Warning, this will be somewhat long. It is the email dialogue between my friend Jason and I regarding a recent email he sent to Sam. I will paste his comments and mine. Thought it might be interesting to some people here since it basically reads like a thread. Here it is:
So I sent the following email to Sam Harris, don't know if i'll hear back, but you like thinking about this stuff so I thought I'd get your answers to my questions. So here it is exactly as I sent it to him:
Dear Mr. Harris,
I know you are a busy man, so I'll keep this brief. I've recently been
reading more of your work (I think you are brilliant, btw) and came
across something that compelled me to write you this email.
In a debate between yourself and Rick Warren, this article
(http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17889148/site/newsweek/) attributes the
following to you: "Sam, what are the secular sources of an acceptable moral code?"
HARRIS: "Well, I don't think that the religious books are the source. We
go to the Bible and we are the judge of what is good. We see the golden
rule as the great distillation of ethical impulses, but the golden rule
is not unique to the Bible or to Jesus; you see it in many, many
cultures—and you see some form of it among nonhuman primates. I'm not at all a moral relativist. I think it's quite common among religious people to believe that atheism entails moral relativism. I think there is an absolute right and wrong. I think honor killing, for example, is unambiguously wrong—you can use the word evil. A society that kills women and girls for sexual indiscretion, even the indiscretion of being raped, is a society that has eradicated empathy. Empathy and compassion are our most basic moral impulses, and we can even teach the golden rule without lying to ourselves or our children about the origin of certain books or the virgin birth of certain people."
My 2 questions are:
1) By what standard is "absolute right and wrong" defined?
2) Are humans the only animals with an "absolute right and wrong"?
Thank you very much for your time.
I'm sure he's gotten these questions before, but I think they're
important ones and I am curious as to how he would respond. I could also
ask, "Is "good" the same as "right"; "bad" the same as "wrong"? If so,
can an event be simultaneously considered "good" and "bad", depending on perspective? If so, then doesn't that nullify the possibility of the existence of an "absolute right and wrong" or an "absolute good and bad"?
I believe that for humans there is an absolute right and absolute wrong. Like Sam says, stoning a teenage girl for being raped is 100% wrong. There is no reasoning or logical way to justify that without using some distorted, sociopathic, or fanatical religious mindset to do so (which are all illogical).
A bear, or whatever other non-human you choose to use, does not have any control of its environment. It lives in "the hands of the gods" (or in the hands of nature as it were). There is no one right way for bears. But yet a bear will do everything it can to protect itself and its life just like a teenage girl would want to do when they drag her off to the stoning pit (but of course she would have no choice in the matter or the ability to defend herself). The "right way" for a bear is to stay alive at all costs. And that's all humans want too.
And as cliche' as it is to say, you are comparing apples to oranges. Humans have complex social behaviors and lifestyles that involve things that are way beyond the realm of any other non-human. In addition, no other non-humans as far as we know are even capable of conceiving "right vs. wrong". That concept is a human tool we use to make our lives easier and to ensure our survival, and to a lesser extent, happiness.
You are essentially trying to make a point by comparisson and say that
"Since animals can't do this, then why should humans be able to?" But I
think the obvious answer is that we ARE humans and animals are not. And it's the fact that we are humans with complex thoughts that make us
different, not just that we are some arbitrary primate.
Here's how I think it breaks down: The fact that Harris said, "I think there is an absolute right and wrong" proves that it is not true. If it were true, he wouldn't have to say it. We'd all already know that. In reality, we don't all know that. You say it is illogical to stone teenage girls to death, but no one is obligated to be logical. I am free to be as illogical as I want to be. If anyone has a problem with me being illogical, they are free to kill me or whathaveyou. You say, "In addition, no other non-humans as far as we know are even capable of conceiving "right vs. wrong". That concept is a human tool we use to make our lives easier and to ensure or survival, and to a lesser extent, happiness." I agree. Humans conceived of "right" and "wrong" themselves throughout their evolution. Those concepts have evolved, and will continue to evolve, with us. The only way that there could be an "absolute right and wrong" is if those concepts were static. Since they evolve with us, they are not absolute.
I see right and wrong as feelings that we each perceive differently; the same way that we perceive anger, love and hate differently. There is no "absolute" anger. There are degrees of anger, just as there are degrees of right and wrong. It is up to each individual to interpret these different feelings in his own way. I can't tell another man that he is interpreting his feelings incorrectly. That would be like insulting someone and telling them not to feel angry about it.
Our feelings are chemicals swimming around in our brains. There is no "correct" way for those chemicals to "swim." Some human brains produce more functional humans than others, but it is not incorrect to be a retard or psychopath killer. We are how we are.
We can form a more functional society around eliminating psychopath killers, but we would not be incorrect or "absolutely wrong" if we did not eliminate them. We would just have a crappier society to live in.
Harris has made himself wealthy by saying things we already know. What is more self evident than saying "God is a myth"? But yet he's published a couple books about it. The field of logic states that being logical is the most sensible and beneficial way to be. So, it only makes sense that people would do things that are logical. They of course don't, but there are repercussions for that (hence, you should behave logically lest you face more repercussions).
I think the points he made about "absolute wrongs" were only extreme examples. Since the birth of Lucy 4 million years ago, I think it would have been, and still is, absolutely wrong to stone her to death because someone raped her. That has not, nor should it, ever change. Evolution has no bearing on those extreme instances of "immorality."
And you're still doing apples to oranges comparisons by equating someone's anger level to someone's decision on how severely to punish a helpless person. Mainly it's because the latter is going beyond one's self and is impacting someone elses life. If it were truly comparable, it'd be that the person feels strongly that the girl should be stoned to death for being raped(but doesn't actually kill her.) It crosses into a whole new level when someone says, "Here's how I feel….and this is what is going to happen to you as a result…"
You have to keep in mind that Sam bases his premises on logic and honesty. Those things transcend personal interpretations of how we choose to look at the world. "Right" and "wrong" are terms that we use to label things in a logical way. You should drive safely…that is the "right" way to drive. It is "absolutely wrong" to murder a rape victim…no one should have to be killed just because they had been victimized sexually. It is illogical to claim anything different. And it would be dishonest to claim anything different. Those are universal truths regardless of whether a deluded person disputes that.
Now you might argue as to where to draw the line on this slippery slope. Is it logical to drive recklessly to pursue a criminal? Is it logical to kill someone because they also killed someone? Logic would state that nearly everything has one "correct" course of action and consequence. But Sam doesn't focus on the shades of gray in between the extremes he's mentioned. Because he knows that it is illogical to expect a diverse group of people to agree on everything the same way. But he does believe that we SHOULD agree on the most fundamental and critically important things which have huge impacts on human quality of life.