Sunday, October 19, 2008

Materialist Morality

It is my experience that speaking to atheists about morality is like speaking to an Amish recluse about an iPod. If you can imagine how completely frustrating and fruitless such a discussion would be, multiply it by about 1000 and you will get close. I will share some specific details from such a discussion on my next post, but for now I just want to attempt to point out why it is so difficult an endeavor. Sam Harris gives a hint in his Letter To A Christian Nation:

Assertion: {p. 8}
Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering. This is why you and I do not have moral obligations toward rocks. To the degree that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively, questions of morality apply.
Response: Notice the premise of Harris' argument -- that morality is about happiness and suffering. If that doesn't quite sound right to you it's because your mind does not think in anywhere near the same kinds modes as an atheist like Sam Harris. The reasons for this are philosophical. Sam Harris doesn't believe in the objective reality of things like you do. That is a loaded concept but it is foundational to the atheistic perspective. In a nutshell, atheism does not allow for the objective reality of truth or morality. Atheism denies that the truth or rightness or goodness of something exists independently of whether or not we believe in it. This is called the "grounding question" by philosophers who try to determine where things like "good" and "right" come from.

Notice that asking if there is such a thing as "good" in and of itself is a different question than asking how we know what is "good." This issue it crucial to the discussion. Atheists like Harris are content to accept morality as a product of either individual choices (in the most radical form), or cultural consensus (which is more commonly accepted). Because of their belief in a purely mechanistic universe where physically observable matter and energy are the only things that can be real, atheists are relegated to see morality as something that different parties agree to observe through their common evolutionary mission to survive.

OK, let's grant (I don't, but play along for a minute) them that evolutionary forces, operating over eons to promote survival, have led us to see some things as helpful to that mission. These things are called "good." Things that are detrimental to survival are then labeled "bad." We know good and bad by consensus. Evolution has taught us what they are. But notice that even if this explanation tells us how we know good/bad or right/wrong, it cannot tell us what constitutes actual goodness.

How we know things is called epistemology. What things are is called ontology. Epistemology and ontology are two very different things. As an example, consider the force of gravity. Ontologically, gravity is the impersonal force of attraction that exists between material objects in the universe. But our epistemological understanding about gravity comes from scientific observation and experimentation. The ways we know about gravity are very different from what gravity actually is. But notice that our belief or understanding about gravity has absolutely no impact on whether gravity actually exists. If you stop believing in gravity, you won't float off into the stratosphere, nor will you be able to step off tall buildings without consequence. Gravity is built into the fabric of the universe -- and moral realists believe that morality is no different.

So back to Harris' assertion ...

Under Sam Harris' atheistic worldview, which demands that the universe consists of nothing but atoms bumping into one another, there can be no such thing as something like ontological "goodness." Things just are the way they are. Atoms aren't "moral." We can only arrive at an epistemology of goodness in just the way Harris says we can -- through mutually agreeable choices. Thus, Harris is comfortable saying that morality is all about happiness and suffering.

Happiness and suffering? So if something makes us "happy" it is good and/or if something makes us suffer it is bad. Think about it. On Harris' view, the serial rapist/killer who enjoys what he does is happy -- so his actions would be deemed "good." Likewise, the fact that some hedge fund manager lost $10 billion over the last four weeks is suffering -- as he flies off to the Cayman's to wallow in his bad luck at one of the three beach houses he managed to hold onto during the market decline.

C'mon Sam, are these really the criteria by which you want to define morality? The reason this doesn't even make sense is because it is completely relativistic system and therefore not binding on anyone. Harris is not talking about the ontological status of morality, he is talking about our epistemological evaluation of the scenarios in question. If one person/society comes up with a definition of what is moral, another person/society can come up with a contradictory definition and both could claim to be right. This not only violates the basic logical law of non-contradiction, it is unlivable.

Here Harris is forced to claim that my example is ridiculous because no society would come to a consensus that my examples (above) constitute a good definition of morality. And that is exactly the point. By making such an objection, Harris is admitting that there is an absolute standard of morality by which both scenarios must be wrong-- and that is what we theists call the grounding principle -- the objective foundation of morality to which we are obliged to bow because it descends from the character of God.

No, Mr. Harris, we "do not have any moral obligations toward rocks." But that is because rocks are not persons and moral obligations only exist between persons. This makes perfect sense if the foundation of moral obligations is also a person.

Living out Sam Harris' morality is impossible unless you do one thing -- steal objective morality (even if you unwittingly steal it) from the theistic worldview. And that is exactly what materialists have to do. When they don't, and if they are philosophically consistent with their own worldview, they are forced to some staggering conclusions about morality. More on that next time ...

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