Some thoughts on ‘The Moral Landscape’.
1 The correlation of facts with ‘values’ or morals. This must be so, as what ever we are, and think, is based on our physiology, no matter how complicated, and our interpretation of the world around us. The elevation of a brain to a mind, (mind = brain + conscience) is purely evolutionary. This must be so, as the theory of evolution fits the observed universe and as yet nothing has displaced it scientifically. Descartes first famously wrestled with this and found the quantum foundation stone for pulling science away from god “I think, therefore I am.”. In his world, he had to be careful of what he said and still could not reconcile himself to the concept of a godless universe. He was a Jesuit.
2 The assessment of moral/ethical (ethics is group morality) in terms of a scale of rightness is a fair assertion. Rather like a pH scale with intense human misery at one end and intense human bliss at the other. There is no reason why scientific endeavour must give way to superstition in this field. Is there? I am amazed that this ground-breaking.
3. However such a scale does set up a moral paradox, which may shatter the moral ‘landscape’ or the concept of a multi-peaked one. If scientifically it is proved that one society has a ‘higher’ moral score, it is immoral for it not to try to interfere with ‘lower’ scored societies in order to assimilate it to the higher moral standard. In other words, if you see a person torturing a dog, is it you moral duty to interfere and would that interference be moral?
Also, another problem of acceptance of a moral scale would be, how is it morally acceptable that a CEO should be earning 500 times that of hard working intelligent worker? Anything that so attacks human self interest will be fought hard, as the greater good always fall supine to my good.
4. Harris critises liberals who shy away from assessing a moral value to other societies but are they unwilling to interference in other cultures? Discussing ‘Moral Relativism’. Is there a conflict between the ‘liberty’ of some societies to make bad choices and claiming the moral high-ground? Are these liberals really saying, “well, that’s their problem, I don’t want to force our morals on their society”? If not, is there a danger of evangelistic moral invasions, similar to the Victorian mission to enlighten Africa?
Also is this liberal predilection not to interfere or make moral judgments on other societies merely a question of ‘size’. If one person in society is doing something crazy, like genital mutilation (circumcision), then that is wrong. If 500 are doing it, it is still wrong, but excusable, it is a cult. If 3 million are doing it, it is another religious value and therefore not to be interfered with. Of course, this is also a practical response, as well, how to you stop millions of people cutting their children’s genitals?
Another issue with Moral Relativism, what if all the members of a genital mutilation society says that their practices bring them moral satisfaction. In order words through the prism of their perspective, genital mutilation is the right thing to do. On what basis would another moral evaluation say it doesn’t? This comes to definitions of whether we are the best arbiters of the moral scale.
5. The ‘problem with religion’ is that it is just so nice. It offers a comfort and surety in an unsure world. Religion is a very attractive proposition. It also makes sense that a religion would culturally evolve. Early man, self aware and asking questions of the world would need answers that seem to fit: an all powerful supernatural being controls these things is a very good answer that allows him to get on with life. Also consider a child alone on an island, it would not be unreasonable for him to assume some thing greater than himself caused the world and him in it, to be.
6. Has Harris over-looked the Law? This is effectively society’s moral code. The law changes to keep pace with societal changing. Take the recent law in the UK banning fox hunting, this law reflects the moving cusp or morality in British society. The Common Law is also becoming more ‘scientific’ in a sense, working on the principal of precedent which acts like a moral valve in society. It can only get better. Also in terms of criminal law, once guilt is established by a jury, the morality (usually negative or ‘depravity’) of the case is assessed in the sentencing by judges, who are by far the best and well trained people in western society to do this. They make huge moral judgments which are also subject to appeal. There is therefore a moral ‘code’ being applied albeit negatively, to society. It would be nice of there was a ‘carrot’ as well as a stick on the moral landscape, apart from the lame ‘honours’ system in the UK and Australia.
7. The oxymoron ‘Religious scientists’. Harris struggles with this point. There can be no ambiguity. A ‘scientist’ is one who reaches his conclusions following the ‘scientific method’, that is to say objective truth. Since religion is based on faith which is belief in unsubstantiated conclusions, no evidence or data, it therefore can not be ‘scientific’. Any person who claims to be religious can not be a scientist. He can take an interest in science and he can propagate his theories that have been reached scientifically, but he can not be a ‘religious scientist’ as this term is incompatible.
8. In the Mooney & Kirshenbaum quote (p 174, 2010 paperback edition) they attack Harris as a ‘New Atheist’ in a remarkable passage which appears to suggest suppressing the scientific method. They also err in determining that New Atheists like Harris insist a ‘choice needs to be made’ and infer that ‘science’ would loose such a choice. I would argue that atheists are right to insist that people are aware that there is a choice. I find this pandering to opinion amazing and repulsive in scientific literature.