Morality, Flourishing, and Christianity

This article reviews an interesting debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on morality

Sam Harris is one of the better respected atheist thinkers these days. After publishing The Moral Landscape in 2010, Harris debated well known Christian apologist William Lane Craig on the topic of whether atheism or theism best grounds morality.

A full video of the debate follows, and my notes on the debate are just below the video.

My notes:

  • I think WLC succeeds in voicing a knock-down argument in round 2, using the case of psychopathy to defeat the radical identity claim by Dr. Harris that flourishing is identical to the property of being good.
  • I was glad to see Harris clarify that he does not equate mere happiness with well-being. He acknowledges that suffering may be a precursor to growth, such as in the case of mental or physical stress.
    • He also acknowledges cascading social effects which can come with simplistic solutions such as giving everyone happy pills until they die, or having doctors ration the organs of patients.
  • WLC makes a good point 55:30 that moral imperatives arise in response to a competent authority. This can be used as a justification of Divine Will Theory, of which I have written that I am a fan.
  • Harris’ Moral Landscape is actually not an atheistic worldview per se. That is, it does not follow from the proposition of non-belief in God.
    • In fact, I think William Lane Craig, myself, and many other theists agree with the idea that flourishing is a moral good, ceteris paribus.
  • Like Bryan Caplan and the Ideological Turing Test, Sam Harris creates a requirement which is better fit by Christianity than atheism, despite his affirmation of atheism and low opinion of Christianity. I contend that Christianity adds more to human welfare than atheism. If such is the case, and there is great evidence it is the case, then Christianity is a morally superior to atheism even by the standard of the Moral Landscape.
  • Dr. Harris continues to equivocate between religions and denominations, somehow attempting to impute the guilt of Islam onto Christianity, and the guilt of Roman Catholicism onto Christianity per se. I would note that he doesn’t have much to say against Protestantism to which WLC and myself both ascribe. I wonder if atheist vs theist debates would be much more clear and useful if the theistic side were spelled out at as Protestant Christianity.
  • 1:44:50 – Harris considers the possibility of a god which perfectly aligns with his moral theory of flourishing. Harris basically refers to Euthyphro’s dilemma and Occam’s Razor, discounting such a god as adding nothing to his moral theory.
    • First, I think such a god would add to the Moral Landscape theory. Specifically, God is a complex entity with many functions including the function of creation. If God creates moral laws as well as the natural and supernatural worlds in which such law applies, it does add to the theory. This is because moral laws aren’t generally conceived of as creating themselves.
    • Euthyphro’s dilemma is a false dilemma, just like the question “Should people support Christianity or flourishing?”
    • Finally, Occam’s Razor is only a rule of thumb, not any sort of logical proof, and this context is a misapplication of such. Occam’s Razor is properly invoked to give preference between two equally valid explanations, but there are three problems with it here:
      • It is not the only preference-ordering device, and it is in fact a rather poor one. Expected value is a much better preference-ordering device. Christianity has a higher expected value than atheism.
      • Occam’s Razor can always be rebuffed by the under-utilized Chatton’s anti-razor. Under Chatton’s approach we should add further requirements until a decision can be made. It isn’t difficult to come up with such valid requirements. For example, the expected value proposition above and the truth proposition following.
      • Lastly, reality doesn’t always persist in ways which are theoretically clean. Suppose Sam’s voicing of the Euthyphro objection is correct and god is some mere entity B which recognizes the preceding objective moral laws, A. Even if such were the case, this would not justify atheism. Although in such case god is relegated to a mundane role, he would still exist.
        • Suppose I write some inefficient program called world.js thusly:
          • a = b; b = c;
        • Someone might remark, “In theory, b is not needed.” That would be true, but it would not change the reality that b exists inside of that particular program. If we chose to believe that reality is described as a = c instead of a = b; b = c, we would end up with a less true worldview.
  • 1:51:30 – An interesting question is raised regarding the difference between the conceptual and material possibility of the worst possible world. Specifically, Harris is asked for proof that we do not currently reside in the worst possible world.
    • Harris ends up saying, “I have no idea…”
    • Harris also believes in a deterministic universe, which seems to render his whole theory, and existence, meaningless.
    • For all Harris knows we might exist in the best possible world, or anywhere in between.
    • Somewhere along the line Harris remarks that the well-being of people is radically interconnected. I think this is a true statement and it makes for an interesting and needed modification to economic utility functions. Economics should recognize rational actors as empathetic creatures.
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