Friday, February 4, 2011

What I did this morning

The argument made by Sam Harris in his section on the Ten Commandments is a straightforward one: the central precepts of the Bible deal very little with what he considers moral. The goal of the commandments, by Harris’s account, is to pass down the absolutely necessary tenets that all people should follow. Due to the dissonance between what he finds moral and what the Commandments instruct, Sam Harris denies the notion that the morality in the Bible is complete and true, thereby casting doubt on its credence as a wholly moral document, and its author (God) a wholly moral figure.
Before inspecting Harris’s scrutiny of the Ten Commandments, it is necessary to establish where he’s coming from in terms of morality so that we may see if his objections are truly in line with his own reasoning. He describes a rule passed down by a Jain patriarch which “surpassed the morality of the Bible” (Harris, 2006). “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” From these instructions we may glean that Harris’s morality refers to preventing and avoiding acts of cruelty, aimed at “the maintenance of civilization”. This is a suitably accepted notion of morality.
The section on the Ten Commandments opens with an aside about the false tying in of the Constitution as a religious text, and though it does little to draw attention to the points above, is a concise outcry against political figures who insist the Founding Fathers of America were devout Christians who established America on Christian ideals. As this is a charitable reading, we shall draw from this only that Sam Harris has a penchant for tangents.
By applying his definition of morality, he dispatches the first four commandments as amoral. Referring back to his definition, this seems fair enough (assuming God is not a “creature or living being”, in which case these may be considered “insult” which the Jains instruct against). His objection to Commandments 5-9 seems to be that the instruction they give offers no direct enforcement (as suggested by his comment that transgressions were not often subdued because of them). Moreover, it seems that based on the behaviors of the animals closest to us genetically, these laws are so fully engrained in human behavior that they hardly warrant dictation (the Jains are not posed with this criticism). “It is a scientific fact that moral emotions… precede any exposure to scripture”. With this indictment, Harris places the nature of morality beyond the simple laws put forth in the Ten Commandments once again casting doubt on the notion that the Commandments are divinely moral.
The final note (not already touched on) suggests that we cannot “relax the penalties He has imposed for breaking them.” Essentially, the punishment laid down does not fit the crimes God describes. As theft seems a lesser cruelty than the death one faces as punishment, this is in keeping with Harris’s notion of morality and a good point to be made.
The main concern with Harris seems to be the definition of morality. It is quite possible that the avoidance of cruelty is the key to living a moral life. However, this does not suggest that anything described by Harris can be considered evidence to this end. Morality could very well be “building a closer relationship with God”. However, this assertion shifts burden of proof to the theist to prove that God exists – a herculean task at the least. Even so, this debate may be a quixotic one. If the central precepts of the Bible fail to establish a morality to the standards of Harris, perhaps morality is not something which comes from the central precepts, but a gestaltist interpretation of the entire Bible. This would be a bold claim to make considering the other contents of the Bible. Though the objections raised by Harris appear to fall flat (due to the lack of evidence presented over the course of four pages), the refutations of him fall flatter.