Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

By William Lane Craig

moral landscapeWhat is the best foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties? What grounds them? What makes certain actions good or evil, right or wrong? If God does not exist, what foundation remains for objective moral values and duties? Can science answer questions of morality? New Atheist Sam Harris thinks so.

A great merit of Sam Harris’ recent book The Moral Landscape is his bold affirmation of the objectivity of moral values and duties. To say that moral values and duties are objective is to say they are valid and binding independent of human opinion. For example, to say that the Holocaust was objectively evil is to say it was evil even though the Nazis who carried it out thought it was good. And it would still have been evil even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everyone who disagreed with them, so everybody who was left thought the Holocaust was good.

Harris inveighs against what he calls “the overeducated atheistic moral nihilist[s]” and relativists who refuse to condemn as objectively wrong terrible atrocities like the genital mutilation of little girls.1 Citing Donald Symons, he rightly declares, “If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, … the only question would be how severely that person should be punished.”2 What is not in question is that such a person has done something horribly, objectively wrong.

Objective Moral Values and Duties

The question then is, what is the best foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties? What grounds them? What makes certain actions good or evil, right or wrong? Traditionally, God has been the highest Good (summum bonum) and His commandments constitutive of our moral duties. But if God does not exist, what foundation remains for objective moral values and duties?

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Consider first the question of objective moral values. On atheism, what basis is there for affirming objective moral values? In particular, why think that human beings have objective moral worth? On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature who have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called planet Earth — lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe — and are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On atheism it is hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, anymore than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being. This is what Harris calls “The Value Problem.”3

The purpose of Harris’ The Moral Landscape is to solve the “value problem,” to explain the basis, on atheism, for the existence of objective moral values.4 He explicitly rejects the view that moral values are Platonic objects existing independently of the world.5 So his only recourse is to try to ground moral values in the natural world. But can he do that, since nature in and of itself is morally neutral?

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Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

 

RECOMMENDED APOLOGETICS RESOURCES BY WILLIAM LANE CRAIG:

God Is Great, God Is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible

Reasonable Faith (3rd Edition): Christian Truth and Apologetics