How Does Sam Harris’s Metaphysical View Undermine His Moral Landscape? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 we looked at some serious difficulties that Sam Harris’s metaphysical views cause his “moral landscape” to have. We continue with that analysis in part 2.

Recall that we ended part 1 by noting that Harris’s identification of the moral good with that which brings individual human flourishing and well-being is inadequate. Harris admits that the well-being and flourishing of a psychopath such as Ted Bundy is not morally good, but he can’t know this based on his identification of the good, so he is appealing to moral knowledge outside his own metaphysics.

Harris’s emphasis on the well-being of the community over Bundy still does not save his definition of the good.  What if someone like Ted Bundy lived in a community that generally valued rape and the occasional killing of women as fulfilling?  Harris, himself, sees this problem.  He asks:

But what if advances in neuroscience eventually allow us to change the way every brain responds to morally relevant experiences?  What if we could program the entire species to hate fairness, to admire cheating, to love cruelty, to despise compassion, etc.  Would this be morally good? . . . Is this really a world of equivalent and genuine well-being, where the concept of ‘well-being’ is susceptible to ongoing examination and refinement as it is in our world?  If so, so be it.

Harris concedes that what constitutes well-being could very well change in the future, and that the good could, conceivably, be identified with cheating and cruelty. If you’re scratching your head, join the club.

Surely Harris has misidentified the source of moral values if his source allows for cheating and cruelty to become moral values.  Moral values are, after all, timeless.  We routinely morally judge people who lived centuries ago because we know that moral values do not change over time; they transcend time.

Harris, himself, seems to take for granted that moral values are timeless as he refers to moral progress: “Despite our perennial bad behavior, our moral progress seems to me unmistakable. Our powers of empathy are clearly growing. Today, we are surely more likely to act for the benefit of humanity as a whole than at any point in the past.” Moral progress without timeless moral values would be simply incoherent, yet Harris’ metaphysics leave no room for timeless values.

As a metaphysical naturalist, Harris cannot identify the good with a timeless source that transcends the subjective feelings of individual human beings currently living. Thus metaphysical naturalism acts as universal acid which eats away the foundation of Harris’s moral landscape. In part 3, we will continue to watch the acid do its work.

  • sean

    “Moral values are, after all, timeless.” I’m not quite sure where you’re
    getting such ideas. Here’s the way I see it. Irrespective of what the
    actual moral values are, what a particular society perceives as moral is
    what matters. What people think is moral, not what is moral is what
    matters. Thus, I would move that Sam’s point is more saying that his
    definition of morality, which is different from your own, would allow
    for these things to become moral. But arguing semantics is rather
    pointless. Sam, as an atheist, isn’t interested in what you as a
    Christian think morality should be. To him, what matters is what people
    think morality is. His definition of moral is slightly different from
    yours. And what his aim is is to consider how to live well in an
    environment, and with others. He doesn’t concern himself with trying to
    please a god he doesn’t think exists, or that god’s moral standards. Sam
    admits “that what constitutes well-being could very well change in the future” in the same way, that I think you’d concede that some of the atrocities committed in WWII were deemed moral by the Nazi party. That does not mean we have to agree with them though. Just as, if at some point Sam’s hypothetical about the future were to come true, that doesn’t mean we should think it’s good. Sam only means to say that they will think so. And, as far as he’s concerned, that’s the only useful way to discuss morality.

  • sean

    not sure what happened to the formatting there…

  • If everyone’s view of morality only applies to the current consensus of the society they currently live in, then it would be completely incoherent and irrational to make moral judgments of people who live in other time periods than we do. But Harris claims that morality is progressing. How could something that isn’t anchored to any timeless standard be progressing through time?

    Look, the plain truth of the matter is that everyone really believes that morality is timeless, including Harris. His problem is that his metaphysics prevent him from affirming what he knows to be true. He is really stuck. He can affirm timeless morality, but that would undermine his metaphysics.

  • sean

    hmmm…. perhaps. I don’t see eye to eye on everything with Sam, and you certainly raise a good point on the progressing statement.

    not sure I follow one of your sentences there though. “How could something that isn’t anchored to any timeless standard be progressing through time?” The way it reads in my head probably isn’t what you meant. I can’t quite make sense of it. And I still feel like we’re hung up on semantics with morality. I’d agree that morality set against the views of an eternal creator would be stagnant. However, Sam as an atheist doesn’t think about morality in those terms, because to him it isn’t real and therefore God’s standards don’t mean anything. His definition of morality is about what people perceive to be okay, and the perceptions of the group. For example, the Nanking Massacre, to those Japanese who were committing the crimes, was thought to be morally fine. They didn’t deem the Chinese to be worth anything, so with respect to their own ideology, they were doing good if they found it fun to brutally harm the Chinese. However, with respect to the broader picture, the Chinese being affected by these acts, were affected in a very negative way, and that negative effect the acts had is how we, now, look at it, and declare it morally bad.

    And if morality is timeless, perhaps you can explain why slavery was upheld in the old and new testaments in the bible, yet we don’t have it now. I can answer, it’s because irrespective of what God would think of slavery, it’s what the people think is moral that matters. That’s why slavery was and still is practiced in some parts of the world. However, I’d like to think that most people, at least in the US, think owning other people is wrong. (Which is, of course, why we no longer allow slavery in this country).

    Don’t you see, it’s the people who have a real effect on this world that decide what the effective morality is, irrespective of whether or not an absolute morality exists. Sam has his views, and acknowledges that some societies disagree with his views. He doesn’t condone it, but he recognizes it as real.

  • Again, if the morality of an act is simply determined by the perspective of each individual, then judging the morality of acts committed by other people is completely crazy. It’s like me judging you to be wrong for preferring white wine over red wine.

    It only makes sense to judge someone else’s actions if there is some standard that both of us agree to, a standard that transcends both of us.

    The view of morality you describe is moral relativism and Sam Harris is not a relativist. He is a moral realist. He spends a good part of his book ripping moral relativists. It doesn’t sound like you have read his book.

  • sean

    Hmmm, it seems I am again reminded of the value in rereading and having
    discussions. I was indeed misinterpreting what Sam is trying to get
    across. However, I don’t know that this point is invalid. Check me on this; but if I’m correct here,
    Sam is asserting that in a society of humans where everyone thinks
    things that we today generally consider bad (cheating, cruelty etc.)
    even when they are the victims of such crimes, are good then those things do become good in that instance.

    think Sam would agree with your points on what is natural not always
    being good. Ted Bundy is still a god example for this. Sam admits such
    things to be morally wrong. However he does so because his philosophy is
    to maximize good for people, not just a person.

    You talk about
    how Sam concedes to the idea of timeless morality by referring to
    progress. I’m not sure this is quite accurate. The way I see it, Sam is
    saying that in today’s world, people are more likely to do what is
    considered good today, than people of the past were to do the most of
    what good is then. Good is still about maximizing life’s positives for
    everyone, both now and then by mere happenstance these goals are
    approached by not killing people, or hurting their bodies etc. (well…
    it isn’t happenstance so much as that we are neurologically the same now
    as then, but whatever) With respect to what well being is in the time
    of the actions, (which in this particular instance is the same) Sam is
    saying that people today do more things towards this goal than did the
    people of however long ago. (For example, in the US we no longer have

    To adapt your analogy, You are judging me for preferring
    white wine because it causes crippling agony in the guy next to me. It
    detracts from his well-being in a major way.

    So Sam’s morality is
    kinda timeless I guess. His definition is, so long as the definitions of
    the words in it adapt to reflect the current way people experience