Questionable Motives

October 19, 2010

The moral minefield: is there an alternative to the is-ought divide?

Filed under: Harris,Morality,Religion — tildeb @ 9:55 am

Religion and its pervasive role throughout the world in human affairs is an area of tremendous interest to me. Any criticism of religion and its deleterious effects soon runs into the assumption that our moral values require an ethical framework and that religion is a particularly suitable engineer for just this task and so it is a necessary construct that mitigates all its shortcomings in practice . But is this true? Does religion and its varied beliefs in supernatural agencies build a good framework? It is this question that needs serious critical review. Not surprisingly, most atheists tend to avoid this moral landscape because we recognize the pitfalls that divide the is from the the ought. But is this divide unbridgeable, thus allowing religion and all its rational incoherencies the narrow and treacherous escape route it requires from criticism of its actions in moral terms in the human domain?

I have long admired Sam Harris’ veridical writings, presentations, debates, and cogent thoughts. So it is no surprise, then, that I am interested in hearing his thoughts about this moral landscape and his ideas about suggesting that some better framework can, in fact, be used… a framework based on something that allows a better comparison than claims between relative and unverifiable objective moral truths. This framework, Harris suggests, can be built upon the well-being of conscious creatures.

Excerpts from an interview between Salon and Sam Harris about his new book The Moral Landscape:

It just so happens that religion traffics in ideas that are intrinsically divisive, intrinsically insensitive to the actual details of human and animal suffering, and in many cases purposed toward an afterlife that doesn’t exist. That combination of traits leads to a kind of callous disregard for the sane purposes that we would otherwise form for collaboration in this world.

Well-educated, liberal, secular people in the West think you should withhold judgment on certain practices. You look at female genital mutilation in a country like Somalia, and you have to say things like “Well, of course this has to be understood in context. Who are we to say that this is evil in any deep sense?” But my argument is that withholding judgment is tantamount to saying that we know absolutely nothing about human well-being. Maybe cutting off a girl’s genitalia with a septic blade at age 8 is just as good as any other practice in terms of raising them to be happy and well-adjusted people. We know that’s not true. And that’s a scientific claim.

We notice causal patterns in the word, and we tell ourselves stories about these patterns. We do this in science and in religion. Religion just amounts to bad science, in the end. It’s our most primitive effort to describe our origins and the reasons for why things happen. When you don’t understand the weather, when you don’t understand why crops fail, when you don’t understand the origins of disease, you make up explanations. And this is religion. When you develop a methodology by which these things can be understood, you rely on honest observation and clear reasoning, and this is science.

I think we must form a global civilization. We have no choice. We have a global economy, we have a single environment, we have infectious disease that spreads with every airplane flight. The question is, How do we create a civilization in which the greatest proportion of people can thrive, and in which the causes for war become distant memories? Within a nation-state, wars can be a distant memory. The likelihood of a war between Vermont and Florida seems incredibly remote. Why is that? We understand the stability of a single state. We need to engineer a similar degree of stability at the international level. There has to be a way to enforce international law. The question is how to do that, and how helpful is it that 1.5 billion Muslims and 2 billion Christians both think they have the perfect revelation of the creator of the universe, and that the world will end, ushering in the fulfillment of their eschatology. This isn’t helpful at all, and should be terrifying to every rational person.

Religion isn’t the only problem. It’s all the forms of tribalism: nationalism, racism, et cetera. But religious tribalism is the most difficult, because it’s the only one that comes with an ideology that is transcendental. It’s the only one that gets people, for the most part, to celebrate the deaths of their children, because the belief in paradise actually removes the last barrier that sane people have to doing horrendous things and making huge sacrifices for idiotic reasons.

I am intrigued. It’s time for me to buy the book.


1 Comment »

  1. Hey,

    Surfed over here from Societyvs blog.

    The Moral Landscape is on my to-read list as well. I’m a big fan of Sam Harris although from what I have read about the book I sense there is still some discussion coming on the definition of terms.

    That’s not a problem however. That’s just good rational inquiry in action (I hope). I see Sam Harris now as another figure in a long chain of individuals — Auguste Comte, Sigmund Freud, Hans Selye and so on. We might not use their narratives so much anymore but at least they each got to work, drew a line and built foundations to to start from.

    As far as the is-ought thing — religion was a necessary step, in my opinion. But the key word there is “was”. And in all fairness, there are moral theories out there that do dissolve the is-ought problem. But they aren’t all that popular in mixed crowds… 🙂

    Comment by Andrew — October 21, 2010 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

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