This is a repost from PR, but I can’t resist…
I have been keeping up with Sam Harris since The End of Faith appeared. I am a fan of his demeanor as much as his arguments. The Moral Landscape is engaging, thoughtful and successfully provocative. I just don’t agree with the overall case he makes here. As a Project Reason Forum moderator, I have read and followed a lot of discussion about the ought/is problem and such items as discussed here but that is not my problem.
I think he is overlooking a big piece of the puzzle. In fact, the whole outline of the puzzle is the cultural narrative in which a morality is contained, and without which a morality could not exist. Not for long, anyway.
I will focus on three issues: the WBOCC idea, moral relativism and Libet.
There is an ambiguity about whether Dr. H is establishing a basis for morality or identifying “the” pre-existing basis for morality. The landscape motif is fine and describes a framework in which a non-religious-based morality can emerged out of sacred frameworks of morality. In that sense, he has identified a new moral framework and added his three cents as well. In doing so, he has taken part in its invention for this kind of morality is hard to find anywhere in human history. Morality being about the WBOCC may not be an altogether new idea but it is one that has never found its way into the Big Narrative because morality has never been about the WBOCC before.
I can’t even begin on the subject without breaking morality down into two provocative categories: visceral morality and structured or narrative morality. Visceral morality just happens, and reveals our natural inclinations both selfish and social. This only becomes a morality if it is observed, recorded, collated and narratized, and only after examples of its “existence” have occurred. Otherwise, it’s just stuff that happens. Of course, the observer has likely already created a mental file folder named “morality” before they picked up the binoculars. So it ends up being a narrative about a morality, but one that only allows argument about the interpretation of the observations. We can’t deny what we do.
Any lofty philosophical explanation of morality is exclusive to humans and has nothing to do with why other primates and animals make the apparently moral choices they do. A sudden moral choice in the jungle may be better predicted by an examination of the molecular chemistry of the beast at the moment the “choice” is made. For us humans, that’s visceral morality and a whole different animal than the philosophical kind.
This second, intellectual type of morality is useful for humans living together in ways that our molecular chemistry didn’t prepare us for. Like, standing in line at the 7-11 next to someone to whom our primal reaction makes us want to flee. Why do we trust them? Because we all believe in the same Big Narrative with its rights and rules and we trust that the beast behind us was raised and trained to have a consciously restrained molecular chemistry like us. That level of confidence can be seen in how open and unlocked a community keeps itself. A community that puts a lot of effort into defending itself from its own members does not have a good, working narrative. Or, it might be like the USA, which is a melting pot of formally openly competing narratives.
I don’t think these kinds of narrative moralities are about the WB of conscious individuals because they preceded self-conscious individuals. They are about the WB of the Big Narratives themselves and they still are, even though self-conscious individuals having been living in them for many generations. All of the established metaphysically based moralities are only concerned with the WBOBN. As for conscious creatures… are they conscious of the Big Narrative? Then, they’re in. Otherwise, F their WB.
To create a morality for the WBOCC universally presumes that there is one Big Universal Narrative to put it in. There isn’t. Dr. H misses the fact that he is part of the movement to create a new Big Narrative based on reason in which the WBOCC would be identified as something worthy of effort. Some would say that the founding of the USA was a big step in that effort. And now, there are even websites about reason and why it should be an important project for any concerned CC. Dr. H should check them out.
While his scheme is based on science and attempts to establish a universal moral criterion, there is still no escaping Moral Relativism. I have always defined MR as morality being relative to the Big Narrative it exists within. No BN, no M. If you took all the BN’s away, and the CC’s that create them, then there would be no morality that meant anything to the universe. Things would just happen. To the universe, wouldn’t molecular morality outweigh primate morality as a categorization? Or… quantum morality? Is gravity the original moral restraint?
Without the Universe or God being actually involved in the creation of a BN, any morality’s ultimate authority will be tied to the BN’s own ultimate authority over its creators, which will be euphemistically called “good”. All other BN’s are based on “evil”.
So all moral systems are righteous relative to themselves. This doesn’t necessarily earn them any outside respect but outsiders should at least acknowledge that Moral Superiority in an unfortunate but unavoidable component of any BN that sees itself as based on “goodness”. Reason won’t undo that. What use would a morality be if you didn’t feel superior for living up to it? Isn’t that the point? Even if it involves doing awful things?
IMO, Dr. H and his teammates must embrace the visceral and seize it from its religious context. There is no point in presenting an intellectually based morality to people who never use one. That makes many atheist teammates intellectually squirm. It’s hard enough to fight the “if it feels good, do it” perception that non-religious morality is stuck with. The way to do that, is to find out the real reason that we have any morality at all. Libet’s experiments reveal the temporal landscape that creates the distance between one part of ourselves telling another part what not to do.
Why is there a veto? It’s not like our lives depended on it. There is a life we could lead by visceral morality alone and there are many nature shows that give us some idea of what it would look like. The human species and its DNA would carry on at a population level that was stabilized by the surrounding environment. That seems to be good enough for everyone else. What makes us special? We come up with reasons why we should do something other than what nature prepared us to do. Those reasons exist within narratives that must be told have any influence on us. Is this our soul telling our sinful nature or base self what to do? No, it’s a secondary mental organization that is completely de-correlated from the primary brain by time. There may still be soul, but the self-conscious mind isn’t it.
I’m encouraged that Dr. H is at least aware of Prof. Libet’s work. I’m frustrated that no one seems to know what to make of it. I discovered Libet in the mid-nineties when I was already long since convinced that there was a time delay to find. Apparently, I was alone in that anticipation.
A science based morality has nowhere to land until one of two things happens. Either a new rational unified Big Narrative of Secularism is accepted by or is imposed upon everyone and has moral superiority over all previous Big Narratives or, everyone accepts that their own BN is a farce and thus keeps their own moral superiority. Any actions reasonably shown to be awful (or, not at all for the WBOCC) will stop, because it’s just a farce. No supernatural feelings will be hurt. No one’s eternal destiny will be determined. Everyone can keep the festive hats.
The secret that must be revealed is that it is just as gratifying to hold true to a farce as it is to a religion. It doesn’t feel any different.
The New World Order option scares the hell out of everyone. I think option #2 has a better chance.
Option #1 requires weapons. Option #2 only requires comedy and generational turnover.
Only then will there be room for the Moral Landscape.