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archive: the new atheists and moral theory

August 13th, 2017 · No Comments

The puzzle of Sam Harris’ mediocre ‘moral landscape’
April 9th, 2011 ·

Kantian Ethics

Kantian ethics (not particularly helped by this take which I reposted at ‘eonix papers’ blog) is, to me, the key to the whole question of the so-called ‘moral landscape’. But scientists are afraid of Kant, they sense they can’t handle his level of thought, and that what he left behind is easy to critique (eg the categorical imperative and its contradictions).
Thus I am baffled that a smart fellow like Sam Harris would bypass the classic history of philosophical ethics, not just Kant, and give us, in the name of his considerable intelligence, the dishwater garbage of well-being ethics, the worst kind of pseudo-ethical discourse. I am left head-sratching. Harris does a disservice here: people look up to smart science types and then get this second-rate junk. The stupid public will lap it up, none the wiser.

An atheist has an opportunity, as Kant especially realized, to recast ethics without the god concept mucking up the whole effort. But Harris choses the line of least resistance.

But, perhaps, if you read thiis passage on Kant you will see the problem. I constantly point to Kant, no doubt in vain. Does it make any sense, at first? A genius at Kant’s level did something profound, and yet weird, with ethics. And the entrance is blocked by the issues of the ‘good will’ and the categorical imperative which invariably end up in confusion, at least for beginners. And the academic dogmatism of Kantian Ethics 101 courses at the college level set the student up for a disillusioned fall thereafter. That the ‘Goundwork’ is a first step in a series of contradictory rewrites to come is not always clear to starting students. There is no real Kantian ethics, only a series of probes of true profoundity, with the backdrop of transcendental idealism giving the effort its depth.

There is thus no real kantian ethics, only a history of Kant thinking out loud. That the real contribution of Kant lay in the rough notes and general outline of this ethics, after his first critique, rather than the details of his various texts on the subject (especially the ‘Groundwork’ which exists in academic formaldehyde for young philosophy students) is not apparent to those who want to find Moses on modern Sinai where what they get is something designed to stimulate thought, and to see into the future of human evolution where this kind of philosophy will be common nature for man, where now it is beyond his capacity. You can see this in Kant, in fact, who is at one moment brilliant and at another seems to blunder.

In any case, I reference Kant to warn the followers of Sam Harris that the latter’s intelligence is an illusion, and his ‘moral landscape’ is the kind of dumbed down scientism that is able to pass as Einstein level science when in reality it is nothing.

I mention Kant in particular because he saw the crisis of bad science coming and attempted to discuss the issue of freedom, free will, and ethics in the context of a very deep discussion of the nature of the psyche and representation.
That his approach has many challenges, and possible difficulties, is obvious, but to turn in flight from the real complexity to the concealed contempt in Sam Harris’ ‘smart aleck’ attempt to play his public for stupids is pitiful.
Kant is of course almost written out of public philosophy, but his standard is there for those who aspire to the future evolutionary intelligence of a man able to really survey the ‘moral landscape’.
Survival of the fittest indeed. Dumbed down Darwinists won’t survive to this future evolution.

I should say that the devil is always there when anyone tries to do ethics, and Harris is no exception. (I don’t believe in the devil, but, not to worry, the mischief is sure to come).
I fear that Kant may also not be an exception.
The ‘good will’ is an ambiguous construct that miraculously appears later in the demonic magical freemasonry of the likes of that gangster Aleister Crowley. So we should be wary of Kant also. The Will that he sensed reappears in Shopenhauer, and then in Nietzsche’s grotestesque. Kant is holding a live hand grenade in his hand as he starts so brilliantly on the mystery of the ‘will’ behind ethics. That that will became the non de plume of nihilist nervous breakdown, in the Nietzsche types, has left the whole subject schizophrenic. But Kant’s insights remain, if you can survive Nietzsche (and/or Sam Harris).

It was never my purpose to make a dogma of Kant’s thought: only that all the pieces of a solution to the puzzle are present in Kant. The main piece is the issue of the ‘will’ in the context of Newtonian physcis, so allergic to the question of freedom and self-consciousness (or will) in action.

Whatever the case, Kant’s general outline shows the nature of the real solution to the ‘morality enigma’, in the sense of the ‘will’, ‘reason’ as a context of ethical action, and the inability of physics, scientism, Big Science, and Sam Harris to get with it on the basics of the moral landscape should leave you wary of smart alecs with high IQs who can’t manage the level of Kant because they have graduated from the science education system with their real intelligence destroyed. I am sorry to be so hard on Harris, he’s not such a bad bloke, but as the Red Queen put it, ‘off with his head’.

Kant is a reminder we must still evolve toward a real basis of ethical action. It is NOT an easy subject. Kant shows where we can start, but not how to finish the job.
We should note that even enlightened men can’t resolve these issues, the reason being that the ‘will’ is a mystery that can be set aside (read Schopenhauer) is beyond the ‘enlightenened’ state, even as it manifests in the lowliest of man (and, indeed, creatures). It is mytery to us still, and will remain so for quite a while!

Anyway, Harris et al are really students of Nietzsche trying to do a PR on their reading of him. But Nietzsche was another case of someone smart doing something stupid, with ethics, and the ‘will, in part because he wanted to be original, and in part because he knew he would never be able to understand the real issues of ethics, as in Kant.

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