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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- And following on from that, how is this not equivalent to moral relativism?
- And following on from that, what is wrong with moral relativism? Hasn’t evolution hardwired some of us for that too?
- And finally, is Ken Perrott a thoughtful scientist, or is he just a New Atheist cheerleader?