Harris & Craig on Foundations of Moral Values'

For once I find myself agreeing with Briggs!

His post on the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig (neither of whom I really cared to hear more from) prompted me to actually watch it - and I did find it more interesting than I had expected.

The debate question was: Are the foundations of moral values natural or supernatural?
Craig went first and identified two main questions paraphrased by Briggs as follows:

1. Accepting classical God of theism exists, is morality objective (i.e. absolute)?
2. Accepting classical God of theism does not exist, is morality objective (i.e. absolute)?

Craig then asserted that the answer to #1 is yes and to #2 is no and that this means that if moral values exist they must come from his "God".

Harris, of course focused on #2 with his claim that maximizing "total well-being of conscious entities" provides a non-supernatural definition of what is good. But, aside from being so ill-defined as to be almost useless, this begs the question by declaring what is good rather than saying what makes it good (which in my opinion is just the fact that most humans feel right about it). Science may "determine" values in same sense of finding what they are that is meant when we talk of determining the orbit of Mercury, but it doesn't serve to determine them in the sense of making them what they are any more than our study of gravity causes the orbit to precess in the way it apparently does.

Craig (and Briggs) excoriate Harris for not addressing #1, but that is silly. Of course the answer to #1 is 'Yes', but that is not interesting because the definition of the classical God of theism includes being the unique source of absolute objective morality which makes the 'yes' answer no more than a tautology. So I can't blame Harris for not "answering" that question.

It is only #2 that is at all interesting because it raises a substantive question - namely "is there any *other* possible source of absolute objective morality than the classical God of theism?" Here, I see no logical reason why not. Perhaps some other god *does* exist with different values for example, and I am not convinced that there is no possible atheistic alternative. But I think Harris does a poor job of undermining Hume and I do agree with Craig that in the absence of *any* god there is as yet no convincingly argued case for absolute objective morality.

It is ironic, though, to see Craig accuse Harris of distorting the question into a tautology by defining values in terms of well-being of conscious entities when he himself makes so much of the tautological half of his own argument and also is guilty of distorting the question by inserting the words "absolute" and "objective" into the wording of the resolution. I stand with Briggs' commenter Luis Diaz that it is possible to make forceful and effective moral judgements without any need to label them as absolute and objective and I generally see such claims as demonstrating the insecurity of one who "doth protest too much".

And at the risk of distorting the question myself, let me add that the resolution can easily be resolved in favour of the "natural" if one takes (as I do) the definition of nature as including everything that exists.

One Response to “Harris & Craig on Foundations of Moral Values'”

  1. alQpr » Blog Archive » Does Morality Need Philosophers? Says:

    [...] Ophelia Benson’s post on Patricia Churchland’s 2011 book ‘braintrust’ points out that, in contrast to the efforts of Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, Churchland makes a much more modest claim for what she is doing. Indeed Churchland’s claim “is not that science will wade in and tell us for every dilemma what is right or wrong. Rather, the point is that a deeper understanding of what it is that makes humans and other animals social, and what it is that disposes us to care about others, may lead to greater understanding of how to cope with social problems.” Harris on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Shermer, does seem to be claiming the goal of determining what is right or wrong rather than just how people in a certain context might judge it. I was happy to see this point made in a relatively high profile setting as it seems very much in line with my own earlier criticisms of Harris [...]

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