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How did he know it was the right thing to do?

Sam Harris caused a bit of a stir with his recent book The Moral Landscape.’ While it upset religious apologists (gods didn’t come into his argument) it also caused debate among philosophers, scientists and fellow atheists.  Clearly his contribution was welcome and useful — but not all agreed with his ideas.

Most, but not all, of the criticisms relate to the question of a foundation or basis for human morality. I will leave aside, for the moment, the Christian apologist positions – which were recently re-rehearsed by WL Craig in a debate Is Good From God? — this caused a flurry amongst apologists who approach all of Craig’s debates like bigoted and vocal fans at a boxing match. This position relies on a naïve dogma that their god provides a ’sound foundation for objective moral values and duties’ — an axiomatic assumption which is never proven and is problematic even for many Christians.

Human flourishing as moral foundation?

Sam Harris appears to argue that one does have a basis for human morality, and determining right from wrong, in human flourishing or maximizing human well-being. And he provides clear examples where one can determine good situations from bad situations using that criteria. ’The ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban’ in Afghanistan is obviously a bad one.

But many critics feel this is inadequate. Possibly because terms like ’flourishing’ and ’well-being’ seem hedonistic. That good is all about pleasure.  People feel that good is more than that. It involves some abstract, high thinking, concepts — more than pleasure and pain. There also seems to be a common feeling that human flourishing is too arbitrary. That different people might define this in different ways. That right and wrong are concepts more absolute than that. Harris himself says of his use of the words ’flourishing’ and ’well-being’ ’I don’t know of any better terms with which to signify the most positive states of being to which we can aspire.’

One can argue that a moral logic can arrive at a more ’absolute’ or ’objective’ morality. That morality can be seen as something moral absolute because it can be arrived at logically. Perhaps moral laws are a bit like arithmetic?

Moral assumptions as ’brute facts’?

And there has been the position that some moral positions just have to be assumed, accepted, as basic. They can’t be proved.  Erik J. Wielenberg, for example, argues that ’objective morality rests on a foundation composed of brute ethical facts.’ These have ’have no explanation outside of themselves’ They just are. ’They need not be inferred from other things that we know.’ This strikes me as a bit like a Clayton’s morality — the god-like foundation for morality you have when you don’t have a god. It is basically as good as, or as bad as, the moral foundation advanced by the Christian apologist, because it is assumed and unproven by logic or evidence.

I believe one has onlyhalf the picture if discussion is limited to philosophy and logic. Gods don’t add anything — except to provide a justification which, being “holy” or “divine,”  can’t be questioned. Sam goes one better by at least providing an easily understood foundation. Perhaps if we use different words, get away from limitations of pleasure and pain, bring is some higher ideal, this will be more acceptable.

To me this still suffers from ignoring the real world. It ignores the facts staring us in our face – the nature of humans and how they evolved. And the nature of human morality in practice and its evolution. I think we should go beyond philosophical and logical consideration of human morality to a more scientific discussion of the subject. One which seeks a foundation for human morality in humans themselves and in our relationship to reality.

We need to recognize that human morality is intimately tied up with human nature. Morality is more than a philosophical or logical question for us. It is an emotional one. Our intuitions and subconscious are involved, perhaps more so in most situations than our intelligence, reasoning and logic.

Moral intuitions

Humans have very strong moral intuitions. We react reflexively to situations – we have to. There is not enough time to go through logical exercises of reasoning when lives may depend on our reactions. Sure, we may try to explain our behavior after the event but research shows this is more rationalization of our actions than a replay of the processes that went in our brain. Processes which we don’t usually have access to anyway.

Our moral intuitions are adaptive and incorporate out adaptive intuitions. Feelings of purity, disgust, fear, guilt, etc. Perhaps the strongest intuitions we have are intuitions of right and wrong. We may not know why something is wrong but we have extremely strong feelings that it is. These intuitions of right and wrong are so strong that it is understandable that some might see them as somehow inviolate, absolute – objective even. The sort of thing one hands over to a god if you think that way. Or even personalises in a little imp (our consciounce) who sits on our shoulder warning and encouraging.

But, the last 500 years or so of experience of the progress of science surely tell us ’god did it’ (or little imps) explanations get us nowhere. The old creation myths don’t explain our origins or the origin of the earth and the universe. Neither do they explain the origins of, or offer a foundation for, our morality.

So, with this picture we have concepts of right and wrong – intuitively extremely strong concepts. Ones we might even feel as objective or absolute, although they are part of our own human nature.  Rather than being absolute or objective — they just feel that way. For very good evolutionary reasons.

My critics may argue that this still does not explain good human behaviour. That people could have intuitions which bias them to bad behaviour as much as good behaviour. I just don’t think that accords with the facts of our evolution or nature of our brain.

Brain mapping produces empathy

Our species has evolved as a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species. This has consequences for the physiology of our brain and its interaction with our body, the external world and other humans.

How does this work? Our brain is continually mapping ’images’ (visual, audio, memories, feelings, sensory, etc.). These reflect inputs from external objects and internally, from our body and coded memories from other parts of our brain. We have continually mapped images related to emotions and feelings, to our movements and our perceptions. But as an intelligent and conscious animal these also relate to memories and plans as well as each other. Consequently we also map imaginary things. Plans, memories and speculations.

These in themselves, because of connections to visceral and moral inputs and actions, also cause emotional and physical responses.  We can feel and emote when we rehearse a real memory, imagine a possible sad event and read a sad story. We can train our motor responses by imagining an exercise or physical action — something professional athletes, and sports psychiatrists, are well aware of.

This mapping and interaction with feelings, body responses and imagination also operates for events and situations we see. Our mapped imagination is similar to our mapped observation.  Consequently we feel another’s embarrassment, pain and happiness. It really is as if we were in their shoes when we see or hear about the experiences.  This provides a physiological basis for empathy. We literally can feel for others, even if the sensations may be reduced somewhat from a direct experience.

Golden rule wired in, foundational

Humans are literally wired for the Golden Rule — to treat others as we wish to be treated. It’s built in. It’s all part of being a social and empathetic animal. We evolved to be like this. I can’t actually imagine how a conscious, intelligent creature like humans, living in an extended society and interacting continuously with others, could be anything but empathetic. Unless of course there were pathological reasons — as there will be for some people.

All this means that we are empathetic moral creatures by nature. Our morality is inbuilt — it doesn’t come from an external source. We don’t rely on an ’objective’ or ’absolute’ morality exisiting somewhere out there in the void or in the hands of a mythical supernatural creature.

Some might object that this explains what goes on in our brain but it doesn’t guarantee that our moral decisions are ’correct.’ I agree, but it does offer a foundation for applying reason and logic to situations. In principle we can logically determine what is ’correct,’ based on our subjective feelings of empathy, our wired in ’Golden Rule.’ We don’t have to rely on an axiomatic ’human flourishing’ (or a god) foundation. We have a built-in human empathy foundation. And this can encompass higher feelings and thoughts than basic hedonistic ones like personal pleasure and pain.

Because most of the body’s management occurs at the unconscious level our morality largely operates at that level too. Morally we operate in the camera’s equivalent of ’auto’ mode.  Of course we can switch to ’manual’ mode. This would be no good for the day-to-day automatic reflex actions we have to accommodate. But for the consideration of ’what if’ situations, debating possible laws or social rules, or considering new and intriguing moral dilemmas we may face, the ’manual,’ conscious, mode would switch in. We would consciously deliberate on the issues.

Moral education and zeitgeist

I think there is an important inter-relationship between our ’auto’ and ’manual’ modes. Between our unconscious reflex actions and our intelligent, reasoned consideration of specific moral situations. These are not separated from each other — they influence each other. Obviously our ’auto’ mode may well interfere with our reasoning, may bring in prejudice or bias. This is inevitable for any such consideration — its part of being human. Decision making by group interaction can help to ensure more objective decisions.

But this relationship also works in the other direction. Our reasoned, rational deliberations can also lead to changes in our unconscious responses. The conscious, reasoned deliberations could, as it were, lead to re-wring of our subconscious. When we learn to ride a bike the deliberate conscious attention to learning is similar to the reasoning and deliberation of the ’manual’ moral mode. Thereafter the bike riding skill becomes incorporated into our subconscious. If by chance we have to update that skill (change from a ’penny farthing’ to a bicycle or old bicycle to a ten-speed or mountain bike) the conscious learning updates our subconscious skill.

Overt cultural learning

This updating of unconscious moral skills, or learning of new ones, is not restricted to our own internal mental deliberations. There are also less overt cultural influences. As social attitudes change they get reflected in cultural presentations, film, TV, books, etc. These in turn overtly ’update’ the moral skill of the viewer or reader, of members of society.

So we can get changes on the moral views of society both through the conscious deliberations and debates of the more socially active members of society. But also through the unconscious assimilation of these new moral skills by the less active majority who unconsciously acquire these from the cultural exposures.

That is why there is a moral zeitgeist. A continual upgrading of our moral skills in modern developing societies.

While the trending moral zeitgeist is not conscious for most members of society it is influenced by the conscious moral deliberations and logic of the more active people. These include the artists, writers, and directors as well as the natural and social scientists.


Consider some examples familiar to my generation. In the 1950s a common moral attitude in this country was that it was wrong for married women to work. Especially women with children. In this decade women very often feel it is wrong not to work, even when they have children.

In the old days sex outside marriage was morally wrong. Everyone did it – but this created a lot of guilt because it was wrong. And those caught out by pregnancy were considered social outcasts. There were “shotgun” weddings, unhappy marriages. Young women were quietly sent to the countryside to give birth, children were secretly adopted, etc.

Nowadays it is perfectly normal for couples to live together without marriage. It is not wrong.

In the old days homosexuality was abhorrent. It was definitely wrong and evoked feelings of disgust. Nowadays this is completely different. Most people do not see it as wrong. Different sexual orientations are accepted in society without judgment.

In the old days everyone (almost everyone) stood for the Queen in theatres before the film. I can remember the strong hostility directed at me and my mates who refused to stand. We were considered wrong. Nowadays we just don’t get that indignity imposed on us when we attend the cinema.

I am sure readers can think of plenty of other examples.

The “god did it’ foundation

The arguments presented by Craig and other religious apologists for a god-based moral foundation may not be logical. They may not even be very applicable to many Christians. But the do lead to justifications and dogmatism on moral issues.

Believers will always debate which particular moral instruction from popes, ministers, imams, Rabbis and holy books, must be obeyed. This is one of the driving forces for the existence of so many religions. But the fact that such instructions are considered ’holy’ and infallible, that the represent ’divine commands,’ leads to justification of moral codes which are completely out of step with reason, logic and evidence.

So the idea of a divine foundation for morality provides religion with a way of resisting the moral zeitgeist, refusing to consider evidence and reason. This explains why religions on the whole are morally conservative. Advancing ancient, often discredited, ideas of morality and resisting modern thinking. Just consider issues like women’s rights, acceptance of different sexual orientations, etc.

It can also mean that people growing up ain a strong religious environment, particularly a cult, do not learn to be morally autonomous. Instead of developing a morality based on themselves they rely on the diktat and instruction of their leaders and “holy” books. Mature adults can then have problems operating by themselves in the real world and society. In a sense they are morally immature.

Finally, because a morality imposed by instruction and justified by ’divine commands’ and ’holy’ scriptures and leaders, can be divorced completely from evidence, reason and rational consideration it can end up being arbitrary. Rather than have an objective basis in human nature and the facts of real situations, it may depend purely on religious whim. ’Right and wrong is what our god says it is. And he says what we want him to.’

The model I have described above may not satisfy those who wish for an absolute completely objective morality. But it is at least consistent, improving and logically supportable. It is objectivley based. In contrast any old moral positions can be supported by ’divine commands.” Such justifications can sometimes lead to the worst sort of moral relativism.

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