Sam Harris – author of The Moral Landscape – gave a lecture at the Center for Inquiry here in New York last October.
His extremely controversial thesis is that science is capable of defining absolute morality – an activity previously held exclusively by religion. Absolute morality holds, for example, that female genital mutilation as practiced in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa is wrong. Equally wrong is the practice of some Bedouin tribes wherein men have wives to provide children, and little boys who provide recreational sex. Both of these practices – while abhorrent to those of us in Western culture – are part and parcel of normal and encouraged practices in their respective cultures.
Moral relativists, on the other hand, hold that either or both of these practices cannot be judged as “bad” by individuals who have not grown up or lived in those cultures. The definition of moral is reserved only for the culture in which the activities are practiced.
Anyhow, the controversy is that Harris – a scientist and atheist – believes that science can provide a framework for absolute morality. This is, of course, heresy to religionists, and a huge leap forward in the medical and psychological sciences of the mind – a leap that many scientists feel is extremely premature.
Parenthetically, PZ Myers isn’t buying Harris’s idea. He feels that the naked misogyny of the Taliban is an emotional and rational foundation for a moral evaluation, rather than a scientific foundation. PZ says Harris has to find a scientific foundation for that evaluation. I suppose one could argue that the misogyny has effects which are scientifically measurable to some degree or another, but PZ obviously demands a higher standard of measure.
That is different from saying is is an unjustified premise, though — I agree with Harris entirely that the oppression of women is an evil, a wrong, a violation of a social contract that all members of a society should share. I just don’t see a scientific reason for that — I see reasons of biological predisposition (we are empathic, social animals), of culture (this is a conclusion of Enlightenment history), and personal values, but not science. Science is an amoral judge: science could find that a slave culture of ant-like servility was a species optimum, or that a strong behavioral sexual dimorphism, where men and women had radically different statuses in society, was an excellent working solution. We bring in emotional and personal beliefs when we say that we’d rather not live in those kinds of cultures, and want to work towards building a just society.
And that’s OK. I think that deciding that my sisters and female friends and women all around the world ought to have just as good a chance to thrive as I do is justified given a desire to improve the well-being and happiness of all people. I am not endorsing moral relativism at all — we should work towards liberating everyone, and the Taliban are contemptible scum — I’m just not going to pretend that that goal is built on an entirely objective, scientific framework.
Harris, on the other hand, is saying that it’s time to start working on establishing the parameters of that scientific framework. As he says during the lecture, “we haven’t got a thousand years.” Ominous.
So – if you’ve got an hour or so, check it out. The lecture is about 50 minutes, the Q&A bumps it up to 137 minutes. Click here for a video of the lecture.
One of the points he made during the Q&A was that we must strive to get people to laugh at silly statements made by political figures. For example, when President Bush said that he had consulted a higher power before invading Iraq, Harris wanted the entire White House press corps to leap to its feet and pin Bush down. Harris wanted the same response when Obama said he was against gay marriage. Why? On what principle other than political expediency?
Harris encourages those of us who want to wrest control of the dialog of morality from the hands of the religionists to hold their ideas up to ridicule – to laugh at them and get everyone else to laugh at them. PZ Myers is a prime example of how to do this – his blog is generally funny and sarcastic.
Harris, during the course of the lecture, manages to skewer not only the practice of the Muslim religion, but also the (oh so easily targeted) Roman Catholic Church. He points out that the Church is more interested in stamping out birth control than it is in revealing world-wide child rape. The church is more interested in stopping the possibility of gay marriage than it is in preventing (or even actively participating in) genocide. (Remember the collusion of Catholic priests and nuns who revealed the location of hidden refugees to the killers in Rwanda.)
Ridicule and mockery are the proper tools – not shouting and bulldozers.
Adjusting…. adjusting… adjusting…