The Moral Landscape

What is Utilitarianism? Subjective Feelings
Sermon on the Mount Body Pile
Trojan Horse Baboon Troop
Hate Literature Good Folks
Peaceful Co-Existence Barn-Yard
Sadists' Rights Comrade Mother
Grand Inquisitor Humpty Dumpty
Gorgias Wrath of Achilles
Flash-Light Unmet Expectations
Fallacy of Scale Hall of Mirrors
Pretty Pebble Great Leap Backwards
Bow-Wow Minority Rights
God's Math

What is Utilitarianism?

Author Sam Harris has written a book advising the rest of us how we should live our lives. This is the author, the reader may recall, whose bread-and-butter topic is how undesirable and greatly to be feared are Christians, and how imperative it is for right-thinking people to band together and deprive these low and unworthy creatures of their civil rights, such as the right to hold public office. A tome like 'The Secret to Happiness' by George Wallace, or 'How Men Should Live' by Bull Connor would meet with puzzlement in the book market, because we do not usually consider bigots to be morally exemplary persons, nor do we look for the worst of us to lecture the rest of us on how we should live. Nevertheless this offering has met with enthusiasm from those who share the author's hatreds.

The 'morals' of The Moral Landscape are a rehash of Utilitarianism, the nineteenth century criterion of right and wrong advanced by author Jeremy Bentham:

  • “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.”
  • (Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, On the Principle of Utility, Chapter 1, I).

Precursors include David Hume,

"It appears to be matter of fact, that the circumstance of UTILITY, in all subjects, is a source of praise and approbation: That it is constantly appealed to in all moral decisions concerning the merit and demerit of actions: That it is the SOLE source of that high regard paid to justice, fidelity, honour, allegiance, and chastity: That it is inseparable from all the other social virtues, humanity, generosity, charity, affability, lenity, mercy, and moderation: And, in a word, that it is a foundation of the chief part of morals, which has a reference to mankind and our fellow-creatures."
(Hume, David (2011-03-24). An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (pp. 36-37). . Kindle Edition.

. . .which is odd when you think about it because 'consequentialism' requires the moral actor to consider the consequences, though Hume famously denied causation.

This popular nineteenth century system of morals was itself an updating of Epicurus' antique system of morals, put out to majority vote. Because everyone is equal, we must count noses to determine what is right: "Society between equals can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally." (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter III, Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility). "To be regarded equally" by whom? The government certainly, but by private individuals also? Though the British government never advanced to the level of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is true a just government must view its citizens as possessed equally of rights. Justice, however, does not assign an equal claim to happiness to good and bad alike.

This system stumbles right out of the gate, by assigning equal rewards to all, whether merited or not. It is one man, one vote. Son of Sam is assigned an equal claim to happiness along with his innocent victims. Though we can subsequently decide to punish him, in the initial reckoning of right and wrong, his vote counts equally with anyone else's. Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane are assumed to enjoy the same inalienable right to happiness as the millions they put in the grave. They are counted in the greater number, because there is no mechanism to disenfranchise them. Conscience cries out against this outcome. It may be objected, disenfranchising the wicked presumes we already know what is right and what is wrong, thus enabling ourselves to discriminate between the just and the unjust, whereas this system was invented to determine that very question. True, and thus the system collapses; we cannot ascertain what is right and wrong by this mechanism.

Odd consequences follow from this demand for equal suffrage. Patriotism, while responsible for evils such as war, is usually considered a civic virtue; we do owe a debt of gratitude to the country that nurtured us. Try doing the math:

"France may contain perhaps, near three times the number of inhabitants which Great Britain contains. In the great society of mankind, therefore, the prosperity of France should appear to be an object of much greater importance than that of Great Britain. The British subject, however, who, upon that account, should prefer upon all occasions the prosperity of the former to that of the latter country, would not be thought a good citizen of Great Britain." (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Kindle location 4274).

If we count noses as directed, the inhabitants of the little countries must prefer to see the success of the bigger countries over their own nickel-and-dime ones.

The utilitarians instructed not only the government but also private citizens to direct their own personal lives without showing any favoritism to their own. Epicurus advised his hearers to choose the pleasurable, but only on a retail basis, not wholesale for all customers. Utilitarianism advises choosing what is advantageous for the commune as a whole, not for the individual alone:

"I must again repeat, what the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator." (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter II, What Utilitarianism Is).

To Ayn Rand's horror and indignation, this principle, 'The greatest good to the greater number,' may even require self-sacrifice:

Atheist Ayn Rand 
Atheist Ayn Rand

She conflated the atheistic, altogether this-worldly viewpoint of Utilitarianism with Christianity, often arguing against both together. It is difficult to deny some influence; people brought up as Christians are more prone to answer with a ready 'of course' to questions about concern for the well-being of others, so the start-up of Utilitarianism in a Christian society was doubtless easier than elsewhere. Nevertheless the Utilitarian system is novel and does not proceed from Christian principles, because here the collective occupies the place of God.

Everyone's well-being is dumped into the same pool. If your destruction conduces to the bliss of others, then you are obliged to throw yourself off a cliff, because they outnumber you. Those who fail to see the logic might be surprised to learn that this peculiar, and perhaps a bit red-tinged, ethical system has recently been discovered to be scientific. Or so it's been advertised. Or it might be what is being advertised is intellectual bankruptcy.

Sam Harris cites the case of the female circumcision of an unwilling and helpless little baby,

"If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, . . .the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction." (Donald Symons, quoted with apparent approval by Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 46).

There are benefits accrued in this transaction, not to the little girl, but to the 'greater number'; family members will profit from the bride-price of a young woman known to be a virgin at marriage. This is why the practice endures in cultures which expect the groom to transfer wealth to the bride's family; the motivation is financial, not religious. Yet Sam Harris is almost as indignant over her treatment as a means to an end as if he subscribed to an ethical system which prohibits such calculations. If her pain leads to an abundance of bliss on the part of others, then her pain and lost satisfaction are no barrier to their action. There is no wall between her and them, no tissue of rights and obligations, no expectation that other people cannot make such demands. Transactions like this are allowed in this market-driven ethics. Utilitarianism is premised on the Bolshevik looting of all well-being, mine and yours, which is then tossed into the same common pot. Some Utilitarians, it seems, do not want to be consistent.

There is a historical connection between the Utilitarians and the Bolsheviks, through a direct, forward-running time-line. The novelist Dostoevsky was in dialogue with Russian radicals who followed Jeremy Bentham. When he proposes a murderer, Raskolnikov, who murders an old lady on the sound utilitarian principle that he intends to distribute her wealth to benefit others, he is critiquing their ethics. Is it a problem that the violated little girl is being used as a means to an end by her family? Not in this system, which reduces all of us to means available to serve the ends of the collective. It may be that the father is selling his little girl for a paltry price; of what worth is an extra cow or two compared with her pain? But suppose her virginity at marriage were worth two billion dollars, and meant the difference between a life of penury and sufficient abundance for the entire extended family. Utilitarianism allows these kinds of computations; the little girl's pain is in no way privileged because she is innocent, or because she is an autonomous individual endowed with rights; it all goes into the common account, shared with the people who are profiting off of her. If the pay-off is high enough, Utilitarianism says OK go ahead.

The analysis is as fine-grained as the analyst will have it be. Sometimes the Utilitarian ethicist is only concerned with replicating the Ten Commandments and then calling it a day. Even John Stuart Mill, who used the utilitarian principle to evolve a rule-based system, was willing to discard the rule when analysis of an individual case according to the utilitarian principle yielded a different result. The final unit of ethical analysis in this system is the individual case; each individual case has its own rule. In practical fact, the Utilitarian moralists are willing to re-open all ethical questions in any given instance, and indeed boast of their system's flexibility in allowing this close-focus analysis versus inflexible law-systems. There is no Utilitarian rule without exceptions.

What about lying, for instance? A Christian moralist like Augustine might well say, Never lie. Do the Utilitarians concur? Certainly on a large scale, society benefits from an expectation of truthfulness; who would believe a witness, or enter into a business contract, if it could safely be assumed everyone is lying? And yet by sharpening the focus, it becomes apparent that any given lie, if it is very likely to be believed, does not impair societal expectation; only discovered lies can do that. A number must be entered into the calculation reflecting the likelihood of discovery. So the Utilitarian result comes out as, Only lie sometimes. This system of morality is, after all, distinctly immoral. Female circumcision is not the only evil it fails to condemn; it consistently fails to condemn those evils which pay off for somebody, if the payees outnumber the losers.

Russian Icon

Subjective Feelings

These nineteenth-century moralists held up pain and pleasure as the criterion of right and wrong:

"By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question. . ." (Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Chapter 1, II).

'Pleasure' and 'benefit' are counted as synonyms for 'happiness:' "By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered. . ." (Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Chapter 1, III).

Why, ultimately, should anyone adopt this system of morals and make it a regulative principle of life? Inasmuch as these atheist authors hold little stake in such 'external' factors as the character of God, we are left with subjective feelings:

"The ultimate sanction, therefore, of all morality (external motives apart) being a subjective feeling in our own minds, I see nothing embarrassing to those whose standard is utility, in the question, what is the sanction of that particular standard? We may answer, the same as of all other moral standards—the conscientious feelings of mankind." (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter III, Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility).

What a powerful proof, one which fully satisfies modern-day 'science' no doubt. Our masterful "moral expert" takes the same tack in the end, volunteering to correct his wicked system of morals in favor of conventional morality, because doing good feels good and thus becomes a facet of well-being. Our Utilitarian inquiries began, recall, with right and wrong an unknown to be determined by the criterion of well-being; how surprising, then, to discover we knew what it was all along, and it's not determined by the criterion of well-being but by the 'feel-good' criterion! Sam Harris will not correct his system all the way, only as much as needed to push the worst horrors out of sight: he does not discard the criterion of 'well-being,' but drags it back out after enough time has elapsed that its insufficiency may have been forgotten.

Sermon on the Mount

The nineteenth century Utilitarians, though not themselves Christians, claimed their new ethical system was compatible with Christianity, and indeed that the Golden Rule could not be otherwise obeyed than by conducting a Utilitarian analysis, weighing the amount of pleasure or pain promoted by any proposed course of action. But as should be apparent, Christian ethics is not a subset of Utilitarian ethics; the motive setting the whole system in motion is not the greatest good for the greater number, but the imitation of God:

"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?. . .Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:45-48).

The Christian aims to imitate Christ. The prime mover of the system is not the fond feeling of a bee toward the bee-hive, as in Utilitarianism, which promotes as highest good a sense of unity with mankind. John Stuart Mill looked forward to the day when "education" could produce the desired sentiment: ". . .by the improvement of education, the feeling of unity with our fellow creatures shall be (what it cannot be doubted that Christ intended it to be) as deeply rooted in our character, and to our own consciousness as completely a part of our nature, as the horror of crime is in an ordinarily well-brought up young person." (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter III, Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility).

But making the human community the highest good proved to be a deadly snare. Utilitarianism is a collectivist system of ethics which elevates the commune above the individual; the individual is not allowed to count his own well-being above that of others, even in his own private calculus; recall, "As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator." Nor can he claim sanctuary in any publically proclaimed, known and defined system of law; there is none here, everything is up for grabs. This ethical system provides a rationale whereby collectives can crush the individuals of which they are composed and consider themselves fully justified.

The Utilitarians are correct to point out that everyone uses their principle of utility. Indeed everyone does cost/benefit analyses, at some point or another, for instance the radio show 'Focus on the Family,' which invents secular, this-worldly reasons based on sociological and psychological research to justify divine commands. It would be better if there were less of this and more reverence for the law-giver. Yet none but the Utilitarians make utility the sole criterion of right and wrong, the sole support of the entire system of morals. This way leads disaster. The Utilitarian ethicist can reason, 'let us do wrong so that good may result; the end justifies the means.' Because the only criterion in this system is the happiness of the greater number, any objectively evil deed advertised as promoting the general happiness is allowed in the end; they have laws, but none of universal sway.

They are dancing over a chasm without a net; there is no divine law back-stopping their system, reminding them that murder and robbery are simply wrong. This reasoning is specifically forbidden to Christians: "And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just." (Romans 3:8). Their murders and robberies do come and promptly, but the good they promise as following just behind never quite seems to catch up.

Body Pile

How does this principal of analysis react with concrete cases? Let us try Ivan's conundrum against the Utilitarian principle:

  • “Tell me yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
  • (Ivan questioning Alyosha, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 269).

Karl Marx V. I. Lenin
Bhagat Singh Mao Zedong
Pol Pot Enver Hoxha
The Derg Che Guevara
No True Atheist Why?
Tu Quoque Prince of Tyre
Atheist Armies Jim Jones
The French Revolution

Atheist Killers

Suppose this scenario were true. It is hypothetical of course and unlikely to occur, but suppose it did. How would our unfailing criterion of right and wrong, the greatest good for the greater number, advise us to proceed? Torture the baby of course; bliss awaits the greater number. Utilitarianism is a system of ethics that reliably produces monstrous results.

Not only has it produced such results in theory but also in fact. There may be worse ethical systems than Utilitarianism, but there is none which has racked up a higher body count. Does it surprise anyone to discover that the child-murderer Anders Behring Breivik endorsed utilitarianism?: "The needs of the many will always surpass the needs of the few." (2083 Manifesto, p. 837.) If you poke through the piles of corpses deposited here and there during the twentieth century, you will dig down in the end to some secular utopia which was just around the corner if only these people, standing in the way, were done away with. And on sound Utilitarian principles, they were. If all that stands between us and the workers' paradise is a few thousand recalcitrant kulaks, family farmers who do not want to merge their land into state farms, then who can weigh these few, paltry lives against the unspeakable happiness of future generations, when misery and toil are finally cast off? These family farmers are selfish after all, the cardinal sin of the Utilitarian system; they did not obey the rubric, "As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator." They said, 'my farm, my happiness,' not 'ours.' Except the workers' paradise never came, only a dysfunctional economic system even less productive and less fair than what had existed before. So the kulaks were sacrificed for what? Long lines for empty store shelves? This 'trade' was worth it by what arithmetic?

Foresight is one of the things that lifts humanity above the animals, as the Utilitarians liked to point out. But it has its limits, as the Bible points out:

"And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. . .But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?" (Luke 12:18-20).
"Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that." (James 4:14-15).

Common experience repeats the Bible's lessons. What information would have been of more value to investors than to know, in advance, that the financial melt-down of 2008 was coming? Certainly the danger signs were in place: a real estate bubble, questionable mortgages, the risk divvied up into proliferating credit-default swaps with the potential to open up like little black holes sucking the life-blood from the financial world. And yet hardly anyone did predict what happened. Not to worry, replies our intrepid author; though it's true we simply do not have the information upon which all moral decisions are premised in this system, that's no problem:

"The fact that it may often be difficult, or even impossible, to know what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be does not mean that there is some other basis for human values that is worth worrying about." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, pp. 72-73).

While some race of gods seated upon Olympus might find the approach of utilitarianism feasible, we simply don't have the wherewithal to make it work: "For example, one of the decisive objections to utilitarianism (the theory of ethics that says that we should do whatever will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people) is that we have no idea of the ultimate outcome of our actions. Some short-term good might actually lead to untold misery, while some action that looks disastrous in the short term may bring about the greatest good." (William Lane Craig, On Guard, Kindle location 2624). Some prior failed prognostications have brought horrors into the world. The Russian radicals with whom Dostoevsky was in dialogue were Benthamites; this thought-strain entered into the Bolshevik revolution. Utilitarianism led to their conclusion that the end justifies the means. They committed crimes on the expectation that good would come; an expectation, like so many human dreams and schemes, never fulfilled. The great day never came, the revolution was not televised, and the failed economic scheme they imposed upon millions led nowhere but to failure and misery, stranding all the crimes they committed to make it happen.

So where were our Utilitarian true-believers left by the ethical theory which they devotedly and exactly followed? You have traded real, present, flesh and blood kulaks, who actually exist, for imaginary future benefits which never have nor ever will exist. You've committed murder, with no excuse but a crack-pot theory, spinning yarns about a fabled pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There is blood on your hands, with no workers' paradise to wash it off. Blood is drenching the ground, calling out for vengeance, against whom but the well-meaning, progressive murderers? How much safer, if more modest, to trust in God and follow His commands than to trust in a man-made system that reliably incites its devotees to crime.

In child-murderer Breivik's eyes, it was right to kill a small number, to prevent much larger casualties down the road, in the civil war he imagines in Europe's future: "In fact, from a pragmatical viewpoint, it would be inhuman not to act in a cruel manner when the alternative is much worse. Just focus on targets that can be morally justified and accept casualty numbers that are far from exceeding the alternative future atrocities. . .Inflicting cruel cancer deaths on 1000 - 10 000 Europeans (in P[hase] 1) might actually be the most humane thing we do, if their sacrifice contributes to prevent a bloody Christian-Muslims civil war (in P[hase] 3) resulting in millions of deaths." (Anders Behring Breivik, 2083 Manifesto, pp. 1026-1027). This is madness but where is the error? There is no moral wrong in failing to predict the future accurately; no one can. "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth." (Proverbs 27:1). Trusting to God's commands takes us out of the thicket of 'mad' predictions; really, they all are.

Believers in this system follow a prophet: "Reason deserves to be called a prophet; for in showing us the consequence and effect of our actions in the present, does it not tell us what the future will be?" (The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism, Psychological Observations, Kindle location 441). Indeed it does, but unfortunately a prophet with this kind of track record would have been stoned to death under the Mosaic covenant. First, let these people prove that they can foretell the future, and then let them demand that we follow them.

Marxist Frederick Engels had the same trouble as Sam Harris in proving that we are all happy together, an essential principle for any communitarian system, and resolved the difficulty the same way: by arbitrary obiter dicta:

". . .in the consciousness or feeling of every individual there exist certain irrefutable basic principles which, being the result of the whole of historical development, require no proof.

"Question 5: What are such principles?

"Answer: For example, every individual strives to be happy. The happiness of the individual is inseparable from the happiness of all, etc."
(Frederick Engels, Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith, 1847, Questions 4 and 5).

Trojan Horse

Hypothetical cases are the mother's milk of ethics. But there are limits to their allowable use; certainly a feature of a given hypothetical case cannot be assumed also to be a feature of the world, without proof. Yet this is just how Sam Harris smuggles the ethical concept, 'we're all in this together,' which is foundational for Utilitarianism but not obviously true, into a purportedly 'scientific' framework. It seems he has outsmarted himself mostly, I doubt anyone else fell for it.

Sam Harris proposes the Maximal Misery Universe in which every conscious creature experiences constant suffering. When polled whether they want that, respondents must answer 'no,' because it's equivalent to asking 'do you want to be miserable?:'

"Can we readily conceive of someone who might hold altogether different values and want all conscious beings, himself included, reduced to the state of worst possible misery? I don't think so." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 204)

I don't think so either, because not many people say, 'I want to be miserable.' Ted Bundy would not say that, nor Jeffrey Dahmer, nor Charles Manson. Tossing in that "himself included" was a helpful move! All effort must thereafter be directed to avoiding the Maximal Misery Universe, which can only be avoided by maximizing human flourishing. But this is to apply the maxim, 'We are all miserable together, or we all flourish together.' If it were true that 'if you are miserable I am bound to be miserable too,' that fact about the world in and of itself would be a powerful motivator to altruism, because I do not want to be miserable, and our fates are intertwined.

'The Moral Landscape' proposes a cafeteria where whatever I select for myself, I select the same thing for you. So naturally I will select a tasty choice for you; I am after all stuck with the same thing myself. But after all this is nothing but a quirk of these two hypothetical cases, the Maximal Misery Universe and the Maximal Happiness Universe. These two imaginary universes have this feature because he invented them and inserted this feature. It is just an odd characteristic inserted into these two imaginary scenarios that 'we all get the same deal.' In these two hypothetical universes we are all happy together or all miserable together. Is anything like that true also of the really existing universe? Does the maxim hold true, 'We are all miserable together, or we all flourish together?"

He is obliged to prove this maxim not just to assume it. It's up to him to prove life is not a zero sum game where the flourishing of some implies the misery of others. Just to propose the 'Mixed' Universe where outcomes are different throws out any progress our author was making towards morals. The link between my well-being and yours came through the fiction of the Maximal Misery Universe. By positing a world where only by lifting off you your sentence of misery can I avoid receiving the same sentence, he gives us a motive to act helpfully. But the Maximal Misery Universe does not exist, nor could our failure to act helpfully ever produce it. Might as well say, 'the goblins will get you if you don't watch out.'

  • “Even if each conscious being has a unique nadir on the moral landscape, we can still conceive of a state of the universe in which everyone suffers as much as he or she (or it) possibly can. If you think we cannot say this would be "bad," then I don't know what you could mean by the word "bad" (and I don't think you know what you mean by it either). . .

  • “We simply must stand somewhere. I am arguing that, in the moral sphere, it is safe to begin with the premise that it is good to avoid behaving in such a way as to produce the worst possible misery for everyone. I am not claiming that most of us personally care about the experience of all conscious beings; I am saying that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being. This is all we need to speak about "moral truth" in the context of science. Once we admit that the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing--whatever these states amount to for each particular being in the end--are different and dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.”
  • (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, 39-40).

Our author helpfully explains, "I am not claiming that most of us personally care about the experience of all conscious beings." It is his task precisely to explain why we should. Certainly we all effortlessly care about our own well-being. Why should we widen our scope to such a breadth as "the experience of all conscious beings?" Bill Clinton said, "I feel your pain;" we do feel empathy, but I do not feel your pain like you feel your pain, rather only a pallid and second-hand reflection of it. Many moralists have proposed some variant of the principle, 'We're all in this together,' for instance through the metaphor of the boat. The state, they explained, is like a ship; those misbehaving passengers who are trying to set fire to the deck will be sorry when the ship goes down, because it is their well-being at stake along with everyone else. But this principle cannot be assumed, nor could it be plausibly advanced in the extreme, all-or-nothing form his arguments requires.

Readers of Leviticus have no difficulty in understanding why they should care about the experience of other conscious beings; because God has so commanded: "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD." (Leviticus 19:18). But Sam Harris has no use for Leviticus. So how will he convince his fellow atheists they should love their neighbor? By committing childish fallacies like smuggling in the maxim 'we're all in this together' via a Trojan Horse? The parasites sucking the blood of a large animal need not reason (should they be capable), 'But what if all living creatures were parasites,' because not all creatures are parasites. Parasites would fare ill were there no hosts making an honest living. Likewise if everyone in the neighborhood were a thief, from whom would the thieves steal? Each other? But they produce nothing. There must be some honest fellow bringing home a pay-check before there is any money to steal, any temptation to thievery, or any possibility of making a living through thievery. Yet when one of these enterprising, contrarian thieves asks Sam Harris, 'and why not?'— he will hear no rational answer, but only expressions of astonishment and disgust, as if to say, 'there must be something wrong with you if you need to ask the question.' Needless to say that is no answer.


Sam Harris is not the first atheist quack reducing the sum total of human happiness; he is in fact following a well-worn trail:

Atheist Sigmund Freud 
Atheist Sigmund Freud

Baboon Troop

The Bible teaches that God has implanted a witness in each human heart:

"For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel." (Romans 2:14-16).META

One and the same law-giver wrote His law on our hearts as spoke to Moses on the mountain-top. Christians can obey the voice of this implanted law with no trace of cognitive dissonance.

Even atheists today understand that there is an implanted moral law. One of the positive things about the modern world is that there is little remaining disposition to argue against 'innate ideas.' Human beings are disposed to think about the world in a way that fits hand-in-glove with the world. Can this be coincidence? Can we have learned to think this way from experience, when our senses do not give us access to any such thing as 'triangle,' or 'the number three'? Or could it be we impose these structures on the world? The difficulty was never with noticing that there are innate ideas, but rather with explaining them. Plato advanced the "myth" of reminiscence, that we have lived before and learned these things then. He called it a "myth" himself. Many today prefer the myth of evolution, which makes innate ideas the winning side of an on-going empirical experiment conducted by our species upon the world. Those early almost-men who were not gifted with expectations of Euclidean geometry but held other, curvier expectations threw their spear at the saber-toothed tiger, but missed. Those who were solidly Euclidean (as works well enough at our scale) hit the target, were not eaten and left progeny. So the myth goes.

The striking 'fit' between our innate ideas and the world we encounter is not so surprising if we indeed live in a 'universe,' if both the inner and outer worlds are the product of one mind. But failing that monotheistic conception, the mythographers must go to work. The modern myth tells us that the inner voice of our conscience speaks, not the law of God, but "apish urges" (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 2): our heritage from our apish ancestors. Little bands of hairy little folk who shared and cared about one another did better than those who didn't care; they left more offspring. But here comes the quandary. Our inner voice is not so insistent as to leave us no option but to heed and obey. We can suppress our conscience easily enough, by drink and drugs, by habitually persisting in contrary behavior. Why should we listen to this inner voice, if it is only the faint echo down through the aeons of the scream of the baboon troop?

No one watching a YouTube video of a baboon wrecking crew marching through a residential neighborhood exclaims, 'Surely we must emulate those wonderful beings.' Who would want to emulate such loud, obnoxious, idiotic, annoying and destructive creatures? Who has ever proclaimed the maxim, 'We must do as the apes do?' People will only laugh at such moral exhortation. So the atheists are left with a bad case of cognitive dissonance. They want to heed the little voice within them that says, 'Don't steal, don't murder, don't harm.' But they think they know where that voice comes from, and they think the speaker is hairy, bow-legged and undignified. Their reason for obedience, if they choose to obey, can owe nothing to what they imagine is the origin of the voice, a fatal weakness. Surely a rational person must have a reason to heed a command. But none is at hand, because Sam Harris has failed to construct any sound argument that would allow his fellow atheists to be both moral and rational.

Hate Literature

When I was a child, though knowing no better than not to believe in God, I did not perceive Christians to be unusually scary people. No unprejudiced atheist has any reasonable grounds for such an extravagant fear; it's not what experience teaches us. So what taught this fear to Sam Harris? It is exactly the same as the conviction that all black men are muggers. It comes from the same place, from the reality that some people imagine they pump themselves up by dragging others down. They project all bad things onto others and thereafter, by a magical transaction, are themselves rid of them. The older atheists were not writing hate literature. Bertrand Russell's grand-mother was a Christian, and he neither hated nor feared her. The new atheists have no such ties. Certainly our author is entitled to explain why he rejects Christianity; but to besmirch the reputation of an entire population group as he does, with no evidence other than his own aversion, is beyond the pale.

The new atheism, unlike the old, falls into the category of old-fashioned hate literature, where an author who does not himself belong to a targeted population group explains how worthless and undesirable group members are, whether they be black or Jewish or Chinese, and how urgent is the need for society to 'protect' itself against these dangerous people. This is the perennial theme of people stirring up pogroms: "In a rabble-rousing speech, he [Hutu university lecturer Leon Mugesera] proclaimed: 'Wipe them all out!. . .Know that the person whose throat you do not cut now will be the one who will cut yours.'" ('Disaster!' John Withington, p. 242). And how does our author prove that Christians are dangerous people to be loathed and feared? By pointing out that nineteen Muslim hijackers flew air-planes into buildings. He can't even find relevant evidence against the group he wants to demonize, and must therefore substitute another! It's a shame to realize there is a market and an audience for this author's product.

Ethics would be more convincing if it were conducted by minimally ethical people. This is a conundrum which perplexed Plato. Will bad people do ethics well? Who could expect this, yet how to set up a 'scientific' ethics if it is not a pursuit which anybody can do? Surely scientific results must be replicated; a result which can be replicated, but only by upstanding, moral folk, falls into a different category. Perhaps the publishing industry can try harder next time to find a ethicist who is not also a bigot; this cannot be so very hard to do.

Good Folks

Sam Harris' standard of moral excellence is "ourselves:" himself and his friends, "Once we more fully understand the neurophysiology of states like love, compassion, and trust, it will be possible to spell out the differences between ourselves and people like the Dobu in greater detail." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, pp. 61-62). We have met the moral people, and they are us. What a surprising coincidence! "Ourselves" are his standard of moral excellence, presumably because 'we' take hot showers (p. 15). And just who are these noble selves, the "moral experts" who will lead us out of darkness? He is a hater by profession, a man who makes his living demeaning other folks and misrepresenting their beliefs.

Sam Harris' readers come to appreciate that ethics, for him, isn't about what he ought to do, or what he fails to do; he does not suffer from Paul's dilemma: "For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I." (Romans 7:15). Neither is it about what people he cares about should do, or how he might persuade them to do it; that's there but not central. It's about coercing other (immoral) people into doing what we (the moral people) think they should do. Observe: "Would Haidt's conception of morality then allow us to stop these benighted people from abusing their children?" (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 91). This is the normal moral paradigm for Sam Harris: we (the good people) must stop them (the immoral people), so bring it on. That's why he is such an enthusiastic booster for military force: for him, coercion is indistinguishable from moral uplift. Sam Harris is not in any case a conventional moralist, because he does not believe in free will; it would be more apt to call him a 'behavioral imperialist.'

There are certain things, however, that the U.S. military, under the command of a country governed under the First Amendment, cannot set its sights on doing, such as coercing a conquered country into abandoning its religion. As the First Amendment recognizes, determining religious truth falls outside the purview of government. Our author, along with his co-religionist the atheist Christopher Hitchens, inflamed the atmosphere in post-9/11 America by tossing Molotov cocktails like, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." (Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 52). What dictator has ever proclaimed such a compendious doctrine of prior restraint? And yes, Sam Harris thinks he can tell what people believe, even if they do not share it; he claims he can build an improved lie detector using neuroimaging technology. They used to say, 'the devil himself knows not the thoughts of man;' but now the devil, or his look-alike, does know. The 'New Atheists' got what they wanted, but no doubt it was a great disappointment when they realized the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was not going to lead to the forcible suppression of Islam. Neither will democratic self-government ever lead to such an outcome. Evidently Sam Harris pins his hopes on world governance.

Peaceful Co-Existence

The reader will recall that the 'New Atheists' Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris came to public prominence at the time of the Iraq War, when the media outlets promoting that war used these volunteer pitch-men to sell the public on the unprovoked military invasion of a foreign country. Sam Harris' gung-ho contribution, 'The End of Faith,' contained some truly frightening reflections on Islam, pre-emptive nuclear war, and justified torture. It was not so very hard to figure out which side he was on then. What a surprise that Sam Harris has done a 180 and now wants "peaceful co-existence" with the peoples of the world!

"Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully. . ." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 7).

"We would all be better off in a world where we devoted fewer of our resources to preparing to kill one another." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 188).

Does this new-found desire for peaceful co-existence include Muslims, whom he despises and considers incapable of self-government? Is this a sign in the cultural tea-leaves that the Iraq War has passed out of fashion, even amongst the atheists? What encouraging news! Surely there is hope for peace, if even the atheists have 'got religion' and are starting to lose their enthusiasm for wars of aggression! Have the most virulent haters among us learned to love their neighbor?

Or is it an ultimatum: he is prepared to coexist peacefully with the rest of us, provided only we drop our annoying religiosity? If so this new atheist utopia falls into line behind all the old atheist utopias, which also required getting rid of the old, recalcitrant, existing people, in very large numbers, in the hope the surviving younger generation could be 'educated' to share the atheists' ideals.


Everyone likes to feel morally superior to others, the denizens of atheist academia no less than anyone else. The trouble is, they have a problem getting outsiders to share their deeply-held conviction that they, alone of all humanity, have discovered the good life. When country-people in the Third World look upon the brave new world the atheist academics have made for themselves, are they impressed? Perhaps they are more perplexed, not quite sure what it is they are expected to admire. Let us imagine our third world country cousins asking,

"Please sir, why are the young ladies in your college dorms expected to live like prostitutes in a brothel, only without receiving any remuneration? Maybe they are too dumb to realize, you can get paid for doing that. We look at the flood of music videos with which the West inundates our world, mostly pole dancing and the like,— there is a sewer-pipe connecting your world and ours, through which this flood of filth rushes,— without admiration.
"Your brave new academic world does not look so much like a moral paradise to us as a barn-yard, or worse than a barn-yard, because the animals do not devote their leisure time to drunkenness and drug use, while the denizens of atheist academia devote to this noble quest as much energy as has ever been spent on any idealistic, worth-while goal. By heroic efforts and much throwing up, you succeed in blotting out any resemblance you might once have had to human beings; you succeed in erasing every smudge of human dignity you might ever have had.
"Your esteemed 'moral expert,' Sam Harris, has many enthusiastic acolytes, and even we third-worlders cannot escape these young atheist savants when we check our Twitter accounts. When these newly minted 'moral expert cadets' open their mouths, as in the atheist internet forums, we listeners feel as though we had plunged our head into the toilet bowl, the language they use is so far from comely or edifying."

Viewing this kind of life, so far from exemplary or inspirational, our third world country cousins find they must retreat to the out-house to throw up (they do not have indoor plumbing, the atheists' sine qua non of moral excellence.) Their verdict?: 'No thanks.' At this the atheists become really, really angry, and say, 'But we have nukes.'

Our author seems at times to want to lift himself out of the atheist moral swamp, praising such old-fashioned virtues as marital fidelity. But he also must be politically correct; he supports gay marriage, and given that marriages between male homosexuals are almost never monogamous, what is left of his testimony in favor of monogamy? He cannot ultimately lift himself out of this swamp and sinks back into the same degradation as his co-religionists. Unlike the Great Physician who can heal every ill, the atheist "moral experts" cannot actually change anyone for the better; the whole sum and substance of this 'new morality' is just to say, 'I am better than you.' Alas, they are not.

Sadists' Rights

"If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being--if kindness, for instance, is generally more conducive to happiness than cruelty is--then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 8.).

And if it should turn out that sadists derive more intense pleasure from performing their experiments upon unwilling victims than the victims feel pain, we are bound by this immoral morality to stop criticizing, much less incarcerating, sadists. Sam Harris himself realizes this, and he is unfazed:

  • “However, if evil turned out to be as reliable a path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it. It would no longer be an especially 'moral' landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.”
  • (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, pp. 189-190).

See? The 'Happy Sadist' universe won't even require any revisions to his system! What a powerful system of morality this is, which turns out to work equally well when the result is evil as when it is good! The only criterion of right and wrong in Utilitarianism is which behavior is "more conducive to happiness" of the greater number. But Christian eyes are averted in horror from the 'Happy Sadist' universe.

The problems with the whole Utilitarian scheme are so glaring and so insurmountable that its fashionable adoption seems more like a counsel of despair than the road-map for a way forward. How, in the first place, to assign a quantitative value to pleasure and pain? How to establish any equivalence between the two is difficult to imagine. The pleasure you feel walking bare-foot through freshly mown grass equates to how many fractions of a root canal?

It may be that we do not inhabit a universe in which sadists derive more pleasure from inflicting torture than their victims suffer in pain. At present there are not so very many psychopaths: in this system of ethics, that matters a lot, because we count to determine what is right and what is wrong. Nevertheless a certain percentage of the population, Sam Harris admits, are psychopaths who do not feel empathy for their victims' suffering. Sam Harris does not know why these people feel no empathy nor can he supply this lack. In our world they are a small minority, but they need not always be so. At present psychopaths act at random, not in concert; their agenda is as disorderly and disorganized as Sam Harris' prose. But suppose they saw their common interest and formed a 'Psychopath Liberation Front.' The world as it is is not is not geared toward maximizing their well-being, but somebody else's.

Our niggling laws against murder and mayhem pester and cramp them. This can be fixed. They slaughter as many normal, non-psychopathic people as they can corral. In the resulting universe, 'normals' are a minority, victims shared from one psychopathic sadist to another. The intense pleasure the sadists experience from their exploits outweighs the misery of their victims. Maybe they even anesthetize them, to make doubly sure they are coming out 'right' on the Utilitarian equation. Utilitarianism allows us to weigh good and evil only by counting noses, and in no other way. One man, one vote: the wicked psychopath's pleasure counts for no more and no less than his righteous, innocent victim's pain. In this very practical, achievable universe, the sadists are the righteous and the laws are written to maximize their torturing pleasure.

Sam Harris complains that psychopaths do not experience the joys of empathy. In the world of their triumph, empathy would be a source of pain, not joy; but Sam Harris also admits he cannot supply them with this characteristic. If we can phrase our plaints in the subjunctive mood, asking always for impossible things, what cries of misery can we not raise to the skies? If gorillas were gifted with grace, rhythm and elegance, they could dance 'Swan Lake.' Alas they are not graceful. If elephants could dance the Irish jig, what fun they would have! Alas they would break a leg. If snakes could love and do calculus, sources of enjoyment would open up to them which are now relentlessly closed. You cannot count hypothetical causes of lost happiness because these proliferate without number. Certainly we can imagine sentient beings having characteristics they do not have, but if this is how Utilitarian analysis is done, we are forever sitting down to count infinity. If psychopaths experienced empathy, they would not be psychopaths.

Psychopaths are what they are, and in the 'one man one vote' arithmetic of Utilitarianism, their happiness is just as important as anyone else's. Psychopaths, these people assure us, do not really get that much fun out of life. They know this how? My cats lack empathy, yet they seem to enjoy their fuzzy little lives. What if psychopaths enjoy themselves immensely? If we did inhabit a universe in which happy psychopaths outnumber their anesthetized victims, it would still be wrong a thousand times over for a sadist to triumph over an innocent victim to whose person he has no right.

Sam Harris is aware of these difficulties; he himself posits a universe inhabited by matched pairs of sadists and masochists. This deeply immoral man sees this world as "morally equivalent" to a world in which everyone lives by the Golden Rule: "Is this a problem? I don't think so." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 209). So a divide opens up. Rather than 'the greatest good to the greater number,' which in the 'Happy Sadist' universe leads to the monstrous result that sadists are right to torture their victims, let us make our watch-word, 'let justice be done though the heavens fall.'

Comrade Mother

"I cry today,
for you. My Sister,
My Mother, My Comrade.
My Sister! With music
in your name. . .
My Comrade! I claim to live
(rather shamelessly)
for the cause you died for,
a people longing for freedom,
a soil aching for peace,
a love for life,
now facing despair,
now facing death."
(Karthick Ramirez)

Sam Harris makes a 'me-too' argument for his Utilitarian system: Christians, he claims, in aspiring to walk around heaven all day and beseeching God for rescue from hell, are also seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. It is correct that all moral actors use this kind of reasoning at one time or another, often as one factor in balancing competing imperatives; and yet others systems do not derive their basic principles this way. 'Me-tooism' falls upon examination of test cases wherein Utilitarianism produces results Christian morality counts as an abomination. At times our author appears to think he can avoid these results by insisting upon maximal happiness for everyone; but if moral actors had to avoid acting until their acts could bring in the Maximal Happiness Universe, no one could do anything at all.

The glaring contrast between what Utilitarians count as moral acts and Biblical morality is the reductio ad absurdum for this atheistic ethical system. One more test case: traditional morality sets us within a web of obligations; "Honor thy father and thy mother" (Exodus 20:12) implies, if it implies anything at all, that you do not throw the happiness of these two people into the same common pool with the rest of humanity, rather you must sequester it, hold it apart. This is why, whereas the man who fails to help the impoverished elderly widow who lives on his block falls short of the standard of Christian charity, the man who fails to provide for his own mother "hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." (1 Timothy 5:8). Utilitarianism requires equal valuation for everyone: ourselves, our children, our parents, that man over there. Sam Harris is aware that "Communal experiments that ignore parents' special attachment to their own children. . .do not seem to work very well." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 73). Yet instead of understanding that this failure invalidates Utilitarianism, his thinking is so wooly and confused he advocates leaving both as twin peaks in the Moral Landscape!

Utilitarianism requires the actor to assign equal value to everyone's well-being, whether stranger or one's own child. Thus the Communists found stories like this one edifying:

"The Communist Party's official newspaper, the People's Daily, printed an uplifting tale designed to illustrate perfectly the official maxim that 'Any grave natural disaster can be overcome with the guidance of Chairman Mao.' After the earthquake, Che Cheng-min, a Communist Party committee member, was dragging himself from the ruins of his wrecked house when he heard his son and daughter shout: 'Quick, Daddy, come and save us.' But just as he was about to try to rescue them, Che heard another call for help from the home of Chiu Kuang-yu, the local Communist Party secretary.  . .With the earth still shaking, he pulled out the secretary and his family. 'What about your children?' asked Chiu as he emerged. . .Only then did Che allow himself to return home. When he arrived, the People's Daily reported, he 'found his two children dead. But he felt neither remorse nor grief. In the interests of the people of the neighborhood and in the majority interest he did not hesitate to sacrifice his own children.'" (John Withington, 'Disaster!' pp. 42-43).

Mao Waving

One hopes such an unnatural choice was never made; after all they used to make these stories up. The reader notes, in a familiar flourish, that the interests of the 'party' and the interests of the 'people' are not differentiated, which is how these societies took on the oligarchical shape they would eventually assume. Should, God help us, Sam Harris ever succeed in his ambitions to remake our society, future observers will notice the same tendency overtaking him and his crowd.

Sam Harris can see no difference between the Golden Rule in its positive form ('Do unto others. . .') and its negative form ('Do not do unto others. . .'), which probably enters into the error of 'Comrade Mother.' 'Ingratitude' is one test case that pries them apart; the ungrateful one does no wrong, yet he is in the wrong, as many can feel: "The man who does not recompense his benefactor when he has it in his power, and when his benefactor needs his assistance, is, no doubt, guilty of the blackest ingratitude. The heart of every impartial spectator rejects all fellow-feeling with the selfishness of his motives, and he is the proper object of the highest disapprobation. But still he does no positive hurt to any body. He only does not do that good which in propriety he ought to have done." (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Kindle location 1467).

It may be we have a special moral obligation to certain people; the commandment instructs us to honor father and mother, not all persons indifferently, including father and mother. It may also be that there are some people who are simply not entitled to happiness. Recall that this system, by intention, gives each and every one of us the same one vote; we have an "equal claim to happiness:"

"It is involved in the very meaning of Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle. That principle is a mere form of words without rational signification, unless one person’s happiness, supposed equal in degree (with the proper allowance made for kind), is counted for exactly as much as another’s. Those conditions being supplied, Bentham’s dictum, 'everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one,' might be written under the principle of utility as an explanatory commentary." (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter V, On the Connection between Justice and Utility).

Is this standard itself just? Does everyone deserve happiness? Take, for example, a serial child rapist. If something bad should happen to him, is there a problem? Even pagans grope after the concept of 'karma' or 'nemesis;' bad things happen to bad people, or at least they darn well ought to. The Bible expresses the same concept: "Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him." (Proverbs 26:27). The problem isn't that utilitarians cannot condemn the child molester; of course they can, his actions cause unhappiness to others. The problem is that, at the earlier, arithmetical stage of their process, they assign the same value to his happiness as they do to everyone else. But he does not deserve happiness.

As even the utilitarians themselves concede, justice must not allot happiness to the undeserving: "Thirdly, it is universally considered just that each person should obtain that (whether good or evil) which he deserves; and unjust that he should obtain a good, or be made to undergo an evil, which he does not deserve." (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, p. 50). When the topic turns to the 'problem of evil,' your atheist friend will blithely explain that there is no God, because the wicked prosper. Remind him that his own system of ethics assigns the wicked an equal right to happiness. Before he excoriates God for sending His rain on the just and the unjust, he should reflect that his own criterion mandates this outcome as the foundation of morals. The fact that the system cancels itself out in this manner may be regarded as the reductio ad absurdum of consequentialism.

The Grand Inquisitor

What is it that human beings want? A nice career and a home in the suburbs, of course; a crime-free gated community is best. What could be nicer?

  • “In bread there was offered Thee an invincible banner; give bread, and man will worship thee, for nothing is more certain than bread. But if some one else gains possession of his conscience—oh! then he will cast away Thy bread and follow after him who has ensnared his conscience. In that Thou wast right. For the secret of man's being is not only to live but to have something to live for. Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread in abundance. That is true.”
  • (The Grand Inquisitor's Speech, The Brothers Karamazov, pp. 279-280).

Did Jesus err in proclaiming, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, that man does not live by bread alone? Why, no; science has lately discovered, it is not only bread, but a nice career and a nice home in the suburbs which constitute human happiness:

"The Good Life
"You are married to the most loving, intelligent, and charismatic person you have ever met. Both of you have careers that are intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. . .Due to a combination of good genes and optimal circumstances, you and your closest friends will live very long, healthy lives, untouched by crime, sudden bereavements, and other misfortunes."
(Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, pp. 15-16).

How bourgeois. But what if they want freedom? What if they want heaven? What if they want to see God? What if only God is the key that can unlock their brooding sense of loss and disinheritance? What if careerism is not what they want at all? It may be that even if you amass the wealth of Bill Gates and travel the world as a philanthropist, you are still left asking, 'Is that all there is?' Our Grand Inquisitor's patience is not unlimited; he is only prepared to put up with these fretful creatures, who are not content with what he gives them, for so long; he is not obliged "to respect a diversity of views indefinitely." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 10). That's a warning, folks.

He does not understand why what he has to give us isn't enough, but it isn't. Sam Harris tells the story of a suicidal man with whom he corresponded by e-mail. As balm to the man's misery, he offered "professional counseling" and "antidepressants." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 182). I wonder why he did not offer the Eastern mystical nostrums so prominent in his other books; could it be that the merry fun AlterNet made of these quack remedies made him drop them in embarrassment? Again in his debate with William Lane Craig he revisited these New Age experiences, all the more wonderful for having been drained of all meaning. How well did our "moral expert's" practical counseling work? It was to no avail; Sam Harris had nothing to offer this man that would make life seem worth living, so he committed suicide. And yet he wants to roll this out and go global with it.


"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'" (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6).

Sam Harris defines the good as "well-being," which we are told is intended to be something 'deeper' than Epicurus' 'pleasure,' though Epicurus did not necessarily mean anything shallow by 'pleasure.' He explains that "maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures" is "the only thing we can reasonably value." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 11.) For what reason might the rest of us be expected to abandon the existing definition in favor of his novel re-definition? Humpty Dumpty's reason.

The Utilitarian viewpoint is surprisingly popular in academia and will no doubt survive Sam Harris' efforts to defend it. Still is is perplexing that, having defeated the Soviets in the Cold War, we should sit at their feet to learn about good and evil. These people have lost their way, and hopefully none will follow such blind guides. Ethics is different; bad epistemology and bad metaphysics don't get people killed.


There are many senses in which the words 'good' and 'evil' are used. Do we mean exactly the same thing when we say, 'Stalin was an evil man' and "thou art my hope in the day of evil" (Jeremiah 17:17)? We can suffer evil or commit evil; which is worse? The pre-'scientific' ethicist sees two very different cases; it is wrong to do evil, it is not morally wrong, only unfortunate, to suffer evil. So Socrates explained to Gorgias:

"Socrates: That again, Gorgias is ambiguous; I am still in the dark: for which are the greatest and best of human things? I dare say that you have heard men singing at feasts the old drinking song, in which the singers enumerate the goods of life, first health, beauty next, thirdly, as the writer of the song says, wealth honesty obtained.

"Polus: At any rate you will allow that he who is unjustly put to death is wretched, and to be pitied?

"Socrates: Not so much, Polus, as he who kills him, and not so much as he who is justly killed.

"Polus: How can that be, Socrates?

"Socrates: That may very well be, inasmuch as doing injustice is the greatest of evils.

"Polus: But is it the greatest? Is not suffering injustice a greater evil?

"Socrates: Certainly not.

"Polus: Then would you rather suffer than do injustice?

"Socrates: I should not like either, but if I must choose between them, I would rather suffer than do."


"Socrates: . .. I tell you, Callicles, that to be boxed on the ears wrongfully is not the worst evil which can befall a man, nor to have my purse or my body cut open, but that to smite and slay me and mine wrongfully is far more disgraceful and more evil; aye, and to despoil and enslave and pillage, or in any way at all to wrong me and mine, is far more disgraceful and evil to the doer of the wrong than to me who am the sufferer." (Plato, Gorgias).

Our modern 'scientific' ethicist, Sam Harris, does not agree with Socrates but with Polus, who believes that suffering injustice is the greater evil. His perspective is that of the old drinking song, which lists the "goods" of life as health, wealth and enjoyment. His epitome of a "bad life" tells us of a woman who suffers cruelty and violence:

"The Bad Life

"You are a young widow who has lived her entire life in the midst of civil war. . .You are now running barefoot through the jungle with killers in pursuit. While this is the worst day of your life, it is not entirely out of character with the other days of your life: since the moment you were born, your world has been a theater of cruelty and violence. You have never learned to read, taken a hot shower, or travelled beyond the green hell of the jungle." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 15).

From his description we know nothing of this woman's character, whether she is morally good or evil. We do not know whether she got up early in the morning to sew clothing for the needy, and made herself a blessing to her friends, like Dorcas ". . .all the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them." (Acts 9:39). (Although Dorcas never took a hot shower, some people thought highly of her, because she was "full of good works.") For all we know Sam Harris' 'bad-lifer' is a Christian who forgives the atheists about to kill her. We know nothing bad about her; if she has ever so much as neglected to return a bowl or rolling pin borrowed from a neighbor, our author has neglected to mention it. We don't know whether she fought the good fight or made her neighbors' lives miserable. Yet her life is the "bad life," as compared with the consumerist paradise of the "good life." Whether she is even now singing with the saints in heaven or wailing in outer darkness we cannot guess; we have been given no data in any way relevant.

Suppose she is a believer; when we say she is bound for heaven, where God Himself wipes away her every tear, we do not mean she is better educated or better groomed or richer than Sam Harris. Hot showers cannot wash away every stain. Hot showers have nothing to do with it. Our author simply does not understand what subject matter people are addressing when they say, 'this is morally good,' or 'this is morally evil.'

As an aside, it is distressing to realize that, in the real world, this woman's troubles likely stem mostly from Utilitarianism. The incessant civil wars with which the Third World is wracked arise in large measure from efforts to instantiate the very utopia proposed by the Russian radicals with whom Dostoevsky debated the existence of God. This atheist utopia never quite brings in the "good life" it promises, so the revolution must continually be renewed. When atheist moralists began to peddle their wares in the Third World, the dystopia which this luckless woman inhabits came along behind them. Though a few guerrilla armies show elements of a theistic cult, these are the exception; most of the guerrilla armies who murder their fellow-citizens so prodigally in the Third World are Marxist-Leninist. This Utilitarian ideology was imported from Europe. If this ideology ever actually worked, continual war-fare would not be necessary; but because it never does, somebody always says, 'You're not doing it right' and proposes a new revolution to overthrow the prior revolution. These Third World countries have not been wracked by civil war from time immemorial. Though these semi-civilized regions were never pleasure gardens, their modern state of continual civil war is a by-product of atheist utopianism. Sam Harris' proposed remedy is larger doses of the same poison that caused the disease.

Our author says, "Let me simply concede that if you don't see a distinction between these two lives that is worth valuing. . ., there may be nothing I can say that will attract you to my view of the moral landscape." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 16). Certainly everyone can see a difference between a woman who has never taken a hot shower, and Sam Harris' 'good lifers,' of whom it is said, "For decades, your wealth and social connections have allowed you to devote yourself to activities that bring you immense personal satisfaction." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 15.) However, it is not a moral difference; people who lack hot water are not moral failures.

Jesus never took a hot shower, Gautama Buddha never took a hot shower. Our author jumbles together different things, unable to distinguish them; moral stature is not the same as having lots of stuff. His own "spiritual geniuses," (quote from Sam Harris debate with William Lane Craig) his Hindu yogis and Buddhist lamas (our author wants to impose his atheism on us with a forced infusion of 'New Age' spirituality on top, as do many of these modern atheists), may not take hot showers, yet he has heedlessly made this a criterion of the "bad life." Modern groups like the Amish who eschew such things are not wicked people on that account. There cannot be many 'sciences' which have suffered retrograde motion in the past two thousand years, yet ethics is one which has, it would seem, if the best the publishing industry can put on the 'Ethics' shelf brings us back to Socrates' "old drinking song."

Wrath of Achilles

An author faces an unrepeated opportunity, in the opening lines of a book, for laying out his topic to a reader whose attention will never be more sharply focused. This is why the first word of Homer's Iliad is "wrath:" because the book is about the wrath of Achilles. This works well for authors whose thought process is organized and consecutive. Now on to our author, who begins his tome with a complaint about Albanian life:

"The people of Albania have a venerable tradition of vendetta called Kanun: if a man commits a murder, his victim's family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. . .Untold numbers of Albanian men and boys live as prisoners of their homes even now." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 1).

Readers who loyally forge onward, expecting these Albanians to turn up again, do not appreciate how scatter-brained an author we are accompanying. These disappearing Albanians remind the reader of the old saw about the phone book: lots of interesting characters are introduced, but never developed in any depth.

Our author's tunnel vision allows him to see only the evil in usages not of his own time and place. His readers have encountered this cultural narcissism before: this man's whole aim in life is to look at others and say, 'I'm better than you.' This boast is his 'ethics,' if you please. Clan justice, where there are no law courts or police nor any means of obtaining those things, is not an unmixed evil, but the only deterrence against a sky-rocketing murder rate. Certainly law is a step upward, though these Albanians do not see it. Blood vengeance, which is usually carried out by the next of kin against a murderer and not his entire family as is reported here, is a little like the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction which kept the peace during the Cold War: it is a great system of deterrence so long as it deters, but should deterrence fail, it is the road to disaster. Once a murder is committed, violence spreads out in ever-widening ripples: the victim's brother kills the murderer, whose next-of-kin then kills the avenging brother, whose relatives then kill the murderer's next-of-kin who killed the avenging brother, until the entire tribe is depopulated; like a rock rolling downhill, the process cannot stop. It makes no exception for 'justice' nor even for 'accident.' The process can and has, however, been stopped, though this will require a detour through religion.

So what is to be done with our Albanians? What did decades of officially atheistic government do to eradicate this practice? Though untold Albanians were confined as virtual "prisoners in their homes" expected to listen to their "Great Teacher," leather-lunged Dictator Enver Hoxha, deliver his lengthy atheist rants, this evidently did nothing to change their behavior. If the isolationist Albanians are not an atheist success story, then who is? Atheism failed.

Contrast the case of the Waodani tribe of South America. No noble savages these, murder was the principal cause of death for their tribe before they heard the gospel. When five missionaries landed their plane to share the gospel, true to form, they murdered them. Yet the survivors stayed, and taught the Waodani that God's word said, "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." (Romans 12:19). As described in the documentary "Beyond the Gates of Splendor," the murder rate plummeted as the Waodani took God's proclaimed monopoly on vengeance to heart.

One might expect it is 'scientific' to go with what works, but some people think it's much more 'scientific' to go with what demonstrably does not work. Our author never thinks to take up the path of friendly persuasion blazed by the surviving missionaries; he does not want to talk the Albanians nor the Afghans into doing what he thinks they should be doing instead of what they are now doing. He prefers the path of coercion; he is a great enthusiast for the U.S. military remaking local society. In his utopia, freedom from foreign rule is not a positive value. But Enver Hoxha could have told him how well it works out to use the police power of the state to crush religion. Ultimately coercing people into adopting atheism is futile.


There was a TV advertisement some years ago, showing a Soviet 'fashion show,' featuring a heavy-set babushka wearing a shapeless sack of a dress. Then a sign appeared advertising 'evening wear:' the same babushka came back out, wearing the same shapeless sack, this time carrying a flash-light. The trouble with atheist lives is that they have no plot. People do not dance in the streets all day because they have "hot showers;" the atheists have forgotten that man does not live by bread alone. The people Sam Harris despises would never trade his inner life for theirs, because they have a horror of a vacuum.

Unmet Expectations

Sam Harris' readers expect of something of him. Alas, he cannot quite grasp what it is they want. They say things like this:

"The most common objection to my argument is some version of the following:
"But you haven't said why the well-being of conscious beings ought to matter to us. If someone wants to torture all conscious beings to the point of madness, what is to say that he isn't just as 'moral' as you are?
"While I do not think anyone sincerely believes that this kind of moral skepticism makes sense, there is no shortage of people who will press this point with a ferocity that often passes for sincerity."
(Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 32)

At some level, Sam Harris realizes that these people do not themselves believe torturing all conscious beings to the point of madness is virtuous conduct, nor are they indifferent to virtue. His hearers are leaning forward in their chairs, gesturing with an encouraging hand, as if to say, 'go on.' They are waiting for him to deliver the groceries. You see, this is what we expect from a toiler in the vineyard of ethics: he should explain to us why we should do what he says we should do. That is the whole point of the endeavor.

Not only can Sam Harris not deliver the goods, he really can't even understand what it is these people want of him. Our author noodles along, sharing his likes and dislikes as if he were on Facebook, delivering the occasional laugh line or sound-bite. He is altogether innocent of what a well-constructed argument might look like. By his own report, the mis-match between our author and his philosophical audience is complete; what they expect, he cannot deliver. When asked the obvious, inescapable questions with which any ethical system will be met, his response is plain puzzlement, a blank stare: Why on earth would you ask that?

He opens his heart to us so that we can see how vivid, fiery, incandescent and pure are his hatreds; he is a professional hater, not an ethicist. But if, even after glimpsing how vividly Sam Harris hates the Taliban, the Catholic Church, evangelical Christians, Albanians or whomever, his listener is not moved to adopt his hatreds as her own, he in the end can only walk away: "I found that I could not utter another word to her." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 44). Our junior apprentice ethicist is not the garrulous type, like Socrates, who was always ready to talk to anybody. Dialectic is not what he gives us, only personal likes and dislikes.

In lieu of offering his readers a reason why they should adopt his ideas of right and wrong, our author is reduced to making noises of disgust and astonishment, demeaning his unconvinced readers as moral skeptics or moral relativists, though himself aware the greater number are not, nor are they likely to throw battery acid in the face of a child; he is erecting a straw-man. Instead of setting out to revolutionize ethics, a better plan would have been for our author to sit down and familiarize himself with prior offerings in the field; that way he at least would have had some idea of what it is these people expect, and he would not be left with no options but body language.

Fallacy of Scale

So far as I know 'fallacy of scale' is a neologism; people don't make this mistake often enough for the term to be needed. But enter Sam Harris, with his by now familiar illogic. I mean by 'fallacy of scale' the error of assuming that, because I can bring down a house consisting of six over-lapping cards by blowing on it, it is therefore very likely I can also bring down a full-size brick house by blowing on it.

As we've seen, Sam Harris has already 'argued' in favor of his postulate of human interdependence by proposing two hypothetical cases, the Maximal Misery Universe and the Maximal Happiness Universe, both of which had the odd characteristic, ex hypothesi, that we all suffer misery together or we all flourish together. But this characteristic, if it is claimed as a feature of the real world, must be shown to be such, not trucked in stuck to an unexamined packing crate. Here again we have an effort to prove interdependence, 'we are all in this together,' with similar success.

People sometimes say, 'I wouldn't date him if he were the only other person left on earth.' Most people do not 'hear' this catch-phrase as meaning the same as, 'I wouldn't date him if he were one of three billion available persons on earth,' because there is something different about being one of only two persons dwelling upon the earth. We can afford to be choosy with three billion options, but there is a powerful incentive to learn to get along with even an annoying person, who is your only hope of human companionship, or indeed of leaving behind children to continue the depopulated human race. Not many have ever experienced the lonely prospect of being 'the last of the Mohicans,' the last of one's kind, but it cannot be an encouraging feeling.

Sam Harris points out that it would have been ill-advised for Adam and Eve to smash a rock into each other's face. Doing so would have reduced their prospects for happiness in a direct and immediate way. Two people, if they are the only two people on earth, need each other. To our author's way of thinking, there cannot be any difference between this case and a quarrelling couple amongst six billions: "Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?" (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 41). The short answer is, because a tsunami can carry away hundreds of thousands without affecting our immediate personal prospects for happiness (don't be afflicted with mourning or regret, dear reader; the Utilitarian system only values conscious existence, which by their count rules out dead folk. What exactly is wrong with a quick, painless death is difficult for Utilitarianism to say.).

If Adam and Eve can sort amongst three billion prospective mates, divorce is not quite the disaster it would have been in the Garden. Scale does matter. Again, competent ethicists have argued in favor of human inter-dependence; but for this to be a rational ethics rather than a catalog of Sam Harris' personal likes and dislikes, we must await a non-fallacious argument showing this to be so.

Hall of Mirrors

Recall the Utilitarian founder Jeremy Bentham set up the standard of general happiness as the definition of right and wrong, the sole standard to be applied in determining whether an act was moral or immoral. Sam Harris' 'Moral Landscape' is already a heterogeneous place, a junk-yard filled with pleasure and pain, hot showers, crime and punishment, this and that. Sam Harris was reminded that many people rejected Jeremy Bentham's innovation because, when put to the test, this sole criterion produced results unacceptable to the older morality: for instance, if a large group of people enslaved a smaller group and thrived on their uncompensated toil down in the diamond mines, this might well produce greater good for the greater number, but could never be just. At this they frowned, and suffered discomfort. So a light bulb flashed on in Sam Harris' mind: all this injustice proliferating under the Utilitarian system is making people uncomfortable. And that is just what is wrong with it! Let's add 'a preference for right over wrong' to our list of things that promote well-being: hot showers, good nutrition, and enough justice to make people smile. Now the 'moral landscape' is populated with hot showers, good nutrition, law and order, and not only that, but morality, too. See:

"Fairness is not merely an abstract principle—it is a felt experience. . .It seems perfectly reasonable, within a consequentialist framework, for each of us to submit to a system of justice in which our immediate, selfish interests will often by superseded by considerations of fairness." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, pp. 79-80).

How are we now defining "justice"? No longer in Utilitarian terms. As in the old movies where an amorphous blob shuddered through the movie theatre, agglomerating to itself the seats, the carpeting, the slower patrons, and all that lies before it, Sam Harris' "well-being" has agglomerated to itself the old standard of traditional morality,— or at least as much of that stuff as our resident "moral expert" is prepared to tolerate,— and now, at long last, the people rejoice, Utilitarianism has been fixed.

But this brilliant move of atheist logic carries a price. You see it is not as helpful as it might seem to define things in terms of themselves. It sets up a rotary motion, and once you hop on that merry-go-round and whirl around a few times, even the atheist will begin to feel queasy with motion-sickness. We have defined right and wrong as follows,

  1. Right and wrong are defined as what promotes well-being, and
  2. Well-being is defined as, among other things, satisfying a preference for right over wrong, by those so disposed.

From 2.) we rush back to 1.) to find out what "right and wrong" are, but can never quite catch up to ourselves. This self-referential definition is circular to the second degree, because not all moral concerns are moral, our author intones: ". . .many people's moral concerns must be immoral." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 87). So first we must employ a definition of morality other than well-being to weed out the immoral morals, then we require another as we add satisfaction of the remnant moral concerns to 'well-being,' then we redefine morality to mean 'well-being, including the satisfaction of some, but not all, moral concerns'!

Pretty Pebble

As he goes noodling along, offering us his insights into morals and the good life, our author decides to adopt a reductive, materialistic approach to brain function. It is a pretty pebble laying on the ground, so why not pick it up? That this approach leaves no room for free will, our author understands, intoning: "The illusion of free will is itself an illusion." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 112.)

Recall this is the author who has earlier said,

"If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, . . .the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction." (Donald Symons, quoted with apparent approval by Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 46).

This censorious, moralizing approach is the one he takes to condemn religious-motivated people, because he erroneously assumes female circumcision arises through religious motives. (Or could it be that these people correctly understand that: perhaps the real target in their sights is male circumcision, an undeniably religious practice, the sign of the covenant,— and they hope to succeed where Emperor Hadrian failed?) Sam Harris does realize that the pretty pebble he has picked up, reductive materialism, leaves no room for moral censoriousness: "But it seems quite clear that a retributive impulse, based upon the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion—and perpetuates a moral one." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 111). What was that, again, about "whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction?" He sententiously explains, "The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas, and bad luck—which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for?" (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 109). Does that include those he wants to see on death row for female circumcision?

One cannot help but throw up one's hands in hopeless astonishment at these 'New Atheists.' Have these people never heard that a is not not-a? Will someone please explain to Sam Harris that he cannot set up shop as a censorious moralist if he also believes free will is an illusion?

Lest anyone think this man is an isolated case, someone whose bad genes or bad luck prevented him from ever learning logic, look at Richard Dawkins, who breathlessly blurbs on this author's book jacket: "'The Moral Landscape' has changed all that for me." (Richard Dawkins, The Moral Landscape, back cover). Richard Dawkins, who used to call abstract ideas 'memes' which jumped from host to host, rewiring and reorganizing their hosts' neural structures as their own needs required, now buys into the idea of self-moved neurons, no longer the helpless, parasitized host of active and creative thought, but rather themselves the prime movers. Self-starting neuronal storms kick up apparent 'memes,' deceptively similar to 'memes' in other brains, yet they cannot really be the same when we understand "the mind as the product of the physical brain." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 110). This is a new thing: a host that creates and controls its own parasite!

We expect reductive materialists to turn up as witnesses for the defense. This is consistent with their understanding, mistaken as it is. If people are befuddled, perplexed spectators of their own thoughts and deeds, and no more, then how can they be held to account for what they cannot control? Yet in Sam Harris' brave new world, the reductive materialists turn up as witnesses for the prosecution: sure, you could not help doing it, but you are a bad, bad person anyway: to the guillotine with you.

Which is the puppet and which the puppet-master, the 'meme' or the neuron? In these brains, sadly, it is plainly not Lady Logic who is running the show; rather that hapless lady finds herself dragged across the rugged ground by a chain strung from out-of-control atheist pickups. She can only calm the neuronal storms if she is enthroned in the subject's mind; if not, this branch of literature is the result. Why do these people talk so much about 'reason,' and display so little of it? Emily Dickinson said it long ago: "Success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed. . ." As Sam Harris himself realizes, "Self-contradiction, for instance, is viewed as a problem no matter what one is talking about. And anyone who considers it a virtue is very unlikely to be taken seriously." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 130). That is the epitaph for Sam Harris; there is no thinking person who need take this author seriously, nor take much trouble about unravelling the bundle of contradictions he gives us in this book.

Giant Leap Backwards

Instead of creating a vision of such beauty and power that people flock to it, lost in wonder and admiration, atheists spend their time talking about other people: the people they do not like, the ones who are not atheists. If the Muslims and Christians were to disappear overnight, one wonders what they would have to talk about. Consequently this viewpoint attracts persons of harsh and censorious temper. We see this parasitic flower growing over existing theistic world-views, as if it cannot live without a host; yet it can and has stood on its own before. How well did that work out?

Atheist utopias have been established upon this earth before, with horrifying results. When Christian moralists revisit these horrors, atheists object, impatiently, 'I am not a Communist.' Fair enough; people cannot be made to answer for the consequences of ideas they do not hold.

But then along comes Sam Harris, reviving the whole thing, explaining that it actually was a good idea all along, by way of contrast with backwards, benighted religious moral viewpoints that do not subordinate the individual to the collective. Utilitarianism is by definition a collectivist ethic.  Making the greatest good for the greater number the sole criterion of right and wrong privileges the "greater number:" the collective,— over the individual, whose longings for a sphere of freedom and autonomy meet with no sympathetic hearing once his well-being has been tossed into the common pot along with everyone else's.

Utilitarianism is collectivist by definition; the brave new world Sam Harris and his "moral experts" hope to impose on the rest of us has plenty of room for hot showers, none for opinions dissenting from atheism. People who assume Sam Harris must be a civil libertarian,— after all, isn't everybody?— need to read his writings carefully. He has no use for the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He dreams of improved lie detector technology, which he will install in public places: ". . .there may come a time when every courtroom or boardroom will have the requisite technology discreetly concealed behind its wood paneling." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 134); a piercing alarm will sound throughout the building if any speaker is caught telling a lie. Sam Harris does not believe that honest people would object to a world filled with polygraphs. It has been pointed out to him that this set-up would violate the speaker's Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself. Do you think he cares?: "In fact, the prohibition against compelled testimony itself appears to be a relic of a more superstitious age." (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p.135).  And he has no use for the First Amendment either: this author has identified "religious tolerance" as the problem in our world:

"I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance -- born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God -- is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss." (Sam Harris, 'The End of Faith,' p. 15).

This author wants a world in which Sarah Palin is disqualified from running for public office, because of "her long affiliation with the Assemblies of God church" (Newsweek, 9/19/2008); and the mass-circulation periodical 'Newsweek' gave him a platform for proposing the disenfranchisement of this very large group of citizens. Never mind that the U.S. Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, nor that the majority of voters in this still-functioning democracy self-identify as Christians. One wonders how he expects his friends and allies in academia and government to overcome these difficult and stubborn facts.

Certainly he is entitled to explain why he would not vote for Sarah Palin; I would not either, mostly because she shares Sam Harris' militarism. He is entitled to exhort his compatriots to join him in not voting for her. But he goes beyond that, to a world in which Christians are not secure in the possession of civil rights, and not only the right to hold public office. He seems to be taking many of his fellow atheists along with him in his giant leap backwards into collectivist ethics. This man's brave new world, a utopia controlled by neuroscientist "moral experts" reconfiguring us to Clockwork Orange specifications, with lie detectors hidden in the paneling, is a world not only without religion but also without freedom. If this man is not on people's radar screens as a threat to their civil liberties, then he ought to be.

Intellectual Honesty The Jains
Islam Mass Murder
The Potter and the Clay Disagreement
Hate Speech Sermon on the Mount
Nailed to the Cross Moderates and Extremists
Brave New World Conflict of Interest
Lost Liberty What Planet?
Sympathy for the Devil

Sam Harris


Siddhartha Gautama set out to live his life according to an overriding moral imperative, and what was it? Did he want to brighten the corner where he was, did he want to serve the least of these, did he want to leave the world a better place than when he found it? None of these things; he wanted to avoid suffering. That is the over-arching ethical demand that underlies this whole consequentialist system, and it is by no means self-evident or obvious that it should be the principle goal of human life. Christian ethics does not make avoiding suffering the main goal, much less the sole goal. The Greek and Roman pagans emphasized civic virtues like patriotism over the imperative to 'avoid suffering.' Since this sole criterion is not an obvious candidate for the summum bonum, there must be a certain influence here.

But why limit ourselves to counting heads when we measure up the suffering totals? Why not count snouts, antennae, and tail fins, too? Richard Dawkins cannot understand all the fuss about abortion, after all an adult cow quite possibly feels more pain when she is slaughtered than does an embryo ripped apart by the surgeon's forceps:

"A consequentialist or utilitarian is likely to approach the abortion question in a very different way, by trying to weigh up suffering. Does the embryo suffer? (Presumably not if it is aborted before it has a nervous system; and eve if it is old enough to have a nervous system it surely suffers less than, say, an adult cow in a slaughterhouse.)" (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 331).

We are measuring quantity not quality, after all. To a Darwinian evolutionist, humanity cannot claim any special status:

"Notice now that 'pro-life' doesn't exactly mean pro-life at all. It means pro-human-life. The granting of uniquely special rights to cells of the species Homo sapiens is hard to reconcile with the fact of evolution. . .The humanness of an embryo's cells cannot confer upon it any absolutely discontinuous moral status. It cannot, because of our evolutionary continuity with chimpanzees and, more distantly, with every species on the planet. . .Absolutist moral discrimination is devastatingly undermined by the fact of evolution." (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 340).

"Absolutist moral discrimination," like 'Thou shalt not kill.'

"Religious moralists can be heard debating questions like, 'When does the developing embryo become a person — a human being?' Secular moralists are more likely to ask, 'Never mind whether it is human. . .at what age does any developing embryo, of any species, become capable of suffering?'" (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 336).

The fact that these people are unable to see any inherent value in human life does have consequences:

Minority Rights

As seen above, in the case of the tortured baby, Utilitarianism is no friend of minority rights. Suppose that tormenting an innocent child, who has done no wrong, for all eternity resulted in bliss for the remainder of the population: would it be the right thing to do? The consequentialists answers, it would be wrong not to do it! The dilemma of the tortured baby, whose outraged innocence builds a foundation for the bliss of everyone minus one, should by itself rule Utilitarianism out of bounds for any moral person.

Consequentialists object, that everyone asks their questions sooner or later and will ultimately employ their forms of reasoning; this is true, no one seeks a system of economic justice which leaves everyone poverty-stricken and hungry. Results do matter; all moralists must at least seek to mitigate unintended consequences of their directives. But that is not how basic moral principles, the underlying desiderata, are found.

An army, receiving intelligence of a massive build-up in enemy troop strength, will even by consensus, if the general does not so dictate, reach the decision to retreat, even if that means abandoning the small unit on patrol, who cannot be contacted and will soon find themselves engulfed by the growing enemy horde. Is their fate a gross miscarriage of justice, a bitter outcome to be lamented, though it could not be helped owing to inauspicious circumstances? Or does it define ethics for us? The patrol did not deserve desertion by their brethren, but it could not be helped. Was it fair? No. Was it inescapable? Yes, sadly.

John Quincy Adam's problem with Utilitarianism is that it left no platform for complaining of the wrongs done to minorities:

"But, continued the inquirer, is not this a good one— To seek "The greatest good of the greatest number?" No, said he, that is the worst of all, for it looks specious while it is ruinous. What shall become of the minority, in that case?"
(Parker, Theodore (2013-01-28). Works of Theodore Parker (Kindle Locations 7446-7447). The Perfect Library.)

He is absolutely right. What, indeed? Look back to the wars and civic upheavals of the twentieth century for the answer. It's a mystery that this "ruinous" system of ethics has become so popular, when letting this one little genie out of the bottle caused so many body piles to accumulate during the twentieth century. How much harm can one erroneous ethical principle do before people muster enough sense to drop it? Can not even the consequentialists look squarely at the consequences: this system kills people, and conclude, even under their strange math, that it's no good? The American people should alert themselves, that strange systems of ethics, which none of us would choose to live under, and for which no one would exchange his or her inalienable rights, are brewing in academia and should be isolated and encapsulated there. Since individually those making up the lesser number have equal rights with those comprising the greater number, how does the mere accident of belonging to the minority eclipse, indeed eradicate, those rights?

God's Math

God's way of looking at these things is shown in the parable of the lost sheep,

“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?” (Matthew 18:12).

Numbers are not the issue with God, but then, neither are deserts.