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Voices of Reason — Sam Harris: The Moral Landscape

October 14, 2010
Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955, depicting the fall of man

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I have only recently heard the argument that without religion there is no basis for morality, though I think the idea originates in the doctrine of Total Depravity.  Total Depravity started as Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin , or Ancestral Sin; the idea that every human is sinful from birth thanks to the fall of Adam.  Calvin took this idea of man’s natural sinfulness to mean that man cannot come to God of his own will, no matter how hard he may try.  Indeed, even without God’s calling a person to himself a person will not even try.

As far as I know, Calvin’s ideas on Total Depravity don’t mean that without God all men would revert to some state of total evil where all the want to do is murder, rape, and steal.  But I think this must be where the seed of the idea that without Christianity all morality would be null and we would go out and murder, rape, and steal.  As far as I can tell.  I know that I, renouncing Christianity as I have, do not feel the need to go out and commit terrible crimes to make myself happy and I suspect that no one reading this blog would do so, either.  I hope not, anyway.

Sam Harris‘ new book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values” addresses this issue, and he gave a very good lecture last week at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.  Check out the video.  Then, you should probably check out the book, as well (it will be on hold for me at the library as soon as seven other people finish reading it).

(thanks to DoctorE for posting this video)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. godlesspaladin permalink
    October 14, 2010 4:27 pm

    Ah, Augustine….I remember having to study him in college. Such a wonderful flaming misogynist. Original sin is a concept I’ve been interested in for a while. If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment, I found a quote by Ayn Rand which I think sums it up nicely.

    “A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If a man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as a man’s sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold a man’s nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice, and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but has a ‘tendency’ to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.”

    (Sorry, that’s kinda huge) <.<
    Myself and the local group are putting together a book discussion group for that book. Hopefully my copy from amazon will get here soon. (And thanks for the video link, I've only seen the TED talk) Unfortunately you'll find the "where do your morals come from without Jesus" argument to be one of the most pervasive attacks on non-christians. It really says something about the person attacking you if they admit that the only thing keeping them from committing horrible crimes is an invisible man in the sky. I like to point out that murder, rape, and theft were wrong long before Moses was supposedly given the 10 commandments. (And rape isn't forbidden in the 10 commandments come to think of it…nor are a lot of other things) The idea that you and you alone have the one true key to morality, and that the world would descend into anarchy without you, is as ridiculous and arrogant as they come.

    • October 14, 2010 4:38 pm

      Re: “Sorry, that’s kinda huge”

      Well, at least it wasn’t all your own writing. I sometimes find myself responding to someone’s Facebook status or short blog post with a dissertation of a comment all my own. :D

      I’m looking forward to reading the book, but here shortly I’ll be picking up Dan Barker’s “Godless” which relates the story of his journey from evangelical pastor to atheist which sounds like it might be right up my ally. Also have Dawkin’s “The God Delusion” and Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation” waiting for me there.

      • godlesspaladin permalink
        October 14, 2010 4:43 pm

        Quite a reading list :p What do you think of books on tape? I’m a really slow reader and sometimes I find it’s easiest for me to get the audio version of a book because I can listen to it and get other things done at the same time.

      • October 14, 2010 6:57 pm

        Books on tape: I like them for road trips, but if I try to listen to them while I do anything other than drive then I end up letting my mind wander to other things and have to go back and listen to entire swaths of tracks again.

        And I learned a couple of weeks ago when I got an 8 hour reading of Asimov’s “Pebble in the Sky” that I tend to have a lot of “driveway moments” if I’m listening to one in the car while not on a trip. It did get me through the pledge drive, though.

        I’m not a fast reader if I’m not skimming, but I still get through most books in a good time frame (in the case of most sci-fi novels I can get through them in a day, but I tend to forget to do things like eat or sleep).

        The Harris book I have isn’t a very long one, under 100 pages, so I’ll probably finish it tonight. The others will take a bit longer (especially considering that I’m in the middle of Clark’s “The Last Theorm” and am re-reading Asimov’s Foundation series right now as well, and need to finish the last two stores in my friend’s Hemingway short story collection.

        Ah… So many books, so little time… (Note: I would rather everyone else in the world were not killed by a nuclear bomb leaving only me and my books. I do wear glasses and it would be terrible if they broke, leaving me with an abundance of time and books but no way to read them.)

  2. October 14, 2010 6:32 pm

    I have the book on audio and I’ve got to say that Harris makes a strong case. Certainly, science will have a lot to say on how we arrive at decisions regarding what is or is not a moral action. But I’m not certain that he has yet convinced me that defining what is moral has been lifted from the realm of philosophy. Harris starts from the premise that what is moral maximizes wellbeing. He acknowledges that other frameworks for morality exist, such as the typical Christian framework where obeying god is moral and that this certainly does not maximize wellbeing (to say the least). But what is wellbeing? He hasn’t answered that to my satisfaction (he tries), or convinced me that science can answer it. But neuroscience as applied to moral thought is still in its infancy, and I can certainly be proven wrong.

    A good book, nonetheless, and I agree with a good deal of it. If nothing else it will spawn discussion, and that alone will prove beneficial.

    • October 14, 2010 7:01 pm

      I read in a couple of places that Harris is restating a lot of what Aristotle said. I’m not well-read on Aristotle so I couldn’t say one way or the other. But that is what I heard.

  3. godlesspaladin permalink
    October 14, 2010 10:18 pm

    Just make sure you leave your glasses in the underground bank vault that you were in when the bomb hit. ~_^

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