How Sam Harris’ attempt to establish a grounding for an atheistic morality fails

by Ratio Christi blogger Brent Hardaway

Sam HarrisI’ve finished reading Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”, read several reviews, and watched his debate with William Lane Craig. There seems to me to be a gaping hole in his argument that seems to have escaped notice.

His argument that the well-being of conscious creatures is the foundation of morality, on pages 15-16, goes like this;

1) There exists a bad life and a good life.

2) Nothing is more important to us and those we care about than the difference between thee good life and the bad life

3) The difference between the good life and the bad life has a lawful relationship to human behavior

4) 2 & 3 cannot be reasonably doubted.

But 2 to 3 is a huge logical leap. There is an unspoken, unsubstantiated premise in between the two. And that is “What is very important to us and those around us has a lawful relationship to human behavior”.

Well, there is at least an indirect attempt to establish it, I should say, on page 17.

Ask yourself, if the difference between the Bad Life and the Good Life doesn’t matter to a person, what could possibly matter to him? Is it conceivable that something might matter more than this difference expressed on the widest possible scale? What would we think of a person who said “Well, I could have delivered all seven billion of us into the Good Life, but I had other priorities. Would it be possible to have other priorities?”

What’s interesting here is that there is an appeal to intuition.  We just know that’s true! Yet throughout the book, Harris casts doubt on the reliability of human intuition. Sometimes he is correct. Truths are sometimes counter-intuitive. But he discards the possibility of free will, which is as deep as just about any other intuition.  What, then, is the rationale for trusting his intuition that because humans all prefer the good life over the bad life, therefore it is moral to work for them to have it? Harris has defended this whole formula as a first principle. However, it’s clear that it’s deeply intuitive to him.


Brent Hardaway is the director of the University of South Florida chapter of Ratio Christi. For more information on Ratio Christi student apologetics clubs, click here!

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