Saturday, April 28, 2007

Sam Harris: Morality and Religion

Old Business: Atheists in Foxholes

On April 15th, in a posting called “Standing Up to Bigotry”, I wrote that I wanted to see the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” to be treated like the bigoted slam that it is – and I gave the moral argument for that position.

Austin Cline has information on another use of this denigrating and demeaning phrase. I wanted to bring the incident to your attention today, in the hopes that you will write to The News and Observer and express your disapproval of this bigotry. Austin Cline has the contact information in his posting.

New Business: Sam Harris: Morality and Religion

The first speaker on the third and last day of Beyond Belief 2006 was Sam Harris, who was introduced on the first day of the conference.

Side note: For those who wish to view the Beyond Belief 2006, all sessions have two options; a ‘view’ option and a ‘download’ option. For this, the 9th out of 10 session, the ‘view’ option has 1 hour and 27 minutes of additional content.

Anyway, today, Harris wishes to talk about the relationship between religion and morality. He starts off by claiming that the way some theists defend their specific religion is to say that, even if religious beliefs are false, they are still useful. We get both morality itself (a set of ideas on what is right and what is wrong) and our motivation to do the right thing (to serve God, to enter heaven, to avoid hell) from religion. If we get rid of religion, we have no motivation to do the right thing. Plus, even if some of us were still motivated to do the right thing, atheism gives us no ‘right thing’ for us to do.

This fear of a society without morality then motivates people not only to promote religion, but to view religious people as the only ‘safe’ neighbors to have (or the only ‘safe’ legislators to elect), and promotes an overall fear and hatred of atheists as dangerous and immoral. People are afraid of a society without God and religion.

Harris makes so many mistakes in this presentation that I simply cringe in frustration just to hear him speak. It is the same when I hear Richard Dawkins discuss morality, as I wrote about in “Morality and the Selfish Gene

Useful Does Not Imply True

We can throw out the second half of Harris’ presentation. There, he argued that the fact that a belief is useful does not imply that it is true. This is certainly true. However, it does not address the issue of defending religion because it is useful. Yes, it is true that the usefulness of a belief does not imply that it is true. However, a useful but false belief is still useful.

Happiness and Suffering

In the first half of his talk, Harris attempted to argue that there are reasons for being moral that have nothing to do with religion. He specified two reasons for being moral; happiness and the avoidance of suffering.

I argued last Wednesday in the post, “Evaluating Moral Theories”, a moral theory, like all theories, needs to be able to account for a range of observations relevant to that subject. Happiness and suffering theories fail this test.

Would you prefer life in an experience machine (or in “The Matrix”) over life in the real world? Many people say that they would not. In fact, some people are strongly repulsed by the idea. However, the “happiness and suffering” theory cannot account for these facts.

Take a person who wishes to provide medical care to sick and dying people in Africa. Tell this person, “I have a save-the-sick-and-dying program that I can put into my computer and feed into your brain as a completely realistic set of experiences. While you are attached to the Matrix, my program will feed you all of the impressions that will make you think that you are a great humanitarian saving sick and dying people in Africa. You will believe that everything you see and hear is real, and your memories about life before you entered the machine will be replaced by false memories relevant to your life in the Matrix. Now, do you want to enter the machine?”

Many (most, almost all) of those who want to save the sick and dying people in Africa would refuse. They would see no reason to enter the machine. For ‘happiness and suffering’ theory this is a problem, because the person who enters the machine will experience just as much if not more happiness, and be better able to avoid suffering, than a person in the real world. If ‘happiness and suffering’ are the only reasons for action that exist, or that are worth considering, an agent would have no reason to refuse the machine.

Yet, they do refuse.

The machine simply cannot give these people what they want. What they want is not the happiness that comes from saving people. They want to actually save people. This is something that they simply cannot do from inside the Matrix.

I often hear people respond to this by suggesting that the happiness that one would get from the experience machine is not ‘true happiness’. What is “true happiness”? It turns out to be a vague, ill-defined term that allows the person who uses it to engage in circular reasoning. They tell us that we only pursue ‘true happiness’. When asked to define this term, they say that ‘true happiness’ is defined as the only thing that we pursue.

We need a theory of (reasons for) action that explains how people can have a reason to refuse to enter the experience machine even though they will be happy inside the machine.

Desire-based theory has no problem with this. It says that all people seek to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires. A desire is a propositional attitude that can be expressed in the form of “desires that P”, where P is a proposition. A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs S where P is true in S.

If somebody has a “desire that I am saving the sick and the dying in Africa”, then this person is motivated to bring about states where “I am saving the sick and dying in Africa” is true. He is not motivated to enter the experience machine, because the experience machine cannot make that proposition true.

You can probably find some people who would enter the machine. These people have a desire for personal happiness and avoidance of pain. The experience machine can give them this. The experience machine can make the propositions, “I am experiencing happiness” and “I am not suffering” true.

The next objection raised to this model is that it treats all desires as equal. What should we do, for example, with people who desire to rape and torture young children? These, for them, are ‘reasons for action’.

This is false. If we can evaluate entering an experience chamber versus helping the sick and dying in Africa on whether they will actually fulfill desires, we can evaluate desires themselves according to how well they fulfill (other) desires. When we do this, we see that there are desires that tend to fulfill other desires (the desire to help the sick and dying in Africa), and desires that tend to thwart other desires (the desire to rape and torture young children). Consequently, we can even evaluate ‘reasons for action’ as ‘reasons for action that we have reason to promote and encourage’ and ‘reasons for action that we have reason to inhibit or discourage’.

We have criteria for categorizing people as ‘virtuous’ (as having those reasons for action that we have reasons to promote), and ‘vicious’ (as having those reasons for action that we have reasons to inhibit).

We have ‘reasons for action’ for promoting virtue and for combating viciousness.

The next challenge that comes along is typically to complain that evaluating desires by their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires is circular. It is circular, in the same way that coherentist epistemology is circular, in the same way that linguistics is circular, and in the same way as the process of “reflective equilibrium” is circular. A sufficiently large and complex system is considered virtuously circular, compared to the tight and direct circles of viciously circular arguments. The evaluation of desires relative to other desires is sufficiently broad and complex to be considered virtuously circular. Now, let’s apply desire fulfillment theory to the question Harris was trying to answer. Are there ‘reasons for action’ for being moral that do not depend on God? The answer is clearly ‘yes’. These desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others are a moral system that requires no reference to God.

So, I have answered the same challenge that Harris sought to answer. However, I did it with a better theory of value than the archaic 19th-century theory that Harris appealed to.

The Value of Truth

Now, I wish to return to the second part of Harris’s presentation, the part I originally tossed out because it was irrelevant. There was something important in that part of the presentation. However, Harris could not see it clearly because of his (defective) lens of happiness and suffering theory. Through the lens of desire fulfillment theory, it becomes more clearly visible.

Harris argued that, just because religious beliefs are useful, this does not make them true. This is fine, but it does not prove that they are not useful.

He uses an example of somebody who claims to be the fastest runner on the planet, even though he never runs, never competes, and is clearly in worse shape than professional Olympic athletes. When asked to defend this claim, he defends it on the basis that being the fastest runner on the planet gives his life meaning and purpose. Harris correctly points out that the desire for purpose does not make the belief true. However, he only hints at the real problem. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you are NOT the fastest person on the planet. You may believe that you are the fastest person on the planet. From this, you may believe that your life has meaning and purpose. However, since the claim that you are the fastest person on the planet is false, your claim that your life has meaning and purpose is false as well.”

People may claim that serving God gives their lives meaning and purpose. However, in fact, nobody has ever served God. Nobody will ever serve God. Nobody has ever acquired a life of meaning and purpose by serving God. The only way for a life to have real meaning and purpose is if the things they accomplish, themselves, are real, and God is not real.

On the other hand, the person whose finds meaning and purpose in saving the sick and dying in Africa can actually find meaning and purpose, because this is something that can actually happen.

All of this ties neatly into the theory that we are beings who seek to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires, and our desire that ‘P’ is fulfilled in a state of affairs where ‘P’ is true. There is no state of affairs in which the desire to serve God can be fulfilled. However, there are states of affairs in which the desire to save the sick and dying people in Africa can be fulfilled.

Plus, we have an account where some desires (those that tend to fulfill other desires) are themselves better than others.

The Religious Argument

Now, I want to go back and discuss the argument that Harris started off addressing: “Even if there is no God, we should believe in God because, if we do not, we will have no reason to be moral.”

This argument commits the moral crime of fear-peddling. The speaker is trying to sell fear, and doing so on the basis of reasons that a good and moral person would know to be flawed.

The argument invites the audience to imagine a society without morality – a society of wonton violence – a society much like Baghdad, Iraq is today. It adds the claim that religion is the only way to avoid this state. In this way, it uses fear of entering a Baghdad-like state to sell hatred and fear of atheists.

This argument requires the assumption that people we have reason to avoid living in a society without morality. It says, (1) because people have reason to want to live in a moral society, and (2) because there can be no moral society without God, that (3) people have reason to promote belief in God and to fear and condemn (as a threat to society) those who do not believe.

However, premise (2) in this argument says that, without belief in God, a person has no reason to promote a moral society. For all practical purposes, it states can be completely indifferent to the immorality going on around him. For this claim to be true, we would have to say that an atheist can live in Baghdad, can go about his shopping while bombs scatter body parts around him, have his daughters taken from him, tortured, and killed in front of his eyes, all with complete indifference to what was happening.

There are few purer examples of bigotry in the world today than this argument that atheists have no reason to be moral.

If we reject this – if we allow that atheists can be concerned about the fact that they and those they care about are safe – then atheists have reasons to form a moral society even though they do not believe in God.


My suggestion is that this model does a better job of answering the challenge that Harris sat out to answer than the model that Harris actually uses. The “happiness and suffering” model cannot explain human choices nearly as well as the “desire fulfillment” model. The “desire fulfillment” model can answer the challenge of the experience machine (or The Matrix), where the “happiness and suffering” model stumbles. It also accounts for the value of truth – of why a person who values helping the sick and dying in Africa would not enter an experience machine to gain the experience of helping the sick and dying in Africa. It even answers the challenge of how desires themselves can have different values (depending on whether the desires tend to fulfill or thwart other desires).

I have also criticized the argument claiming that religion is useful for promoting morality on the grounds that it contains conflicting premises. It assumes that we all have reason to promote a moral society. It also claims that religion is the only way to form a moral society. However, this second premise requires the assumption that, without belief in God, we have no reason to promote a moral society – that an atheist would be indifferent towards the prospect of living in a society such as Baghdad. These types of claims are not only absurdly false, they are contemporary examples of fear-peddling bigotry.


Alan Lund said...

Alonzo, I have to take some exception to your treatment of happiness and suffering as a basis for morality. While I have not listened to Harris' talk, I know that some formulations based on happiness and suffering do not consider only personal happiness and personal suffering, but some form of universal happiness and universal suffering. Your experience machine critique fails to address this wider formulation.

This is not to say that there are no problems with simple happiness and suffering as a basis for morality. As formulated, I think they tend to be act utilitarian in nature and so fall victim to the same sorts of problems as you have described for, say, desire fulfillment act utilitarianism.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Alan Lund

The experience machine critique can be easily modified to handle statements about universal happiness. One way is to imagine a case in which one is deciding whether to put everyone in an experience machine.

More importantly, there is a problem explaining how an external good can motivate an agent to act. What is the connection between universal happiness and the movement of muscles that constitute my action.

I agree, not all of this was covered in the post. The post was too long anyway. I save the comments section to handle the details.

Anonymous said...


I have some problems with distinguishing between your theory of desire utilitarianism and what you call theories of happiness and suffering. You describe your theory as one where people act on their strongest desires. It seems to me that happiness and suffering theories say the same thing, They only say that one’s strongest desires can ultimately be traced to desires to be happy or avoid suffering.
In a narrow sense it is easy to say there are more causes of desires than these two, but given a sufficiently broad description of happiness, one that includes feelings of worth, adequacy, competence, control, and general well-being, a case can be made that no other sources of desires exist.
You may find that theories of happiness and suffering fail to fully address all types of desires, but it isn’t clear to me that desire utilitarianism even makes any attempt to explain the types or causes of desires.
What causes us to have the desires we do, and what determines their strengths? You say people have a desire actually to relieve suffering in Africa, not just feel like they are doing it. Where does this desire come from and why do people have it? A “desire that P is fulfilled in a state S” doesn’t really explain anything. Why do people have desires that P be fulfilled in S? Until your theory can address the bases for these propositions it seems the only way it is different is that it dodges the ultimate question of causes of desires.
One argument you have repeatedly made is that there are people who say they would chose not to go into a machine that would make them happy at the cost of harming others. You draw what I believe is an erroneous conclusion that this proof that happiness isn’t their strongest desire.
Your argument has several weaknesses. First, you cannot assume people will do what they say, especially when the question is so loaded you could translate it to “Do you want to please yourself at the cost of suffering to others?” You can’t expect people to give honest answers even to themselves in that situation.
Second, you can’t equate a theoretical situation to actual behavior. Probably almost every parent would say they would give their lives to save a child, but when it comes to actually running into the flames to save one, the numbers drop considerably. You claim people refuse the machine. That’s not true. They only say they would refuse it. You don’t know what they would do.
Finally, the “perfect happiness” machine has never existed and probably never will, so imagining people can truly predict their behavior in relation to one is quite fanciful. To enter one, we would by definition, lose awareness of the real world and lose control of our lives. I believe one of our strong “avoid suffering” desires tells us losing these are very dangerous.
I don’t find fault with the concepts of desire utilitarianism, but I feel your theory could use further development and support in the area of desire formation and the relationship between professed desires and actual behavior.

olvlzl said...

As with just about everything I've ever read from Harris, there's so much nonsense that it's hard to know what to say. You say that he said:

He starts off by claiming that the way some theists defend their specific religion is to say that, even if religious beliefs are false, they are still useful.

*Did he give specific examples of theists saying this or is this something he attributes to them? I don't think, in more years than Harris has been around and having had many thousands of hours talking with "theists" I don't recall ever hearing one say something that sounds remotely like this. Harris is largly in the business of constructing arguments to suit his own purpose, you must see that. It's not any of my business if people want to ignore that but eventually these kinds of things can catch up with you.

If it wasn't so late while I'm typing this and I hadn't already written too much this weekend, I'd go into the arguments. But it's really very simple, I believe in a God, I reject the idea that atheists can't be moral or ethical. My rejection isn't on the basis of any argument I've ever read or had or any idea of any kind. I know that atheists can be ethical and moral because I've know atheists who were both ethical and moral. What do I mean by moral? That they wouldn't knowingly cause unnecessary pain to another person or, in some cases, other sentient beings if they could avoid doing so. I don't really think that analyzing it is necessary, though I have no objection to anyone going through the exercise.b

olvlzl said...

By the way, I wonder what William Blake would say about them using his picture over there. I wonder if they've ever read:

Mock on, mock on Voltaire, Rousseau,
Mock on, mock on, 'tis all in vain...

I wonder if I should consider their appropriation of his picture as honest advertising.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Harris did not provide any evidence of the position that he sought to challenge. However, I (and most atheists) have encountered it so many times that it can be taken as a given.

In fact, the reason that I included the word 'atheist' in the title of this blog was to counter the bigotry that says that atheism is inconsistent with morality.

This is not to say that all theists have this particular prejudice. The fact that you do not does not change the fact that many do.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

One of the propositions within my theory is that people act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires given their beliefs, and seek to act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires.

This is not the same as saying that the strongest desire wins - several weaker desires can outweight one strong desire.

The experience machine refutes the claim that people exclusively desire happiness and to avoid suffering because the experience machine can provide happiness and freedom from suffering, but many people claim that they would refuse the machine.

It is true that with a sufficiently broad definition of happiness that happiness theory can be made to work. It is also true that with a sufficiently broad definition of 'cow' that dinosaurs are (were) cows. However, a broad definition becomes empty. Happiness, as it is traditionally understood, is not the only thing that people seek - and it is not even the most important thing they seek.

I take the question of what desires exist and how we came up with them to be little different from the question of what beliefs exist and how we came up with them. One thing in particular - I think it would be absurd for anybody to argue that we really only have one or two beliefs, and that all believing can be reduced to these two beliefs. Similarly, I think it is just as absurd to say that we have only one desires, and all desiring can be reduced to these two desires.

Beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes, and the propositions that can be the objects of these attitudes seem quite large.

olvlzl said...

Beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes, and the propositions that can be the objects of these attitudes seem quite large.

I don't reject your analysis, I don't take a position on it. I do say that even a small amount of thought would show that belief, "faith" if you want to get attention, doesn't only consist of some quite large ideas but it pervades the minds and lives of everyone. And it is often mistaken for proven fact.

One of the areas I'm noticing is that many allegedly rigorous thinkers don't seem to understand that the the reality that an idea can't be disproved REQUIRES belief. This isn't only illogical but it willfully ignores that, far from being unfortunate, it's every fortunate since even all ideas able to be proved haven't been and that even the most brilliant person couldn't master all of those proofs, not even the ones already made. If we were required to believe everything simply because it hadn't been proven, we wouldn't be able to function.

Anonymous said...

You cannot refute a factual proposition about human desires with speculations about non-existant entities. "I would not enter a pleasure machine" is no different than the statement "I would tweak God on the nose." All you know is that someone said something. You have no way of knowing its truth.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Well, "belief" is not the same as "faith". A "belief" is a piece of mental code that says that a proposition 'P' is true. Faith is a belief that 'P' is true without evidence that 'P' is true and, in some cases, even in the face of evidence that 'P' is false.

Yes, everybody who believes that 'P' for some proposition P has an attitude that 'P' is true. And, in many cases, P is false. It happens to all of us.

I also agree that a moral requirement for perfect rationality is absurd. It takes a great deal of time and effort to draw the threads that connect all of our beliefs. We simply do not have the time. So, all of us adopt a fair number of beliefs 'on the fly'. I argue that we need to do triage to our beliefs. Those beliefs that could cause one to behave in ways that are harmful to others obligate us to give those beliefs some measure of review in the light of reason. Harmless beliefs (and, to a lesser extent, beliefs that cause a person to harm only themselves) generate less of an obligation.

However, we can measure belief-sets by their ability to predict events in the real world. If one belief set says that action A will result in state B, and another says that it will result in state not-B, we can perform the action, and determine whether the result falsifies A or B.

When one person advocates taking away the life, health, liberty, or quality of life from another, the victim deserves more in terms of justification than for the aggressor to say, "I have no reason to believe that you deserve to die/suffer; but I do have faith that it is the right thing to do."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

A person's report on what they would choose under a particular set of events is still an observation. It is still an action. So, it is an event that a theory of action must be able to explain.

So, those who hold to a happiness theory still needs to explain why people would report that they would not enter into an experience machine.

On the model that the simplest explanation is the best (unless evidence compels a more complex explanation, the simplest explanation for their report that they would choose not enter an experience machine is that they would choose not to enter an experience machine.

olvlzl said...

Well, "belief" is not the same as "faith". A "belief" is a piece of mental code that says that a proposition 'P' is true. Faith is a belief that 'P' is true without evidence that 'P' is true and, in some cases, even in the face of evidence that 'P' is false.

Alonzo, I've looked it up an a number of dictionaries and thesaurses, belief is given as a synonym for "faith" and vice-versa, in every single one of them. Words obtain their meaning through use. A word that has never been shaped by use is either the newest of neologisms or non-existant.

You, no doubt, see my point in using them interchangably. The use of "belief" and "faith" as if they aren't the same thing is an intellectual dodge for people who don't want to face that their personal choices in what they believe are anything but their choices. That is their choices in things that are able to be falsified or "proven", failure to believe things that are able to be demonstrated by science is superstition. You can't be "superstitious" about things that science can't deal with. But that doesn't require that you beieve or don't believe in them. You can be either or agnostic. Agnostics are really the only ones who don't practice some form of "faith" in those things they don't take a position on.

architect said...

I was thinking about this whole conversation and it dawned upon me that so many ebelive that values are just arbitrary. A new book that serves as a rebuttal to Richard Dawkin’s, The God Delusion, and other books against religion is Adults Only (Bernard Hanan and Co. Publishers). This book offers scientific proof to the fact that the human being has a distinct soul and thus has a special moral imperative and questions whether morality is possible without religion. It also proves that there is an absolute ethical standard. You can't make up your own values. I found the title to be provocative and realize that the point is to reinstate adulthood as a concept of morality. This book is very comprehensive and is exceedingly logical. It covers everything from scientifically disproving atheism to delving into themes of human sexuality. The author, IC Fingerer, is a rabbi and bioethicist. It can be ordered from Barnes and Noble or from