Thursday, August 26, 2010

moral landscapes

Sam Harris/HuffPo:

....3. """"But can't moral claims be in conflict? Aren't there many situations in which one person's happiness means another's suffering?

There are some circumstances like this, and we call these contests "zero-sum." Generally speaking, however, the most important moral occasions are not like this. If we could eliminate war, nuclear proliferation, malaria, chronic hunger, child abuse, etc. -- these changes would be good, on balance, for everyone. There are surely neurobiological, psychological, and sociological reasons why this is so -- which is to say that science could potentially tell us exactly why a phenomenon like child abuse diminishes human well-being.

But we don't have to wait for science to do this. We already have very good reasons to believe that mistreating children is bad for everyone. I think it is important for us to admit that this is not a claim about our personal preferences, or merely something our culture has conditioned us to believe. It is a claim about the architecture of our minds and the social architecture of our world. Moral truths of this kind must find their place in any scientific understanding of human experience...."
* * *
Religious people often insist that doubt, skepticism and...atheism ...undermine morality, values, ethics (normativity in eggheadish). Typically, they do not bother to substantiate this claim. Certainly there have been immoral and amoral non-believers (including the social Darwinists, Winnie Churchill included), but given the prevalence of monotheism (ie...the religions of the sons of Abraham), not to say wars waged in the name of monotheism (whether that theos be defined as God, Christ, Deus, Mohammed, Allah, JHVH, etc) the immoral believers would, prima facie, greatly outnumber the immoral non-believers (assuming a rather informal view of morality, as in non-violent, non-sadistic, etc...those few who want to solve Hume's ought-is problem may look elsewhere)

Sam Harris has at times alluded to this ontological clash, for lack of a better term, of virtuous skeptics vs. non-virtuous believers (...dogmatic, ritual-addicted believers). Not that Harris should be read as some neo-atheistic guru--his somewhat utilitarian views, however neuro-scientifically informed, often seem to justify RealPolitik of a sort (see his infamous torture essay). At any rate he presents the issue fairly effectively.

There's a tendency among some (usually leftists) to depict secularists as sinisterly conservative--crypto-Humes, more or less (--or perhaps Pilates). More than a few gauchistes interpret Harris in those terms. The crypto-Humes, like Harris (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al) use atheism and doubt merely as a means to an end, according to this view: G*d doesn't exist, so...bombs away. Wesley, not so different than many American liberals,  detested Hume for his supposed nihilism (the aged Hume, while no sunday schooler, assisted Rousseau, gave a bundle to charity, and was not always a supporter of the royals, contrary to opinion). 

Rationalists, even religious ones should object to this simplification of intelligent secularism. Thomas Jefferson, secularist to his bones (regardless of what a few biblethumpers insist) for instance was not morally perfect, but he was not Napoleon (nominally catholic...though Bonaparte's relation to the papacy is rather complex). Most people probably rate Jefferson as "more virtuous" than Napoleon--certainly he's nearly nothing in terms of matching the Corsican's body count (at least 3-4 million). Similar cases can be imagined. Bertrand Russell, again not a saint, was hardly as sinister as say Father Coughlin, a nazi sympathizer, at least initially (or say Heidegger ...). More, much more might be said on this issue, but it's simply an article of faith that the faithful are "more good" than the non-faithful, or non-sunday school attending.


Perezoso said...

the infamous torture essay

I heard about that. Harris was saying it's ok to torture muslim prisoners since we could end the war sooner or something. Harris also supported Bush. Apart from all the philosophical and neuro-BS, he sounds like a neo-con.

A punk, like most atheists. They got no sense of honor.

J said...

His argument in the torture essay, while not exactly PC, was a bit more complex than that, Pz.
But...I believe it's a mistake to read one article of any writer or thinker and then reject him, though I can understand the impulse to do so. I wrote something on the torture essay a while ago.

His recent book concerns the neurological basis for what we call morality. There are excerpts online. Interesting, though the ...reductionism probably would offend traditional religious people. Either way, we can be nearly certain there's no ghost in the brain-machine, Pz.

Many non-believers might lack a sense of honor, whatever that is. Many believers--including macho catholic types--mistake "honor" for like some mandate or, entitlement of sorts. X attends La Iglesia, takes the Mass, is a good family man, has una esposa hermosa, hard worker, owns a big house, so...he assumes he's qualified to speak about politics, religion, psychology--usually he's not, but just puffin'.

The Roody Guiliani-Papist meme! Perhaps the RGP's are not as ...tasteless or dangerous as the Jerry Falwell or mormon types...but generally anti-rationalists of a sort. Even Aristotle, empiricist of a sort, were to exist in some celestial realm would object to much catholic superstition (like the miracle fetish...La Agua sancta de Lourdes, aqui, hoy!)

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