Posts Tagged ‘sam harris’

The Christian Ideology of New Atheism

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013 | Humanism

Last month, Michael Burgess gave a talk to Leeds Atheist Society on “The Christian Ideology of New Atheism”. The video will be available on Worfolk Lectures at a later date.

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Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 | Religion & Politics, Thoughts

Recently, Jack Straw was sued for being complicit in torture.

It’s a difficult issue – one one hand, torture is very bad. On the other hand, if you are able to extract information that could save lives, perhaps sometimes it could be justified? Or at least that is the argument that has been proposed by many people, including Sam Harris. At least that is the argument he made in 2005 when he published “In Defense of Torture” in the Huffington Post, though he qualifies this extensively on his website.

I personally think the argument is far more clear-cut, however.

Firstly, the evidence just isn’t there that torture works. I would like to say simply that “torture doesn’t work” but that is perhaps an unjustifiable claim. It’s very hard to do controlled trials of torture (thankfully) but there is evidence on both sides to suggest the efficacy of torture. Ultimately, it probably does yield information, that information is almost certainly unreliable, but if you are able to verify what is true and what isn’t, you can then argue there is some advantage to torture. Then again, you can argue there isn’t. We can’t conclusively say either way.

More importantly, however, even from a utilitarian perspective, which is similar to the position put forward by Harris in The Moral Landscape, torture is not justifiable.

The reason is, in order to allow torture in a utilitarian world, we all have to live in a world where people are tortured. So yes, the needs of the many may outweigh the needs of the one, and extracting information by force to save more lives could seem like a good idea at first. But what you’re actually doing is making everyone suffer because then everyone has to live in a world where we torture people.

This isn’t a nice world to live in. I really, really don’t like the idea that the government could wrongly suspect me of something and try to torture information out of me. But even if I knew it was never going to happen to me, someone has to actually do the torture as well, and someone was to authorise the torture. That’s a horrible job in itself. I don’t want torture to be any part of my world, no matter what side I’m on.

From that perspective then, the lives we would save from torture (which as we’ve already discussed, there is no conclusive evidence we would save anyway) are outweighed by the needs of the over six billion people on this planet who should have the right to live in a torture-free world.


Monday, November 14th, 2011 | Books, Thoughts

While browsing the Sam Harris website for some information to add to my recent post on The Moral Landscape, I came across a new essay that Sam had published, entitled Lying, which was available exclusively via Kindle.

At 26 pages long I was able to get through it before going to bed yesterday and it makes for an interesting read.

In the essay, Sam puts forward the case that you should almost never lie. It’s qualified with almost as there are times when normally immoral actions can be moral – for example, if you’re willing to kill in self defence, it seems silly to rule out lying as well. But for the majority of our life, lying is best to be avoided.

This is something most of us would follow anyway, but Sam concentrates his efforts in persuading the reader that white lies are equally an enemy to be avoided – something that most of us probably are guilty of (I’ll be honest, I certainly am).

Examples are things like telling a friend your busy when you actually don’t want to go to an event, pretending your friend doesn’t look fat in that dress, or not being honest about how you think the book they have just written is rubbish, or even as far as being honest when someone gives you a present that you actually don’t like.

A good example is this – you overhear a friend leaving a voicemail for someone else (that you don’t know) saying that she has had to cancel plans at the last minute because something has come up. You know this isn’t true, but you don’t call the person on it at the time. Still, every time they cancel you on because something came up in future, you are disinclined to believe them.

This is something that I can really relate to. Many friends I just won’t believe when they cancel me because they claim to be ill. Carl is a good example of this. Sometimes he probably is ill, but most of the time I just don’t believe him. Given that trust is a very valuable commodity, that really isn’t a position you want to be in.

Of course, sometimes white lies can actually just be code for something else, and we all know it. “I have no money” for example. It’s amazing how many people say this and then suddenly have money when we’re doing something they really want to do. But then, we all really know that saying that actually means “I only have limited funds in my budget so it has to be really good to make it worth it, and your event isn’t worth it.”

Another example of this is “I’m busy.” As Gijsbert says, we’re all busy people, what we mean when we say we are busy is “I have other priorities.”

Harris argues that it’s best to avoid these white lies, though. If your friend genuinely is fat, be honest, maybe it will inspire them to lose some way and be happier with their own body image. If your friend’s film script is genuinely awful, tell them, don’t let your friend waste more of their time on a project that isn’t going anywhere. It’s better to face short-term discomfort for the overall benefit of your friends.

It’s a good read. Not as great as the reviews claim, but interesting none the less. If you’re interested, you can find it in the Kindle Store.

EDIT: The essay is now also available in a PDF edition, for those that don’t want to download the Kindle software. Thanks to Aaron for the heads up.

The Moral Landscape

Saturday, November 12th, 2011 | Books, Reviews, Science

Last month, myself and Elina attended a One Life session on Ethics, to tell the young people why they are wrong.

Specifically, about why I believe morality is objective, rather than subjective.

For many years previous to this I had argued that morality must be subjective – after all, without a god, what universal source is there to say what is right or wrong? This is the position that most non-believers take and ultimately forms quite a coherent world view – but does mean that you have to admit that in some ways, you can’t say what Hitler did was wrong because that’s only your subjective point of view and from his point of view, he was doing the morality right thing.

Of course, they should automatically lose the argument by resorting to Godwin’s Law, but it is something that has never sat particularly well with me.

However, after reading The Moral Landscape, the new book from Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith – the book which really got me passionate about atheism, it presented to me for the first time a worldview which makes coherent sense with objective morality without a god.

I didn’t entirely buy into it at first, but after a few months mulling the topic over, I have to hold my hands up and say that I believe Harris puts together the best argument and so I will hold my hands up and say I now beleive I was previously wrong about the nature of morality.

To give you an overview, Harris’ argument is this:

Morality is a human construct, but it’s actually about an observable fact.

When it comes down to it, the field or morality is about welfare. If you do something which is good for the welfare of others, it is a moral act. If you do something which is bad for the welfare of others, it is an immoral act. And if you do something which has no impact on the welfare of others it is an amoral act. Of course others actually includes yourself, and isn’t limited to humans, but it seemed like a more poetic term to use.

So, if we work on this basis, every act can be measured by it’s impact on welfare and then judged to be moral or immoral accordingly. How you define welfare is of course very complicated – but although it’s a hard concept to define, we all really know what we are talking about when we use the term.

Based on this then, we have an objective way to measure an action as moral or immoral. If it does more harm than good overall, it is a immoral action and if we did more good than harm then it is a moral action. Objectively.

This is great because you can now say “Hitler’s actions were objectively immortal” rather than just “I believe Hitler’s actions were immoral, in my subjective opinion.”

In fact, it’s clearest to see at the edges. Take an action, for example throwing acid in a woman’s face without cause – that is clearly wrong, not wrong in our Western society but OK in the correct cultural settings – it’s just wrong! Indeed, another advantage of objective morality is you can tell the cultural relativists to go fuck themselves when they say it’s OK for certain cultures to practice beating wives, stoning homosexuals and the horrific practice of genital mutilation because that’s their tradition.

Of course, the next question is, “well how do you know what is right and wrong? Surely there are too many variables to take into account – it’s never that simple.” You’re right, it never is as simple as my example above, but that is beside the point. Just because it’s very tricky to work out what whether an action causes more harm than good, doesn’t mean it’s inherently subjective – it just means it’s very difficult to work out!

A lot of physics is also extremely difficult to work out, but it’s definitely objective (and I will be so bold to insist that that does include quantum mechanics). Similarly, just because we don’t have all the information just yet, it doesn’t mean that eventually we won’t be able to find the objective answers to the question or morality, and until then, we can give it our best educated guess.

And if we’re wrong, then we’re wrong. It’s not that it was moral to keep slaves when the slave trade was thriving – it was immoral back then as well, but people were just wrong about it. We still don’t have to blame them, because they didn’t know, just like we don’t blame people for being wrong about the world not being flat, but never the less, the world wasn’t ever flat, even when everyone knew it was.

Another common criticism is that if morality is objective, it can never change. This seems inherently wrong because morality has to change depending on circumstances – killing is wrong in cold blood, but acceptable in self defence. Another example would be that killing animals for food was acceptable thousands of years ago when you had to to survive, but now that you don’t have to, it’s not acceptable.

But this is a misunderstanding of the kind of objective morality Harris puts forward in his book. Objective facts can change. For example, my age is 25. That is an objective fact. But next year, my age will be 26 and that will be the same objective fact about my age – it’s just that time has moved on and things change. My age still remains objective.

Finally, another potential criticism of this somewhat utilitarian view is that it supports ideas that we would not agree with – as the old joke goes, nine out of ten people enjoy gang rape. That is to say, of course, the nine rapists enjoy it, and the one victim does not – the greatest good for the greatest many and all that.

This doesn’t hold up to any kind of examination of course – none of us actually want to live in a world where we could get gang raped at any time, even if nine of out ten times we would be the rapist and enjoy it (not that any of us actually would enjoy it of course, but hypothetically), we would spend our lives living in fear and so overall welfare would in fact decrease. Therefore such nonsense is not by any stretch of the imagine, tolerated under a utilitarian system.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on enough. Please give The Moral Landscape a read, it’s £12 on Amazon and I’ll happy lend you my copy if you’re too cheap to buy it. It really offers some fantastic food for thought and challenges an area of debate which I think many of us considered closed – of course nothing is closed given we claim to be the freethinkers and all.

One Life: Ethics

Sunday, October 30th, 2011 | Humanism

Last week, myself and Elina headed down to One Life for their session on Ethics, to explain to all the young people why they are wrong. As expected, most people there argued that morals were subjective, so I put forward the case from Sam Harris’ excellent book, The Moral Landscape, which I will be blogging about shortly.