Sam Harris On Good and Evil

Question: How do you define good and evil?

Harris:  I think that there’s this myth that unless you think one of your books was dictated by the creator of the universe, and there he told you what good and evil are, you’ll just have no basis for morality.  You need religion in some sense to have a generalizable morality.  Without religion, there’s no way to say the Nazis were really wrong to do what they did, or believe what they believed.  I think that’s clearly untrue.  I think we have some very serviceable intuitions about . . . about what good and evil are, and what is . . . what constitutes an ethical life.  And we converge on those intuitions.  I mean every culture agrees that cruelty is wrong; that taking pleasure in the suffering of others is wrong within the context of your “in group”.  I mean many cultures think it’s good to take pleasure in the suffering of people who are not part of your tribe.  But in terms of, you know, who you’re going to admit into your moral sphere, we have some very serviceable intuitions about how we treat the people we accept in our sphere.  And the challenge for modernity . . . the challenge for civilization is to extend the sphere of our moral community to include the entire species, and even other species so that we really don’t have these “us and them” boundaries that we have.  And our “us and them” boundaries are really propped up by dogmatism.  I mean they’re propped up by nationalism.  They’re propped up by racism.  And there are many ways to divide your world dogmatically; but the most insidious “us and them” boundary, as far as I’m concerned, is religion.  It really is . . .  Religion causes a transcendental object between you and this other person.   I mean not only are you different because of your skin color or your political persuasion, or because you speak a different language.  You are different for all time for what you believe about God and what he believes about God are so opposed that it’s gonna require eternity to, you know . . . an eternity of punishment, in his case, to work out that difference.  So I think it’s a very . . .  I think our moral . . .  This question of morality is an important one to focus on, because many people are attached to religion not because they’re convinced that the metaphysics make sense, but because they just see no other alternative to teaching kids, you know, right and wrong.  I think there’s a few obvious things to point out.  One is that we clearly don’t get our morality out of our holy books.  Because when you go into the holy books, they are bursting with cruelty.  The Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran – these are profoundly cruel and morally ambiguous books at best.   I mean you know, the Ten Commandments . . . the first four have nothing to do with morality.  They have to do with theological offenses.   You know, “Don’t take any other gods before me.  Don’t take God’s name in vain.  No graven images,” etc.  “Don’t work on the Sabbath.”  What are you supposed to do when people break those commandments?  You’re supposed to kill them.   I mean this is unbelievably immoral.  And yet we’re not doing that now not because the book itself is so wise.  I mean, to take a more relevant example, slavery.  I mean slavery is clearly endorsed in the Bible.  It’s endorsed in the Old Testament.  It’s endorsed in the New Testament.  We all agree that slavery is wrong.  We conquer that ground morally through some very hard fought conversations, and also wars.  Religion was of very little help in that.  I mean there was . . .  It’s true that abolitionists were cherry picking Scripture trying to find ways to justify their project.  But their project wasn’t coming from Scripture, because Scripture is clear.  It supports slavery.  There was . . .  There’s no . . .  The evil of slavery is not recognized in the Bible, and it’s certainly not repudiated in the Bible.  And so the . . . the slave holders of the South were on the winning side of that theological argument.  And it . . .  Religion was an impediment to making that moral progress.  Again, the fact . . .  Even if it were not an impediment – even if it were extremely useful – that would not be a reason to believe that any of our books were dictated by an omniscient being.

Recorded on: Jul 4 2007 

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