot admit it or they lose face by conceding the debate. It is sad when being “right” and “winning” at all costs – even when you are “wrong,” means more than learning. Harris correctly pointed out during the debate that if one does not value reason, then any chance of a reasonable and rational conversation is over. Harris did not take his own advice, and neither did Craig take Harris’ advice. Because Craig would not respond to Harris’ reasonable objections to Craig’s flawed premise, which assumed a “moral” God that often himself behaves “immorally” as human beings understand it, there was no conversation. At the same time, because Harris would not respond to Craig’s reasonable objections to Harris’ flawed premise of an “objective morality” without an “objective moral law giver,” and his failure at truly resolving the “ought-is” problem, again – there was no conversation. That is not too surprising because debates are not conversations, but arguments.
Again, Craig believes there is an “objective morality” that comes from God. Sam Harris however, correctly pointed out earlier in the debate, that what we call “right” and “wrong” is a construct built as a kind of improvisational response to the negative consequences of acting upon our base urges and impulses, which are later codified into a laundry list of “shoulds” and “should nots,” like the Ten Commandments and other such moral codes. This makes Harris’ position on the “objectivity” of morality all the more puzzling. It is also puzzling that given Harris’ position on the illusion of free will, and the illusion of the self, which I happen to agree with, he would at the same time believe in an “objective morality” and “moral responsibility,” since neither of these things make any sense, nor can truly exist if the self and free will are illusions to begin with, as Craig pointed out. Another problem is, what is considered “right” and “wrong” is quite different depending on who you ask and what time in history and what culture we are talking about. Certain things considered taboo today where perfectly acceptable to human beings once upon a time, and vice-versa. Certain things considered taboo in one culture, may be considered perfectly acceptable in another culture, and vice-versa. Even the Bible condones slavery in both the Old and New Testaments, even though in our modern world, almost nobody believes it is “morally right” to enslave others. Again – the bottom line is, the fact of something has nothing to do with our opinion or “value judgment” about it, which is a fact that caused problems for both Harris and Craig throughout this debate. It is the reason I would have never defended a position for the objectivity of moral values in the first place, regardless of any question about their “source,” because “moral values” are only a subjective judgment of “right” and “wrong,” which is irrelevant to the objective facts of that which does or does not contribute to the genuine well-being of ourselves and others, which is at the end of the day, what most of us ultimately and honestly truly care about.
Judgment is nothing more than a tool for those in power to control others, and is completely unnecessary and irrelevant to the fact of doing what is or is not conducive to the genuine well-being of ourselves and others. That is the bottom line. It is the essence of my problem, as well as the problem of many others, with the Judeo-Christian God of judgment. Judgment is completely unnecessary, unless power and control are your motives. The use of “eternal” threats and “eternal” rewards to coerce others into conforming to an “objective moral standard,” is anything but a loving act from a “loving God,” nor even a “just God.” If this was not the true motivation of Christianity, then these ideas would not exist in the Bible in the first place. To argue for why such ideas would otherwise appear in the Bible, a book supposedly “divinely inspired” by a “just” God of “love and forgiveness,” is a case I’m not sure even Dr. Craig could successfully meander his way through, no matter what clever reasoning and rationalizations he might bring to bear. I have a feeling during a debate on this subject, it would be Craig, and not Harris, who would be tap dancing.