Sam Harris on Christian Morality

“You believe that unless the Bible is accepted as the word of God, there can be no universal standard of morality. But we can easily think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a law-giving God. For there to be objective moral truths worth knowing, there need only be better and worse ways to seek happiness in this world. If there are psychological laws that govern human well-being, knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality.”[i]

Those of you who have some experience with the study of metaethics or the metaphysics of morality, might notice the problem here. As with his other work on this subject, Harris constantly avoids justifying his assumption that human happiness is the standard of morality. And he also avoids the question of why any particular person should care about the happiness of others and not just their own. Certainly, it is in our interest to care to some degree about the happiness of others, but then only insofar as it concords with our self-interest, which doesn’t sustain a true altruism. We have to remember what we are trying to account for with regard to morality. Harris reduces the question to essentially a matter of what is most conducive to happiness. This is incomplete even if you assume that happiness is to be prioritized in moral action. It is the notion of obligation that is central to objective morality – that someone is obligated to do a particular thing even if they don’t feel like it, even if they don’t have intuitions telling them that it is right etc. That is what it means for morality to be objective. Harris provides no account of that which means he provides no basis for objective morality. Harris spends the rest of this section stabbing at a secondary question (what is most conducive to happiness), conflating that question with a metaphysical foundation for morality, and then saying that because science can answer the first question it can answer the second. Put differently, he doesn’t answer the question of why happiness ought or should be prioritized in our actions, even though many thinkers, both secular and religious, have disagreed that happiness is the most morally relevant. For example:

“For there to be objective moral truths worth knowing, there need only be better and worse ways to seek happiness in this world. If there are psychological laws that govern human well-being, knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. While we do not have anything like a final, scientific understanding of human morality, it seems safe to say that raping and killing our neighbors is not one of its primary constituents. Everything about human experience suggests that love is more conducive to happiness than hate is. This is an objective claim about the human mind, about the dynamics of social relations, and about the moral order of our world.”[ii]

I agree that there are objective ways to answer the question of what is most conducive to human happiness, but that does not mean that morality is objective. Moral nihilism, or the non-existence of any objective moral values, is logically compatible with the fact that there are objectively better and worse ways to seek happiness. This means that the one question is definitely not the same as the other. Furthermore, there are many scenarios which easily draws into doubt the idea that human happiness should be prioritized as the most important consideration in morality. For example, a classic thought experiment against utilitarianism is the case of rowdy and violent mob who is angry about a particular crime. The police in the town know that the mob will cause much more damage, perhaps killings, and destruction of property, than if they choose one innocent person and blame them for the crime. Blaming an innocent will cause less unhappiness than if they leave the mob without a culprit. Utilitarianism, or making the happiness of most people the measure of moral action, in such a circumstance, implies that blaming and executing the innocent is the best course of action. But this is clearly wrong. We know that it is wrong even if refraining from doing so will result in much greater suffering. Another thought experiment imagines 4 or 5 people who are very philanthropic and contribute a great deal to society, but they each need a particular organ in order to survive. There is another person who is completely healthy but who is a dreg on society, is lazy and contributes nothing. Utilitarianism implies that it is the best course of action to kill the lazy person, harvest his organs to save the 4 or 5 good people, because that will cause much greater happiness than allowing them to die. Killing the lazy person will cause less unhappiness. Robert Nozick imagines an “experience machine” in which you can plug in and live any life you want and it will seem completely real to you while in the machine. You can make your life perfectly happy. If what matters most is happiness, then it only makes sense to plug into that machine, truth and reality be damned. Most of us recognize that this would be wrong or wasteful in an important way, even if we could guarantee that every person on earth would have access to such a machine. This suggests that happiness is, after all, not the most important thing, the thing to be maximized above all others. That is obviously not to say that happiness is morally irrelevant, but it seems quite clear that it is not always the most morally relevant factor.

Harris goes on to complain that Christians’ political opinions are not concerned with the alleviation of suffering. Religions, he says separates “morality from the reality of human and animal suffering…” “…This explains why Christians like yourself expend more “moral” energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide. It explains why you are more concerned about human embryos than about the lifesaving promise of stem-cell research. And it explains why you can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year.”[iii]

There are some false accusations here along with some over-generalizations. But let’s first address this strange notion that one’s political opinions defines ones moral character. What is most irrational here is that Harris takes conservative Christian political opinions as the summation of their morality, which is strange ( not to mention uncharitable). I have written against this idea often as the “politicization of morality,” which is a common idea nowadays, especially on the cultural left. The fact that Harris so easily assumes it in this section shows how deeply embedded the idea is in certain corners of English-speaking culture.

Someone’s moral character is not determined by political opinions they take, but by how they treat people in day-to-day life and what they do and refrain from doing in their personal lives. It is easy to have opinions and the political opinions of most people are utterly inconsequential. It is easy to have noble-sounding political opinions, because it is easy to have noble-sounding opinions about any topic. They have no, or little, impact on moral character, because moral character is determined by what you do, not by what you say. The only meaningful impact these opinions have is casting a vote every few years and perhaps, influencing other people to hold the same opinions about those issues. If political opinions have any impact on moral character whatsoever, it is very much a secondary concern.

As for his idea that Christians don’t care about genocide, let’s look at the facts. Amnesty International, probably the most well-known NGO which concerns itself with the troubles of third-world countries, was founded by two Christians, Peter Benenson, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and Eric Baker, a Quaker. Samaritan’s Purse is another organization that helps developing countries, and has an explicitly Christian orientation. World Vision is a large charity that helps children in developing countries. Salvation Army is a well-known Christian charity that is present in 131 countries. There are many charities founded and sustained by Christians that focus on what Harris says Christians don’t care about. In addition, what has Harris himself done to fight genocide internationally? The condemnation of contraceptives does not come from Christians generally but from the Catholic Church based on moral teaching that is based as much on tradition and philosophy as the Bible.

Harris complains that Christian attitudes toward sex are not aimed at reducing suffering[iv]. Again, Harris has not attempted to give reasons why happiness should be the end goal of all moral concerns, and so this becomes a vacuous point, rationally speaking. He says that the “prudery” of Christians contributes to human suffering. But the relevant question is not whether a commitment to abstinence causes suffering, but whether its absence would cause more suffering. I have to say it is strange to think that abstinence causes suffering. “Discomfort” seems like a more appropriate word. Also, regardless of whether Christian attitudes about sex are motivated by philosophical hedonism, it is undoubtedly the case that avoiding sexual impulsivity prevents human suffering. Even with the advent of contraceptives and antibiotics, there are still all sorts of risks to sleeping with strangers. We know that contraceptives do not eliminate the risk of any STD and that there are STDs ( like HPV, Herpes, Molluscum, and Syphilis) which are not prevented by condoms. HPV and Syphillis are serious. HPV is a very common, incurable STD and accounts for a large number of cervical cancer occurrences. Chlamydia and Gonorrhea are curable STDs in principle, but they are increasingly antibiotic-resistant. Apart from the risks of serious disease, when you sleep with someone you invite them into your confidence in a very intimate way. It is foolish to sleep with someone you don’t trust deeply and with whom you have not made a public declaration of that trust (i.e. marriage). In the absence of that, trouble is more likely to follow. Think for example of being accused of rape or sexual harassment. That is far more likely, especially in our own culture nowadays, if you sleep with a stranger or someone you’ve just met, where some women think that merely feeling violated or feeling bad about their experience is enough to convince them that they’ve been assaulted in some way. Strangely, it doesn’t occur to them that doing the most intimate thing you can do with another person, with a complete stranger who they don’t trust, could be the cause of that feeling of violation. If you do not know and trust someone you are more likely to misinterpret their actions, and they yours, especially when you are in this very vulnerable state. This is one of the social risks for a man. But the risk for a woman is even greater, because they invite a completely strange man into their bedroom, someone who’s motives they have made no attempt to understand and who is physically much stronger than them. The likelihood that an unpleasant experience will follow is not low.

In other words, Christian sexual morality satisfies Harris’s own moral concerns better than his own opinions about sexual morality, even though Christian morality doesn’t even, as he notes, make those concerns central. To put it differently, Christian sexual morality is better than Harris’s sexual morality, based on his own standards, without trying to be.

Harris claims that there are Christians who oppose some STD vaccines based on the idea that this is going to prevent a natural disincentive to sexual promiscuity. He only mentions one name: Reginald Fingar. He does not give evidence that this is a general Christian belief, and nor does he give evidence that this is supported by generally-accepted Christian doctrine or the Bible. Clearly, that Christian doctrine teaches abstinence does not mean that people should not be vaccinated against STDs, especially because there is a risk that your marital partner could have an STD, even if it is smaller than with someone who is sexually promiscuous. So what is Harris’s point here? That Christian sexual morality is wrong because some Christians go beyond generally accepted Christian sexual morality? That doesn’t work. His point may be that the fact that Christian sexual morality is not focussed on suffering results in these types of opinions. There are many other reasons why these Christians could have adopted this supra-Christian belief that STD vaccines should not be administered. But Harris also does not address those in his own camp who defend the opposite extreme, and who seem to think that sexual promiscuity of any sort is fine, even though he seems to acknowledge that it is a bad idea at least among teens. This shows that advocacy of a philosophical hedonism which most of his fellow American and English atheists seem to resonate with, if you read their books, does not necessarily make you more concerned with people’s long-term happiness in the realm of sexual relationships. Having emotionally cheap, impulsive and imprudent sex with more than one person is seen as acceptable, even though it certainly leads to suffering, and probably offers less pleasure than sex within a long-term relational commitment, where both parties trust each other and are committed to each other.

Harris goes on to consider the value of stem-cell research and the consequent immorality of the Christians who oppose it based on the fact that it involves killing a three-day old embryo. Please take a look at some arguments against abortion I’ve outlined here. What is strange is the way Harris justifies the killing of these embryos: “the human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they are suffering their destruction in any way at all.”[v] Regardless of the morality of killing human embryos, this is an immoral way to justify it. If the reason it is acceptable to kill embryos is that they cannot suffer their destruction, then it must be acceptable to kill anything or anyone because they cannot suffer their destruction. So as long you kill someone in a painless way and they don’t see it coming, killing them is morally acceptable. This is the problem with thinking that human life is valuable primarily because human beings have an ability to suffer. Human life is clearly valuable beyond any ability to experience suffering. Harris also justifies the killing of these embryos by saying that, in other circumstances, it is considered acceptable to harvest the organs of a brain-dead person and bury them, even if they are still alive in some sense ( or kept alive by machines). There is at least one crucial difference. The embryo will, if you don’t interfere, have a fully formed consciousness and will wake up in 9 months’ time. If we could be assured that the brain-dead person will wake up in 9 months’ time, would it still be legal to harvest their organs and kill them? Even if this were legal, it would most certainly not be moral. By the way, if you are sure they are going to wake up, then it is correct to say that you have to kill them in order to harvest their organs.

Harris partly anticipates this objection by saying: “Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a human blastocyst is to be found in the latter’s potential to become a fully developed human being. But almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our recent advances in genetic engineering.”[vi] Not really. Not every part of your body is at this moment developing into a human being and none of them have in themselves the potential to become a human being like an embryo does. Harris is appealing to the fact that the embryo is only a potential human life and is not yet a human life. Let’s grant that it is only a potential human life. Let’s say that a brain-dead person only has some rudimentary brain function that one would see in most animals and that he has this most basic function for most of the nine months that he remains in a coma. Does the fact that he at that time lacks any other brain function mean that he should not be considered to have human life when you know that he will have normal brain function in nine months’ time? The embryo is in the exact same situation. The embryo doesn’t currently have a bodily function which it will have in the future and it doesn’t currently have the brain function that it will have without interference from someone else. If it is immoral in the former case to kill such a person, then it is immoral in the latter. The mere fact that the brain-dead person does not, at that time, have brain function associated with normal human beings doesn’t mean he doesn’t have equal value to other lives. Simply because the foetus doesn’t, at that time, have brain function associated with fully-grown human beings doesn’t mean that they don’t have equal value.

Moreover, if you had someone who is brain-dead and you knew of a way to restore them to a full life, would it not be extremely immoral of you to ignore that and to instead harvest their organs anyway? That is what you would be doing in the case of stem-cell research, because you know of a way to give a full life to the embryo ( i.e. just leave it alone) and you are not doing that to gain some other benefit from them. In fact, this is even more immoral, because it is more analogous to killing someone who you know will recover even without your help. “Killing” is the correct word for what you are doing in this scenario. Harris also appeals to the number of cells in a fly and an early human embryo, although I’m not sure what the number of cells has to do with the value of a human life. Someone who suffers from dwarfism has far fewer cells in their body than does someone who is 6 feet tall. Is someone with fewer brain cells, such as a person who is suffering from some neurodegenerative disease, less valuable than someone with more brain cells? It becomes clear when you read the justifying reasons for abortion why it was so closely associated with eugenics in the 20th century.

Harris goes on to point to a difficulty of thinking about souls when two embryos become one. Whether or not we believe in souls, that doesn’t invalidate the points already made here against abortion, which is why it is irrelevant. Most of the arguments against abortion, like the one’s made above, do not require a concept of souls. Secondly, this is no more a problem for the concept of souls than it is a problem for any concept of individual human rights and individual human value. If the embryo splits, has the human value split into two when they come out of the womb? Thirdly, the fact that it is difficult to determine what happens to the souls in such a case does not mean there are no souls involved. Fourth, I don’t see the problem with saying that when an embryo splits, a new soul comes into being and with a Chimera, one existence dies. Harris has not succeeded in offering a reductio ad absurdum of the concept of souls merely by pointing out a scenario where it may be mysterious what happens to them. You need a scenario where it is self-contradictory or otherwise irrational, to show that the concept of souls is wrong.

But apart from these points, reducing Christian morality to an opposition to contraceptives or stem-cell research is irrational both because opposition to these things are not central to Christian morality, and because Harris only considers the political positions that (American) Christians typically take in order to make a judgment about Christian morality. If Harris is right about stem-cell research and about contraceptives, it is not clear what this should imply. It at most implies that most of his fellow American Christians have bad opinions about public policy. It definitely does not imply anything about Christianity itself, because neither generally-accepted Christian doctrine nor the Bible directly states that either abortion or contraceptives are wrong.

[i] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006) Kindle Edition.Loc 237

[ii] Ibid., Loc 237

[iii] Ibid., Loc  254

[iv]Ibid.,Loc. 287

[v] Ibid., Loc 295

2 thoughts

  1. “It definitely does not imply anything about Christianity itself, because neither generally-accepted Christian doctrine nor the Bible directly states that either abortion or contraceptives are wrong.”

    Yep, you are quite right. And the bible states that killing a child for the actions of its parents is completely fine. One wonders how Christians have so many vastly differing ideas when they all claim to have the “truth”.


  2. You raise many good objections to Harris’s views. I especially like Nozick’s experience machine example and your notion of killing people painlesslessly.

    I would also point out that to the extent science suggests that we have a stronger empathy response to negative emotions/pain than we do to positive emotions/joy it would seem we should try to reduce empathy. I did a blog on that. Here is one on Harris in particular:

    Atheists have huge problems with morality. Most simply reject it – or at least claim they do. Most of my blog is about moral arguments and meta-ethics. I deal with animal rights, atheists claiming that empathy is the same a love and relativism.


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