Regis NicollRegis Nicoll's weblog
- 2010 Nov 05
If you want to see a relativist sink into a sophistic seizure, ask him about the "virtues" of cruelty, rape, cheating, bigotry, or exploitation. Even the most liberally minded among us believe such things are wrong, even if they don't know why.
Take the University of Maryland professor who recently engaged a member of the Genocide Awareness Project. In a ten-minute exchange on moral ethics, the professor exhibited great difficulty with the concept of morality, including the terms of the debate: human essence, value, and rights. Nevertheless, she had no difficulty calling her interlocutor's reference to "mankind" offensive and "wrong."
On the question of abortion the professor was more measured: "I think it is actually morally impermissible to kill fetuses." She quickly added that she didn't know why it (or, for that matter, genocide or lynching) was wrong, and went on, at some length, to suggest that neither does anyone else. It is something we need to think more deeply about, was how she left it. This, from a professor of philosophy.
Help on its way
For people like the befuddled prof who haven't a clue why, for instance, the Holocaust was immoral, Sam Harris aims to help. Make no mistake: Harris is a rationalist and trenchant atheist who is highly critical of religion and religious folk. But he is also a moral realist who believes in objective moral truths -- truths, he is confident, that can be grounded in science to form a system of shared moral values.
His argument goes something like this: The natural world operates according to natural laws discoverable through science; morality is a part of the natural world; therefore, morality follows natural laws discoverable through science.
Logically, his argument is flawless. Practically, it suffers from several serious weaknesses.
Christians would agree that morality has the features of law, in that it predicts certain outcomes from certain actions. But while the moral law is predictive, it is not deterministic like the laws of gravity or electromagnetism. If it were, mankind would be reduced to automata slavishly following its moral program.
C.S. Lewis once pointed out that the moral law is not about what humans do; it is about what they ought to do. As such, the moral law is not discernible, scientifically or otherwise, from actual human behavior.
Harris would be quick to say that morality is about behaviors that enhance human and animal flourishing, and we know, scientifically, what many of those are: the provision of proper medical care, education, sanitation, clean water.
Indeed, applied science is responsible for doubling human life expectancy over the last 150 years and for cleaner air and water than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. Then again, the early 20th century programs for eugenics, forced sterilization, and selective breeding were morally justified on scientific grounds, as are the arguments today for human cloning and embryo-destructive research.
And that brings up another weakness in Harris' argument: While science can help us toward a desired outcome, it cannot tell us what outcome we ought to desire. Science has no moral voice; it is only a tool for moral agents who assign values to things.
For example, medical technology enables us to harvest stem cells from an embryo, but it doesn't tell us whether killing a human being at the earliest stage of life is right or wrong. As to the bigger question, is it right to sacrifice the few for the well-being of the many, science can only shrug.
With no transcendent criteria, the calculus of every moral dilemma is left to the privileged class of beings deemed "persons" and whose only touchstone is the whim of their collective preferences. And that leads to a third problem with Harris' schema... Continue reading