In his book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris laid out his case for how science is capable of providing a naturalistic explanation for human values and morality. His major premise is that morality and values depend on the existence of the conscious mind. Specifically, Harris points to the ability of the conscious mind to experience well-being and suffering as proof that morality and values depend on the conscience mind. I believe Harris is sorely misguided in his beliefs and I intend to prove that 1) Harris isn’t saying anything new and 2) that he isn’t even making an argument as much as he is making rhetorical statements about how he wishes things really were.
Because morality is an abstract external imposition that is common to all humanity, it cannot be conditioned by particular phenomena. This is because you cannot move from “is” to “ought.” For the reason that morality is subject to a vast degree of variance and interpretations when it moves from the abstract to the concrete or the general to the particular, it is impossible for human experience to account for on naturalistic grounds. The necessary precondition for morality resides outside the conscious mind. Moving from what is to what ought to be is like attempting to reverse a waterfall.
Morality informs human behavior. That is to say it provides us with a sense of good behavior and bad behavior. Morality then, originates outside the conscious mind. By its nature, morality stands over each of us, informing us how we ought to act, to think, and to relate to others. The moral question that ethicists seek to answer is “What is humanity’s summum bonum – the highest good?” Particular experience cannot help answer this question because our experiences are vastly different from one another. My experience for taking a life may produce an entirely different affect than the next person even under the very same conditions. Does this mean that the morality of the act somehow is difference because the experience is different? The moral law stands above us because it has its source in our Creator, God, Who is Himself above us.
Morality is, in my opinion, a self-justifying belief. It is readily apparent that right and wrong are present in the world. It is obvious that every human understands the concept of morality. We can even say with great conviction that immoral men, such as Hitler for example, had a strong sense of morality even if it was a profoundly distorted one. However, morality becomes very problematic when it moves from the realm of ideas to the world of human behavior. If morality and values depend on the conscious mind, one has to ask the question, which one. Just as the abstract notion of morality demonstrates that moral law is inherently transcendent, so too does the fact that differences over particular moral behavior testify against the notion that it is dependent on the conscious mind. The recent decision by a judge to sentence a 16 year-old to probation for recklessly killing four people in a drunk-driving accident is a perfect example. Many conscious minds are morally offended and I am one of them. However, it is obvious that the judge’s conscious mind has a radically different experience than most of the rest of us. This degree of variance in the interpretation of moral acts in particular demonstrates that the conscious mind cannot be trusted as a reliable source for moral law.
What then is the necessary precondition for morality? Moreover, what is the necessary precondition for knowing that morality as an idea is a properly basic belief? Morality actually does depend on a conscious mind. In that respect, Sam Harris is correct. Where he is wrong is that morality depends on a human conscious mind which is what I take him to mean. Since God’s mind is subject to God Himself, the only way for our conscious mind to know anything at all about morality is if God Himself reveals it to us. God has revealed morality to human beings on two very basic levels: on a natural level and a spiritual level. The imago dei is the necessary precondition that makes human consciousness of morality possible. In Christian theology, we call this natural revelation. The image of God in the human conscious is why we understand and acknowledge the validity of morality and values in the human experience. Secondly, God has revealed to His elect in Scripture exactly how we are supposed to carry on with life.
I have argued that morality, by its very nature must transcend all of humanity because of the obvious external imposition it places upon us all. Since this is the case, the conscious mind is inadequate to provide for sufficient explanation for morality and values. I have also argued that morality becomes highly problematic when it moves from the abstract to the concrete. It is impossible for human experience to provide a sufficient causal explanation for morality due to the fact of the broad range of variance regarding particular acts of human behavior. I have also argued that Harris is correct in that morality actually does depend on a conscious mind. There must be something intelligent in back of it all. But that something must be able to attach value, purpose, and significance to human beings as well as human acts. And that something is God our Creator. Hence the necessary precondition for morality is God. And the necessary precondition for our knowledge and understanding of the idea of morality is the imago dei.
Morality and values transcend the human conscious mind. Because they are transcendental to the conscious mind, they cannot, in any way depend on the conscious mind for their existence. Morality comes to us from out there, not from within.. That is to say that morality originates in the nature of God our Creator.
What are the implications of a morality that has its source in the nature of God? To be sure, the implications are profound. If morality has its source in the nature of God, it follows that all humanity is morally responsible and accountable to God for how we conduct our lives. What God says is moral is moral and what God says is immoral is immoral. Here we move from the general idea of morality to the very particular behavior without any incongruities whatsoever. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. (Ec 12:13.)