Dialogue about morality

Total Posts:  523
Joined  14-07-2006
22 June 2007 16:35

Warning, this will be somewhat long. It is the email dialogue between my friend Jason and I regarding a recent email he sent to Sam. I will paste his comments and mine. Thought it might be interesting to some people here since it basically reads like a thread. Here it is:


So I sent the following email to Sam Harris, don't know if i'll hear back, but you like thinking about this stuff so I thought I'd get your answers to my questions. So here it is exactly as I sent it to him:

Dear Mr. Harris,

I know you are a busy man, so I'll keep this brief. I've recently been
reading more of your work (I think you are brilliant, btw) and came
across something that compelled me to write you this email.
In a debate between yourself and Rick Warren, this article
(http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17889148/site/newsweek/) attributes the
following to you: "Sam, what are the secular sources of an acceptable moral code?"

HARRIS: "Well, I don't think that the religious books are the source. We
go to the Bible and we are the judge of what is good. We see the golden
rule as the great distillation of ethical impulses, but the golden rule
is not unique to the Bible or to Jesus; you see it in many, many
cultures—and you see some form of it among nonhuman primates. I'm not at all a moral relativist. I think it's quite common among religious people to believe that atheism entails moral relativism. I think there is an absolute right and wrong. I think honor killing, for example, is unambiguously wrong—you can use the word evil. A society that kills women and girls for sexual indiscretion, even the indiscretion of being raped, is a society that has eradicated empathy. Empathy and compassion are our most basic moral impulses, and we can even teach the golden rule without lying to ourselves or our children about the origin of certain books or the virgin birth of certain people."

My 2 questions are:
1) By what standard is "absolute right and wrong" defined?
2) Are humans the only animals with an "absolute right and wrong"?

Thank you very much for your time.

I'm sure he's gotten these questions before, but I think they're
important ones and I am curious as to how he would respond. I could also
ask, "Is "good" the same as "right"; "bad" the same as "wrong"? If so,
can an event be simultaneously considered "good" and "bad", depending on perspective? If so, then doesn't that nullify the possibility of the existence of an "absolute right and wrong" or an "absolute good and bad"?


I believe that for humans there is an absolute right and absolute wrong. Like Sam says, stoning a teenage girl for being raped is 100% wrong. There is no reasoning or logical way to justify that without using some distorted, sociopathic, or fanatical religious mindset to do so (which are all illogical).

A bear, or whatever other non-human you choose to use, does not have any control of its environment. It lives in "the hands of the gods" (or in the hands of nature as it were). There is no one right way for bears. But yet a bear will do everything it can to protect itself and its life just like a teenage girl would want to do when they drag her off to the stoning pit (but of course she would have no choice in the matter or the ability to defend herself). The "right way" for a bear is to stay alive at all costs. And that's all humans want too.

And as cliche' as it is to say, you are comparing apples to oranges. Humans have complex social behaviors and lifestyles that involve things that are way beyond the realm of any other non-human. In addition, no other non-humans as far as we know are even capable of conceiving "right vs. wrong". That concept is a human tool we use to make our lives easier and to ensure our survival, and to a lesser extent, happiness.

You are essentially trying to make a point by comparisson and say that
"Since animals can't do this, then why should humans be able to?" But I
think the obvious answer is that we ARE humans and animals are not. And it's the fact that we are humans with complex thoughts that make us
different, not just that we are some arbitrary primate.


Here's how I think it breaks down:  The fact that Harris said, "I think there is an absolute right and wrong" proves that it is not true.  If it were true, he wouldn't have to say it.  We'd all already know that.  In reality, we don't all know that.  You say it is illogical to stone teenage girls to death, but no one is obligated to be logical.  I am free to be as illogical as I want to be.  If anyone has a problem with me being illogical, they are free to kill me or whathaveyou.  You say, "In addition, no other non-humans as far as we know are even capable of conceiving "right vs. wrong". That concept is a human tool we use to make our lives easier and to ensure or survival, and to a lesser extent, happiness." I agree.  Humans conceived of "right" and "wrong" themselves throughout their evolution.  Those concepts have evolved, and will continue to evolve, with us.  The only way that there could be an "absolute right and wrong" is if those concepts were static.  Since they evolve with us, they are not absolute.

  I see right and wrong as feelings that we each perceive differently; the same way that we perceive anger, love and hate differently.  There is no "absolute" anger.  There are degrees of anger, just as there are degrees of right and wrong.  It is up to each individual to interpret these different feelings in his own way.  I can't tell another man that he is interpreting his feelings incorrectly.  That would be like insulting someone and telling them not to feel angry about it.

  Our feelings are chemicals swimming around in our brains.  There is no "correct" way for those chemicals to "swim."  Some human brains produce more functional humans than others, but it is not incorrect to be a retard or psychopath killer.  We are how we are.

  We can form a more functional society around eliminating psychopath killers, but we would not be incorrect or "absolutely wrong" if we did not eliminate them.  We would just have a crappier society to live in.


Harris has made himself wealthy by saying things we already know. What is more self evident than saying "God is a myth"? But yet he's published a couple books about it.  The field of logic states that being logical is the most sensible and beneficial way to be.  So, it only makes sense that people would do things that are logical.  They of course don't, but there are repercussions for that (hence, you should behave logically lest you face more repercussions).

I think the points he made about "absolute wrongs" were only extreme examples. Since the birth of Lucy 4 million years ago, I think it would have been, and still is, absolutely wrong to stone her to death because someone raped her. That has not, nor should it, ever change. Evolution has no bearing on those extreme instances of "immorality."

And you're still doing apples to oranges comparisons by equating someone's anger level to someone's decision on how severely to punish a helpless person. Mainly it's because the latter is going beyond one's self and is impacting someone elses life. If it were truly comparable, it'd be that the person feels strongly that the girl should be stoned to death for being raped(but doesn't actually kill her.) It crosses into a whole new level when someone says, "Here's how I feel….and this is what is going to happen to you as a result…"

You have to keep in mind that Sam bases his premises on logic and honesty. Those things transcend personal interpretations of how we choose to look at the world. "Right" and "wrong" are terms that we use to label things in a logical way. You should drive safely…that is the "right" way to drive. It is "absolutely wrong" to murder a rape victim…no one should have to be killed just because they had been victimized sexually. It is illogical to claim anything different. And it would be dishonest to claim anything different. Those are universal truths regardless of whether a deluded person disputes that.

Now you might argue as to where to draw the line on this slippery slope. Is it logical to drive recklessly to pursue a criminal? Is it logical to kill someone because they also killed someone? Logic would state that nearly everything has one "correct" course of action and consequence. But Sam doesn't focus on the shades of gray in between the extremes he's mentioned. Because he knows that it is illogical to expect a diverse group of people to agree on everything the same way. But he does believe that we SHOULD agree on the most fundamental and critically important things which have huge impacts on human quality of life.

Total Posts:  1547
Joined  02-03-2006
25 June 2007 12:10


You might try pressing your friend on the following point he made:

You say it is illogical to stone teenage girls to death, but no one is obligated to be logical. I am free to be as illogical as I want to be. If anyone has a problem with me being illogical, they are free to kill me or whathaveyou.

Are we really free to be as illogical as we want?  Well, in one sense, nobody is going to come to my door and say, “Hey, you’ve just committed a logical fallacy.  It’s the rack for you this week.”  So we can do lots of things that nobody can prevent.  I could add 2 and 2 together and get 78, if I really wanted.  I could do it, in a sense (nobody would throw me on the rack) but I would still be wrong to do it.

The issue is not what we are capable of.  Again, nobody doubts that we, as a species, are capable of all kinds of illogical behavior and thoughts.  The issue is what is right and what is wrong.  And it is wrong to add 2 and 2 and come up with 78.  And it is wrong to commit logical fallacies.  And it is wrong to torture innocent babies.  People may do all of these things; and get away with it, in the sense of not being punished.  But it is still wrong to do them.

Traces Elk
Traces Elk
Total Posts:  5591
Joined  27-09-2006
25 June 2007 16:30

People may do all of these things; and get away with it, in the sense of not being punished. But it is still wrong to do them.

You know, I sort of grudgingly may be tempted to agree with (or at least seem to give a measure of credence to) the essence of what you wrote.

What I wanna know is: What prize do you think is at the bottom of that crackerjack box?

It’s a great thing to be able to demonstrate to someone that he is “wrong”. This is largely a game that laboratory scientists play with one another, but in this rare company, people actually admit that they are wrong sometimes. If you insist on different communities of discourse having equivalent validities, telling someone he is wrong is not only pointless, but stupid. You may remember that business about teaching the pig to sing.

You might as well say that it was wrong for the solar system to send the meteorite that killed off the dinosaurs, because in that case, human beings would not have evolved to visit cruelty on one another. Or you could say that such acts are wrong because they result in unnecessary suffering. But you can’t quite put your finger on “necessary”, can you? Or you could say that such acts as stoning to death the victims of rape are wrong because they cannot be rationally justified. But you can’t quite put your finger on what “rationality” is, can you?

Overheard online today:

The problem with the US is stupidity. I’m not saying there should be capital punishment for stupidity but why don’t we just take the safety labels off everything and let the problem solve itself?

Total Posts:  523
Joined  14-07-2006
26 June 2007 08:01

Jason did make a few notable points, but he became increasingly nihilistic and illogical in the next couple emails (not posted here). He referenced abortion and how it is hard to tell if it is right or wrong and how rape “could” be pleasurable. And then basically said what does any of it matter in the grand scheme of things, yadda yadda yadda.

I just told him that his dark mood has no bearing on universal truths about ethics and justice and reminded him to stay on task if he wanted to address the issue at hand logically (as Sam would do).

Total Posts:  882
Joined  23-02-2005
26 June 2007 12:54

Human moral impulses are the (by)product of evolutionary pressure.

Human cognitive development, however, allows people to probe, question and even reject their moral impulses.

Most of the people that have seriously considered their moral impulses have opted to retain them, although this consideration often results in some alterations to their moral behavior.

Many people, upon choosing to reaffirm (possibly with refinements) these moral impulses feel good in that choice.

When pressed, however, people are often at a loss to give a concrete “why”, and get confused, annoyed or worse.

I believe that the reason for this is fairly simple: Just as we have evolved to desire certain foods, certain temperature ranges, etc., we have also evolved with the expectation of interacting with our fellow human beings within the context of a moral framework.

So, just as a person could live on 1000 calories a day, or keep their living quarters at a constant 47 degrees Fahrenheit, they could also live without interacting with other human beings in a moral fashion. This will result in unhappiness for most people, however.

This explanation will doubtless not appeal to some, especially those who would seek an ultimate morality etched in the quantum fabric of the universe, but I find it deeply satisfying. I have moral impulses, and following them makes me feel good, and tend to be beneficial to society at large as well. Why make it more complicated than it needs to be?

Of course, a person might wonder at the variety of human moral impulses. Chalk it up to neuroplasticity and the fact that people choose their behavior from a wide array of competing impulses.


Does there need to be a prize at the bottom of the box if we enjoyed snack along the way?