A science of morality?
- Published on 25 February 2011
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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Self-proclaimed new atheist Sam Harris is sick and tired of traditional morality. Traditional morality roots itself in religious and/or philosophical principles that Harris finds obsolete. Instead, he prefers a scientific approach to deriving moral laws. However, anthropologist Scott Atran (France’s National Center for Scientific Research, University of Michigan, and John Jay College in New York City) is not impressed. Atran argues that Harris overestimates the power of science and underestimates the contributions of religion.
Harris takes a two-pronged approach to replacing traditional moral reasoning with science. First, he argues against traditional moralities because he believes they lead to relativism. Second, he argues for science, specifically neuroscience, as a means to build morality.
In the first case, Harris identifies two types of ethicists: conservatives and liberals. According to Harris, conservatives receive their morality from sacred texts, and, when their sacred texts differ, an irreconcilable clash inevitably results. Liberals, for Harris, have the opposite problem: wanting to avoid opening the wounds of imperialism at all costs, liberals tolerate every and any moral system, as long as a culture natively supports it. In either case, no clear case for a universal morality surfaces.
Harris’s solution is neuroscience. A proper understanding of neuroscience (and a proper education in the sciences in general) will rid the world of irrational religious belief on the one hand as well as moral relativism on the other. Harris proposes a moral utilitarianism whereby “the good” means the good for the greatest number of people as determined by neuroimaging. For Harris, morality is more or less obvious: Nazi atrocities are bad, equal rights for women is good.
Atran sees several problems in Harris’s analysis. First, he points out that Harris fails to adequately account for the famous is/ought distinction in ethics. In other words, simply because something “is” a certain way does not imply that it “ought to be” that particular way. To decide what ought to be requires looking beyond what is and envisioning a better future.
Second, Atran notes that Harris’s utilitarianism, despite being rooted in neuroscience, leaves many questions unanswered. Which utilities should be maximized? Exactly who is the “greatest number of people?” Everyone in a state? A country? The world? How long should these hypothetical maximized benefits last for? And whose neuroimaging? The neuroimages of everyday people or the neuroimages of ethicists? For Atran, Harris’s approach leaves much unanswered.
Third, Atran argues that Harris misconceives religion. Harris believes that religion consists of a set of untruths that parents indoctrinate their children into and that proper education can easily overturn. Atran believes the opposite: religion consists of intentionally paradoxical statements that resist simple true/false classification. Atran offers the statement “God is three in one” as an example of a paradoxical religious statement. Indeed, a number of researchers, including Pascal Boyer and Justin Barrett, have suggested that religious ideas need to be slightly counterintuitive to be successful. Paradox is therefore central to religion's role in human life. Due to religion’s paradoxical character, it can find itself providing charity in one century (as in early Christianity) and warring with other nations in another (as in Constantian Christianity). Its resilience in the face of changing circumstances helps it, according to Atran, “to find a way through humankind’s logically and empirically unsolvable existential dilemmas, including death, deception, catastrophe, loneliness and inequality.”
Furthermore, Atran thinks Harris misconceives religion by unfairly blaming it for wars and violence. Citing the Encyclopedia of Wars, Atran concludes that religion caused less than 10% of the world’s wars. At the same time, Harris ignores the impact of ethically challenged scientists like Noble Prize winner William Shockley, who declared that scientific evidence proved the inferiority of minority races and that the civil rights movement would ultimately degrade the overall intelligence of humanity.
As a consequence of misconceiving religion, Harris’s antidote for religion (scientific education) will most likely fail. Atran cites statistics that show that the majority of al-Qaeda members were in fact trained in science, and that the most common professions of Islamic terrorists are engineering and medicine. None of the 9/11 hijackers or Madrid train bombers attended Islamic schools as children (at most, the 2009 Christmas underwear bomber attended a radical Islamic school for a few weeks, but he also attended a secular university for a longer period of time). The most common educational profile of a terrorist is one who converts to Islam during his or her teens or early 20s. Even then, few Islamic terrorists personally study the Hadiths or the Qur’an; in other words, religion is not the x factor. Harris’s tendency to fault religion for violence and address this with scientific education does not seem to line up with the data.
Fourth and finally, Atran argues that Harris shortchanges religion’s contributions to morality. The idea of “national sin” has religiously inspired the revolutions of the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. The Founding Fathers of America appealed to ideals such as the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Atran finds it difficult to see how these fundamental cultural principles could come from utilitarian ethics. Instead, he sees them coming from religiously rooted sacred values. As a matter of historical fact, equal rights for all has been far from self-evident, and it took religiously inspired shifts in perspective to bring the idea of equal rights into public consciousness.
How did equal rights shift from not being self-evident to being self-evident? According to Atran, the key move occurred with the birth of “universal monotheism.” Universal monotheism created a religious context that extended beyond one’s tribe and culture to all of humanity. There is one God who belongs to all. The very idea of “humanity” stems from the presuppositions of universal monotheism. From there, individual free choice (such as the choice to accept or reject God) follows.
The debates over the nature of religion, science, and morality between people like Harris and Atran will continue indefinitely. Simple rhetoric all too easily distorts the substance of these debates and prevents both sides from hearing each other. What is overly simplistic rhetoric and what are the complexities and substances of the debate? As a matter of moral principle, it appears that each person is at liberty to decide.
For more on Atran’s disagreement with Harris, see his review of Harris’s The Moral Landscape entitled “Same Harris’s Guide to Nearly Everything” in The National Interest.