Post Author: Bill Pratt
In parts 1 and 2, we spelled out how classical Christian metaphysics is able to identify the good for human beings, and thus provide a sturdy foundation for Christian moral realism. Moral values and duties really exist and they transcend time and place.
In a previous series of blog posts, we looked at why Sam Harris’s metaphysical naturalism utterly fails to identify the good with anything transcendent. It will be instructive to compare Harris’s identification of the good with the Christian identification of the good.
Recall the difficulties with Harris’ identification of the good. First, he falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy. Harris identifies the brain states that constitute human well-being with the good, but G. E. Moore has persuasively argued that natural facts about the world (e.g., brain states) cannot deliver values, on metaphysical naturalism.
For a Christian theist in the Aristotelian–Thomistic tradition , the naturalistic fallacy is simply not a problem. On his metaphysics, values are built into the world, and the good is located in formal and final causes. Edward Feser elaborates in his book Aquinas:
A gap between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ could exist only given a mechanistic-cum-nominalistic understanding of nature of the sort commonly taken for granted by modern philosophers, on which the world is devoid of any objective essences or natural ends. No such gap, and thus no ‘fallacy’ of inferring normative conclusions from ‘purely factual’ premises, can exist given an Aristotelian–Thomistic essentialist and teleological conception of the world.
Harris’ next difficulty is his assertion that moral values can conceivably reverse in the future. Cruelty and cheating could possibly become good if neuroscience can deliver feelings of well-being to individuals who are cruel and who cheat. Even worse, Harris concedes that rapists, liars, and thieves could occupy peaks on the moral landscape that are equivalent to peaks occupied by saints.
Although he believes that these scenarios are highly unlikely, his metaphysics allows for the possibility. For Aquinas, no such scenarios are possible because the good is located proximately in a fixed human nature and, ultimately, in the unchanging nature of God. Moral values, therefore, can never be reversed in the future, and the goodness of rapists, liars, and thieves can never be equivalent to the goodness of a saint.
Harris’ final difficulty is his belief that it would be morally good for human beings to be sacrificed for the well-being of a vastly superior alien race. Here again, Aquinas would disagree. The good of human beings is located in the human nature given us by God, and there is nothing in human nature that would lead us to believe we are designed as sacrifices for an alien race.
Instead, we are designed by God, in his image, as living, free creatures with intellect, will, and passions. To be used as sacrifices for super-aliens runs counter to the purposes for which God created us, and is, therefore, clearly not good. Natural law theory affirms our deepest moral intuition, that to be abused by superior conscious beings would be morally wrong, contrary to Harris’ bizarre reasoning.
So what can we conclude from this analysis? It should be abundantly clear that Harris’ naturalistic metaphysics leads him to a completely inadequate account of the source of moral values. The well-being of conscious creatures fails to provide an unchanging, transcendent ground for the good. The good is apt to be different for each person, depending on what gives him feelings of well-being. Although Harris emphasizes that human evolution and the common laws of nature should produce moral values that are more or less constant, the fact of the matter is that nothing in Harris’ metaphysics guarantees what seems completely obvious to all of us: moral values are transcendent.
Christian metaphysics, as expounded by the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, does provide a grounding for moral values that supports our most deeply held moral convictions. Moral values are based upon human nature and the ends toward which it points. The finite goods of human beings – health, virtue, pleasure – are the same for Sam Harris and Thomas Aquinas. However, Aquinas can affirm these as eternally fixed by God, whereas Harris can only affirm them as transient byproducts of purposeless physical processes. The gaping metaphysical hole in Harris’s moral landscape, then, is the Being of pure actuality from which every good thing comes. Without God, man is truly a conscious creature of no consequence. To quote Aquinas, “God alone constitutes man’s happiness.”