Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Presuming a Moral Landscape

Several weeks back (from the several months ago that I wrote this)  I picked up Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape" which attempts to provide a secular framework for making moral decisions. I haven't had the chance, or haven't prioritized, to go through the whole work but I did begin doing so. My gut reaction is that if someone doesn't believe in G-d, ר"ל, I would hope they find this work persuasive.  Rather than suggesting humanity strive for the greatest potential "happiness" he suggest the goal should be the greatest "well being".

That said, even without having read his entire book I do not think he achieved his goal of establishing "morality" from an atheistic standpoint because he never really tried:

Let me concede that if you don't see a distinction between these two lives [the Good Life and the Bad Life examples given] that is worth valuing (premise 1 above), there may be nothing I can say that will attract you to my view of the moral landscape. Likewise, if you admit that these lives are different, and that one is surely better than the other, but you believe these differences have no lawful relationship to human behavior, societal conditions, or states of the brain (premise 2), then you will also fail to see the point of my argument.

The problem is that he presumes a "lawful relationship", he is begging the question. The issue isn't whether  "an atheist can be a moral person". The question is whether morality exists, in any real way beyond preference and convention. While the presumptive answer of the book is yes, this is an implicit recognition that no, there isn't. A strictly materialist view of the world can tell us what we "ought" to do if we wish to achieve certain goals, but it is difficult to suggest it can tell us what we "must" do out of obligation especially in those instances where it comes at the expense of our own personal well-being or those of our loved-ones.


(I understand that their is a significant strain in Jewish thought supporting what we might call natural law, but I do not believe it can be asserted, at least not automatically, that this position would be maintained even in the hypothetical absence of the Creator.)

1 comment:

Micha Berger said...

An atheist cannot be moral. He could happen to act morally, but he cannot actually be moral. Without positing some source of value, there is no reason to say one action is more moral than another. Why is saving this configuration of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and trace elements over that configuration of some other elements? Just because we call that lump a living human, and the other one a rusting old refrigerator? Without positing a purposive creation, we can't say that one plays a greater or more central role than the other. There is no source of values.

So, the atheist could and often does end up adopting a code of behavior that we theists know to be moral. But he really has no logical basis by which to define morality.