Saturday, April 16, 2011

God's Quality Control 6.0

Here I discuss some of my thoughts on the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig at the University of Notre Dame on April 7, 2011. The focus of the debate, at least on paper, is this question: "Are the foundations of moral values natural or supernatural?" I can tell you right now that the answer is "neither." The foundations of moral values lie in the human capacity for compassion toward any creature that can suffer.

Many of my viewers have asked me to explain further my frequent condemnation of what I call coercive morality, or sometimes punitive morality, and my frequent allusions to a kind of morality far superior to anything we see in the world now, either in religious or secular circles. I have, like Sam Harris, felt for many years that there is almost always a clear distinction between right and wrong, but until Harris' talk at the TED conference in February of 2010, I never could find an intellectually satisfying basis for making the distinction. Since that talk, and specifically since hearing Harris point out that morality seems always to boil down to the well-being of creatures with a capacity for suffering, I think I've discovered a solid foundation. In this series, in addition to performing my usual quality control services for the superstitionist community, I hope also to elucidate the vision of morality that I have begun to see. Not with the expectation of agreement from everyone, but to stimulate further conversation with anyone willing to participate, in the hope that we can all get just a little closer to truth and social harmony. Don't think of this as a monologue; join in the conversation, criticize, challenge. Let's work together to see what we can come up with.

<clip 5:20 "To say that moral values and duties are objective is to say that they are valid and binding independent of human opinion.">

Umm, no. To say that they're objective is to say that their content is independent of human opinion, so he's close. But the objectivity of morals has absolutely nothing to do with whether they're binding. Craig shows the fundamental flaw in his morality from the very beginning: it is coercive. Superstitionists have no stomach for moral suasion; they find it far easier to say that you must behave this way, and the reason you must behave this way is that their god will kick your ass if you don't. Or that the government will kick your ass, because we've spent millions of dollars lobbying for a new law that requires you to behave this way.

The debate becomes a bit difficult to follow from the very beginning, because of the difference between Craig's definition of objective and that of Harris. While Craig's definition involves justification for coercing the behavior of others, Harris' definition simply applies to whether it can factually be said that a given behavior is conducive to the well-being of the sentient creatures involved. Harris draws an excellent parallel between morality and nutrition. I'd rather eat ice cream all day long and skip the broccoli. Why do I pause sometimes in ice cream consumption and eat broccoli? Is it because some authority demands it of me? No, it's because it promotes my physical health. If someone wants to encourage me to eat in a certain way, my response is not Craig's childish "Says who?" and the answer is not the lazily coercive "Says my god," which results in a ridiculous and unavoidably inconclusive argument over whether your god really said that, or really meant it the way you think, or whether you're spiritual enough to know what your god meant, etc. Rather, my response is "Why?" and the answer is, "Because it is healthier for you," which results in an actual conversation about where you got the information and whether it's based on legitimate research.

<clip 7:00 "...what is the best foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties?">

Again, the outdated framework clouds the issue. What Craig really means here is, "To which authority can we appeal for justification when attempting to compel others to behave a certain way?" This debate promises to be much like the Hitchens-Dembski debate, where the debaters are talking about two completely different things. This bothered me at first, watching Hitchens talk past Dembski. I would expect such silliness from superstitionists, but couldn't understand why Hitchens would do it. I understand now. He (and now, apparently, Sam Harris) had no intention of debating, but rather to deliver a long-overdue message of genuine hope to anyone who will listen.

That's 6.0. Thanks for watching.

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