Monday, July 7, 2014

Sam Harris, Morality and Some Thoughts on the Belief in an Afterlife

I saw this Sam Harris quote floating around and thought I'd share it here.


I find this quote extremely important for several reasons.

First, I think it shows that there is a real genuine concern with what we might call human morality, or ethics, as separate from other kinds of morality, animal morality for example. It highlights the fact that morality is mainly a concern for humans, with what humans do, to and among other humans.

Which brings me to the second reason I find this quote important, it helps to highlight the fact that without our ability to reason, our moral considerations would largely be meaningless, whether or not things like objective morality should exist.

Morality, whether subjective or objective, can only have meaning if we know how to think about moral considerations and have moral concerns. Morality can only have importance to us if we know how to think about our actions in ethical terms and are able to weigh, either through empathy or pure reason, the full weight of the moral consequences as a result should we choose this rather than that particular action.

Sam Harris asks us to pause and reflect upon the fact that everyone who is alive, or who has ever lived, looses everything they have ever valued or loved in life, including life itself. 

Regardless of what anybody may think about this life, there comes a time when the life we have will vanish--will cease to be. But what will happen once we shuffle off this mortal coil, as Shakespeare's Hamlet questioned, is anybody's guess.

Because of this Sam wants us to consider that if we all loose everything in the end, why would we want to compound the suffering of others in this life by making it more miserable for others full well knowing that this life may be the only chance they have at achieving any modicum of happiness. Who would be so cruel as to deliberately and willfully take that away from their fellow human beings? Obviously, those who do not feel that moral questions matter, or those who think it doesn't apply to them, for whatever reason.

My own analogy goes something like this. 

Suppose we're all sitting in a lifeboat together (it's a rather big, all encompassing lifeboat). To our collective dismay, the boat is discovered to have a leak in it and it's slowly, but surely, sinking. Some people believe, for strange and peculiar if not often strained reasons, that fathoms below the sinking boat is a submarine waiting for them. 

Now consider that some of these submarine believers, holding to this rather far-fetched belief in a hidden submarine ready to rescue them, decide it would be better to sink the boat faster and get aboard the submarine rather than suffer through a long bout of sea sickness.

Sam's question is a pertinent one. Why would we, or anyone else for that matter, want to make things worse by bringing water into the boat or rocking the boat so much that people start toppling out?

What purpose would that serve?

As Harris has pointed out numerous times before, for the religious mind which believes in an afterlife, it could serve a hastening of a new life--a heavenly life--just as the people in the boat who imagine a submarine waiting form them a few fathoms below the ocean surface feel that taking on water will get them to their heavenly submarine faster. 

Which is why Harris has stated, and quite rightly I might add, that religious radicals are most likely a serious threat to our collective well being. They have no moral conscience holding them back from prematurely sinking the boat and taking everyone with them because, quite to the contrary, it is their ardent belief that hastening the sinking of the boat is the best course of action. 

In other words, all their morality is tied up with whether or not their assumptions about the submarine waiting form them are in fact correct. And it doesn't necessarily matter if they are correct, because for all intents and purposes, they believe they are correct. That's enough to cause us to worry.

But for the secular person, indeed, for atheists and agnostics, we realize that our moral actions have very real consequences here and now, and if this is the only life we have, then we have to make sure our actions, words, and ideas matter and that we treat everything with the proper amount of responsibility and reflection lest we risk sinking the boat prematurely and find, that contrary to the beliefs of some, there was never any submarine there to begin with.

I suppose the real question is, for those who don't feel burdened by such a moral responsibility because they feel they'll get another chance to live a happier life, the question is, why wouldn't you want the life others have to be a happy one--especially knowing that a large portion of these people won't enjoy the happy afterlife you expect to find yourself in? 

Some religious believers claim that unbelievers are bound to hell. Well, I have a problem with this. It's a lot like saying that the person sitting in the sinking boat simply isn't going to make it because, as fate would have it, they can't swim. If that's truly the case, then teaching them to swim would be of tantamount importance, and I know some religious people think saving the nonbeliever is an important cause. But the question I keep coming back to, does that supply any moral reason to sink the boat any faster? I don't think so.

Also, what if you picked the wrong religion and you bet on the wrong God and Allah is the one true God, and you spent your life as a Christian, or vice-versa, so you're really not going to heaven, but hell? What if it's not a friendly submarine down there waiting to take us? What if it's the North Koreans? Why risk gambling so recklessly? Why throw away your life and the live's of others on one giant what if? Seems irresponsible, if you ask me.

And when I see things like this... 



Well, I think we all have concern to worry. Why? Because...



Both of these girls have magical beliefs in imagined submarines that may or may not be there for the rest of us. 

And when they start waving around their guns, well, their magical beliefs might just be insidious enough to convince them that blowing a hole wide open in our big lovely boat might just serve their best interests. 

And that's the point I'm trying to make here. It can't be about our  *individual best interests. It has to be about the interests of all of us, which is why Sam Harris expresses morality as any goal which strives toward bringing about human (and animal) flourishing. Anything that impedes human (or animal) flourishing would fall somewhere on the nasty side of the swamp end of the moral landscape. Anything that helps raise human flourishing to new echelons must reside somewhere on the grand peaks of that same moral landscape.

It's expressly because morality is a rational endeavor, and that we must reason through what is right and what is wrong that appeals to higher morality are rather meaningless. Regardless of whether there exists a morality outside of ourselves, it's how we go about in living moral lives that matters. It's the moral landscape we traverse daily, which concerns us. It's only here on this playing field that the moral game has lasting consequences and so every moral action counts.

Don't be Holly Fisher with her Bible and her overly big gun (for no reason) proud of her magical beliefs. Don't be the radical religious person who, in their zealousness, thinks they have the truth of it all. Don't go believing in hidden submarines that may or may not be there. Don't go chasing waterfalls, for that matter.

Let's be reasonable. Let's reason together.


Just because there might be a happier life after this (something we could never be sure about until, well, after the fact), and that's certainly a big what if, what justifiable reason could anyone have for spreading misery and making reckless decisions that could potentially harm others in this life?

As far as I'm concerned, there aren't any excuses--not even magical books, beliefs, or submarines can justify sinking the boat which everyone else has no choice but to be in alongside with you. Don't think that your desires, your thoughts, and your feelings trump the desires, thoughts, and feelings other people, as if you were the only person that mattered.

It's not just about you. It's about all of us.

What matters, I should hope, is each other

Which is why I think it is expressly important to pause to consider our moral actions and their consequences.

I just wish more people would take the time to think about these issues, because, regardless of what you may believe, the fact remains that we're all in this boat together.


Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist