Questionable Motives

April 12, 2010

Why is Sam Harris correct that we need to cross the is/ought moral divide?

Filed under: abuse,Culture,Harris,Morality,Religion — tildeb @ 11:10 am

I was thinking about Sam Harris’ latest work urging us to cross the is/ought moral divide and all the criticism he has received that argues in favour of maintaining moral relativism. Then I read this story:

SHUEBA, Yemen (AP) — A 13-year-old Yemeni child bride who bled to death shortly after marriage was tied down and forced to have sex by her husband, according to interviews with the child’s mother, police, and medical reports.

The practice of marrying young girls is widespread in Yemen where a quarter of all females marry before the age of 15, according to a 2009 report by the country’s Ministry of Social Affairs. Traditional families prefer young brides because they are seen as more obedient and are expected to have more children.

Legislation to ban child brides has been stalled by opposition from religious leaders. There has been no government comment over the case.

The practice of marrying young girls is widespread in Yemen and has drawn the attention of international rights groups seeking to pressure the government to outlaw child marriages.

“Early marriage places girls at increased risk of dropping out of school, being exposed to violence, abuse and exploitation, and even losing their lives from pregnancy, childbirth and other complications,” said UNICEF’s regional director Sigrid Kaag, in a statement Wednesday condemning the death.

A February 2009 law set the minimum age for marriage at 17, but it was repealed and sent back to parliament’s constitutional committee for review after some lawmakers called it un-Islamic. The committee is expected to make a final decision on the legislation this month.

I have had an epiphany: how about all those who support maintaining the is/ought divide and the moral relativity that accompanies it undergo a brutal rape themselves before deciding whether or not cultural and religious practices deserve what amounts to a moral exemption for these kinds of actions. Perhaps then we could have a more meaningful and informed discussion about finally determining the basis for an informed universal moral code of conduct.


  1. You do realize that not all the criticism of Sam Harris’s metaethics argues in favour of maintaining moral relativism, right? In fact all the criticism I’ve seen does not argue that at all. I for one despise moral relativism – and I’m hardly a fan of forced marriage or child marriage much less a combination of the two.

    Beware a false dichotomy; it’s not a choice between Sam’s claims and moral relativism.

    Comment by Ophelia Benson — April 12, 2010 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

    • Yes, OB, I do realize that not all criticism of Harris’ latest TED talk is in favour of maintaining moral relativism. That’s why I addressed my post to those criticisms that DO.

      I find much criticism aimed at the problems associated with scientifically defining ‘values’ and ‘consciousness’ and ‘well-being’ and the ordinal positioning of what constitutes the comparison of ‘peaks’ and ‘valleys.’ I have no problem with the validity of these important arguments and look forward to reading his book that must address specifically these questions. But in the meantime, I am critical of how easily we forget that the failure to address establishing a means to do so has in effect allowed an exemption of any meaningful moral justification (even when shielded by such unjustified barriers as ‘cultural practices’ and ‘religious beliefs’).

      Comment by tildeb — April 12, 2010 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

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