I am a great admirer of Sam Harris, whose book The End of Faith, came out only a couple of months after I launched Voices of Reasons and dedicated it to rational discourse. Almost single-handedly Harris broke the taboo that it is somehow inappropriate or impolite to openly criticize religion. He has helped to create an intellectual climate in which people can no longer hide behind religion when making claims that are nowhere supported by facts.
But there has always been a major strand in Harris’s reasoning that has been left undeveloped. After completely undermining the religious foundations for morality, Harris has been slow to offer an alternative source for our moral values.
He often speaks of our collective “moral intuition” and the need for a “21st century conversation about the origins of morality”, but so far he has yet to take these notions to the next level. For example, Harris recently took part in a three-day symposium entitled “Beyond Belief”, during which he and Richard Dawkins sparred with numerous scientists and philosophers over many of the issues raised in his and Professor Dawkins’s work. I listened to the more than a dozen hours of discussions, some quite stimulating, but I was disappointed because again there was talk of the “need” for more conversation about the secular origins of value, but the conversation never took place. If ever there was a forum for such a discussion, this was it.
The reason I think this conversation didn’t occur is relatively straightforward: there is no objective basis for morality.
Let me be clear what I mean by this (and in so doing so I will use one of Harris’s own metaphors). He often points out that there is no such thing as “Christian math” or “Buddhist math” or “Islamic math,” there is simply the universal field of mathematics. This example shows the absurdity of trying to break the world up into competing moral communities based on religious texts; if something is true it should be true to everyone, just like 2+2=4.
However, his use of mathematics is revealing, for mathematics rests on certain axiomatic principles, which are propositions that are not susceptible to proof or disproof; their truth is assumed to be self-evident. In other words, while the principles derived from mathematics are truly universal, they rest on propositions which after due deliberation must simply be accepted without conclusive evidence.
The same goes for values. When pressed, Harris has mentioned two values which he believes can be derived from moral intuition: the desire to promote happiness and the desire to decrease suffering. No doubt the majority of people in the world, religious or non-religious, would agree. A concrete example: murder is wrong. Why? It increases suffering and decreases happiness; it robs someone of life. But why is it wrong to do any of those things? Ultimately, we cannot answer except by resorting to an axiomatic position.
I think the best we can hope for as an alternative to religion is a consensus view on the values we believe in and those we reject. We will never have perfect consensus, and there will always be minorities who claim that their moral systems are no less valid. Even were we to rid ourselves of our irrational religious basis for morality, it doesn’t mean we’ll ever have a moral system with anything approaching the universality of mathematics. We are always going to be engaged in a struggle for hearts and minds to convince people that certain values are worth believing in, while others are not.
We need look no farther than the Declaration of Independence to see some of the first American political evocations of what Harris calls “moral intuition”:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (emphasis mine).
While many religious people cite the ambiguous term “Creator” as evidence that these values were inspired by their God, what is striking is that even if we removed the word the statement wouldn’t sound any less reasonable: one hardly has to be religious to be struck by how eminently sensible it is.
We can look to documents such as the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights for a more detailed description of the components of liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the world community has agreed on over the last 50 years. We can look to philosophers, ethicists, and scientists to help inform us about the desires and needs of human beings, what motivates us, and what makes us fulfilled.
But what people like Harris must accept is that at the end of the day, we have nothing more than persuasion and good argumentation as allies. We have no formula, no grand proof, nothing absolute; we can never provide the certainty that those who cling to religious doctrine crave. The best we can do is make substantiated claims about the values that most people in most cultures, when presented with the full range of facts and arguments, agree on as the best components of a moral system. As an added bonus we can point out that it is more genuine to believe in something because you think it is true, just, and good, than because you think you will be rewarded for believing in it, because some divine force told you to, or because you think certain books are magical.
Once we establish core moral values, then reason, science and objectivity are at our disposal to help us achieve the goals we set forth. Even then there will always be ambiguity, and there will be always be a need for updating and revision; what is radical genetic technology if not a new moral question that needs to be faced and answered.
In summary, holding that simply because Jesus, Buddha or Mohammed said something makes it right or moral is no reason at all. Harris, more than anybody else today, has utterly debunked these sources of morality. He has shown quite convincingly that it is not the “holy” books that have led us to realize that blacks are full human beings, or that gays should enjoy equal rights; we have arrived at these conclusions using exactly the type of moral intuition that religious people mistakenly believe they circumvent through obedience to religious texts.
But Harris and others have come up short at offering alternatives to religious sources of morality. They have done so not because there are no other sources, but because these too must ultimately rest on improvable, subjective beliefs.
However good, caring, compassionate and wise these morals may be, they are still axiomatic. Even if they represent an informed and reasoned faith instead of one based on superstition, in the end they are still faith-based.