Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Amoral and the Immoral

One night recently, I was watching “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and was introduced to a writer named Sam Harris who was plugging his new book, The Moral Landscape. The discussion indicated that the topic of the book is Mr. Harris’ claim that science can be used to produce or discover moral facts or principles, and should replace or supersede religion as a source of moral understanding.

My immediate response was, “Bunkum!” or some less nice words to that effect.

I haven’t read the book, nor have I read any of Mr. Harris’ previous works, though I have learned by visiting his website that he is one of those people who believe religion is bad, science is good, and the two are opposed, and that he has received praise from, among others, Richard Dawkins.

From what I read on Mr. Harris’ site, it appears that he agrees with Dr. Dawkins that religion is an unnecessary excresence on human history and we would all be much better off if it would just go away. (Dawkins, of course, has expressed the opinion (in The God Delusion) that religious belief only persists because of bad parenting, and if “we” could just stop people from propagating these erroneous beliefs, religion would indeed just go away, and we could all go forward with an ideal life in a science-ruled world. More about that later.)

I also learned from a column that Mr. Harris wrote for the Huffington Post that he is dismayed by his observation that many scientists agree with many religious believers (including me) in concluding that science simply is not equipped to deal with moral principles: It can study what people say and do about morality, but it can’t say what is or is not truly moral.

This is in fact the most serious roadblock that the pro-science crowd has found to its agenda of eliminating religious belief and basing all social, political and personal life on scientific principles. My impression – and I must reiterate that it’s based on the one interview and a fairly speedy reading of the online sources – is that Mr. Harris has written his new book precisely in order to try to knock down this obstacle and clear the way for the Golden Age of Scientific Rule.

I don’t plan to read the book itself because I think I have better things to do with my time than waste it reading something I already know is an exercise in futility. That may sound narrow-minded, but in fact it’s based on a thoroughly rational appraisal of the prospects. As it happens, there’s an airtight and surprisingly simple argument:

1. “Nature,” by which I mean the aggregate of physical data that modern science restricts itself to studying, is inherently amoral. There is no moral good or bad in the physical cause-and-effect processes that materialist scientists insist are the sum total of what the universe is. Ultimately, it’s all random.

2. “Rationality,” by which I mean in this instance the use of more-or-less-formal logic, is also inherently amoral. Logical analysis says nothing about whether a conclusion is morally good or bad, only whether that conclusion is based on a valid argument.

3. “Science,” then, if defined as the application of rationality to natural phenomena, is inherently amoral: Its objects of study and its manner of study offer neither moral content nor moral analysis  (AIAO: Amorality In, Amorality Out).

Thus, if a scientist is proposing moral principles or advocating a course of action as morally positive, he or she must be basing this proposition or advocacy on something other than science. In practice, of course, the moral principle generally is inserted into the discourse at the beginning as an assumption. (Harris seems to be assuming that a scientific morality would somehow be “more moral” than one based on religion, because science is better than religion as an understanding of reality.)

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has addressed these issues in considerable detail in Sources of the Self and has shown that the adherents of the atheistic/materialistic/secular-humanistic worldview(s) are unable to account, using their own logic, for the moral principles they espouse. Their moral imperatives exist as part of our Western cultural legacy, having entered the cultural stream from religious sources, but are treated as “self-evident” because the proponents of this view can't allow themselves to acknowledge the original religious source.

In general, what the atheist/secularist crowd espouses are the “Enlightenment” values of individual liberty and humanitarianism. And certainly there’s nothing wrong with them as values. But based on their own materialist-rationalist principles, the atheists-secularists can’t explain why these things are worth valuing.

Absent such an explanation, it becomes easy for some people to conclude that they aren’t truly worth valuing. This then allows them to proceed to behave with disregard for others’ liberty or well-being, as in Social Darwinism, Objectivism, Straussianism, etc.

Harris’ approach apparently relies at least in part on “human flourishing” as a yardstick of value, but Taylor has already shown the inadequacy — indeed, the danger — of that standard.

Obviously, how one defines “flourishing” has a major effect on what one wants to propose as a moral good. If “flourishing” means mere physical well-being, for instance, the argument must tend toward the kind of hedonistic, consumeristic society we already live in, and which so many of us find objectionable on various levels, including the environmental and the spiritual.

Which raises another objection: Obviously, if one automatically rejects religion as a moral source, one is rejecting spirituality as a moral value. So any moral system one constructs on that basis will offer no satisfaction for anyone who believes in the reality of spiritual rewards. And it will automatically denigrate any system or society that does accord value to spirituality, while overrating a system or society that ignores spiritual value or meaning and looks instead at physical well-being as a standard.

Of course, the pro-science crowd delights in detailing the many abuses that have been committed in the name of religion, and there certainly is no denying that terrible abuses have occurred, and continue to occur. But the advocates of science as a standard are far less inclined to take note of the rather unencouraging track record of science and scientists on moral issues in the relatively short time they’ve had the upper hand.

Individuals pursuing an amorally conceived science have, notoriously, placed their work at the disposal of morally dubious governments such as those of Nazi Germany and the USSR. (And one might note that the USSR was ruled according to an atheistic-materialistic ideology, which didn’t prevent it from killing as many as 60 million people (Solzhenitsyn’s estimate) in programs of collectivization, forced migration and forced labor.)

Then there are the morally dubious projects of governments regarded in the West as more legitimate, such as the recently revealed deliberate infection of 696 men and women in Guatemala with syphilis by U.S. researchers in the 1940s. Add that one to the Tuskegee experiments, the eugenics projects in which women were sterilized based upon their race and class, the CIA experiments in mind control using LSD and God knows what else, and let us not forget the atomic bomb, poison gas and biological warfare.

None of these things could have proceeded without the willing participation of scientists. What it all ultimately demonstrates is the obvious fact that the amoral includes the immoral.

No doubt, the researchers in all these projects argued that their work helped save American lives, thus serving a “greater good.” This is precisely why utilitarianism is worthless as a moral source: In the pursuit of the “greatest good for the greatest number,” everything depends on who decides what the “greatest good” is and how they decide it, and how much evil they’re willing to inflict on the lesser number. A less "scientific" view of morality might propose that inflicting horrible suffering on even one person is wrong.

Scientists go where the funding is, of course. When the funding is provided by the government, they do the work the government wants, such as creating weapons of mass destruction. Today, of course, they mostly are placing their work at the disposal of profit-seeking corporations, sometimes because that’s where the government funding (i.e., yours and my tax dollars) is being funneled. That’s one reason why the pharmaceutical industry has grown so huge.

And here is an example of amorality serving amorality. The “science” of economics — according to some of its practitioners, generally those who are viewed most favorably by large corporations — informs us that one reason governments must not try to regulate business is because doing so injects moral considerations into markets that will “flourish” best by operating unimpededly according to “nature.”

As Taylor’s work shows, modern science and the worldviews it has most strongly influenced are geared toward the control and exploitation of Nature, including human nature. And there have been many people in the past couple of centuries who sincerely believed they were part of a movement toward the overall improvement of human life through that type of manipulation. And improvements obviously have been made by some measurements, though there also have been obvious losses.

But for every selfless philanthropist or courageous existentialist (a la Camus’ Dr. Rieux, admittedly a fictional character), there have been multitudes of social-Darwinist, para-Nietzschean scoundrels and bullies whose only interest in science is determining how it can help them increase their wealth and power.

Time and again, the resistance to such people and their bogus ideologies has come from people motivated by religious belief — because it’s only because of such belief that we can arrive at a point of view that sees something better or higher than the things of this physical world.

I don’t believe religion, or religious aspiration, can be eradicated. Unlike Dr. Dawkins, I don’t think it’s a purely cultural-educational phenomenon. I think it’s a basic constituent of human nature, because the divine is a basic formative and ordering principle of reality.

But it does worry me that there are people who believe it can and ought to be eradicated, people who are involved in creating drugs and machines that can do great harm to our minds and souls, and who have considerable clout with our lawmakers and sociocultural opinion-shapers.

In the latter days of the Soviet Union, the authorities found it expedient to classify dissidents as psychologically aberrant rather than politically unorthodox, and to confine them in mental hospitals instead of labor camps. It seems to me that the biggest difference between here and there, now and then, is that in the United States we’re letting ourselves be persuaded into self-medicating ourselves into irrelevance, into letting “the system” decide what’s best for everyone.

When we live in a world where resistance to abuse or stupidity can be “diagnosed” as “oppositional defiant disorder,” we really need to think carefully about what we value and how we can know what is truly good or evil.

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