North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

“Compassion is deeper than religion”

with 3 comments

I had a good chuckle when I read this Sam Harris entry in the LA Times, where he writes:

There is no question that many people do good things in the name of their faith — but there are better reasons to help the poor, feed the hungry and defend the weak than the belief that an Imaginary Friend wants you to do it. Compassion is deeper than religion. As is ecstasy. It is time that we acknowledge that human beings can be profoundly ethical — and even spiritual — without pretending to know things they do not know.

This is probably the strangest passage in this very strange essay. The American Thinker has posted a pretty good response by Steven Alderman, who responded so:

So what does it mean to be ethical, or especially spiritual, with an atheistic worldview? The underlying premise of Harris’ disdain for believers is that delusional beliefs threaten the existence of mankind. What are these “better reasons” for helping the poor, feeding the hungry, and defending the weak? How does empiricism support the concept of compassion? From an evolutionary point of view, what is the advantage of helping the poor, feeding the hungry or defending the weak?

Nietzsche had a more rational answer for a God-less world, and his atheism was at least intellectually honest. The superman does not need an objective moral standard — he makes his own and imposes it on the weaker. So it is that Harris falls by his own words; he pretends to know things he does not know. He does not know what is good or what is evil; he only knows what is socially normative. He does not know anything spiritual, because the spirit is imaginary, or at best a mental construct.

Alderman seems to be unaware of evolutionary game theory, much of it fascinating reading, that aims to show how various sorts of altruism can be evolutionary beneficial. They might even be true. The truth of such a proposition is not without its problems, however, and this is why Alderman’s oversight does not undermine his response much.

The crux of the issue here is the problematic relationship between “is” and “ought.” Harris, among his many, many misunderstandings of religion (and religious interactions, both ecumenical and not), has these two things muddied rather badly. As I understand him, he is claiming to be animated by various sentiments and circumstances that motivate him to do nice things to others from time to time. This is all well and good. The world needs all the nice deeds it can get, and more.

The first question that arises is, if Harris’ circumstances change, or, as is even more likely, his sentiments change, will he be morally justified in acting on the new inputs? If he looses his job, is it all right if he takes up a life of crime? If he looses his mind, is it OK if her murders somebody? What if he just doesn’t feel like being nice today? Finally, what does it say that we can even ask that first question?

Most of us, I think, will say that the rightness or wrongness of a course of action is not altered much by circumstances. At best, it might be a mitigating factor. We might say that a person who has lost his job is not justified in stealing, but we will be softer on him because we can sympathize with the pressures he was facing. In doing so, we are not undermining our sense of objective right and wrong. The merciful response is itself not undertaken out of sentiment alone. We sense that it is wrong to be too hard on this person – no matter what we feel personally.

As Alderman points out, understanding moral action as some combination of sentiment and / or efficiency is a risky business. Sentiments can change in seconds and arguments about efficiency must be carefully defined or they can become monstrous. This doesn’t mean that Atheists are necessarily monsters. The argument that Atheists can’t be good is as wrong as it is repugnant. Ecumenically, it gets us nowhere as it is merely inflamatory. The deeper issue here is not about the ability to do right; it is about motivation for right action. There ought to be little doubt that all of us find our motivations to be mysterious things. We don’t always have a clear idea of why we do the things we do.

“Proofs” become more difficult as the data becomes difficult to access in what we normally understand an “objective” method. We don’t own or create our sentiments, but we do have to live with them. Only we know what kind of tug of war went on in our minds before we act. When we talk to others, however, we find that they have internal struggles as well. This is a proof, if not an entirely objective one. Why do we sometimes approve of our sentiments and other times not? There is some weighing and measuring going on here, and that suggests that some objective measure is being called on. When we talk to others, we find they have similar experiences. Why should this be? Why do people all over the world have values that overlap, cultural differences aside?

Someone who accepted everything I’ve written so far, but who still disagreed with me that theistic morals are sturdier ground than naturalistic ones might still have one really good arrow in their quiver. An Atheist might ask – indeed they should ask, since it is a very good question – how does the existence of anything like the God of Abraham mean that we “ought” to listen to him? How does the fact that “I AM” is, close that gap?

God is immensely more than we can imagine. If we think of God as merely an “imaginary friend”, as Harris puts it, the problem lies with us and not with God. Under the baffling strangeness of existence, “is” and “ought” collapse into One who holds being and non being in himself.

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Written by Curt

March 25, 2007 at 5:33 pm

3 Responses

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  1. This is an interesting and well-written post, up to the last paragraph. For one thing, what does

    Under the baffling strangeness of existence, “is” and “ought” collapse into One who holds being and non being in himself.

    mean, if anything? Perhaps it would help if you could explain what you mean by “God”.

    As far as I can tell, the last paragraph says, “God is incomprehensible, to the point of both existing and not existing at the same time. Trying to understand this is pointless, but it’s true nonetheless.” But this doesn’t answer the question posed in the previous paragraph, “how does the existence of anything like the God of Abraham mean that we “ought” to listen to him?”


    March 28, 2007 at 8:34 am

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