Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The New Atheists on Morality


If you were to destroy the belief in immortality in mankind, not only love but every living force on which the continuation of all life in the world depended, would dry up at once. Moreover, there would be nothing immoral then, everything would be permitted. 
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1880, p. I, 2, 6 (p. 69 in the 1990 translation).

Should this statement give the “New Atheists” pause? Do they have a good philosophical answer to Dostoevsky’s challenge? Sam Harris believes that he can navigate through these stormy seas by pointing to increases in happiness and decreases in suffering. He states that “questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.”[1] Thus, for Harris, the foundation of morality comes down to caring for the well-being of all sentient creatures. This has led Harris, and other atheists similar to him, to a Vegan-like diet because they believe that it is wrong to cause pain and death to animals. Harris calls the source of this basic moral knowledge “moral intuition.” He also suggests that being moral tends to contribute to one’s happiness.

One must concede that there is a degree of logic to the Harris argument, even as it seems to argue in circles. The degree to which a creature is sentient is difficult to determine. Is a lobster more or less sentient than a chicken, sheep, or steer? What about studies that suggest plants have feelings? Does a tree “know” that it is being felled in the forest? Does it care? As the “Arrogant Worms” sing in one of their comedic songs, is carrot juice murder?

Comedic references aside, what about sentience and consciousness in general? The same atheists who argue that we should care about conscious animals, will also argue that consciousness is nothing more than chemical processes in a brain, consisting of atoms that came together through many processes, stemming from the Big Bang of the universe’s beginning. In the philosophy of the New Atheists, are the chemical processes in the brain-stem of a sheep more important than the chemical processes in the circulation system of a turnip, or an ancient White Oak tree, or a human child who is not even aware she is alive?

Does Harris ever question his own happiness? Why should he feel happy at not eating a lobster; or happy at giving money to a street survivor in New York; or unhappy with himself for not giving money to a person on a New York street? How is his happiness affected by whether I walk past or contribute to that same street person in New York?

Dostoevsky makes the stronger case and ultimately speaks the greater truth. It is easier to see Dostoevsky’s words coming to fruition than the hopeful, but ultimately, groundless words of Sam Harris. I can appreciate that Sam Harris is an intelligent person and is trying hard to create a plausible system, but the system falls shorts and ends in the circle within which it began. Without a foundation in a moral Creator, morality based on our emotions will never triumph and the best laid plans of Harris and others will most often go very far astray.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "The New Atheists." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 07 27, 2016. http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/ (accessed 07 27, 2016).

[1] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "The New Atheists." http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/, viewed 2016-07-27.

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