Sam Harris and societal decay

This week, my parish will hold a funeral mass for a parishioner who was killed in last month's Indianapolis FedEx shooting.  Eight people were murdered in cold blood.  The common response to this and other ghastly acts of violence is both predictable and intentionally myopic.

In what has come to be the conventional response to mass shootings, the politicians and popular media demand two things — gun control and more spending on mental health programs.  Neither approach will prevent mass shootings or address the problems that create them.  We should not blame firearms or mental health issues for these craven acts of violence.  Rather, we should blame Sam Harris — by which I mean the moral framework he advances.

Sam Harris, one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheist Movement, has spent the last several years developing a moral system independent of, and antagonistic to, the Western monotheistic tradition of morality.  His system is based on a telos of "Human Flourishing."  Despite Harris's exceptional intelligence and personal decency, he cannot see the two fundamental problems with his tragic and hopeless endeavor: it is self-referential and has no universality.

In Harris's system, individuals must define "Human Flourishing" based on their own needs and desires.  They are constrained only when their needs and desires conflict with the needs and desires of others.  The individual is free to act based on a cost/benefit analysis regarding what is to be achieved versus what is to be lost.  In the case of the Indy FedEx shooter, his Human Flourishing was defined by the benefit of eight murdered souls at the cost of his own life.

There is nothing new in this conflict, nor in Harris's misguided efforts.  When Harris discussed his moral system with Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, the subject of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment came up.  Peterson asked Harris if we could not learn something from the character Raskolnikov, who murders two women while under the influence of a Hegelian concept of individual morality.  In his narcissistic conceit, Harris said that all that could be learned is what was in the mind of a psychotic Russian killer.  He missed that Raskolnikov did not suffer from mental illness; he suffered from moral illness.

Peterson was trying to illustrate that Dostoyevsky saw what a moral system based on individual wants and needs would create and destroy.  Dostoyevsky saw that man is incapable of developing his own moral system and that it would lead to death and ultimately self-destruction.

Related, and equally important, is Harris's deficiency in universality.  A moral system must be always applicable everywhere.  While the Jews had such a system to a greater or lesser extent dating back millennia, the West wrestled with the issue until the early Christian period.  Plato and Aristotle saw that a system must be universal but believed that it had to be structured to meet the needs of the polis, thus modifying, if not negating, its universality.

It was the Christians who saw and brought to the West an idea of individual human sanctity based on universal transcendent truths.  While Jewish tradition, and to a lesser degree the Muslim faith, accepted and acknowledged these truths, they did not incorporate them into an outward-looking worldview.  Despite Harris's impressive intelligence, he could not in a million lifetimes develop a moral system more effective and just than the Gospels and the biblical teachings of Judaism.

At the foundation of Harris's folly is his misunderstanding about human existence.  He seems to believe that the purpose of our lives is to "flourish" and that each individual is to pursue his own individual "flourishing."  This has not worked and will never work.  Judaism and Christianity are based on a telos that transcends an individual's wants and needs and calls for him to serve the will of the Creator.

This is not to say that atheists in general, or Sam Harris in particular, are bad or immoral people.  Individuals can navigate through life with a deficient moral code and still be decent human beings.  However, as with all things, problems arise on the margins.  When a significant number of people abandon a universal moral code, there will be greater numbers of people who do shocking things, such as mass shootings.

These mass shooting incidents and the daily carnage within our urban areas are not gun control issues or mental health issues; they are moral health issues.  The evidence is not limited to mass shootings.  Consider the riots of 2020, the looting, the arson.  Additionally, think about suicide, drug overdoses, abortion, and all the other collective moral failings.

Sam Harris did not supply the rifle used in the FedEx shooting, nor did he explicitly encourage BLM or Antifa.  Nevertheless, he promotes a worldview in which morality becomes malleable at the whim of the individual and this is much more dangerous than an assault rifle.

You can reach Chris Boland at

Image: Sam Harris. YouTube screen grab.

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