Sam Harris’ TED video and the danger of liberal atheist moral absolutism

April 5th, 2010 by Ravi Iyer

A fellow graduate student recently shared the below Sam Harris TED video with me and I was quite surprised at the premise of the talk. In it, Sam Harris gives a spirited defense of moral absolutism, the idea that there are objective truths about what we should and should not value. Below is the video.

Harris correctly observes that “the only people who seem to generally agree with me (Harris) and who think that there are right or wrong answers to moral questions are religious demagogues, of one form or another, and of course they think there are right and wrong answers to moral questions because they got these answers from a voice in a whirlwind, not because they made an intelligent analysis of the conditions of human and animal well-being…the demagogues are right about one thing, we need a universal conception of moral values.”

His conception of morality is remarkably close to the construct of moral absolutism vs. moral relativism, measured on the YourMorals.org site using agreement to statements like “Different types of moralities cannot be compared as to ‘rightness'” with agreement indicating more absolutism and disagreement indicating relativism. Harris also states that “It is possible for whole cultures to care about the wrong things….that reliably lead to human suffering.” The graphs I show below show that he is correct that moral absolutism among these groups does lead to human suffering…but it also leads to suffering when moral absolutism is supported by liberals and atheists.

Harris then spends much of the rest of the talk detailing how terrible things occur as a result of cultures that do not share his values. I am generally liberal and likely agree with Harris’ values, specifically the idea that morality is mostly about promoting the well-being of people. However, I do not believe that my values should be the values of other people as well. I have two main counters to this idea:

- Even the most liberal person can be made to consider ideas of morality outside of the idea of the greatest well-being possible.  For example, liberals believe in equity too, such that some people deserve more well-being than others. Jon Haidt’s brother-sister incest dilemma confounds both liberals and conservatives meaning that there is a universal ability to moralize disgust, even if it is less developed in some than others. Harm and well-being are not the only considerations.

- Moral absolutism generally leads to more human suffering, not less, as people fight great wars to enforce their vision of morality on others.  Consider the below 2 graphs of yourmorals data relating moral relativism, the opposite of absolutism, and attitudes toward war.

Moral Absolutism relates to Support for War across Religions

Moral Absolutism is related to Support for War – Across Political Groups

Moral absolutism is not just dangerous for the groups that Harris dislikes, but also for the liberal and atheist groups that he likely subscribes to as the slope of the regression line is negative in all cases, indicating that moral absolutism is positively related to support for war for liberals and conservatives, atheists and christians.

It may be easier to think of groups that cause wars out of excessive group orientation (e.g. Hutus vs. Tutsis) or excessive authoritarianism (e.g. Nazis)…but there are also groups that caused harm out of excessive concern for others’ well-being (e.g. The Weather Underground) or out of an excessive desire for social equality (e.g. the communist Khmer Rouge). Moral absolutism, believing that you are more right about morality than others, can be thought of as the first step toward hypermoralism, harming others in support of your moral principles. Human beings are already good at believing that our moral system is superior, with war sometimes as the consequence….instead or narrowing our conceptions of morality, we should be working to expand our moral imaginations.

- Ravi Iyer

Posted in civil politics, hypermoralism, moral absolutism, moral imagination, moral relativism, peace, religion, sam harris, unpublished results, war, yourmorals.org27 Comments »

27 Responses to “Sam Harris’ TED video and the danger of liberal atheist moral absolutism”

  1. Jonathan Haidt says:

    Ravi:
    Great use of YourMorals Data to quantify what I have long felt about Harris’s attitude toward moral truth. Your take on him is well supported by a 1997 essay from Isaiah Berlin, warning against “moral monism”:

    “The enemy of pluralism is monism – the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit. The consequence of this belief (which is something different from, but akin to, what Karl Popper called essentialism – to him the root of all evil) is that those who know should command those who do not. Those who know the answers to some of the great problems of mankind must be obeyed, for they alone know how society should be organised, how individual lives should be lived, how culture should be developed. This is the old Platonic belief in the philosopher-kings, who were entitled to give orders to others. There have always been thinkers who hold that if only scientists, or scientifically trained persons, could be put in charge of things, the world would be vastly improved. To this I have to say that no better excuse, or even reason, has ever been propounded for unlimited despotism on the part of an elite which robs the majority of its essential liberties.”
    source: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s6785.html

  2. zeljka buturovic says:

    There is a lot of stuff packed into this speech. I think Harris senses, correctly, that sometimes there is – or at least could be – more agreement about some moral values than about many facts. But the whole project of rationalizing morality is not only dangerous but impossible – not only intellectually but practically.

    Harris fails to see that because he confuses reasons with causes. For example, he asks, almost rhetorically, “why is it that we don’t we have ethical obligations toward rocks” and answers “it’s because we think they can’t suffer”. But in a vast majority of cases, this is not the cause of people’s treatment of rocks. The real causes are not consciously entertained reasons, but an interplay between natural propensities and cultural norms. The content and the structure of that interplay is not introspectively available. The former do not provide a rationale for their own contents, and the latter do that in an incomplete and contradictory manner that follows rather than proceeds habits that in fact instantiate behavioral norms.

    And this is just one of many instances where Harris vastly over-estimates the role that reasoning plays and can play in people’s behavior. For example, in “The end of faith” he provided a Dutch Book-like argument for morality by arguing that one has an obligation to be logically consistent because contradicting oneself is either practically impossible or self-defeating. But this is not true. Both epistemological and ethical realities demand much less consistency than formal rules imply. Even if humanity were to converge to a common set of values of the sort that Harris would appreciate, it won’t be able to state them or defend them in a rational manner that he demands.

  3. Ravi Iyer says:

    Zeljka, good points….it’s interesting that being truly rational requires one to accept the limits of rationality. In this way, I think support for rationality can almost be considered religious.

  4. zeljka buturovic says:

    “it’s interesting that being truly rational requires one to accept the limits of rationality.”

    Well, that’s the thing. I think for Harris, ‘being rational’ about x pretty much boils down to ‘being able to out-debate’ everyone who disagrees with you about x. Whether x is true or useful is relevant only to the extent that you can prove it to a third-party.

    And, obviously, it’s not just Harris. Apart from some species of reliabilism, most theories in epistemology start with a view that, regardless of how correct your beliefs might be, you don’t really know anything unless you can justify it. Some, like coherentism, go as far so to claim that whether your beliefs are correct is irrelevant – all that matters is whether they line up with your other beliefs. And Bayesian epistemology (a species of coherentism), is the philosophical foundation of decision theory and, consequently, of scientifically conceived rationality. So these views run wide and deep.

  5. David Flint says:

    Ravi’s data is interesting but, unfortunately, the fact that believing a proposition has bad consequences is no reason to think the proposition false. That’s a common error, especially in religious thought. The Universe doesn’t care.
    That said, I think Harris’s proposition is wrong because its root is an unrecognised appeal to liberal moral feelings. I share those feelings but they are not absolutes.

  6. Katharine says:

    I think the issue is not so much the absolutism but what kinds of actions it leads to.

  7. Katharine says:

    Realistically, my tendency is to judge groups based on how much their judgments about the world line up with scientifically-established fact.

    Liberals tend to do this vastly more often than conservatives.

  8. earnest says:

    so you don’t think american moral values on the issue of gender roles are superior to saudi arabia’s in an absolute sense? can you conceive of any scenario wherein this does not make you a misogynist prick?

  9. Ravi Iyer says:

    @ David – good point. I don’t think his reasoning is false because it’s dangerous (maybe I mispoke..if so, I was mistaken). I do think that some moral absolutists think they are making the world a better, more peaceful, less violent place, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

    @ Earnest – no, I don’t intellectually think any moral system is superior to any other system in an absolute sense, even as I have my own opinions based on my own sentiment that I personally find such male dominance to be wrong. But that’s just my opinion and perhaps I err in my quest to judge less. My gut and my head certainly fight on your example…but that’s somewhat my point. Morality isn’t really something you can reason out.

  10. earnest says:

    So, your research devoted purportedly to the study of morality leads you to condemn Sam Harris’s TED talk but leaves you ambivalent on the topic of child rape.

    Got it.

    And another thing: you don’t even argue very credibly that a “liberal” moral-absolutist world would be a bad place to live. I mean, you are probably the only individual other than Glenn Beck who would compare Bill Ayers to Hitler. The Khmer Rouge are also a strawman, since I think your research has tended to describe the “fairness” pillar as focused on equity/reciprocity rather than equality of outcome. Can you think of a society that’s been led astray by absolutist emphasis on “do unto others”? Hammurabi’s code was sometimes harsh, but compared to Nazi Germany or the Rwandan genocide or — if you consider women human beings — Saudi Arabia?

    Harris posits a scenario in his talk wherein your 12-year-old daughter has been raped. You, the grieving dad, have two options: (A) dry her tears, get her to a hospital, tell her everything will be okay and that you will find the bastard who did this (B) torture your daughter to death.

    If I understand correctly, your response as an academic is that while you personally might balk at gruesomely murdering your daughter, you “do not believe that [your] values should be the values of other people as well,” and if another man would respond that your daughter was a subhuman slut who was probably asking for it and would throw acid in her face before stoning her till death, well, that’s his prerogative and you ought not “judge.”

    Here’s a judgment for you: as a female undergraduate of color, I would not feel safe or valued taking a class with you, notwithstanding your caveats about how your personal sentiments clash with your official conclusions. Its’ not because I think you’d be standing at the podium secretly ruminating about how beheading is an appropriate punishment for kissing a boy. It’s because intellectually, you’re a coward.

  11. Ravi Iyer says:

    leaving out the personal stuff, Mao’s great leap forward and the people sent to death camps in communist Russia are further examples of a liberal desire for equality taken to an extreme. Our research on fairness does not conclude that equality doesn’t exist as a moral concern, but rather that it is hard to separate from concerns about harming others. And realizing that there is room for other points of view does not mean that you (or I) cannot have an opinion about events. I do judge people. I just am different than Harris and the ultra-religious he dislikes in that I don’t believe that my system of judgments is correct and everybody else’s is wrong.

  12. earnest says:

    I’m not asking you to maintain that “[your own] system of judgments is correct and everybody else’s is wrong.” (That’s not what Harris is arguing, either). I’m asking you to state definitively whether, when a child is raped, it is more wrong to murder her than to help her. If you can’t answer this question without a heap of relativist caveats, what kind of moral scientist are you?

    Harris does leave room for other points of view — I think his language is that there are numerous possible peaks on the moral landscape. But then he contends, and I agree, there are some obvious valleys — like the whole murdering-your-daughter thing — which we ought be so bold as to call wrong, or at least more wrong than other available alternatives. Like, maybe if you’re affronted that your whore daughter let herself bet set upon, you could just lecture her instead of stoning her. That would be less wrong.

    But, okay, Harris is a narrow absolutist in one sense: I don’t think he’d entertain any disagreement that the aim of morality should be to maximize human welfare (or, in a vaguer sense, human “flourishing”). The problem is that mentioning various movements which sought to maximize welfare but actually ended up causing harm does not refute his focus. Even if we accept the questionable premise that what Mao and Pol Pot sought to create would roughly approximate the “liberal” utopia envisioned by the likes of Sam Harris, these genocides don’t invalidate Harris’s goal. They’re just examples of flawed execution. And why was the execution flawed? You might say it was because of a hypermoralistic emphasis on egalitarianism…but egalitarianism to the exclusion of what? Prevention of suffering? Fairness? Those are “liberal” values Harris would probably defend. It would be one thing if you could argue that Stalin was undone by a failure to duly respect “conservative” values such as ingroup, authority and purity, but you can’t, so neither Stalin nor Mao nor Pol Pot demonstrates the pitfalls of a “liberal” moral-absolutist framework. These movements failed because they weren’t liberal enough, or weren’t liberal in the right ways at the right moments. Not because they were “too” liberal at the expense of being “conservative.”

    Speaking of egalitarianism, I do think it’s better lumped in with harm/care than reciprocity/equity/”fairness,” but that’s just my opinion. Unlike w/respect to child rape, here’s an area where I concede I could be wrong!

  13. Ravi Iyer says:

    I suppose, unlike Harris, I don’t think scientific methods can answer “ought” questions. Yes, I believe murdering a rape victim is wrong. But unlike Harris, I don’t think science is the basis of that assertion. And as soon as you start mixing “is” and “ought” questions, it’s much harder to separate those who use objective methods from those who use subjective methods. That’s why I try to make that distinction clear, even if it leads to linguistic awkwardness.

  14. earnest says:

    I guess Harris’s counter would be that if you assume morality is about maximizing human wellbeing, and if human wellbeing is something you can measure in the brain, then some systems can be scientifically proven to be more moral than others.

    Harris analogizes physical health, a domain containing plenty of “ought” questions and open to subjective interpretations. For me, the pinnacle of “health” might mean finishing a dozen marathons, even if this taxes my heart. For you, “health” might mean living to meet your great great grandchildren. We can disagree legitimately about that, but we can objectively establish — thanks to science — that swallowing a pound of arsenic is not “healthy” for either of us.

    There are fringe subcultures who aspire to contract/spread HIV or gratuitously amputate their limbs. They might argue that in their view, this is what being “healthy” means. How do we respond to these people? Do we pretend they have a viewpoint worth considering? It’s in our instrumental interest to UNDERSTAND how these people tick, but it also seems pretty safe to hew to a concept of “health” that while broad enough to accommodate my view and yours, excludes the Hey Let’s Spread AIDS crowd.

    If morality refers to a sort of metaphysical health, maybe the same approach is possible.

  15. Ravi Iyer says:

    it’s the “if you assume morality is about maximizing human wellbeing” part that is problematic to me. The other parts do indeed logically flow from that and are possible. But I don’t think anybody (even Harris) really thinks morality is just about maximizing well-being.

    For example, if Mother Theresa and a serial killer are hungry, but the serial killer is a tiny bit hungrier, do we feed the serial killer (assuming we somehow know they won’t kill again) because it will cause a tiny bit more overall aggregate well-being? It’s an extreme case (as is Haidt’s brother-sister dilemma), but they all illustrate that morality, even for most liberals, isn’t just about harm/care/well-being. Even the most liberal person has some concern about purity, loyalty, and proportionality. For those of us who study what people actually think is moral, Harris’ assumption seems bizarre, in that he thinks that everybody will just agree with him such that he doesn’t have to explain this assumption with any real clarity. If you can point to such an argument, I’m willing to learn. But all I find are statements like “Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures”.

  16. earnest says:

    Notwithstanding the language in his talk, I assume Harris would admit that morality encompasses, at minimum, reciprocity/equity in addition to harm/care. (Maybe he would say fairness is subsumed within overall human “wellbeing,” though I agree the terminology seems at first blush suggestive of a straight-up utilitarian approach). So let’s entertain the premise of a two-variable “liberal” morality, and let’s assume we can objectively measure harm/care. We can also objectively measure equity (courts do it all the time). So we’ve still got a “morality” that’s reducible to some sort of objective metric, and Harris’s vision still works.

    If we’re defining morality purely for positive, descriptive purposes — if we’re trying to understand why people do what they do in the name of morality — then probably it’s illogical to call one act “more moral” than another if these acts are moralized to an equal extent by the people committing them. But if we’re defining morality for normative and/or policymaking purposes, if we’re deciding what morality SHOULD mean, then I think there’s a good argument that ingroup/authority/purity are vestigial and can be de-emphasized. Maybe you don’t think it’s your job to decide what morality “should” mean, but it’s somebody’s job — Congress and the Pope take on this task with regularity. Harris wants to live in a world where moral truths are determined by experts. There are periods in history when this wouldn’t have been deemed laughably unfeasible — Plato and Aristotle used to be moral authorities.

    Harris is a militant atheist, and honestly I think his underlying motive is to prove that science can prescribe morality, thereby debunking the argument that we need religion for this purpose. I like some of his rhetoric, but I come from a slightly different place; i.e., I find it stupid and exasperating when academic discussions are bogged down in endless caveats about how the Taliban’s values are no “better” or “worse” than our own, especially when the same academics are willing to make unabashedly disapproving comments about less-pernicious theocrats like Sarah Palin. This is a place where “liberal bias” really does show. Also, I don’t think there’s any evidence that a two-variable “liberal” moral absolutism would have negative consequences on net for society. But please feel free to drop this thread now if you like, since I’m sure I’ve taken up enough of your time!

  17. Ravi Iyer says:

    I suppose my thought is once you have to balance equity with harm/care, you can’t objectively decide questions, as people differ as to how important each principle is.

    I’d also guess that even Harris would admit that some things are so disgusting that he believes they are immoral. Even the most liberal of students does when I push the envelope of scenarios…though perhaps he might be wedded to his beliefs enough to override that reaction.

    Anyways, thanks for your comments!

  18. earnest says:

    Yeah, but Harris acknowledges there are multiple potential peaks on his “moral landscape.” If we think of each moral pillar on a scale of 1-10, then one culture might decide it’s happy at Harm/Care 8, Fairness 7, and another might choose Harm/Care 5, Fairness 10, but both of these outcomes would be “better” than an outcome placing us at Harm/Care 1, Fairness 1.

    Assuming the increase doesn’t come at the expense of another valued moral component, is there any evidence that people shy away from too MUCH care, too much fairness, etc? Like, under the above framework, would it be logical to assert that indeed the “best” morality would be one that put you at Harm/Care 10 and Fairness 10?

    This interests me because it seems plausible that liberals and conservatives alike would enjoy living in a world with perfect empathy and perfect proportionality (assuming that somehow these things were simultaneously possible). You could describe this as a world where nobody suffers and everybody gets what he deserves. This seems far-out, but one down-to-earth implication is that in the real world, if you could alleviate suffering or increase equity while holding all else equal, this is a move everybody would favor, even if suffering is already low and equity is already high.

    By contrast, I doubt that either liberals or conservatives would desire “maximized” authority or ingroup values: a world where nobody questions authority or thinks for himself, ever; a world where groups never cross-pollinate or mix. (From an evolutionary standpoint, the latter would definitely have been maladaptive.) If you could indefinitely increase deference to authority even while holding all else equal, I think at some point people would say: that’s enough. Man shouldn’t be a drone. Right? Freud says that the specter of a person who is incapable of independent thought or action but instead obeys commands unconditionally (android, zombie…) is universally experienced as uncanny/disturbing, and I think uncanniness is an emotion different from disgust.

    Maybe this is bias talking, but if it isn’t? If, indeed, both liberals and conservatives would deem it moral to indefinitely maximize harm/care and fairness but agree that ingroup and authority are, intrinsically, best in limited doses, do you think this has any implications for your moral foundations theory? Like, maybe these foundations are actually different in kind, since at least one — harm/care — is infinitely, indefinitely good, and at least one — authority — can become intrinsically bad at high levels? I guess you could explain away the intrinsic undesirability of high levels of authority by contextualizing the zombie problem as the mere inevitable collision of authority and harm/care; i.e., it’s impossible to increase authority past a certain point without offending harm/care, because zombifying people would be perceived as a form of harm. But if harm/care is about utility/pleasure/pain — and if the zombies aren’t suffering or are even in fact joyful — then the harm/care explanation doesn’t really work. Instead, it’s almost like people perceive a system as immoral if it deprives subjects of autonomy or individuality, even with no reduction in utility. Maybe this is people moralizing the uncanny, the way purity represents a moralization of disgust.

    sorry for long post. i just think your research is v. interesting

  19. Ravi Iyer says:

    I think it’s impossible to maximize both harm/care and proportionality. As long as you have 2 (or more) principles, the interesting cases will always be the ones which require a tradeoff. That’s what people make movies about. Like what do you do about a former serial killer who changes his ways and now does a lot of good?

  20. earnest says:

    You could maximize both harm/care and proportionality if you assumed no one had done anything to “deserve” suffering, right? I mean, I admit that for practical purposes that’s unfeasible in the real world, because you’ve got former serial killers running around. But it just intrigues me that without factoring in these tradeoffs, neither harm/care nor proportionality would appear to become toxic at high doses. Authority does, though, because most people are disturbed by an extreme loss of autonomy even when that’s unaccompanied by inequity, suffering, etc.

  21. Ravi Iyer says:

    it’s not just deserving suffering, but also issues of who deserves more reward. Most would say that people who work harder should get at least a bit more happiness than those who work less hard, even if equal distribution would produce greater overall happiness.

  22. Chris says:

    This whole article and the author’s comments following are based on a misunderstanding of Harris’s argument, as put forward in his book, The Moral Landscape. This argument is complex and simply cannot be grasped properly from watching a video discussion. This is particularly the case because the case he argues is contrary to the zeitgeist of the day.

    The book does NOT endorse moral absolutism in the way that you think it does. Rather, it is an argument that morality is not relative, but founded on a basis of realism, BUT that that does not prevent different forms and interpretations of well-being from existing (this is what the whole concept of a “moral landscape” with different peaks and troughs is about). So one society might emphasise equality over liberty, and another might emphasise liberty over equality, but they might both be “high” on the moral landscape.

    You need to actually read the book.

  23. Ravi Iyer says:

    It’s not just any video discussion, but Harris’ own TED talk. Still, the idea that different interpretations of well-being are allowed is good to know. But unless his book is radically different from his TED talk, I stand by my characterization of his worldview. But it’s true that my view is about his TED talk, not his book.

    I think he understands the absolutist implication of his views himself when he says specifically that the only people who agree with him are indeed religious demagogues. While there may be a moral landscape, the fact that he presumes that the Y axis of said landscape is a given unitary measurable thing which he thinks he can measure, leading him to be able to “scientifically” condemn the morality of others, is a form of absolutism.

  24. Sanpete says:

    Interesting discussion. I don’t share Harris’s remarkable faith in the ultimate unity of psychological moral foundations, though I suppose he could be right in some way or other, but I think his critics here are letting themselves off too easily. To the extent he’s wrong, relativism prevails. That’s the case even if it’s called pluralism. I don’t know what Ravi considers his moral philosophy to be, but Jon rejects the label “relativist” for himself, suggesting he sees some of the problems, if not that his theory of moral matrices makes him a relativist.

    What happens when your moral matrix collides with that of the man who wants to kill his impure daughter who has been raped? If there’s no objective or common ground to decide who’s right, that’s relativism, with all its difficult implications. Being able to say, “I believe murdering a rape victim is wrong,” doesn’t escape relativism, since it carries the implicit relativizing proviso “in my moral matrix.”

    I doubt it’s any easier to tell if moral absolutism generally leads to more suffering than whether religion does. It can’t be that simple; those are big, complex topics. The American revolution and system are based on moral absolutes: “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . .” That led to war, but was that good or bad? Mother Teresa was moved by moral absolutes. Martin Luther King too. Absolutism may be dangerous, but it’s also very useful.

    The lack of absolutism may not be such a great thing. How broad-minded do we want to be about the man who wants to kill his daughter, or universal human rights in general?

    I also wonder if it isn’t dangerous to spread the idea that morality can’t be reasoned out. What kind of moral decision making does that encourage? If morality is understood to be relative and not capable of being reasoned out, does that really lead to less self-serving moral views or less rationalization? Seems to me it ought to increase those. Sure makes them easier.

    Jon objects to fundamentalism, which is perhaps not the same as absolutism. Is Harris going to apply his principles (quoting Jon on fundamentalism) “in an absolute, uncompromising, inflexible, I’m-sure-I’m-right and consequences-be-damned way to a complex world”? The “consequences-be-damned” part, at least, suggests a low danger of that, since Harris’s system is all about consequences.

    How dangerous is Harris’s project really, then, compared to the alternatives? Promoting human flourishing via utilitarianism, how bad is that? It seems to me it’s a lot better than his work against religion. Encourage him and hope it keeps him busy.

  25. Boris Borcic says:

    I am a bit perplexed by the opposition put forth between objective and subjective methods. Is rote learning one’s morals from the commands of a sacred book, either objective or subjective as a method? In what way?

  26. Boris Borcic says:

    Hello again:) Having it stand here a couple days in silence forces me to ponder my question’s rhetorical value.

    Maybe best to add for me, some statement of general opinion about morals. Morals I see entangled with matters of perspective. A part of it is clearly the mastery of the problem of adequately measuring the well-being or on the contrary, the suffering of others. And part of that in turn reduces completely to aptitude for perspective transforms to reach the perspective of someone far away from our own. The counterpart of the latter is the version for brutes dominating the mass, who can’t be expected to display much special sense of perspective. That version will form the natural contents of sacralized rules “by God Himself”. Then unchecked propagation by rote learning disconnects the evolved rules and their evolving interpretation from the proof of facts. Facts of well- and ill-being. Also facts of life and death, in the sense of Public Health.

    So to put it short, I believe discussing morals has to start with putting the spotlight on the deficient hygiene of the dominant ideal channel of morals transmission in the minds of many devotees. It lacks hygiene like incest lacks hygiene, helping the heritage of deficient, obsolete, morbid code. And indeed in its most ideal form, that channel as I see it is impossible to qualify either as subjective or objective.

  27. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris’s wrote that he believed both that there is ‘much that is wise and consoling and beautiful in our religious books’, and also that ‘the Bible and Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish.’ When it comes to discussing relativism of moral values I think there are boundaries within which such relativism is valid. Outside of these boundaries and moral relativism risks undermining other people’s rights and freedoms. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out those boundaries. Unfortunately the moral relativism inherent in the main religions gives religion tremendous power as a propaganda tool in the hands of pathological zealots. That to my mind is why human rights are a surer guide to morality than religious teaching.

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