Most people who believe in moral realism, or the idea that morality is objective and there are concrete things like good and bad in the world, generally believe morality gets handed down from some type of deity.
Those who identify with atheism typically are cast into the school of thought called moral relativism, or the idea that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no one moral view is better than another.
In other words, what is good and bad is purely subjective. There’s no objective right and wrong in the world.
However, a growing number of people who identify as atheists and naturalists do believe in moral realism — that there’s an objective good and bad out there.
Perhaps the best this of these arguments is illustrated in the book The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. In the book, Harris argues that although morality isn’t handed down to us from a deity, there is in fact an objectively right and wrong way to live your life. There is such a thing as a universal good and bad we should objectively agree on.
Not only that, but Harris goes as far as to say we can use science to begin determining what is ultimately good and best for everyone in the world. A science of morality, if you will.
Such a claim, if logically true, would have drastic implications on us and how we ought to live our lives and how we should be constructing societies.
Sam Harris argues for a type of moral realism that states that you can make rigorous scientific claims about good and evil. There are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creators, which can serve as everything we know as what’s good and bad.
Basically, his argument goes like this:
1. Everything we experience is consciousness, and part of being conscious means we have a myriad of experiences, some of which are truly bad.
2. If you put your hand on a hot stove, you feel intense pain before you can process anything else. That’s something truly bad, not a cultural convention.
3. It’s an axiom, or belief we should all agree on, that if we do anything in life, we should avoid causing truly painful experiences or maximal suffering to conscious creatures.
He goes on to explain how science will fit into this. We can begin constructing various scientific experiments and studies which can tell us how much suffering there is in relation to one idea of living versus another.
For instance, we could set up an experiment in a community to see whether socialism or capitalism causes more suffering, and choose the one that the experiment verifies as the winner.
He doesn’t give a lot of specific examples but argues that there’s no reason why we can’t begin devising some experiments and studies to prove his claims.
There appear to be a few philosophical problems with this. Namely, the problem of deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’ is a philosophical problem introduced by the philosopher David Hume also known as the is–ought problem.
Deriving ‘Ought’ from ‘Is’
Hume said that people take how things are or empirical facts about the world, and use them to derive moral conclusions illogically. He believed people move too readily from observations of facts to moral judgments. According to Hume, there shouldn’t be any connection between empirical facts and values.
Here’s an example of deriving ought from is: Because 70 percent of college students admitted to cheating on an exam, you ought to let 70 percent of students you catch cheating get away with it.
Or, the electoral college was written into the constitution; therefore, we ought to never question it or change it.
Or, fighting is instinctual in humans. Therefore, we ought to have wars once in a while.
These are all logically incorrect statements.
For the record, no one has successfully been able to derive an ought from an is despite many attempts by very smart people over the years. It’s just basic logic, almost like a math equation. You put facts in, you get facts out.
Harris gives an axiom, or principal, that he believes we should all readily accept: We ought to avoid maximal suffering for conscious creators. In this, he derives an ought from an is.
Because we instinctively feel pain, we ought to live our lives in a way that avoids inflicting such pain on ourselves or others.
Harris doesn’t exactly deny he derives an ought from an is, but states that deriving ought from is is just a semantic trick which need not confine our thinking. Philosophers and scientists have made too big a deal of it and it doesn’t apply to this particular argument.
Of course, what he misses is the fact that just because everyone thinks something is true, like we will feel pain when putting a hand on a hot stove, doesn’t mean there’s an objective moral truth that it’s bad and we should avoid inflicting such pain on ourselves or others.
For example, say you’re throwing a party and everyone at your party says pizza is their favorite food. Just because we all have the subjective view that pizza is the best food in the world, doesn’t mean it’s automatically an objective truth. That pizza will be, always and forever, the best food in the universe.
In fact, even if you surveyed every conscious being on the planet and they all said pizza was the best food, it still wouldn’t be an objective truth. It’s an objective fact that everyone subjectively thinks pizza is the best food, but not an objective truth that pizza is the best food.
I’m sure if Harris was reading this article he would comment something along the lines of, “This is just comparing apples to oranges.” That deciding what kind of pizza we like isn’t the same as putting your hand on a hot stove and innately experiencing something.
In one case, we clearly have to avoid one and not the other.
But still, his philosophical argument follows the same lines, and it’s ultimately based in subjectivity. At the end of the day, we’re making an assumption to get the argument off the ground. We’re assuming values are the same thing as empirical facts.
And even if we can somehow determine that pain is objectively morally bad, we’re stuck making another assumption that limiting the maximal suffering of conscious creatures to as little as possible is objectively good.
Harris seems to fall into the category of people who practice or argue for scientism, an illogical stance that claims that science is ultimately the best way for society to determine values.
Science, although a great tool for helping us learn more about the world, can’t tell us about anything for 100 percent certain.
It’s really just a tool within philosophy to help us reason about the world. It can certainly help us design ways to live what we would consider a better and more moral life. But, by itself, science can never provide objective answers to moral questions, which Harris seems to argue for.
Simply put, science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be.
Now, those are the issues that I found when reading Harris’s book, and an internet search will point out a bit more than that.
I think we can conclude that, as of now, there’s no concrete logical evidence for any universal objective morality, whether it’s handed down from a deity or is naturalist in nature and constructed from people.
So does that mean everything is essentially meaningless? That the Holocaust, at the end of the day, was neither bad nor good?
Not exactly, and we’ll get into that in a future article on this Medium channel.
In fact, Harris’s idea of constructing tests and various ways to limit conscious suffering as much as possible is a great idea. It’s just that he went about why we should do it the wrong way.
Thanks for reading and let me know what you think.
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