October 5, 2010

Science and Moral Relativism

I found myself thinking yesterday as I was putting groceries in my car that the 'New Atheists' have been somewhat quiet of late. What was a red hot debate between New Atheists and Christian Thinkers had cooled some and it had been a while since I found myself engaged in a conversation or debate that really hinged on 'New Atheist' arguments. I joked, really to myself, that everyone must be busily writing their next book and are too busy to argue right now.

Well I guess I was right. I just didn't realize that Sam Harris' new book the Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values was ready to launch. As I was getting ready to head to bed I turned on my TV and caught the tail end of The Daily Show and heard Harris' discussion on his book. I could sum up his point, or sum up what I have read thus far (I've not yet read the book) about his arguments but I'll let the free press do so as it covers it well;

"Bringing a fresh perspective to age-old questions of right and wrong, and good and evil, Harris demonstrates that we already know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply false—and comes at increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.

Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our “culture wars,” Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation."

I want to say I strongly disagree with this argument. I think if God's existence does prove to be false, moral relativism is the outcome. Now let me clarify something, I am not saying you have to believe in the Christian God, or even a god to make moral choices. There are lots of people I would call good that claim no religious belief at all. What I am saying is right and wrong are either independent of humanity; meaning we are subject to a 'law' or 'moral code' that is not of our own making; it is something we discover or are told about, not something that we have created. OR morality is our own creation. We apply the word good to some things and bad to other things and given enough time most of those things will change. When we call something good all we really mean is it is in some way pleasant or beneficial, and conversely what we call bad is something unpleasant or detrimental.

Sam Harris is rightly uncomfortable with the idea of moral relativism. I suspect he does not want to live in a world that could decide genocide is an acceptable practice, nor does he want to see rape become a national pastime of any country. So to combat moral relativism he states that based on the brain's reaction to stimuli and our understanding of what helps to bring about human or animal well being we can find out objectively what is right and what is wrong.

However there is a problem with this approach from the outset. Why assume what causes me or even the broad human species pleasure is good? Likewise why should activities that benefit all humanity be considered good? These two criteria for something being good or bad are incredibly subjective, and I think rather unreliable. The question this doesn't answer is why should I care whether or not the human species continues strong long after my death? Why care about my genetic legacy? And if I have no decedents does that give me the right to be selfish? Or if genetic legacy is the driver for moral choices should everyone have as many children as possible? Is it right in a world with crippling food and water shortages, serious environmental problems, and is already facing major over population concerns for everyone to be the next 19 Kids and Counting? My Christian morality says no. But genetic legacy would hint at yes.

I understand why Sam Harris is doing this. But all he has done is stated loudly and strongly that his subjective criteria should be considered universal. But you don't get universally applicable morals unless you have your morals rooted outside of humanity. And you cannot get a moral system rooted outside of humanity without some sort of god.  No god, no absolute morals. Bring in God and then you have the ground for universally applicable morals. Sorry Sam. Be good.