Moral Truth Matters

“Obviously the project of moral persuasion is very difficult — but it strikes me as especially difficult if you can’t figure out in what sense anyone could ever be right and wrong about questions of morality or about questions of human values . . .

There are impediments . . . the main one being that most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people — certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists — have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil.

My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy. I think it is based on several fallacies and double standards and, frankly, on some bad philosophy. The first thing I should point out is that, apart from being untrue, this view has consequences.

In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

But, of course, it has long been obvious that we need to converge, as a global civilization, in our beliefs about how we should treat one another. For this, we need some universal conception of right and wrong. So in addition to just not being true, I think skepticism about moral truth actually has consequences that we really should worry about.”

Sam Harris at the Edge Conference: “The New Science of Morality”

If you’re living in Auckland, don’t forget our event next week with Glenn Peoples addressing Sam Harris’ claims about science and morality.

2 replies
  1. Mike R
    Mike R says:

    Interesting post and outstanding site.
    i would note: harris on his way to his self-styled semi-spiritual position in the past admitted in his book Letter to a CN that “we do not have anything like a final, scientific understanding of human morality” within our sight. He could not escape his subjectivism because it was bound to a his then soft-atheism (yet often proclaimed in a pugnacious manner); now he seems to desire moral absolutes and delicately escapes atheism to arrive in “agnosticism-mixed -spiritualness” which can only yield mere opinion (collective or individual).

    In his past works he attempted to smuggle in moral absolutes without an absolute standard he wrote: “We can easily think of objective sources of moral order that does not require the existence of a law giving God.” The immense problem that arises is that he fails to offer an objective source of morals. The best he dribbled out is “it seems safe to say” that rape and murder are immoral. “Safe to say” is not a justified objective position. It is subjective to the extreme and as such, it is relative to one’s feelings. atheist Pol Pot “felt like” murdering a million people. Stalin “felt” it was wonderful to murder tens of million for the cause of atheistic communism. The non-communists did not believe that it “seemed safe” to discuss their view with Stalin’s leadership. therefore, Harris’ attempt to impose a foreign meaning on objective moral standards is barren and illogical. It seems he still lacks a fixed foundation for absolute moral standards to justify his moral goals.

    id like to see what absolute immutable standard he proposes to ground absolute immutable moral laws. only theism can provide the necessary preconditions for moral absolutes that are needed to justify ever-persisting and fixed moral absolutes. harris’ “ethical intuitions” have no more ultimate authority than the ethical goals of cannibals and ruthless dictators

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *