Craig vs. Harris (comments)

I've now had a chance to listen to the Craig vs. Harris debate, thanks to this audio version. 

Both sides, I would say, pander to the audience, making moves that are obviously illegitimate, but calculated to be crowd-pleasers.  Early on, Craig accuses Harris of just semantically defining right actions in terms of well-being, and thus making it impossible to challenge the claim that right actions enhance well-being.  In his first rebuttal (I think), Craig distinguishes between a semantic claim and an ontological claim.  He stresses that the divine command theory--Craig's own view--makes no claims about what "right" means but about what rightness is.  Obviously that's what Harris would also say about his own account of rightness--it's ontological, not semantic.  Craig surely knows this, so he's got to be pandering to the audience when he makes the semantics charge against Harris.  He may have won some points, but didn't come by them honestly.

The big diatribe against religion 3/4 of the way through the debate is classic Sam Harris--very powerful and convincing, dripping with outrage and black humor. Hurray. But it's all obviously irrelevant.  The debate is not about whether Christianity is nonsense, but about whether there can be objective moral goodness and rightness  without God; and whether the existence of God could (at least in principle) explain objective morality.  So: he may have won lots of points, but none of them honestly.

Some deeper problems.  When Craig tells us how God's commands make for objective morality, he helps himself to ideas that are just barely intelligible.  Suppose there's an invisible, immaterial being that's intrinsically perfect, etc.  When this thing tells you to do something, you ought (morally) to do it. Does this really make sense, or is Craig just stringing words together?   God is... intrinsically perfect. What does that even mean?  Is he intrinsically perfect in the way that sugar is intrinsically sweet?  But how's that?  He's not made out of any kind of stuff.  What does his goodness really inhere in? What makes it operative and functional?  How does his goodness imbue his commands and generate obligation?  What on earth are we really talking about here?

Harris is also guilty of trying to hide complexities and mysteries.  He usually formulates his thesis in a sketchy, vague manner (morality "relates to" well-being).  On the other hand,when he's most crisp, his arguments are weak. For example, he insists repeatedly that it's got to be objectively right to avoid the world where everyone is as miserable as possible.  Are we really supposed to be convinced, by that, of a clear and consistent relationship holding between rightness and well-being? Decisions about how best to alter that most miserable world aren't always easy to make.  Suppose I can add ten very happy people to that world, or I can give an extra minute of happiness to each person in the ultra-miserable world.  What is the "objectively correct" decision?   The idea that things are "objective" just as long as we relate morality to well-being goes out the door pretty quickly.

Here's a more realistic dilemma.  It turns out that when you provide basic health care to the world's most poverty-stricken people, they become healthier but not necessarily happier.  In fact, one study of a poor population in Africa showed that people soon started being dissatisfied with their lot in life when they received better health care.  The reason why is captured by a line from a children's book:  "If you give a moose a muffin, he'll want some jam to go with it." Actually, he'll notice that someone else has jam and want some too.  So what's "objectively" right--building clinics, or letting people remain cheerfully doomed?

Craig's answer:  find out what the intrinsically perfect, invisible being prefers. Harris says "not religion, science," but how is science really going to sort out which aspect of well-being is more valuable, the aspect involved in physical health or the aspect involved in good cheer?  (Surprisingly enough, they don't consistently covary.)

Neither succeeds in  explaining the source of "objective morality."  Fortunately, I think there are philosophers who would be able to do a better job of that, though on anyone's story, right and wrong, good and bad, are going to remain quite peculiar and puzzling.  Morality is weird, but (I suspect) not weird enough to be illusory.

Anyhow--this is good philosophical entertainment.  Extra credit for Craig, because he's extremely clear.  Extra credit for Harris, because of the pancakes and Elvis point.


ɯɤʜʟɹɭʛʏʯʬʆɘɶʂɹʧɨʡɿʁ said...

I agree, the debate was very weak. They both seem to ignore tons of relevant literature. I hoped it would be fun, but they were largely ignoring each others arguments, and trying to win the crowd. I think the whole point about "objective" is weak, but philosophically Craig had a better strategy. At least he tried a direct attack. I suppose non-cognitivists and moral-error-theorist simply don't exist for them.

Faust said...

You know, when it comes down to it, the only difference between them is that Harris thinks that the Good is determined by the all the possible "good" experiences of agents in a large problem space (where "determined" means ranked quantitatively higher, i.e. this concious creature is "flourishing" more than that one). While Craig thinks there is a "master flourishing" that is simulataneously decided by and exemplified by a Super Agent.

But both think that it's all about agents. Both think that "we don't get to decide" what constitutes the perfecting of a given agent (morally speaking). Harris thinks that agent perfection is determined by something like metaphysical possiblity, and Craig thinks perfection is determined-and-exemplified by an agent who sorted all that stuff (best of all possible worlds) prior to generating our universe.