Lost in the Moral Landscape

I recently finished reading Sam Harris’ latest book The Moral Landscape.  Harris is one of the renowned ‘new atheist’ authors, as a result of his books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.  I was interested to see how his just-completed doctorate in Neuroscience would shape his views, and there are indeed some (not enough) discussions of his fascinating research on the neurological bases of human belief.  However, in this post I want to talk about a small section of his new book that was intended to be peripheral, but which literally stopped me in my tracks. 

Harris’ primary argument in The Moral Landscape is that there is an absolute moral truth (i.e., that morality is not culturally relative) and that this absolute moral truth can be based on science and reason rather than on any religious claims. His stance against moral relativism  is something that, ironically, is shared by most of the religious folks he vilifies, but no matter.  About halfway through the book, Harris decides to cover “The Illusion of Free Will” (a subject that, as a Materialist, he would have to address). In this section he explains how neuroscientific research has demonstrated that there is always a lag time (in some cases, a significant one) between when our brain signals certain actions or thoughts and when we become consciously aware of them. Based on this evidence, he states:

From the perspective of your conscious mind, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.  Our belief in free will arises from our moment-to-moment ignorance of specific prior causes.  The phrase ‘free will’ describes what it feels like to be identified with the content of each thought as it arises in consciousness.

Wait…….WHAT?!?!  Isn’t this supposed to be a book about M-O-R-A-L-I-T-Y? Isn’t morality all about what we ought to do? How can we discuss what we ought to do if our thoughts and actions are pre-determined – if we have no conscious choice about how we behave? 

Harris is a very smart guy, so he fully realizes that his claims about free will  create a problem. As he puts it: “If we view people as neuronal weather patterns, how can we coherently speak about morality?”   I will try my best to summarize how he tries to reconcile this rejection of free will with Morality. I will also share why I think his reconciliation attempts fail.

Reconciliation Attempt #1: Our actions still matter, because our actions (or lack of action) have real consequences.

OK – yes, it’s true, our actions have consequences. However, just because an agent’s actions have an impact on the real world doesn’t mean that we can discuss the morality of that agent. Hurricanes have a real impact too (an example that Harris actually cites elsewhere in his book). Or, if we prefer an example that has some form of consciousness – a rabid dog that bites me also has an impact.  However, in neither case could we apply any form of morality to these agents – because they have no choice in how they behave.

A secondary problem with this argument is that it fails to address acts that have no consequences, but which most of us would still consider immoral.  Let’s take the case of ‘Mr. Yumalicious’:   I decide to cheat on my husband with a really hot guy at the gym (Mr. Yumalicious). 

 I have a short-lived affair with Mr. Yumalicious. I am a really good liar, and my husband never finds out about my infidelity. I also have no conscience and thus no remorse about my actions. So my infidelity has no consequences, but I think we all can agree that my act was immoral. FYI- for my friends who are concerned by my use of this case, it is totally fictional: I am very much in love with my husband and would never cheat on him (especially not with Eric Cartman). I am also a lousy liar.

Derek Parfit in his book Reason and Persons (a classic work of Moral Philosophy recommended by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his review of The Moral Landscape) also rejects the claim that an act can only be wrong if it causes perceptible harm (see in particular chapter 3“Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics”).

 Reconciliation Attempt #2: We can still consider someone morally responsible for their actions to the degree that their actions are consistent with “who they are”

Harris uses a funny case to make his point here, so I’ve quoted it in full:

“…yesterday I went to the market; as it turns out, I was fully clothed, did not steal anything, and did not buy anchovies. To say that I was responsible for my behavior is simply to say that what I did was sufficiently in keeping with my thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them.  If on the other hand, I had found myself standing in the market naked, intent upon stealing as many tins of anchovies as I could carry, this behavior would be totally out of character; I would feel that I was not in my right mind, or that I was otherwise not responsible for my actions”.

While very funny (and I appreciate Harris’ aversion to anchovies), this argument seems to me significantly flawed, for at least three reasons:

First of all, it assumes that if we are acting consistently with our nature, this can only lead to one possible action in any situation.  For example, it is not in my nature to morph into a bald-headed eagle, but that still gives me a wide range of options for how I am going to spend my day. In fact, the range is so wide that I have to work hard to make the right choices.

This leads to the second flaw in the ‘acting consistent with our nature’ argument: many of us (I would guess the majority) have natures and dispositions that inspire contradictory impulses.  Let’s modify the case of Mr. Yumalicious.  Perhaps I am someone who firmly believes that cheating is wrong. However, it is in my nature to find Mr. Yumalicious wildly attractive.   

Which aspect of my ‘nature’ will win out?  I supposed that according to Harris et al, it would simply be the part of my nature that is just ‘stronger’ – that I still have no choice in the matter.  I simply can’t accept that conclusion – nor would I want to take the risk of living that way.  I prefer an approach that Parfit takes: in the face of complaints of psychological determinism, he claims that someone’s disposition may make it very hard to behave differently, but behaving differently is still possible. 

Thirdly – does this mean that any time someone acts ‘out of character’ they can not be held responsible for their actions?  This seems like a huge umbrella that could cover a whole lot of bad deeds. What about the law-abiding citizen who one day just ‘snaps’ and kills a co-worker? What about the straight-A student who gets sick of always being good and decides to party hard the night before she takes her SATs? In reverse, what about the lifelong alcoholic who finally manages to get dry and stay dry?  Should none of these people be held accountable for their actions because they are not consistent with ‘who they are’? 

Reconciliation Attempt #3: We should be held accountable for our intentions

Harris emphasizes that what is key in evaluating moral responsibility is a person’s intentions:

 “What we condemn in another person is the intention to do harm – and thus any condition or circumstance (e.g., accident, mental illness, youth) that makes it unlikely that a person could harbor such an intention would mitigate guilt, without any recourse to notions of free will. “

But how can you “condemn” someone’s intentions  if they have no choice in the matter? Back to the rabid dog – yes, this dog must be contained because his actions can cause harm, but we don’t ‘condemn’ the dog or speak of his guilt – because he had no choice in the matter. Free will still seems crucially important here. 

So bottom line: Harris is right, in a way, to deny free will.  Given that he is a Materialist – that he believes that there is nothing beyond material phenomena that can be detected and analyzed by science – then logically he has to deny the existence of free will. There is no scientific evidence that free will exists.  If you are a Materialist (or, if you prefer, if your nature is that you are a Materialist), you have to believe that all the choices we think we are consciously making are actually made sub-consciously by a brain that was just given to us.

However, I think we have another option. We can also believe that science is missing something – that maybe there is something more to our existence that science cannot detect, but that makes a crucial difference.  It is that ‘something more’ that is the basis of my faith, and where I see the true connection between religion and morality. Morality can not be reconciled with Materialism. So it must be based on a different worldview – one that includes room for free will and spirit.  On that note, I’m off to the gym….

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3 Responses to Lost in the Moral Landscape

  1. Pingback: Sailing By My Own Moral Compass Means Taking Responsibility For My Actions | Archemdis's Blog

  2. Pingback: Free Will and Moral Accountability | Unsettled Christianity

  3. Pingback: Can you teach Christian ethics without Christ? | Seeing Faith

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