[This blog entry is in response to http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-moral-landscape-challenge1]
One cant fault Harris for seeking an intervention. Those who claim to speak for God have proved too often to be going about the earthly business of glory and profit. We have Mohammad to thank for the moral abominations of sharia and the Taliban – Constantine for the church of Rome’s courteous concordats with fascism and the holocaust. The cowardly march of moral relativism has defined soft-headed political correctness as the only moral law we ought to abide. I find concordance with Harris in the following:
Objective moral truths exist and can be known independent of God or religion. From here we part ways. The consequence of morality is either neutral, beneficial or detrimental to the well-being of conscious creatures but not its identity. The thesis cannot be refuted philosophically, largely because Harris has preempted every objection with a back door and redefined the meaning of ‘good’. It will fail however to evolve into a true science, simply as a science of morality cannot alter human behavior a priori, least of all moral actions. No amount of intellectual gymnastics can change this fact.
It may well be possible to arrive at answers to moral questions by scientific consensus but nevertheless impossible to reproduce or apply in the material world. Although Harris proposes a philosophy, the laws of physics for example are not subject to human consensus or volition- morality is. Unlike morality, a man with neither the capacity nor the will to comprehend the law of gravity is no less constrained by the force of gravity As Isaac Newton.
What’s-more, we already know the right answers to questions of morality. We all appeal to a common moral standard that is somehow innate. It becomes more refined with age – with parental, cultural and social conditioning shaping the edges. Any cerebral deviation from the standard is universally negligible.
When Harris argues that the Taliban’s moral code is worse than another he is in fact measuring the two against a standard. Harris must admit of a antecedent. Man will always justify and rationalizes his actions against the standard. The justice system and it’s network of laws is mans best attempt at regulating human behavior, likewise Medical science is mans best attempt at maximizing or sustaining well-being. Therefore what Harris proposes is redundant.
Social science has much to inform us by way of economic or political flourishing, but poses no hindrance to greed or exploitation. Needless to say – there are many immoral ways to flourish. The locus of control for the individual does not extend to the well-being or suffering of everyone. One may not be necessarily responsible for collective or even subjective misery, rendering the concept of moral responsibility all the more nebulous. For a law of morality to be violated a human action is requisite. But the worst possible misery for everyone is quite possible without human intervention.
When we are faced with a decision of moral consequence, we may not be able to accurately predict the outcome for ourselves or others. A science of morality could offer nothing more beneficial than the Golden Rule, in any event.
If all the good is identical to well-being then it logically follows that the sick and impoverished are morally liable. Integral to well-being in this century is health and economic status, you simply cannot sustain well-being in the absence of these factors. Yet you cannot say one is morally obligated to be well or rich.
Can Harris contend that the moral code of the Taliban is scientifically wrong? Yes, from the raw data of political, economic and social science, but this is a epistemic deduction. Furthermore if Harris is honest he will admit – he has not come to know this by virtue of science, but by his mental faculties. There is no need to appeal to science, moreover this tells us nothing of why it is objectively binding. The Taliban is obviously not cognizant of well-being as a source of moral authority. The question is – who or what is the final arbiter of this disagreement between Harris and the Taliban?
Most often we decidedly pursue goals that enhance our own well-being or flourishing at the expense of other creatures well-being and flourishing. We live as to avoid suffering by default. Eating when we are hungry is no more a value than the avoidance of suffering.
Does this mean we have a Persuasion Problem with respect to medicine? No. Christian Scientists, homeopaths, voodoo priests, and the legions of the confused don’t get to vote on the principles of medicine.
We are morally autonomous beings therefore the persuasion problem remains. The vital difference between health and well-being is that the efficacy of medicine can be falsified and tested – both subjectively and objectively. The moral code of the Taliban can only be refuted postmortem! If the Qua ran is true, the Taliban will be vindicated! Morality is open to self deception whereas health is not. Health is not constrained by human volition in the same way as well-being. One cannot decide to be free of cancer as a matter of mere choice.
Harris makes no provision for the transcendent, justice is however a concept that is metaphysical – it occupies no space.
Max Planck, father of Quantum Theory, Admits something Harris will not:
Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature
Harris reduces the totality of the human individual to a brain and its various states. If there is no personal, moral agency separate from the brain, then our choices ultimately have no moral significance and we are at the mercy of the brain.
Sir John Eccles described the brain as:
“A machine that a ghost can operate.”
If we were to transplant a brain from one body to another, would the identity be preserved and intact? Clearly not!
Dr. Wilder Penfield, described the brain as
“a computer programmed by something independent of itself, the mind.”
By Harris ‘s own admission, psychopaths, and hardened criminals can experience pleasure, while others – disgust – in response to identical variables.
Max Planck, “The Mystery of Our Being,” in Quantum Questions , ed. Ken Wilbur (Boston: New Science Library, 1984), 153.