Tag Archives: moral landscape

Worst possible misery for everyone

Sam Harris, in his book “The Moral Landscape”, defines good as that which moves away from “the worst possible misery”.

Once we conceive of “the worst possible misery for everyone” then we can talk about taking incremental steps towards this abyss. -Sam Harris, Moral Landscape, pg 39

While listening to Sam’s opening speech in his recent debate with William Lane Craig (audio, video), it occurred to me that by “misery”, Sam means, “physical misery”. That made me wonder, what about nonphysical misery? It seems that Sam’s dedication to physical materialism could prove to be a great hinderance here.

The best example of non-physical pain in my estimation is phantom pain experienced by amputees. In this case its the memory of a limb is the source of pain. I’m sure physicalists would argue that the neurons in the brain which supposedly constitute memories are the physical source of pain in this instance, but it seems like a stretch to think that memories themselves could be the source of pain since, in our memories, our limbs are still in tact. Phantom pain is not only the recollection of a limb that no longer exists, but an extrapolation from there that the body must be in pain since the limb is no longer providing feedback to the nervous system.

Next to phantom pain for non-existent limbs would be psycogenic pain, ie mental disorders. Mental anguish is one of the most common forms of pain we experience all the time. From mild discomfort (ie small insults or slights) to insurmountable pain (ie the loss of a loved one).

In conclusion I believe there is sufficient evidence for the claim that metaphysical pain trumps physical pain in

  • Duration – it is not possible to remove metaphysical pain through medication or amputation.
  • Intensity – while both metaphysical pain can be mitigated somewhat through medication, its intensity is not limited by natural constraints.
  • Capacity – physical pain does end at some point. Nerves get overloaded and either shut down (become numb) or the body builds a tolerance or the body itself shuts down (ie the person passes out). Metaphysical pain is bound by none of these physical constraints.

So if the greatest possible pain is not confined to physical states of affairs, it follows that any solution to the problem of pain would need to entail a metaphysical component to it if it is to be a complete and coherent. Sam’s solution is simply incomplete. It fails to adequately address metaphysical pain which would still exist even under the most ideal physical circumstances. And since it is possible for the metaphysical to effect the physical, and not vice versa, it also follows that any solution to the problem of pain should come primarialy from a metaphysical source, not a physical one.

So while I agree with Sam that morality would entail the transition from a state of pain to a state of pleasure, I find Sam’s solution to be shallow and incomplete. The greatest possible pain is not physical, its metaphysical. So the solution we ought to be looking for, if we are serious about looking for an exhaustive solution, should be metaphysical, not physical.


Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?

On Quora I was invited to help answer the question “Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?”. The following is my contribution.

Yes, without an objective moral lawgiver the notion of an objective moral law is absurd.

The fundamental question when it comes to the establishment of any moral system is where obligation is derived. From a naturalistic perspective it appears that the best we can do is describe what is and can consequently never arrive at an obligatory ought. For that, it seems that a competent moral authority is required.

The formula goes like this (borrowed from notes on a recent debate):

Two claims

  • if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties
  • if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties

To further expand on the above two points:

  • Theism provides a rational ground for morality in the character of God who, properly defined, is the maximal being who is worthy of worship.
  • Atheism does not provide a sound foundation for objective morality and further fails to provide the ability to ground moral duty since it provides no rational basis for human freedom.

This topic has the propensity to produce many rabbit trails on related topics so to remain on this topic we need to keep in mind that the scope of this question is limited to moral ontology. What makes something good or bad. Not moral epistemology or how we know whether something is good or not. In a recent debate with Sam Harris, Bill Craig used the example that ancient persons knew what light and darkness was even though they had no knowledge of the physical properties of light.

Many times altruism is posited as a possible secular source for morality. The problem with that theory, though, is that nature’s propensity for cruelty and suffering shows that secular morality is a myth. In order for an appeal to altruism to be credible on a naturalistic account of the universe, the existence of a selfless gene would need to be established.

While it is possible for all humans to know, intrinsically, certain moral truths, the question of foundation requires that we not care so much about the specifics of morality and, instead, focus on whence they are derived.

Here are a few excellent resources on this topic: