Ethics, Quotes, Reason, Religion, Sam Harris, Science, Values, Wisdom

Are Some Morals Objectively False?

“Consider the Catholic church. This is an institution that excommunicates women who attempt to become priests, but does not excommunicate priests who rape children. This church is more concerned about stopping contraception than stopping genocide. It is more worried about gay marriage than about nuclear proliferation. When we realise that morality relates to questions of human and animal well-being, we can see that the Catholic church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology. It is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.” [emphasis added]

Sam Harris

Is Sam Harris right?  Is it possible to rationally assert that at least some morals are objectively “false”?  Can there be a science of morality?

10 thoughts on “Are Some Morals Objectively False?”

  1. I’d like to argue that all morality is objectively false but in the interest of human civilization, I must agree with Sam Harris.

    The moral agenda of the Roman Catholic Church is, in many instances, contra-civilization. Unfortunately, religion encourages blind superstition and emotional unreasonableness.


  2. I think “true” and “false” are inappropriate terms for morals… however “totally f-ed up” and “backward” seem to fit the bill.

    The morality of the Catholic Church (and other groups) seems centered on maintaining the power structure of the organization. Thus, any issue that does not immediately threaten their power (genocide, nuclear proliferation) are simply not worth bothering about.

    Unfortunately such inbred moral codes are not useful for producing healthy societies. Having said that, I’m not sure you can scientifically determine what is and is not “good” morality.

    ps… wa:do


  3. To the extent morality equates with human and animal well-being, yes. However, many (most?) religions claim to have god’s ear — and god defines morality usually (and conveniently) as whatever promotes the religious organization and the interests and biases of its powers-that-be. Strangely, in my experience god’s definition of morality often seems unforgivably immoral.

    For one example of far too many, in the context of some recent local legislation banning an “immoral” sex education curriculum that provides too much accurate information about the physiology of sex and how to protect against pregnancy and STDs, the religious “moral” majority has declared an abstinence only approach to sex education is the moral one. Ignorance is apparently way more moral than too much information. People actually believe that if no one teaches their kids about sex, they won’t have it.

    Hence the high risk kids (and lots of others from moral families) around here are getting pregnant AND chlamydia. Reminds me of the saying, “If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?”


  4. @ K. Capach: Wolf! It’s great to see you! 🙂

    I think that’s a good, solid insight into the Catholic Church. So far as I understand, the Church very early on in its history became arguably more dedicated to power than to a healthy morality.

    It seems I’m finding Harris a bit more compelling than you. I haven’t yet made up my mind about his notion that morality can be objectively derived from science, but I think if you accept his definition of morality as something along the lines of “whatever promotes human and animal well being”, then there is indeed a case to be made that somethings promote well being more than other things.

    I’m so glad you’re here, Wolf. Did you bring any beer?


  5. @ The Cognitive Dissenter: Welcome to the blog! 🙂 It’s good to see you here!

    You strike a nerve with me when you mention the state of sex education in our country, CD. Indeed, it seems both of us are made ill by the deceptive and immoral practices of the abstinence only crowd.

    You know, they are out and about telling their lies and deceiving kids at a time when the US ranks number one in the industrial world in virtually all categories of sex related problems, including teen pregnancies and STD infections.

    I’m not sure yet whether we can objectively say, as Harris suggests, that actions such as those of the abstinence only crowd are immoral, CD, but I do know that your statement, “If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?”, is the most refreshing statement I’ve yet heard in association with that crowd. Thank you so much!


  6. I think the primary argument would be over what exactly “whatever promotes human and animal well being” means. And does one ever trump the other?
    The use of animal models in science and medicine for example.

    How would one scientifically quantify the morality of such a thing?

    ps. Sadly, I have no beer… would rum do in a pinch? 😉


  7. That’s a good point about where the main argument lays, Wolf.

    Me, I think there would be some clear cut cases where we might know what promoted human and/or animal welfare with near certainty. But there would, of course, be other more difficult cases — And naturally, given your mischievous mind, you would point out an extremely difficult case as an example! But the question I have is this: Does the existence of extremely difficult cases, such as the use of animals in research, mean there are no instances where we can be objectively certain that something promotes human and animal well being significantly more than something else?

    P/S: Rum is delicious! 🙂 Is it your favorite booze?


  8. I think there are instances where we can be more subjectively certain. But human and animal well being are all to often in conflict and objectively we need to impose on one to favor the other… the question is how much in either direction?

    Rum is one of the few boozes I allow myself to sample, I like to keep the list short and sweet. 😉


  9. I think that’s a good point, Wolf. It’s great to talk about these things with you because you possess both sense and insight, among other fine traits. There’s a large part of me that wishes Sam Harris the best of luck in his attempt to establish a prescriptive science of morality. But an even larger part figures that what he is attempting is impossible.


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