Hi All,

We had a discussion many moons ago about atheists and morality and a lot has happened since then. I reached some new conclusions (which I'll withhold for now so I don't poison the water) and at least one other poster here has some new ideas about it.

So, I was wondering what the prevailing opinion is out there on this topic. Do you believe that atheists can be "moral"? Is it impossible for an atheist to be truly moral? Is "morality" something to which adherents have a valid claim? The infamous Dawkins and Harris had a discussion at Oxford about this about a year or so ago that was very good and I would also be interested in what anyone thinks of what was discussed there.

Thanks and all are welcome.

- kk

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Arch - are you sure? - kk


The most immoral person I know, discussing morality?

To whom do you refer? And yea, I think I got the Shakespearean line. Thanks

- kk

RE: "To whom do you refer?"


Arch - aww come on, I want to be the debaucherous one! :-) - kk

I-) sleepy

debauchery is not just a way of life its a special frame of mind lol shall we all jump of the deep end with it? I'll bring the Scotch....

Nikos - Quite - kk

Hey Tiffany,

Yea, I think you summed up Harris' view very well. - kk

Wouldn't it?  What if killing 1 person would cure cancer in a million cancer patients?

I realize that's a contrived example but I am sure with some thought you could come up with a scenario where killing or injuring someone (or taking their stuff) would cause them harm but produce greater benefit to some group of other people.

I am sure with some thought you could come up with a scenario where killing or injuring someone (or taking their stuff) would cause them harm but produce greater benefit to some group of other people.

Isn't that the entire premise of every war and crime..ever?

Hey kOrsan,

Egggzzzzaaaccctttllyyyyy And this is Harris' logic - see below - kk

Hey SteveInCo,

That's a great point and its something I brought up in our discussion before. This is where Harris' logic falls down. What is sometimes the most logical solution can also be a repugnant one that no one in their right mind would accept.

Harris’ formulation invokes the concept of group versus individual “rights” or “good”. Oddly, Harris and Dawkins both seem to be acutely aware of this problem but only in the most camouflaged sense. Harris has written numerous oblique references to this problem and we need to examine it here (these are observations from a recorded discussion at Oxford in April 2011).

1.) hospital organ donors being murdered to save more lives is posed but never engaged.

2.) There is a trolley just below a cliff and you stand above. The trolley is certain to impact and kill 4 people, but a nice large fat man is beside you and if he fell on the tracks he would stop the trolley. Do you push him off for a net rescue of 4 people? How does this compare when the act of pushing him off is abstracted from you (say, by being able to drop someone on the track by some distant remote control scheme)? This is actually something that Peter Singer wrote about in 2007 at project-syndicate.org.

3.) Harris vaguely appealed to something like reciprocal altruism as the solution to the hospital and trolley problem

4.) Did Harris actually argue in favor of human misery without meaning to do so? It sounded like it when he argued against the use of certain psychiatric drugs.

5.) Harris stated that free will is illusory and I was oddly comfortable with that, intellectually speaking, until I began to ponder the problem of non-deterministic *and* non-algorithmic mental processes. I would argue that Harris’ argument did not sustain.

6.) Harris spoke of the difference between justice (he uses this term not in the legal sense but in the popular sense of "fairness") and "well being"; without realizing it was really just a distinction between individual and group. His argument about "well being" was basically, as I think I've learned tonight, his formation and assertion of archetype in consequentialism.

Group versus Individual Good

Harris speaks of zero sum scenarios when dealing with the question of group or individual. His final solution to the dilemma, unfortunately, is to just dismiss it as “not important” because he thinks that something akin to reciprocal altruism will “solve it”. In other words, he thinks people will “just be compassionate” in those difficult moral moments. This is completely unacceptable and is a recipe not only for serious challenge but serious disgust and disdain from adherents. Let’s be clear, my purpose is to spread atheism everywhere.

Harris does seem to acknowledge the problem of the zero sum game by saying that zero sum situations in which the individual’s utility increases with no utility increase for the group, or vice versa, is a reality. So, in order to better understand the discussion and frame it properly, we will go back to the statements supra that have been attributed to Harris and/or Dawkins.

In the case of the hospital and trolley example, the logic is similar but not exactly the same. In Harris’ trolley example the point of this that I gathered is to illustrate the difference between a rational decision versus the impulses of reciprocal altruism which may not be rational, at least within the limitations of the example. How is this? When a human being has to make a decision about who shall live or die based solely on number (the remote control example), the decision will revert to reason alone as there is nothing confounding the thought process. But when the presumptively purely rational decision is contaminated with an emotional component (the “fat man”) the outcome may not be rational. What we mean by emotion is essentially identical to Hume’s “passions”. And it is the introduction of abstraction into this example that finally explains this. When the “fat man” is standing directly next to you, the reality of that person’s existence is less abstract than the reality of the existence of the people on the trolley. And this is normal and good. It is a trait that helps protect us from deception.

But what does this story, as well as most of the similar stories Harris and Dawkins offer, ultimately tell us? It demonstrates that the interests of the individual may, in many circumstances, be more likely defended by an advocate acting out of passions rather than reason. To understand this, one only needs to see that the Trolley example is an extreme. Consider what would happen if we change the Trolley example to a scenario where there is one person on the trolley and the “fat man” standing next to you. You know one must die by the circumstances given. But let’s add a caveat. Say you don’t know the man next to you but the person on the trolley is a friend or acquaintance. Now it gets murky. If you don’t know the person that well you might well leave the “fat man” right where he is and let your “friend” die. In fact, this kind of oxymoronic behavior is all too common in human society. It is the physical proximity of the “fat man”, hence his reification to the actor, that forces the “passions” to override reason. And it was this “passion” that allowed the “fat man” to gain favor. We could come up with better examples for sure, but the point is that we can sustain this argument with Harris’ example alone; to wit, our example illustrates our point but need not serve as proof of it.

So, what Harris is actually dancing around here is the problem of the individual versus the group. He appears ill-equipped to respond to it apparently due to a lack of sufficient background in matters of civil society, contracts, economics and law. In other words, Harris needs to introduce the concept of equity in law to make progress in this discussion. He can be forgiven for this, but not if he then uses this to begin making statements regarding morality in human society. Thus we identify the second failure of the Harris proposition. And it is a failure as far as I’m concerned only inasmuch as it leaves Harris’ morality vulnerable to negative public relations. Often an advocate’s insecurities – of whatever stripe but in this case of the intellectual kind - are exposed by what they focus on the most and it is uncanny how reliable this is. So much time and discussion spent on these stories and examples belie what I think is an uncertainty about the completeness of the proposition. This uncertainty would be correctly founded.

- kk




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