Plug: “Why There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”

I ran across this today, which, in spite of the implication of the title, is clear that atheists can be morally good.

Rather, it may well be the most direct and clear summary of the moral argument I’ve ever seen. If you have five minutes, it’s more than worth a look.

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14 responses to “Plug: “Why There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”

  • myatheistlife

    Thanks for passing that along. I think the point about living consistent with your world view is not made as well as the author would like to have done.

  • Allallt

    I can’t seem to reply there, so I thought I’d send you the comment I was planning to give:

    Only one of your three claims are actually necessary for atheism: that the world is impersonal. The rest are not. I know an atheist who believes in ghosts (although I don’t understand the logic). You don’t discuss metaphysical truths and contingent existence. Love, experience, identity are all real in the atheist view, without violating your definition of atheism. Why not morality?
    Sam Harris, without ever believing that the universe is anything but impersonal, argued (successfully) for objective reality in ‘The Moral Landscape’. Morality is as real as the colour red.
    Moral relativism, despite being difficult to build a society on, would also be real and not violate the assertions you equate to atheism.
    Our favour of moral ideas and actions, that may be the result of psychological or social evolution. But our preferences do not equate to the truth. We could have evolved with the psychology of a bullfrog, and morality would be as real (and independent of our preferences).

    • Debilis

      I think this is an intelligent response. Obviously, I don’t know how the original author would answer, but I’ll give mine.

      I think it is entirely true to say that there is no logical need to believe these things in order to deny the existence of God. Still, I think this overlooks the point about worldview.

      That is, the overwhelming majority of self-identified atheists are materialists, who would agree to the things named. As a case in point, belief in ghosts (while some particular atheist might do so) completely contradicts the arguments that atheists actually give against theism.

      The same goes for morality. I simply deny that Sam Harris succeeded in his book. In fact, ethicists (and almost everyone who reviewed the book) were not impressed. He simply assumes that “the flourishing of conscious creatures” is synonymous with morality–he does nothing to support that claim.

      As to moral relativism, I’ve touched on that in my posts on Mackie. Moral behavior form this view would be as based on “belief without evidence” than atheists claim that theism is (and much more, I’d say, than theism actually is).

      Beyond that, I’d simply repeat the point (in the original post) that this doesn’t fit with our view of morality. One could always answer that our moral intuitions do not reveal truth, but that is simply a statement of nihilism–agreeing with the essential point of the post.

      And, if one does that, one needs to offer a reason why the same objection wouldn’t apply to one’s sense of the physical universe (that doesn’t simply assume that we can trust our senses).

      So, while I’d reword some things, I agree with the thrust of the argument.

      In any case, best to you out there. I hope your holidays are good.

      • Allallt

        If you reject Sam Harris’ definition do you believe that morality is independent of wellbeing?

        • Debilis

          No, I believe that the two are connected. I merely reject the idea that they are synonymous.

          But, even if they were, I don’t see that this really affects my point. Whether or not his is the correct view, Harris has not actually given an argument that the two are synonymous–he simply asserts this.

          That is to assume morality, not to give an explanation of it. And the moral argument is interested in why moral truth can exist at all–not in what particular moral theory best describes that truth.

        • Allallt

          Have you read the moral landscape? He doesn’t just assert it. He goes on at length about the fact that this is exactly what we mean morality, offers a challenge to falsify it by requesting a moral action or command that lowers wellbeing.
          Harris does not describe morality as a transcendent thing that exists independent of us. Instead it emerges from consciousness.

        • Debilis

          Okay, I want to apologize in advance for the length of this. I assumed that you’d be interested in a discussion of Harris’ views–I hope that’s correct.

          I read large parts of it–as well as several reviews. I’ll admit that I might have missed the section where he does this. Still, I have two thoughts:

          First, whether or not this is “what we mean”, there is a logical difference between “that which promotes the flourishing of conscious creatures” and “that which we should do”. Harris has been widely criticized for not answering the question as to why these two are synonymous in reality–as opposed to “what we mean”.

          Second, Harris himself said this claim is axiomatic (in his debate with Craig).

          There are also a number of other good objections to his moral theory and Harris seems to show his lack of expertise when he speaks on moral theory.

          If you want a short list of the objections, these are the ones I remember from earlier reading/discussions:

          1. Harris himself admits that there are possible worlds (such as worlds full of sociopaths) where the points of greatest well-being are not the most moral–but if the two things were synonymous, this wouldn’t be logically possible.

          2. The emphasis on conscious creatures (as opposed to all life–or even non-living things) is arbitrary. It seems like a bias in favor of humanity.

          3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but (so far as I know) Harris isn’t clear as to whether he’s discussing total well-being or average well-being. Both of these approaches have problems, and (again, as far as I know) Harris avoids addressing the issues raised about them.

          4. This runs counter to many of our moral intuitions. Most would say that torturing innocent children is still wrong even if it should, through the accidents of history, promote greater well-being. Harris is free to say that our intuitions are incorrect on this point, but, then, he’d have to abandon the claim that promoting well-being is “what we mean” when we talk about morality.

          5. Similarly, this takes no account of intent. This view seems to take the position that the mad scientist who tries to poison the world, but accidentally cures cancer, is a good person–and the doctor, who tries very hard to save a life, but accidentally causes death, is evil.

          Perhaps Harris can answer these questions, perhaps he answered them in the sections of The Moral Landscape that I did not read (if so, from reading the reviews, I wasn’t the only one who missed them). But, even if he did, the point remains that he hasn’t shown why, logically, people are required to promote the well-being of conscious creatures. He merely takes that as an axiom.

          So, this is indeed a secular system of morality, but it is not a secular explanation of why morals exist in the first place. For that, he’d need an argument that a rational sociopath would accept as a good reason to do right even when it isn’t personally beneficial.

        • Allallt

          You’re blending definitions of morality. You’re saying that morality is both what we should do and the safeguarding of wellbeing. This is simply incorrect. At no point does Harris say that his description of wellbeing is also command or mandate. Instead, if you wished to evaluate your actions or the actions of another, then you can. The “should” is nothing more than social or personal pressure. The description is the objective part.
          The accident of history point, about suffering at one point becoming a flourishing of wellbeing at another point has a number of answers.
          (1) Using the cliched example of killing baby Hitler – although killing Hitler in the early 1900s would prevent an awful lot of suffering, if you have thought foresight the problem would be better solved by dealing with the political problems in Germany at the time and/counciling baby Hitler from a young age. Killing him is not the most effective solution (in terms of wellbeing).
          (2) Using the example of Che Guevara. Guevara’s militia killing more people than those he was railing against. Yet, people wear his face on t-shirts. They do this simply because they believe those deaths (and there were a lot of them) were a sound investment wellbeing.
          (3) The difference between intent and result. If I know you intend to kill me, but your first attempt instead saves my girlfriend from a burning house, my knowledge that you are still free terrifies me and those that care about me. Intent to kill still damages wellbeing.
          I would need a link to Harris saying that a world could exist where the flourishing of wellbeing is not moral. There is some nuance I expect explains it better. We have certain moral absolutes because we cannot see how they could ever lead to higher wellbeing. But there could exist a world where our perceived moral absolutes are not the best way to safeguard wellbeing. I expect (although I don’t know) that is the confusion here).
          I accept the problem of not distinguishing between average and total wellbeing. Indeed, we’ve discussed it before and I admitted to not knowing the answer.

          As for your criteria for secular morality–convincing a sociopath even when it is not beneficial to them–is ridiculous. One does not have to be convinced the earth is round for it to be so, but neither does religious morality convince a sociopath. They either do it for the reward (Heaven) or they ignore it or they are moral by accident.

        • Debilis

          Greetings once again, and best to you!

          Okay, let’s see…

          “You’re blending definitions of morality. You’re saying that morality is both what we should do and the safeguarding of wellbeing.”

          I’d thought that this is what Harris was doing. I agree that it is a mistake, but if he doesn’t believe that this is something that people should do, in any objective sense, then it isn’t morality.

          Really, I see no reason at all to call it morality unless he thinks this–and he certainly has not answered the moral argument, which is about what people should do.

          Let’s run through the answers you give:

          1. In the case of baby Hitler, I’m sure there are many options one could try, but this merely avoids the point, rather than answers it. I wasn’t claiming that there are no other options, I was claiming that what Harris is calling morality runs counter to “what we mean” when we talk about morality.

          And this is one more example that what he’s talking about is practical solutions to the questions of how to help people well–not morality. That’s fine, it’s an important subject, it just isn’t morality or an answer to the moral argument.

          2. I’m not sure how a reference to Che Guevara answers the challenge that the choice of conscious creatures is arbitrary. Again, if those people think that killing was a worthwhile “investment” they are free to think that. That doesn’t mean that Harris has provided a basis of morality, as opposed to a purely descriptive account that one is free to find moral or immoral.

          3. I don’t see this as an answer, either. Let’s change the scenario slightly. What if, in accidentally saving your girlfriend while intending to kill you, I died in the process? Why should my intent frighten you then?

          The point isn’t that this is terribly likely; the point is that this shows that morality and actions which promote flourishing are different things.

          This is (inadvertently, it seems) made clear by Harris himself. From page 241 of the moral landscape:

          “It is also conceivable that a science of human flourishing could be possible, and yet people could be made equally happy by very different ‘moral’ impulses. Perhaps there is no connection between being good and feeling good – and, therefore, no connection between moral behaviour (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being. In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints. This scenario stands the greatest chance of being true while seeming quite far-fetched. Neuroimagining work already suggests what has long been obvious through introspection: human co-operation is rewarding. However, if evil turned out to be as reliable path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it. It would no longer be an especially ‘moral’ landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.”

          Harris goes on to say that this isn’t how things are in this world, and I agree with him, but that isn’t the point. The point is that he agrees that morality and behavior which promotes flourishing are not actually the same thing.

          So, while the moral person will want to know how to help others, and science can be of immense use to that end, a helpful act is not synonymous with morality.

          Nor am I talking about moral absolutes; this is a common misconception. The argument is not that some rules hold absolutely, but that there are objective principles which may well require very different rules to address different situations.

          “As for your criteria for secular morality–convincing a sociopath even when it is not beneficial to them–is ridiculous. One does not have to be convinced the earth is round for it to be so, but neither does religious morality convince a sociopath. They either do it for the reward (Heaven) or they ignore it or they are moral by accident.”

          I disagree quite strongly here. I agree that truth exists apart from one’s ability to convince others, but, surely, a convincing case should be made before we accept a thing as true.

          To borrow your example, the earth is as it is, regardless of whether or not we know that–but is it really enough to insist that it is round, and that people should believe this without a case being made?

          Likewise, if Harris can’t make an argument for morality that would be persuasive to a person who doesn’t already accept morality (i.e. a sociopath), then he hasn’t made a case. If I made a case for God that required one to previously accept God in order to find it persuasive, it wouldn’t be a good case.

          The same is true here.

          And that is the overarching point in all this: what Harris is discussing is objective, but it isn’t morality. Or, if one insists (with Harris) on calling it morality, it isn’t about what anyone ought to do–but merely what would promote flourishing.

          But, since the moral argument is about what people ought to do, Harris hasn’t addressed that argument. The fact that both he and the argument are using the word “moral”, while defining it completely differently, does not mean that he has answered it.

          That being the case, even if everything Harris has said is correct (I’m not convinced myself), his book is a very long red herring with respect to the moral argument.

  • pancakesandwildhoney

    I hope I am not violating the accepted behavior of blogging, but I just put up a post on Harris’ Moral Landscape.

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