Follow Up on Sam Harris

Just as a quick follow-up to my post on The Moral Landscape, I wanted to share an excerpt from  Ned Reskinoff’s blog (but go ahead and click through for the whole post):

…it seems tangentially related to the ongoing debate I’ve been having in the comments of a couple posts over whether or not moral principles can be derived through pure empirical observation. Both the political “non-ideological pragmatist” and Sam Harris the moral naturalist make the same category error: they take their own highly subjective value judgments as a given, so that any empirical observations they make can be neatly plugged into a preexisting conceptual framework…

What I’m saying is that Sam Harris is essentially the No Labels of moral philosophy. The way those guys roll is basically the same: they start from some first principles that they don’t feel like defending on philosophical grounds (like say the notion that a large federal deficit is worse for voters than the fact that many of them live in areas so impoverished they resemble third-world countries) and duck the issue entirely but just declaring their claims non-ideological and highly scientific.

I’m frustrated with this kind of behavior (particularly from No Labels and other similar political groups), but I’ve been guilty of it in my own way.  I tend to defend absolute morality without much reference to what that morality entails, in part because I do think large swathes of it are accessible and universal.  Nonetheless, it’s hard, as a friend recently pointed out to me, to have a clear idea of what I am defending.

I’m not going to launch into an explanation/defence of my complete and coherent moral theory, since I haven’t got one, but I hope some case examples can help illuminate my philosophy.  Starting with a post this evening, I’m returning to my promised series on marriage, particularly my partiality to covenant marriage.  Hopefully, this will be a decent lens on my idea of moral choices.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011 and lives in Washington DC. She works as a news writer for FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Hendy

    This area is surely an interesting one. I've been working on a "statement of non-belief" of sorts to just get my thoughts out. I was at a talk last night with my wife about parenting, given by devout Catholics to an audience of devout Catholics (except me…) and while I agreed with a good number of points made, I was quite "hyper-aware" of disagreements as well. Their case was organized around:- kids are created in god's image- they have two components within them: a saint (soul) and sinner (fallen nature)- the purpose of parenting is to become a saint and to form "little, virtuous Christian people"- And so on…Perhaps obviously, I'm going to disagree with many of the basic premises. For example, is the "saint/sinner" model healthy?In any case, I day dreamed off into the hard question of why, exactly, I think we should be good. I completely understand the coherence of theologically based goals like "raising saints," "pleasing the lord," etc… but I think they're based on falsehood — compelling falsehood.But with that removed… why be good? This is different from removing god and suddenly not wanting to do good — I experience(d) none of that and find it a common theist fear (no god = no morals/rampage ensues). But even if I still have the desire to do good within me… it doesn't explain it's basis or foundation.Anyway, that's a heck of a ramble to say that this just came up for me as well. I decided last night that I'm going to add a section to my linked cumulative case clearly stating what I can't, at present, explain or defend!

  • Leah

    I really look forward to your Statement, Hendy. I've been following your personal series, and I really appreciate your openness.

  • Hendy

    @Leah: thanks! I wish I knew more than I did… my "Statement" won't be nearly as researched as I had hoped. I'm beginning to try and accept my limitations. I've got a wife and two kids. My time to try and figure out if the omni-max being described by the Bible is real… is limited, unfortunately. I'd actually be pretty interested in how you "balance" your quest-of-sorts with "regular life."Do you just live with uncertainty or quasi-certainty (in atheism) but simply enjoy entertaining god theories and apologetics? Or are you "questing" for a particular end goal? And where does regular life fit in? Balance has been a killer for me. I read and read and read and burn out and then "recoup" by medicating myself on dumb hulu content late at night.Sorry to ramble — not the right place, but I would be curious on that whole aspect. I have appreciated your blog quite a bit during this time.