Scientist talks morality, slips on banana peel

There’s been some backslapping and cheerleading in the scientific community lately about morality, and particularly about Sam Harris’s view as opposed to William Lane Craig’s. At SciBlogs, Ken Perrott ruminates on the foundations of human morality and draws some strikingly entertaining conclusions, again indicating that these sorts of questions are well above the paygrade of the average scientist.

Lemme take a crack at this.

Harris’s book “welcome and useful” to philosophers and scientists

So says Perrott of The Moral Landscape. But doesn’t Harris’s book just reintroduce utilitarianism? That doesn’t seem useful. It’s hard to see that Harris has actually contributed anything new. Are New Atheists really so ignorant that they welcome rehashes of utilitarianism as useful?

Christian grounding of morality “naïve dogma”

Perrott thinks that Christians suffer under a naïve assumption that God provides a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties—”an axiomatic assumption which is never proven and is problematic even for many Christians.”

I assume Perrott must be reporting back these findings from New Atheist La-La Land, since they obviously aren’t reflective of our own reality. Perhaps he borrowed some medicinal mushrooms from John Loftus.

How is the Christian view problematic for many Christians? Perrott does not say. Since he is no expert in theology or Christian ethical theory, it’s pretty hard to take his word for it. What does he know about the problems many Christians allegedly have with God as the grounds for morality? Probably nothing.

More pressingly, he apparently believes that Christians merely assert that God functions as a sound foundation for morality—as if we don’t have any particular reason for believing this except that, I suppose, the Bible tells us so. This speaks terribly poorly either of Perrott’s charity, or of his comprehension skills. Presumably he watched the Craig-Harris debate, where Craig clearly explained in his opening statement that the reason God functions as a sound foundation for morality is because he is a morally perfect being. Because God is the foundation of all reality, and because goodness subsists in him as one of his characteristics, a part of his being, he is therefore the foundation of moral reality.

Of course, this doesn’t prove that God does exist. It just shows that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. Since that’s the exact point of contention, either Ken just doesn’t understand this very simple argument, in which case he is a dullard and shouldn’t be making the pretense of “objective” intellectual commentary on topics which are well over his head, or he is just too prejudiced or malicious to accurately represent the Christian position, in which case he shouldn’t be making the pretense of objective intellectual commentary on topics which he cannot be remotely objective about.

Human flourishing as moral foundation?

Perrott rightly points out that people have criticized Harris’s position for being arbitrary. He has simply declared that “goodness” means “human flourishing”, and proclaimed victory. But you can’t redefine morality by your own fiat. It’s just obvious that morality and human flourishing are not the same things. Our moral intuitions tell us that it is sensible to say, “It is good to be good”. It’s tautologous, but we understand that it is true precisely because it is tautologous. But when Harris asks us believe that “It maximizes wellbeing to be good” and “It is good to maximize wellbeing” are logically equivalent statements, our BS detectors quickly start ringing.

Perrott isn’t convinced about Harris’s view either—I’d like to say for the right reasons, but unfortunately no, it’s because he doesn’t think Harris gets to grips with the reality of human evolution. So Perrott then spends several hundred words talking about how morality is actually a set of evolved biological and cultural impulses.

What’s so ironic about this is that if you’re going to criticize the Christian foundation for morality, offering up evolution in its place is rather like the pot calling the milk bottle black. Whereas Christianity says that morality is actually the way it seems, that goodness is a real thing, and that it exists ultimately in God, Perrott would have us believe that morality is actually not the way it seems (it’s just an evolved biological impulse), that goodness is not a real thing (it’s just what our biological impulses tend to move us towards), and that it doesn’t ultimately exist at all (there’s no reason we ought to obey biological impulses).

Way to save morality Ken. Next time perhaps you’ll throw out the baby and cut off your nose too.

The coup de grâce

Let me quote Perrott’s closing paragraph, and then just ask some innocent questions:

The model I have described above may not satisfy those who wish for an absolute completely objective morality. But it is at least consistent, improving and logically supportable. It is objectivley based. In contrast any old moral positions can be supported by “divine commands.” Such justifications can sometimes lead to the worst sort of moral relativism.

  1. How is this model of morality “improving”? What does that even mean, given that moral norms are not absolute or objective? It sounds like saying that they’re getting better, but wouldn’t that contradict the model itself by implying some objective good towards which they are moving?

  2. I can see that this model is based on supposedly objective facts about human evolution, but how does it support specific moral positions, over and against divine command theories? For example, if a divine command theorist says that it is morally wrong to sleep around, and an evolutionist says that it’s morally permissible because of this evolutionary model, why should we give more weight to the evolutionist? How does the mere fact that evolution has resulted in the biological impulse to sleep around, rather than to be monogamous, support the view that it is morally permissible to sleep around? Is Ken saying that we ought to do what evolution has hardwired us to do? Why?
  3. On a related note, if evolution has hardwired some people to “forcibly sleep around”, why is that not morally permissible? Doesn’t an “objectively based” model like this indicate that this would be just as permissible as consensual sex?
  4. And following on from that, how is this not equivalent to moral relativism?
  5. And following on from that, what is wrong with moral relativism? Hasn’t evolution hardwired some of us for that too?
  6. And finally, is Ken Perrott a thoughtful scientist, or is he just a New Atheist cheerleader?
8 replies
  1. Ben Schuldt
    Ben Schuldt says:

    “Whereas Christianity says that morality is actually the way it seems, that goodness is a real thing, and that it exists ultimately in God”

    What if it seems to me that morality is obviously about well being (which is a real thing) and that my bs detector goes off when I see other primates projecting their psychological abstractions out into the world like children talking to trees?

    No where does Harris advocate “evolution told me so” and neither does he advocate utilitarianism. You’ve misrepresented his views.


  2. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    Hey Ben, I never said Harris advocated “evolution told me so”; I asked if Ken was advocating that. And if you could explain the relevant distinction between Harris’s ethical theory and utilitarianism, I’d be much obliged.

    I’ve already pointed out that morality isn’t about well-being—our moral intuitions simply don’t line up down that particular alley. When we say something is good, we aren’t talking about it contributing to well-being, although it might. Let me rephrase the problem for you, though: why ought we do that which contributes to well-being?

  3. Ben Schuldt
    Ben Schuldt says:

    In numerous places Harris specifically avoids terms like utilitarianism because he’s advocating a balanced position between something like egoism and utilitarianism or virtue ethics and consequentialism. Individuals in the moral system have to be able to live with themselves while carrying out moral actions in a community of peers and one has to present an appealing reason to heed any notion of moral obligation (even in Divine Command Theories).

    Harris is attempting to communicate to his audience the main theme of all of these systems and the best way (in his approach at least) to describe the attainment and maintenance of choice mental states is using the broad term “well being” as the metric. One of the problems is that we simply don’t have words that aren’t already contentiously value-laden and allow someone like Harris to give a full spectrum concept without setting people’s switches off in a hundred directions before they hear the rest of what he says that could technically clarify.

    I’m sure he’s said dozens of times that if you can approach him with something that we’re all going to recognize as “morally relevant,” it’s going to roll right into *his* definition of well being. He certainly said that in the Q and A in the Craig debate. So when you say something like “morality obviously doesn’t always relate to well being” you’re just in denial of what Harris advocates. Maybe we should say “Harrisian well being” and then have a long definition with all the quotes of him addressing every nuance ever to satisfy everyone’s anxieties on the topic. I don’t know.

  4. Ben Schuldt
    Ben Schuldt says:


    Christians will blame Harris for excluding something that hasn’t been excluded and then turn around and blame him for including it. The common denominator there is not a problem with Harris’ views.

    You’ve just reverted the conversation back to “utilitarianism” and “evolution told me so” which are both misrepresentations. If you can’t see the principled balance between competing interests or that evolution gave us the cognitive abilities to sort out the rest of our partially dysfunctional nature, I don’t know what to tell you. I’d wager that if Jesus told you the same thing, you’d figure it out.

    Oversimplifying what Harris says is not going to refute him and rejecting anything that “smells a little like utilitarianism” sounds like you’re going to accept something that doesn’t have anything to do with a lot of good for a lot of people. Does that make any sense or are you maybe just overreacting?


  5. Mattflannagan
    Mattflannagan says:

    Ben, utilitarianism is the view that our fundamental obligation is to promote human happiness and minimise human suffering. Harris proposes this view, he can call it whatever he likes, thats what he proposed in his debate with Craig. In fact in the Q&A when he addressed the “organ donor” objection to utilitarianism, his response showed quite clearly that he endorsed utilitarianism, if he did not he could have and most obviously would have responded by saying, “thats not my view” but he did not.

  6. Mattflannagan
    Mattflannagan says:

    Also Ben, there is such a thing as “welfare” utilitariainism. In fact on certain forms of preference utilitarianism, one seeks to maximise the rational preferences of conscious beings. This is understood as what these beings would desire under certain idealised conditions, if they were fully informed rational and so on. Interestingly, one of the dominant accounts of what constitutes welfare in the literature is precisely the notion of rational or idealised preferences.

    As to your comments “one has present an appealing reason to heed any notion of moral obligation (even in Divine Command Theories).” I agree with you that part of our concept of a moral obligation is that having an obligation to do X means one has a decisive reason to do X. Here is the rub, the property of maximising welfare is a causal property. How does a causal property constitute a reason? It might constitute a reason for someone who wants to bring it about, but even then its hardly a decisive reason, because one might also want to pursue ones own self interest in a way that contradicts it. So this very example suggests Harris has not provided a viable account of the nature of moral obligation.

    On the other hand, the property of “being prescribed by a fully informed, rational person” does constitute a reason, that after all is what reasons are thinks that a rational person who is aware of all the facts would do. One a divine command theory however moral obligations are the prescriptions of a perfectly informed (omnscient) rational person.

    So it appears then that this example is just one of the reasons why divine commands are a better account of the nature of moral obligation than “maximising welfare” is.

  7. Ben Schuldt
    Ben Schuldt says:

    Yes, there are plenty of versions of any moral theory that overlap with all the others. I spent a bit of time trying to get some local seminaries to disagree with atheist Richard Carrier in a debate on “Can science discover moral facts?” and too many of them agreed that it could.

    “It might constitute a reason for someone who wants to bring it about, but even then its hardly a decisive reason, because one might also want to pursue ones own self interest in a way that contradicts it. So this very example suggests Harris has not provided a viable account of the nature of moral obligation.”

    One has to defend the premise that there need to be “decisive reasons” to begin with. Where did that come from? Why won’t milder reasons do? There are people who pursue self interests in a sense that they don’t know the deeper values they are missing (and hence, there is a basis for appealing to them), and then there’s the overboard version where we assume all obligations have to be absolute or else. Which no one, not even Christians will actually heed. At least any atheist/humanist is going to ask, “Or else what?” Making stuff up doesn’t save the day, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve the moral wisdom of the population on naturalistic terms.

    “a divine command theory however moral obligations are the prescriptions of a perfectly informed (omnscient) rational person.”

    It’s the same theory, just minus one component. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had such a well informed moral agent in the mix to tell us what to do? Harris agreed to that hypothetical scenario in the debate and spent plenty of time attacking the idea (I would say successfully) that Craig’s particular theistic hypothesis had a chance in hell of representing that moral expertise and not just a bundle of inherited human prejudices.


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  1. […] I will deal with questions from Bnonn at Thinking Matters. His article (Scientist talks morality, slips on banana peel) was basically a straw man attack but did ask some specific questions. Some  are worth responding […]

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