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Metaethical Moral Relativism versus Sam Harris

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 10/29/2013 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,011 times Debate No: 39652
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I would first of all like to thank TrueScotsman for agreeing to debate me on this topic. I expect this to be a good debate on two secular methods of determining moral truths (philosophies). For any viewers, the argument premise is a debate concerning epistemological justification for a philosophy to determine morality, whereas God is not involved.

Seeing as there is no need for an acceptance round I will move straight on to my main points.

I will first of all define Metaethical Moral Relativism (MMR) as, "The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons." That definition is from section 2.

My secular philosophy, in case it is not obvious enough, is MMR. I pick it because there is no ultimate way to determine a moral system where God is not concerned. Morals must have some sort of ultimate goal to reach or some sort of point behind them. One might argue that there are immediate consequences to every action, but then the question becomes, "which consequences are good and which are bad?"

Naturally, we'd tend to stress that extending human life is a moral good, unless one is a radical nihilist, which believes in destruction due to the fact that without God there's no point in life. I argue that proof of either one is impossible for two reasons:

There is no universal entity to create universal morals:

In order for an idea to be universally applicable, the idea has to come from an entity to create such ideas. Thus morals without such an entity are based on perceptions.

There is no universal entity to judge of these actions:

If no entity can universally judge the actions, then why can we decide what actions are moral and which are not? It's impossible. I will use an analogy of a society. Society without a government has no ability to create or enforce laws. The people who see themselves as leaders may decide on a few things being good or bad, but who applies that and judges everyone? There is no one.

I will also argue that actions have no ultimate consequence:

We know that eventually the earth will die due to the theory of entropy and information, which states that all energy and matter is headed toward a state of ultimate disorder. Also using first law of thermodynamics, since energy can neither be created nor destroyed, there is no way the earth could be self sustaining for eternity. Eventually it will run itself dry.

So yes, if God doesn't exist our world is doomed already. Therefore any goals towards creating the best humanity possible are to no avail. They neither bear no ultimate consequence nor any value concerning good or bad.

In conclusion:

There can be no morality in a secular philosophy. I choose MMR because it most accurately fits the reality, whereas, it is given that God does not exist.


Hi again TheOnComingStorm,

It is a pleasure to once again have an exchange on so important and relevant an issue as this. Today, I will be proposing the validitiy of Sam Harris' moral arguments from "The Moral Landscape," and therefore conclude that MMR is false.

Sam Harris' argument is centered around the idea that moral questions are centered around well-being of conscious creatures, which then fall into the realm of facts that can be scientifically appreciated.[1] Harris reasons that moral issues can be related to health issues, and much like how cancer is cancer no matter what part of the world it may exist in, immoral actions are immoral regardless of their social and cultural context.

In order for one to concede with this argument they must agree with his two premises for establishing this.

1. Some people have better lives than others.
2. These differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world.[2]

Sam Harris uses these two illustrations to support this point.

The Good Life

"You are a young widow who has lived her entire life in the midst of civil war. Today, your seven-year-old daughter was raped and dismembered before your eyes. Worse still, the perpetrator was your fourteen-year-old son, who was goaded to this evil at the point of a machete by a press gang of drug-addled soldiers. You are now running barefoot through the jungle with killers in pursuit. While this is the worst day of your life, it is not entirely out of character with the other days of your life: since the moment you were born, your world has been a theater of cruelty and violence. You have never learned to read, taken a hot shower, or traveled beyond the green hell of the jungle. Even the luckiest people you have known have experienced little more than an occasional respite from chronic hunger, fear, apathy, and confusion. Unfortunately, you’ve been very unlucky, even by these bleak standards. Your life has been one long emergency, and now it is nearly over."[3]

The Bad Life

"You are married to the most loving, intelligent, and charismatic person you have ever met. Both of you have careers that are intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. For decades, your wealth and social connections have allowed you to devote yourself to activities that bring you immense personal satisfaction. One of your greatest sources of happiness has been to find creative ways to help people who have not had your good fortune in life. In fact, you have just won a billion-dollar grant to benefit children in the developing world. If asked, you would say that you could not imagine how your time on earth could be better spent. Due to a combination of good genes and optimal circumstances, you and your closest friends and family will live very long, healthy lives, untouched by crime, sudden bereavements, and other misfortunes."[3]

The "Good Life" and "Bad Life" distinction is important because it illustrates premise #1 that we can speak objectively that some people do have a better conscious experience of the world than others.

Why Value Sentient Beings?

It is important now to establish that well-being of conscious creatures is worthy of being valued. To do this, I will first ask why we do not have moral issues surrounding the treatment of rocks? What separates throwing a human baby and throwing a rock? Are these mere cultural disctiontions, or is one wrong simply because some divine being says so? Or is it possible to establish that the primary difference between these two is that one of these is a sentient being, capable over experiencing suffering and death, while the other is not.

Indeed, it is our consciousness that even allows us at all to make statements about moral issues, without consciousness no one would care about ethical issues. Therefore, the conscious experience especially that of human beings should be valued to the highest degree.

For a pracitical example, let's say we encounter a tribe in the far reaches of the Amazonian jungle that still practices human sacrifice. Would we be constrained to state that this practice is acceptable because the culture in which it is practiced deems it so? Or should we be able to know that the conscious experience of those people being sacrificed is not dissimilar from our own and ought to be valued just the same as any westerner? Given that you can establish that there are moral decisions which lead to the greatest possible suffering and also the greatest possible well-being for all conscious creatures, it should warrant us to say that the practice of human sacrifice is a path to human suffering rather than well-being and thus wrong.

This argument is driven home by this point from Sam Harris.

"I am saying that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being."[4]

If one concedes this simple point in addition to the others, we can draw implications on these grounds to build an entire ethical system where we are determining moral values not at the level of a culture, but at the level of our brains. Thus making it universal to every human being with conscious cognitive capactities.

I attempted to shorten this initial argument, so as to not give you too much to chew on, but I will flesh out my argument further as the debate rages on. :)

Kindest Regards,

[1] pg. 8 The Moral Landscape. Sam Harris [2] pg. 16 TheMoral Landscape. Sam Harris [3] pg. 17 The Moral Landscape. Sam Harris [4] pg. 32 The Moral Landscape. Sam Harris

Debate Round No. 1


Thank you for that post. You present a very interesting theory, and I feel this will be an interesting discussion.

I will now make some refutations to your post:

You make two requirements for concession in your first point. You are not wrong in these statements being necessary for your argument. However, I would like to know how we substantially know what is universally good or bad? It would obviously be easy if there was a standard among all humans, because it would then be considered natural and consideration otherwise would not be feasible.

However, in the book Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche writes, "Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one"s shoulder to the plough; one destroys."

This is just a conflicting view to the status quo. So how do we judge this? How does one decide which wins? There are several questions that contradict a solution in a process of trying to find the solution. They're primarily summed up in the question "why?"

When we look to the actions themselves, the deontological approach doesn't work because there is no universal system to impose the standards, therefore making the actions themselves impossible to determine the morality of.

When we look to classify their consequences as good or bad, we run into a problem with what good and bad is. Good and bad are perceptions. One might see something to be good while another may consider it to be evil. Again, who's right? We move to long term consequences of this action upheld in society. We run into the problem of good or bad again. So what's the ultimate end? Nothing lasts forever and the ultimate end is destruction and death. This can't even in itself be proven good or bad.

When we look at the good life bad life argument, in this situation, each of the good lives has a corresponding bad life and each of the bad lives has a corresponding good life. For the first example, the woman who has never known anything but what we would consider Hell. First of all she has no perception of a better life since she has not experienced it, so is that life truly bad to her or is it normal and unmoving to her? Then there are the people who consider it atrocious because of their personal experiences. For the argument under The Bad Life, it's still a matter of perception. Some would consider it very good to have an arguably perfect life. Others would consider it bad to be so ignorant to what most would consider a very bad life.

Ultimately with the effort to solve this, we end up back at the attempt to determine what is good and bad aside from perceptions. In the end the good and bad are perceptions. Since nothing is of ultimate consequence, good and bad cannot be determined, and the effort to create the best world to live in is ultimately to no avail.

To address your question, "Why value sentient being?" There are people who would ask that in accordance with a lack of value placed on sentient beings. Sentient beings have a shorter existence than non-sentient, and what does maximizing their existence anything but delaying the inevitable death? Any joy or pain felt by that person is gone in the coffin, and the world moves on.

Thank you for reading, and I will be eagerly awaiting for your response.



Really enjoying this conversation, interested to know where it will end up.

Rebuttal #1:

You ask the question of how we can universally know what is good or bad, as that is key to accepting the argument from the good and bad life. Remember, this argument starts from the point that the worst possible universe is the one that contains the greatest amount of suffering for everyone. Why is suffering bad? Well, because we are sentient beings who have the capacity of experiencing this suffering and it generally is not deemed a pleasant thing. It is not a pleasant thing for that woman to be on the run for her life after witnessing your seven-year-old daughter raped and dismembered by your son. It is my contention that this must be demonstrated how this could possibly be anything but absoutely terrible and bad.

This experience would also be bad universally, because we are going beyond the context of the culture but to the individual brain states. We must remember that these aren't entirely abstract concepts we are dealing with, as moral judgements are made not by some non-physical entity but by an organ our bodies, the brain. The Prefrontal Cortex and the Temporal Lobe are the regions of the brain most responsible for where our moral judgements take place. Those who suffer from Psycopathy or have experienced brain damage to areas such as the Medial Prefrontal Cortex have strong behavioral consequences, especially in regards to their actions toward others.

This reveals that there is a way that our brain ought to function when healthy that allows us to empathize and make moral judgments. And consequently also reveals that certain behaviors that can be objectively seen as harmful (rape, murder, assault) can be llinked to these regions of the brain and thus shown that they are not how they ought to be.

More simply though, I stand by my contention that the burden of proof is on my opponent to demonstrate how the worst possible universe is not where there is the greatest amount of suffering for everyone. As the conclusions I have drawn can be founded from this contention which is I believe rather simple and obvious.

Rebuttal #2:

In a way it is based upon perceptions, because this moral theory is a scientifically grounded theory and thus empirical. It is not based upon opinion, but upon the objectively harmful brain states that are experiences for those who live the "Bad Life" versus the objectively beneficial brain states that the "Good Life" comes with.

You also mention that the person with the bad life has no perception of what a better life might be, this is refuted by the fact that as human beings we have the ability to conceptualize. This woman will absolutely have a hopeful concept of a better future for her children, to live a long life, healthy, free from suffering and doing what they love. It would be madness to think she concludes, "well this right here is as good as it gets."

Rebuttal #3:

You attempted to refute my point of why we should value sentient beings by making the following contention. You appealed to the fact that sentient beings (i.e. humans) have a shorter existence than non-sentient (i.e. rocks) and thus what would maximising the experience of a finite sentient being when they ultimately die.

This seems to be built off of your own assumption that something that if something doesn't last forever, it doesn't really matter.

To address this point, I would like to allude to something Sam Harris has said in a Q&A, as I am defending his viewpoint it would be appropriate I believe to provide this.

"The subtext of this question is that, ‘unless experience lasts forever, there is no point. It means nothing.’ Just try to map this onto your life: every good meal you’ve had, every pleasant experience as opposed to an unpleasant one, every relationship, none of it means anything, because it ends. A good movie is meaningless — it’s no better than a bad movie — because it ends. This is a strange idea, that unless we disappear into infinity with our experience, there is no difference between the most sublime and rare happiness on earth and the most abject suffering. I think when you actually try to connect with that intuition, it’s strange and really insupportable in our moment-to-moment experience. We care very deeply about the character of our experience. In fact, it is the only thing we can care about."[1]

The important phrase in this paragraph is that, "we care very deeply...," and it is the fact that this only can possibly matter to people who have the capacity to value it, therefore if this experience and life is all there is it should be valued higher than anything else, as nothing else would matter in comparison.

Kind Regards,


Debate Round No. 2


Ah, brilliant! This is a great debate. Now without further adieu...

I feel my response to the first and third rebuttal points need to be linked as they do correlate. I'll defend my statements and attack your statements on both issues simultaneously.

It seems right to start with the third rebuttal as it is highly important to understand why or why not to value sentient beings before determining why a good life or bad life is perceived or proven.

To respond to the analogy you provided, I find the movie idea curious. It would seem that it directly implies a universal judge to perceive what good and bad movies are like before seeing each movie to determine if it was good or bad. Obviously, I don't equate humans to a deity, but it would fit the analogy. After one dies, without a universal perceiver he will no longer be perceived at some point. It's true that some people carry their names through history, but what affect does it have? It merely perpetuates useless triumph or failure into someone else's life. Ultimately we all have a (perceptually) bad outcome: death. It is significant that we die.

Now as to the relevance of ultimate suffering as the worst possible universe. Now to our perception this seems a very odd thing for me to even come close to attacking, but it is very simple. The argument means to apply a blanket statement of good and bad to ultimate extremes. If literally everyone in a universe was suffering to the greatest extent, what value would there in a "good life" regarding their perceptions? They would not have a perception of good, and therefore what we would call bad they would call good. Now to me a worse universe would be one where not everyone is suffering so there is a perception or at least general idea of a good life as opposed to the bad lives most people have. Now this means the bad life ultimately can't even be a universal bad as the worse universe includes a good life. So how can one universally perceive good and bad lives? We can't.

To respond to your second rebuttal, I feel I've sufficiently attacked the good and bad life ideas in my last post. I would like to say, however, your last sentence in this did legitimately make me laugh. The way I said it in my head was funny at least. You make a good point with it, but it was still somewhat funny.

At any rate, I tip my hat to you again TrueScotsman. This has been a great debate, and I'm sure your last argument will be just as good as the others. Now I leave it up to you and the voters to finish this debate off.


Hi TheOnComingStorm,

I have to say, I am a little sad to see this debate end, as you have again proven yourself an entertaining sparing partner. :)

Rebuttal #1:

Note that within the analogy, it does not require that there is some kind of universal standard to something that is a good movie or bad movie, this I will grant is based upon perception. However, this perception is a reality for when each of us sees a movie, and if every movie is pretty much meaningless and indistinguishable because it ends follows your line of argumentation. Personally, I think you're reading into the analogy a bit much, as it is a very simple analogy to point out the fact that our experience of the world is what truly matters to us, and the fact that these experiences end in no way lessens their value.

Also, why would it be necessary for there to be some kind of universal perceiver to continually recognize someone's existence in order for that person's limited existence to be of value? A flower that blooms for a season and still dies is beautiful and valuable regardless of the fact that it's inevitable that it will wilt and die. And it goes double for sentient beings, who have a conscious existence while they exist and therefore sets them apart from all other matter in the universe. If as human beings we do not value the ability to experience the world in which we exist, then why not treat human beings the same as a weed in your garden.

Rebuttal #2:

Here again, you seem to base "good" and "bad" simply based off of perceptions, and that if there existed a universe in which everyone experiences the greatest amount of suffering, then they would not possibly perceive anything better. This notion is refuted by the following facts, 1) human beings have the ability to conceptualize abstract ideas, therefore it is not unreasonable to believe that people can conceptualize of a universe better or worse than their own in which they exist, and 2) whether or not a person or anyone knows the corect moral answer to a moral issue is irrelevant as they are not dependant on opinion but scientifically verifiable facts.

Closing Statements:

In this debate, my opponent has made one basic argument in an attempt to refute my assertion, and it is that without some kind of universal perceiver, all moral issues and values are ultimately subjective to the individual perceivers. In this moral framework, there exists ultimately no distinction between the woman who lived the "bad life" or the man who lived the "good life." That ultimately because their lives come to an end and they cease to be perceived, there really isn't much meaning, purpose or values to those lives.

These contentions betray the fact that each individual human being cares very deeply about the state of their conscious experience. Even suicidal people who take their lives do, as they take their lives so as to provide an end to their constant suffering which is their experience. Or for a more simple example, take how you feel about tonight? Perhaps, you want to go home and eat and relax after a long day at work. Now, do you really care if 50-100 years from now other people are perceiving your Thursday evening to see how enjoyable it is? Absolutely not, and it illustrates just how out of tune this argument is with our day to day experience, which we human beings deeply care about and should care about.

Our conscious experience of the world is everything to us, and since human beings are the only beings in the universe capable of making moral decisions, this should be of ultimate value. Therefore, based upon what we can learn through neuroscience regarding how our experiences effect the state of our physical brain, we can begin to discuss these moral questions on a more objective and unbiased basis.

Kind Regards,
Debate Round No. 3
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1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by 2-D 3 years ago
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Total points awarded:03 
Reasons for voting decision: Ignore my request statement Con I misread the name. Pro tried to separate ideas like 'good' and 'bad' from human perception. Con tied these ideas to our own well being and natural concern for others. If the argument was that morality is meaningless if completely dependent on our minds then Pro would have had a case. Morality is obviously dependent on our natural understanding/perception of each other as Con pointed out. Arguments to Con.