A Critique Of Sam Harris' Morality

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

Over the years, many attempts at justifying objective morality have been made by atheists. See, denying the objectivity of morality – which appears to be the natural thing to do if atheism is true – leads to a bit of a problem: you cannot take the moral high-ground over theists without contradicting yourself. But claiming to be morally superior is one of the hallmarks of New Atheism. Richard Dawkins famously accused God of being immoral. Here’s what he said:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. [1]

In like fashion, Christopher Hitchens accused religion of some nasty things.

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience. [2]

Here’s the thing: both Dawkins and Hitchens assume an objective moral standard by which to measure the actions of God and religion. If there’s no objective morality it doesn’t really matter what God (or anybody) did. Without God, we’re just a bunch of arrogant clumps of stardust. Does it really make sense to call it “murder” when stardust bumps into stardust?

Since there is no God [in atheism], there is no absolute moral standard, and nothing is wrong. The torture of little children is not wrong in an atheist’s universe. It may be painful, but it is not wrong. [3]

The problem atheists face is that their worldview doesn’t allow for the existence of objective morality. But, nevertheless, atheists cannot shake the feeling that morality simply isn’t subjective. Some things cannot be moral. Some things are evil regardless of time and culture.

Take Ted Bundy, for instance. He raped and killed many women and girls. Now, while an atheist can subjectively believe what Ted did to be wrong, his worldview doesn't allow for the condemnation of Ted's actions. The fact that I don’t like Ted’s actions isn’t any more significant than the fact that I don’t like English tea. I may strongly feel that Ted was wrong to rape and murder, but ultimately the universe doesn't care. And Ted certainly doesn’t agree: he experiences immense pleasure from his evil deeds. Now think about this: why does my feeling that he’s wrong trump his feeling that he’s right?

We ought to ask whether we can call what Ted did ‘wrong’. I see no reason to suggest we can, at least, if atheism is true. Think about it: if all we are is arrogant clumps of stardust, how can anything be right or wrong? What sense does it make to say that, matter touching matter in this way is right, but matter touching matter in that way is wrong?

This leads to the following question: can a jury rightfully sentence Ted? I don’t think so. By whose standard would the jury sentence Ted? What makes our personal moral standards better than Ted’s? Sure, we can say that since he’s living in a certain society he should play by the rules. But we must ask: does society determine right and wrong? In that case, would Ted be right to rape in a society that commends rape? Surely rape is wrong regardless of societal acceptance!

Do you see the problem? Atheism leads to moral subjectivism, anarchism, and ultimately, nihilism. But no one wants society to be governed by nihilism. So, in order to avoid this dark alternative to Christianity, atheists have made many attempts at justifying objective morality without reference to God. This seems like the ultimate Mission Impossible: justifying morality in a meaningless universe. But never fear! The free-thinkers of our age are on it. They’re going to prove this mission possible! They’re going to justify objective morality in a universe governed by grim indifference.

This is what atheist Sam Harris attempts to do in The Moral Landscape. If you haven’t read it, the basic thesis is that science not only tells us what humans do value but also what they should value. According to Harris, science can justify objective morality.

The Moral Landscape came out in 2010. Since then, many scholars have rejected Harris’ attempts at justifying objective morality in an atheistic worldview [i]. Nonetheless, Harris’ moral system is still popular among many New Atheists, including Matt Dillahunty, YouTuber CosmicSkeptic, and YouTuber Rationality Rules. The purpose of this article is to critique Sam Harris’ attempt at justifying objective morality.

Why this article is so important.

Though Harris’ moral system has been renounced by many scholars (on very good grounds, as we’ll see), a lot of atheists still view it as a viable justification for moral values and duties in a world without God. Some Christians mistakenly believe that atheists can (at least to an extent) justifiably make moral claims as if there’s some degree of objectivity to them.

However, the moral problem remains unsolved by any model put forth by atheists to this day. I’d argue that it cannot be solved, because it’s philosophically necessary to ground morals in a mind and the most basic contention of atheism is that there are no minds (just brains) [4]. Hence, morality cannot be anything more than a mere illusion evolved to protect our species.

It’s important that both Christians and atheists realize this: atheism leads to moral nihilism. As Christians, we should press this point always in arguments. Our secular contemporaries have no foundation for their moral judgments. When atheists denounce Christianity because of the supposed immorality of religion, be sure to press them on a justification for their moral claim.

A brief summary of Harris’ moral system.

The basic premise of The Moral Landscape is very simple: if we can agree on a goal for morality, science can determine objectively “good” and “bad” attempts at realizing this goal. For example, if your goal is to be happy, science can determine that it is objectively “better” for you (in terms of reaching happiness) to not eat poison. Eating poison is an objectively bad attempt at realizing your goal. In this way, though the goal is subjective, there are objective distinctions to be made between different ways of reaching the goal.

This first point is uncontroversial. It is reasonable to say that science can help determine means to an end. For example, if we can establish that it’s morally good for parents to value their children's health, it naturally follows that eating your baby is immoral.

So science can establish objective means to reach an end. But the end would still be subjective, right?

This is where Harris makes his second point: morality can only be about one thing: well-being.

For my argument about the moral landscape to hold, I think one need only grant two points: (1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world. [5]

Harris illustrates this point by describing two very different lives: the Bad Life and the Good Life.

The Bad Life:

You are a young widow who has lived her entire life in the midst of civil war. Today, your seven-year-old daughter was raped and dismembered before your eyes. Worse still, the perpetrator was your fourteen-year-old son, who was goaded to this evil at the point of a machete by a press gang of drug-addled soldiers. You are now running barefoot through the jungle with killers in pursuit. While this is the worst day of your life, it is not entirely out of character with the other days of your life: since the moment you were born, your world has been a theater of cruelty and violence. You have never learned to read, taken a hot shower, or traveled beyond the green hell of the jungle. Even the luckiest people you have known have experienced little more than an occasional respite from chronic hunger, fear, apathy, and confusion. Unfortunately, you’ve been very unlucky, even by these bleak standards. Your life has been one long emergency, and now it is nearly over. [6]

The Good Life:

You are married to the most loving, intelligent, and charismatic person you have ever met. Both of you have careers that are intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. For decades, your wealth and social connections have allowed you to devote yourself to activities that bring you immense personal satisfaction. One of your greatest sources of happiness has been to find creative ways to help people who have not had your good fortune in life. In fact, you have just won a billion-dollar grant to benefit children in the developing world. If asked, you would say that you could not imagine how your time on earth could be better spent. Due to a combination of good genes and optimal circumstances, you and your closest friends and family will live very long, healthy lives, untouched by crime, sudden bereavements, and other misfortunes. [7]

Harris then states that “it is indisputable that most of what we do with our lives is predicated on there being nothing more important, at least for ourselves and for those closest to us, than the difference between the Bad Life and the Good Life.” [8]

Harris is arguing that to reach the Good Life is the ultimate goal of all of humanity’s subjective morality. If he’s right, we’ll be able to objectively distinguish between good and bad decisions as they relate to this goal of reaching the Good Life. But how does he justify well-being as the universal goal of morality?

He explains:

Ask yourself, if the difference between the Bad Life and the Good Life doesn’t matter to a person, what could possibly matter to him? Is it conceivable that something might matter more than this difference, expressed on the widest possible scale? What would we think of a person who said, ‘Well, I could have delivered all seven billion of us into the Good Life, but I had other priorities.’ Would it be possible to have other priorities? Wouldn’t any real priority be best served amid the freedom and opportunity afforded by the Good Life? Even if you happen to be a masochist who fancies an occasional taunting with a machete, wouldn’t this desire be best satisfied in the context of the Good Life? [9]

Harris is arguing that everyone shares a desire for well-being (a desire to reach the Good Life). It’s altogether absurd that anyone would not have his own well-being and the well-being of his close friends and family as his subjective goal of morality. Hence, we can say that the goal of morality is, according to Harris, universal. It’s not objective, because it doesn’t exist independent of human minds, but it’s not subjective either, because all humans share it (according to Harris). He takes the universal intuition to admit that the Good Life is better than the Bad Life as evidence for a shared goal for morality.

Bill Meacham comments:

Which is the better life? We would all no doubt say [the Good Life]. Harris takes this as evidence that there is an objective way to determine what is morally good and bad. In fact, as the subtitle of the book indicates, he claims that scientific inquiry can tell us what we should and should not value. Harris feels he can say this because he thinks that the proper meaning of ‘value’ with respect to human life – that is to say, the proper meaning of morality – is that which leads to human flourishing, which means, living a satisfying life. Once he has made that move, the rest of his argument is straightforward and cogent: careful observation of what in fact fulfills people is not a matter of philosophical or religious debate, it is a matter of scientific inquiry. We can tell, objectively, what leads to happiness and what leads to misery. Facilitating good lives is what morality is about, says Harris, and that’s why science can tell us what we should value and what we should not. [10]

There are many problems with Harris’ attempt at solving the crisis of moral subjectivism that comes with atheism. Many of them have been pointed out by both Christians and atheists alike [11]. However, since it’s still a very prevalent view among New Atheists (and so-called Internet Atheists), here are 6 of the biggest problems with Sam Harris’ attempt at justifying universal morality.

Problem #1: redefining morality in amoral terms.

In principle, the only thing Harris does is redefining what he means when he talks about goodness in a non-moral way. He defines goodness as “that which supports well-being.” [12] He explains: “questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” [13]

In Harris’ view, it doesn’t make sense to ask “why is the well-being of conscious creatures good?” because the well-being of conscious creatures is really the only thing we can mean when we talk about goodness. Hence, to ask, “why is the well-being of conscious creatures good?” is akin to asking “why is the well-being of conscious creatures the well-being of conscious creatures?” or “why is good good?”

But does he actually solve the problem by redefining moral goodness in an amoral way?