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.