Thursday, November 18, 2010

Moral befuddlement

I've just started reading a new book by Sam Harris called "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values." Here Harris, a neuroscientist best known for his first book, "The End of Faith," isn't so much talking about religion but rather the need for a morality based on human well-being - a morality firmly based on science and rationality.

Of course he rejects religion as necessary for morality, but some of his deepest scorn goes to liberals who seem to think that cultural relativism - "tolerance" - is the greatest good. In a speech at a scientific conference Harris said that "the moment we admit we know anything about human well-being scientifically, morally speaking we must admit that certain individuals or cultures can be absolutely wrong about it." He mentioned the Taliban as an example.

After his speech, he was approached by a female scientist who serves on the "President's Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues." Here is part of their conversation, "more or less verbatim:"

She: "What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?"
Harris: "Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being - and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human well-being."
She: "But that's only your opinion."
Harris: "OK ... Let's make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?"
She: "It would depend on why they were doing it."
Harris: "Let's say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, 'Every third must walk in darkness.' "
She: "Then you could never say that they were wrong."

"Such opinions," Harris commented, "are not uncommon in the Ivory Tower."

I consider myself a liberal and believe me, it is thinking like this - right down there with the brilliant logic of conservatives - that makes me ponder the grim future of our (morally) stupid species.

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