The Moral Landscape – Part 3: Rejection of the Need for Justification

the-moral-landscapeIn regards to Moore’s ‘open question argument,’ Harris asserted, “If we define ‘good’ as that which supports well-being, as I will argue we must, the regress initiated by Moore’s ‘open question argument’ really does stop.”[1] Perhaps Harris does not fully understand the type of argument Moore is employing, but his response is remarkably short-winded. He continued, “While I agree with Moore that it is reasonable to wonder whether maximizing pleasure in any given instance is ‘good,’ it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good.’[2] He continued, “It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is ‘good,’ is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being.”[3] How is the philosophical problem of intrinsic ‘good’ resolved by adding a broader value? Harris does nothing to combat the argument and merely appeals to the ridiculousness of the question. The question is only nonsense on the basis of Harris’ drawn definition.[4] Once Harris defined ‘good’ as that which maximizes well-being, the question became equivalent to asking why one eats food, which is answered without exception, ‘Why would one ask such a thing?’ Furthermore, it seems to be a nonsense question because everyone already knows it to be true. No one sincerely questions whether well-being is good; but the question concerns whether something is good because it maximizes well-being. The argument against Harris regards his justification for objective moral claims, and seemingly Harris has none, and therefore considers it a question better left unhandled.[5]

Harris admitted that he functioned from axiomatic foundations, but for anyone to question these axioms is utterly ridiculous. As Leff did pester, “[All together now:] Sez who?”[6] Notice how this defense completely disarms the apologetic discussion. The Christian’s argument essentially consists in the materialist’s inability to justify moral objectivity, and yet, Harris claims that this discussion is completely fallacious and self-destructive – i.e. it would nullify all disciplines of scientific study. A reply of this sorts hardly constitutes a rebuttal, for he admits the very claim of the Christian. Yes, without such axioms, all knowledge would be near impossible to attain; but in the materialistic worldview, these axioms are unjustifiable, whereas, in the Christian worldview, they are justified by the existence of the ontological Trinity. The mere rebuttal of ‘they need not be justified’ is not a sufficient reply to the Christian’s ‘they are justified in the ontological Trinity.’ One may suppose that Harris rejects such a justification because he would rather have unanswered questions than the answer of God; and unlike his concession of hope for science’s ability to one day determine morality, it is outside of science’s ability to one day justify its foundational axioms since the only route to justification would presuppose the conclusion – i.e. function from the very axioms that it sought to prove.

[1] Ibid., 12. Craig asserts that this humanist morality, equating human flourishing to ‘good,’ is an arbitrary and implausible “stopping point,” On Guard, 138. It is not that human flourishing is a wrong way of seeing morality, but the issue is that the analysis cannot end there. Once again, any inquiry that does not sufficiently address the foundational question is one that will ultimately lead back to the foundational question; and there will inevitably be unanswered questions – questions of essential importance.

[2] Harris, Moral Landscape 12, emphasis added. Notice that Harris isolated ‘pleasure’ in Moore’s argument and agreed with his point ‘in any given instance.’ The wording possibly implies that Harris isolated Moore’s argument as an argument against hedonistic morality (pleasure); and Harris rejects such hedonistic understandings of morality: “The problem with using a strict hedonic measure of the ‘good’ grows more obvious once we consider some of the promises and perils of a maturing neuroscience…It might be good to make compassion more rewarding than sexual lust, but would it be good to make hatred the most pleasurable emotion of all? One can’t appeal to pleasure as the measure of goodness in such cases, because pleasure is what we would be choosing to reassign” (fn. 20, pg. 196).

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] In Harris’ soon to be released book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (S.l.: Simon & Schuster, 2014), which is purposed in providing a ‘scientific’ spirituality, he supposedly conducted a similar scheme of verification by redefinition. In a review by Mike Dobbins at the Christian Post, he noted, “The ‘unfortunate associations’ Harris refers to are the very pillars of spirituality which make the word meaningful to the millions of non-religious and spiritual people, like myself, who use it. By rejecting the modern definition of spirituality that may include a higher mystical force or power, reference to a soul, or something that transcends the material world, Harris strips the word of all present day significance. In its place, he substitutes a diminutive definition based strictly on etymology. In other words, an Iron age definition only a handful of people use or are even aware exists” (http://www.christianpost.com/news/waking-up-is-atheist-sam-harris-lying-to-sell-books-121184/). Is anyone really surprised that he has once again claimed novelty by the means of semantic misdirection? He has generated a discussion where you can only speak using his terms. Harris apparently believes that he can turn the world upside-down by defining ‘up’ as ‘down.’

[5] This is similar to Karl Popper’s redirection of Hume’s problem of induction: “I propose to replace … the question of the sources of our knowledge by the entirely different question: ‘How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?'” Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Routledge Classics (London: Routledge, 2002), 25.

[6] Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal 1979, no. 6: 1249

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