Misusing “Good”

In April 2011 at the University of Notre Dame, William Lane Craig and Sam Harris came together to debate the topic, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?”.  Oddly enough, atheist Harris contends that there are objective moral values and duties in this universe and wrote his book, “The Moral Landscape”, to explain how objective moral values and duties can be explained from an atheist perspective1.  This is odd because many atheists, like Richard Dawkins, often contend that there are no objective moral values because there isn’t a God in which to provide the foundation for their objectivity.  As Dawkins suggests, “there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . . We are machines for propagating DNA. . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being”2.  Among atheist scholars, Harris is a minority in his viewpoint that the atheistic worldview can ground objective moral values and duties. 

It needs to be identified that Harris’ reasoning for acknowledging “objective” morals in the atheist worldview is because he is using the word, “good”, in a non-moral sense.  Harris often refers to the moral quality of “good” as synonymous with the property of creaturely flourishing.  However, given that creaturely flourishing and moral “good” are separate, how is it that Harris contends that objective morals are still grounded?3  In the above video of the debate, Dr. Craig describes this objection in detail regarding creaturely flourishing not being identical to moral “good” as Harris suggests.

It seems that Harris believes that we have moral duties; however there isn’t any reason for anyone to think that we have moral duties under atheism because there isn’t a foundation set forth to construct those moral duties.  Moral obligations arise because of a competent authority.   Dr. Craig uses the example of getting pulled over by a police officer.  When a police officer turns on his sirens and requests that we pull to the side of the road, we are legally obligated to perform the duty of pulling our vehicle to the side of the road.  By contrast, if a pedestrian requested for us to pull to the side of the road, we have no legal obligation to perform the duty of pulling to the side of the road3.  The same analogy can be used for atheism.  Under atheism, there isn’t a competent authority to place any moral duties upon us while in theism there is.  That is what separates objective and subjective in this case on moral objectivity. 

During the debate, Craig made use of the Divine Command Theory (DCT).  DCT states that our moral duties are a result of the commands of a just and loving God4.  In which case, the DCT derives an “ought” from an “is” because God commanded that we oughtto do something because it is commanded by God.  Many may ask, “why are we obligated simply because God commanded it?”, which goes back to moral duties being grounded in a the competent authority that was discussed earlier4.  Under an atheistic worldview, there is no ought because there isn’t a competent authority in which to ground “ought”. 

Craig mentions repeatedly that Harris was confusing moral ontology with moral semantics, which is the primary cause in Harris’ misuse of the word “good”.  Moral ontology addresses the foundation of moral values and duties while moral semantics addresses the meaning of the moral terms3.  Simply dealing with moral semantics will be able to differentiate the meanings between moral terms but will not be able to address how moral values and duties have an objective foundation.  When Harris uses “good” and “bad”, he often is referring to a pleasurable life and a miserable life, however these are not moral uses of the word. A pleasurable life of creaturely flourishing isn’t the same as being morally good3

Hence, Sam Harris falls short of explaining how objective morality exists in a world without God.  Giving examples of how creaturely flourishing is good fails to truly explain how morality is objective in an atheistic worldview.  While creaturely flourishing is a good thing, however, think of the consequences of identifying creaturely flourishing and moral good as the same.  To illustrate a hypothetical example, if it was shown that the greatest amount of human flourishing occurred when disabled individuals were removed from society by means of euthanasia, it would be morally irresponsible for us not to euthanize these individuals simply because more humans would flourish without them.  I don’t think anybody would agree that would be a moral thing to do.  Not even Dr. Harris.

Grounding “good” in the act of creaturely flourishing is simply an act of creative desperation on behalf of Sam Harris.  Harris’ use of the word “good” gives people the illusion that he is using it morally, but upon closer examination, we find that he isn’t.  He is faced with how we can derive an “ought” from an “is” without a foundation for the “ought”.  On atheism, there is no competent authority suggesting that we ought to be morally good.  As theists, whether we are right or wrong, we can hold to the position that if we are wrong we can acknowledge that morals are illusory and nothing more.  Misusing the term “good” does nothing more than skew the meaning of its reality. 

Notes

1 Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010),

2 Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: a Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1996), p. 133 and Richard Dawkins, “The Ultraviolet Garden,” Lecture 4 of 7 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (1992),

3 William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris debate on Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?” at Notre Dame University on April 2011

4  William Lane Craig, Does Theistic Ethics Derive an “ought” from an “Is” from http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-theistic-ethics-derive-an-ought-from-an-is

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