The Paragraph I Wish Sam Harris Would Write

by Lawrence Rifkin.


Say you are a religious believer and you’ve just read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. Let’s further say that you are persuaded by Harris’s characteristic clarity and forceful writing that there are right and wrong scientific answers in moral decision-making and that there are scientifically demonstrable better and worse ways of affecting the well-being of sentient creatures. Would this be enough for the scientific moral landscape to replace your God-based moral landscape?

In your worldview, God is the very source, foundation, and inspiration for morality. What foundation of nontheistic ethics can compete, both emotionally and intellectually, with such core beliefs? Is there a humanist moral foundation that is emotionally resonant for those who prefer to hang their moral coats on something that actually exists? Harris and other humanist writers rarely explicitly express a naturalistic, first-principle answer to the most fundamental and motivating moral question: What is the underlying belief and value that inspires and justifies humanist morality?

So here are the introductory sentences of the paragraph I wish Harris and other writers on secular ethics would write: “We know that sentient creatures experience pleasure, suffering, and greater or lesser well-being. Therefore, we ought to act to make other lives better as well as our own.”

“Harris and other humanist writers rarely explicitly express a naturalistic, first-principle answer to the most fundamental and motivating moral question: what is the underlying belief and value that inspires and justifies humanist morality?”

But why ought we? What is the connection between sentence one and sentence two? No science, no exercise of pure reason, can link sentence one to sentence two. Why should we care about others’ experiences if they will never affect our own lives? How do we go from recognizing others’ interests and experiences to valuing them? Scientific statements about facts and well-being by themselves are not moral facts that can motivate and call us to act morally. That is one of the criticisms religious apologists hurl at secular ethics. Even for nontheists, there has to be a link, an assumption, a “something extra” that we believe in order to provide a connection between facts and morality. In an endnote. Harris acknowledges that any framework of knowledge, including morality, rests on assumptions, for no framework is perfectly self-justifying. But like so many other secular thinkers, he implies but does not explicitly focus on or promote these nontheistic foundational assumptions. Yet it is precisely those beliefs and not the pure facts themselves that provide the motivation and basis for goodness.

Billions of people, of course, believe that the link between sentence one and sentence two is God. God is said to be the source of goodness, the goodness itself, and the judge of what’s good. Can we fashion a nontheistic alternative moral foundation that is psychologically fulfilling? Continuing the paragraph, I wish Harris and others would write: “Neither science nor pure reason can link sentence one to sentence two. What links sentence one to sentence two—the ground and fundamental value of humanist ethics—is caring, compassion, and love. These are visceral passions, a foundation from which more abstract concepts like freedom and fairness can grow. Caring, compassion, and love, for ourselves and for others, emerge from actual human experience and require no supernatural justification.”

“Caring, compassion, and love”—by making them an explicit focus of humanist ethics, we can show those with religious mindsets that humanists share their deep moral wellspring and that it is possible to be filled with the same positive moral passions and ideals that inspire them, albeit without complicated supernatural justifications or explanations. Once we acknowledge these psychologically resonant beliefs as nontheistic foundational links between facts and values, nothing else in subsequent humanist moral analysis and argument changes. Our distinct methodological approach and secular humanist goals still hold. But by making our moral foundations explicit in this way, we potentially broaden the appeal of humanist ethical thinking. It’s only the beginning of a naturalistic moral world-view, but it is a moral foundation we can sell. Messages like compassion and love have had a successful memetic track record throughout history, from Buddhism to Christianity.

Humanists cannot allow words like love to be co-opted by Christian theologians. Christianity holds no copyright on love. Humanists can also claim language about love, create our own branding, and no longer allow others to publicly frame the meaning of concepts so core to human experience. Potential philosophical worries about definitional vagueness are not particularly relevant here. Caring, compassion, and love are all expressions of various types of deep emotional feelings for the well-being of others. The idea is to promote these as a foundation of naturalistic ethics and as a powerful secular motivating theme. Knowledge and love make for powerful partners in secular ethics.

This is not advocating any kind of “dumbing down” or “accommodation” of humanism. Because we are not giving up our commitment to evidence, consequences, naturalism, or scientific inquiry, we will not lose our rationalistic, tough-thinking street cred.

Humanist ethics is informed by science, naturalism, and consequences, and it is inspired by compassion, caring, and love. Science and reason tell us how the world is and how to make it better. But it is fundamental values such as caring, compassion, and love—not facts and reason by themselves—that actually motivate and inspire.

Our leading thinkers sometimes seem hesitant to make this inspiration explicit or to use language about caring and love. Perhaps this is out of fear of losing a targeted political focus, confusing our foundations with our methods, or using concepts that may seem vague or weak. If our ideas are expressed clearly, these fears are misplaced. Appreciating the value of emotion in morality does not necessitate or justify the devaluing of reason, science, consequences, or evidence. If humanist morality does not speak effectively to the hearts and emotions of others, it is also less likely to reach their intellects or affect their actions.


Originally appearing in Free Inquiry, Feb/Mar 2011.