David Hume

Theists would naturally take issue with an atheist’s natural explanation for morals, but when evolutionists take issue in leading secular journals, it’s worth finding out why.  Both Science and Nature reviewed Sam Harris’s new book on the evolution of morality and had some concerns with his philosophy and logic.

Both reviewers recognized David Hume’s contention from the 18th century that one cannot determine an ought from an is: i.e., observation of things that exist cannot specify what ought to be.  In Nature,1 Pascal Boyer [Washington University, St Louis] reviewed The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris (Free Press, 2010), and began by citing Hume’s proverb, noting that Sam Harris disagrees with it.  Harris thinks a consensual morality can be derived from evolution.  “His thesis is compelling, but he underplays the extent to which our decisions are rooted in intuition, preferring to portray decision-making as a calculated maximization of our well-being,” Boyer, affirming natural selection, complained.  To him, Harris goes too far in claiming that morality is man’s attempt to rationalize instincts honed by natural selection.  Harris claims not only that you can get morality, but you can go further and infer what makes “the good life.”

Without a deity, Harris must ground morality on particles in motion.  Boyer explains his position: “Harris’s brand of consequentialism – the ends justify the means, so what is good is what maximizes well-being – excludes transcendent sources.”  He justifies what is good on the quantifiable results.  This is pragmatism: the most good for the most people.  Well-being is the measure of morality.  Boyer worried, though, that many of our moral positions are not based on our sense of well-being: “an issue such as abortion is more difficult:”, he said: “our feelings are grounded in our intuition about whether a fetus is a person.”  While enjoying the work of a fellow atheistic evolutionist, Boyer did have problems with the book:…

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