Sam Harris: Afraid of Evolutionary Ethics

I recently read Sam Harris’s book, Letter to a Christian Nation, and like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, it reminds me of how the new atheists are the intellectual liliputians in the modern debate. Like Hitchens and Dawkins, he purports to prove there is no God, or no rational reason to believe in God, but his work is an example of cherry-picking, represents no actual interaction with his intellectual opponents, makes a number of errors and questionable comparisons, has shown no ability to work through where his own premises and presuppositions likewise demand development, but centers it all with a type of heavy-handed, venomous, hateful rhetoric that is reminiscent of some of the rhetoric of Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin.

But, while the work has little to commend itself as an actual work of moral reasoning, he is an example, to a greater depth than Hitchens or Dawkins, of the self-refuting nature of the type of moralistic argument at the heart of the new atheists, what Francis Schaeffer and Nancy Pearcy would describe as a dichotomy between facts and values that is so prevalent among western atheists. Harris notes, on slavery, “The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment.”[1] Yet, this is precisely the type of argument no reductive materialist arguing for an atheistic evolutionary theory has the grounds to make, in the first place.

That is, if we accept both that evolutionary theory is a sufficient explanation for the variety of life on the planet, and we accept that no divine architect ever interfered in that process, that no divine legislature designed the algorithm by which it does its works, and no God started the process off with the first bit of DNA, and if a slave is a human being like myself, who enjoys the same capacity for suffering and happiness, then he is a competitor with me for resources, and if I am to be successful, that means I must defeat competitors who would prevent me from securing resources. That is, if evolution is about survival and passing on one’s genes, then someone else’s happiness or suffering is unimportant, all that matters is my own survival and ability to pass along my own genes. Now, of course, it could be objected that humans are social and interdependent, and my survival depends on the flourishing of the group, fair enough, but this still does not make a moral case that I ought to worry about someone else’s happiness or suffering, it makes an instrumental case that in certain circumstances it is beneficial to my happiness and ability to pass on my genes to worry about someone else’s happiness, of course, this also means when circumstances change, its every man for himself.

This also goes for various claims about religious wars, this assumes that war is a morally bad thing, but again, an evolutionary naturalist has no grounds to think of war as anything other than competition for resources, and therefore, is not an evil in and of itself. It furthermore performs natures task, it winnows the weaker societies and individuals so there is more left for those who are more fit. His tirade against Christianity (as his book cannot be described with any term implying reason or logic) ultimately comes down to his embrace of an ethic that is ultimately in contradiction to his worldview. In other words, Harris is one of those atheists who believes that evolution is the cornerstone of the way the universe (not necessarily just biology) works, but on the other hand whose ethics shy away from the ethical ramifications of his own conclusions.


[1] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2006), 18-19