Morality is just another Public Myth

Hi all,

A friend of mine read my latest ongoing project, On the Means and Methods of Mass Deconversion, and had some constructive comments that served to advance my thinking on this subject a bit more.

The subject is morality – and whether atheists can be moral. I’ve posted here before on that topic. And in that post I discussed the views of Sam Harris on this matter; suggesting that he had equated “value” and “fact” incorrectly. Well, my friend, GR, challenged me on that claim, so I’ve put together a more complete description of the Harris talk given at Oxford last year and have decided to post it here. It will appear in Version 0.7 (the next version) of the project I linked to above.

from On the Means and Methods of Mass Deconversion:

” … A friend of mine had considerable difficulty accepting this fact. These statements were made by Harris at a talk he held with Dawkins at Oxford in 2011. The video was released on youtube and I will reference the run times here.

My friend stated that, “i didn’t see at any point where he said that facts and values are one in the same.”

But it is there. At 7:14 Sam Harris: “… It is thought that there are two quantities in this world, there are facts on the one hand and there are values on the other. And it is imagined that these two are discrete entities that can’t be understood in monistic terms and it is imagined that science can’t say anything about value …”

At 10:10 Sam Harris: “I am going to argue that this split between facts and values is an illusion. And my claim is that values are a certain kind of fact …”

No, they are not.

If you are objecting because this is not exactly the same thing as “one in the same” then I think you are nitpicking and not seeing the point. The point is that he is using this statement “values are a certain kind of fact” to bridge those concepts, which is precisely what Hume was saying you cannot do; that is, you cannot derive an ought from an is. So, this statement of Harris’ is fallacious. Values are not fact … at all. He either does not understand the difference or is being dishonest.

At 11:25 he does use this “worst possible misery” argument, but I’ve also disproved that (infra).

So, between these two statements, first about values and facts and then about misery, he never is able to form a basis for deriving value, which is my point, and which is the presenting challenge.

My friend commented, “values can be facts but not all facts are values”.

I don’t know what he meant by that and I disagree. Values are not facts … period. These are two completely different concepts. By definition, a value is subjective and a fact is objective, for starters.

I found myself wondering if he understood that the term “value” here is not being used in the numeric sense. It sounded like he didn’t. He then went on:

“… though facts can lead to values.”

which then led me to think that he just doesn’t understand the difference between these two terms. Facts cannot “lead to values” … that is the whole point Hume was making.

Therefore, what he and Harris are doing, if this is really their position, is novel. They are actually arguing that Hume’s claim about not being able to derive value from fact is just not true; without providing any reason for why it is not true.

But it gets worse. Harris apparently doesn’t seem to understand that the semantics of “ought” and “is” are just a language substitution for “value” and “fact” because; at one point in the video he discusses value and fact, then later discusses “ought” and “is” as if these are two completely different discussions. And when he does get to the “ought” and “is” discussion he fumbles again. At 16:15 he says, “I happen to think that this is a trick of language … that … this notion of “ought”, falls very much into Vickensteins notion of philosophy as a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language …”

Well, I agree, I think it is a trick of language, but not for the same reasons that Harris thinks.

And now we get to the punch line. GR then asked what I thought of Peter Singer’s view of atheistic morality.  I’m no expert on this guy but I think he reached the same conclusion that I did; that “morality” can only be defined in terms of what nature built us for – although we don’t agree entirely on exactly how nature built us. And that really isn’t “morality” in my mind. It is ethics, a system of ethics upon which we can derive the boundaries by which we all agree to live by, which is all we really need. And those boundaries are the basis of law, which never had anything to do with “morals”, trust me.

So, I guess GR hadn’t gotten to the end of that section I was writing because he didn’t realize that, at the end of the day, I don’t believe “morality” is a valid construct to start with. “Morality” is just one more tool, another public myth, in the toolbox of the religious masters for rendering populations subservient, docile and malleable, imo.

Since even theists cannot claim an objective morality (see my explanation in the linked project above) and since you cannot derive value from fact except by the inherent nature of human beings itself, “morality” is a fiction created by religion. So, GR, there is your answer. No, atheists cannot be moral. In fact, no one can because “morality” is a myth to start with.

– kk


  1. archaeopteryx1 said:

    I completely concur, though I misspoke when I responded to “Angelo’s” assertion that without god, there would be no morality – I should have clarified that he meant, ethics. I have no intention of correcting myself now, it would be tantamount to casting pearls before swine.

    pax vobiscum,

    • Hey Arcahaeopteryx1,

      I have someone over at TA saying that my definition of “ethics” and “morality” are the same, or something like that. So, I thought I would clarify what I mean by Singer’s “morality” and how I see that term. What I am saying, which is clearer if you read my entire treatment of this subject, is that we can derive a system, call it “morals” if you like, that is objective within human society, that is, strictly amongst human beings. And that is all that matters for us. And *that* is what I call “ethics” in the sense that it only prescribes a pragmatic way that human beings can live together and cooperate, without placing any “value” on those pragmatic boundaries, and satisfy the things that all human beings biologically (and objectively) value. And those boundaries are what we call “law”.

      So, as a member of this hypothetical society, I do not need to place any “value” on a particular more, I only need to understand that all human beings are guaranteed to value that particular more because of their biological makeup. If, and I stress if, we can find such mores, we have a system of law we can use that is not “moral” in the sense that we place no premium on it identifying “value”. But it is a system of agreeable rule of law nonetheless.

      Is there something I could say to make that clearer? Is it not clear? It might not be, so I want to be sure it makes sense. Thanks.


    • Hey – one more detail …

      I wanted to copy the excerpt dealing with the issue of morality being a “myth”:

      We prove this using an approach similar to the one used to identify the Harris Fallacy; to wit:

      For any purportedly objective moral system x predicated on any set of valuable constructs common to a set of beings i; there may exist any arbitrary set of beings j such that the predicates of x are not common to all members of both i and j.

      Therefore, even if we can solve the “moral” dilemma as it has been traditionally framed, we next encounter this more fundamental limitation that proves the impossibility of a “moral” system; and in fact demonstrates that we can’t even define the term sufficiently well. But we need to add another caveat. This does not actually prove the ‘impossibility’ of an objective “moral” system, it proves that we can never know if any given “moral” system is objective.
      But the useful part of this proof is that it proves that we can never sufficiently define the word “morality”, thus proving the very term itself to be a fiction or myth.

      This is why I’ve referred to “morality” as a fiction. But what this proof does admit of is a system of agreed upon boundaries predicated on a set of constructs valued by all members of a finite group, also known as law and equity.

      What we are once again curiously seeing is the distinction between the group and the individual; while no human being can claim access to any objective “moral” system, a group of human beings can, upon the basis of biological fact alone, assess what is valuable to the entire human species as a whole.

      That becomes the subject of law and economics whose full treatment is beyond the scope of this work. But the point is that Harris and Dawkins are vastly oversimplifying their true capacity to speak authoritatively on moral issues in society precisely because of their incompetence in law and economics, their refusal to engage it, or their mistake of not engaging it. Harris’ decision to suggest that something akin to reciprocal altruism or compassion would just “take care of itself” is a disastrous mistake and will be handily dispatched should his social ideas ever result in consideration in law, which it ultimately would if successful. All of Harris’ examples of this type suffer from the same problem. This will not work aid to atheism.

      – kk

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