It’s getting tougher and tougher to find the time to blog, and I really wanted to get this one out. A while ago I was part of a discussion course entitled “God, Atheism and Morality” that used Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape as a back-drop, as well as Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality. Though Holloway still has some religious baggage to unload that keeps his goal of a morality that encompasses humanity out of reach, he’s a Christian (an Anglican bishop) who largely gets it. There are problems with Harris’ book as well, but as Matt Dillahunty notes he provides us with a language for discussing these issues.
I wish I had kept up with the class in my blog. Throughout the coarse my view of Harris’ book changed significantly. For instance, I agree with Massimo Pigliucci’s view that Science can not determine the values we should hold, but I think Massimo undervalues Science in evaluating the effects of values we do hold. Harris bizarrely never mentions the application of the social sciences to this evaluation, and I have a hard time seeing how a reduction of morality to the neurosciences can have anywhere near as much value as some of the work that Gregory Paul has done. But while I have mixed feelings about the contents of The Moral Landscape, Harris opened up a dialog that needed opening.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about in this entry. On the last day of class we rounded up our personal positions on morality. I expressed my disdain (the only word I can think of to use in polite company) for moral relativism, after which two other people (in addition to the one in the first class) piped up to say that they were moral relativists. And, no, one of them does label himself as a Christian.
I am going to tell you why I hold moral relativists in such low esteem. I think there are objective morals based on some pretty fundamental principles:
- The Theory of Mind, which is (as the Wikipedia states) the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own.
- Another principle is the one of ‘fairness’, something which is inately built into pretty much every social mammalian species and well-studied in behavioral economics.
- A third is what many would recognize as the Golden Rule, which codified the observation that people get along best when they treat others as they would have themselves treated. The Silver Rule, the negative of the Golden Rule, is actually a better formulation. This equitable treatment is predicted from Game Theory to be the most successful behavior, and it is no surprise that evolution found this strategum. Again, all social mammalian species follow this behavior to varying degrees of complexity.
These three principles will take one a long way in building an ethical system, but that is not to say that there is only one possible ethical system which will (in the vernacular used by Harris, and one I like) maximize wellbeing. I’m not going to get into a discussion of what exactly ‘wellbeing’ is, any more than (as Harris points out) I want to get into a discussion of what ‘health’ is. The point is that in none of the above principles does belief or culture come into the discussion and transcends humanity. Every culture has codified the Golden Rule as long as there has been written history. ‘Theory of Mind’ and ‘fairness’ are built into humans regardless of where they were born.
I want to point out first how ridiculous moral relativism is, and provide a possible explanation for why people delude themselves into thinking that they are moral relativists.
Why is moral relativism ridiculous? I don’t know anyone that wants to be struck in the face for no reason. Why? Because it hurts. Applying principles 1 and 3 above, we get to the conclusion that if I don’t want to have my nose flattened, it is likely that no one else will either. Let’s say I punch someone here that grew up in a Canadian household (I hesitate to say ‘culture’, since I’m not sure we really have one to speak of). I think we can predict that the recipient will be upset and find such an action to be morally lacking.
Now let’s hop a flight to the Sudan and perform the thought experiment. I think we can predict a similar level of umbrage.
What we find is the indignation at this action transcends culture. This is the same thing as saying it is ‘objective’. Now, I don’t mean that morals can be ‘objective’ in the sense that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are absolutes or properties of action. But, at least from a consequentialist point of view, I do claim that there are objective ways in which to measure the effects of actions on wellbeing and social health.
This brings me to where one of the two who claim to be moral relativists said – after I pointed out that metrics like ‘violent crime’ can be used to assess the health of a society – that we are viewing other cultures using what we in the west would value in out culture, and the other said we have no basis for saying honor killing (the example Harris gives in his book) is wrong.
I was floored. I really didn’t know what to say at the time to something so idiotic. Sorry, but I call ’em and I see ’em. This was like saying that we can’t assess the efficacy of acupuncture using western evidence-based medicine! (And, yes. There are idiots out there that make this exact claim, to which I respond “Then how can you even make the claim it does work?”) There are indeed objective methods by which we can indeed assess the positive and negative effects of values. Or are words like ‘happiness’ worthless?
This is an example of the logical fallacy known as special pleading. If these other cultures do not value lowering of murder rates, then why do these cultures have prohibitions on murder in the first place? Values have consequences not just on personal wellbeing, but on societal health as well. And these effects are measurable. Just because we are using metrics developed here does not make them invalid in assessing the effects of societal values in other cultures.
And we in the West have developed some values we hold dear and we are seeing the effects of why they are important. We value free speech and democratic government and we have watched those in places like Syria and Yemen where it is not allowed. I think we can say that such things increase wellbeing and societal health. After all, the state isn’t going to try to kill us if we raise our voices in protest. Neither freedom of speech nor democracy are easy. They’re hard. Suppression of speech by those you don’t agree with is easy. Yet western societies have clearly benefited from Enlightenment values. It is no coincidence that Hyaan Hirsi Ali makes the statement that “Islam has not had its Voltaire.” We value Enlightenment ideals because they have had a significant positive impact on society and by extension to the individual.
I won’t pretend it’s perfect. Nothing where competing goals exist can be. But the wellbeing of individuals is clearly increased over values which devalue human rights.
The good news is that I think many who call themselves ‘moral relativists’ are deluding themselves. In one breath they will tell us that we have no basis or right to judge actions in other cultures by our own value sets and in the other they will tell you that female genital mutilation is wrong. This is the case for the moral relativist I wrote of in the blog entry about our first day of this class, and if this doesn’t create cognitive dissonance, I don’t know what can.
The problem with the claim that we can not judge things like ‘honor killing’ by our own values fails when we prohibit a person who grew up in a culture that has this as a value from performing what he sees as his moral duty when he emigrates to ours. Does this mean that whether honor killing is morally obligatory, allowed or prohibited is based on geography? Honor killing clearly diminishes wellbeing whether it is committed in our culture or any other. Moral relativism of this type is simple self-contradictory and leads to nonsensical situations.
My greatest ire, though, is saved for those who claim atheists have no basis for an objective morality without realizing that not only is that false, it is they that are moral relativist. I’ve written about the absolutely idiotic nonsense spouted by the likes of William Lane Craig. For such people, obeying God’s commands is the moral imperative. I put it to you that there is nothing moral about this at all. In fact, obeying a set of rules without thinking about their consequences or even why the rule can be justified as moral is amoral, or even immoral.
In a previous blog entry I described how Craig gets to the ridiculous position that the Canaanite genocide was moral because God ordered it. Even the slaughter of their children was justified since then they would not grow up learning their parents’ wicked ways, as if adopting them into their own society wasn’t a far better option. How is God’s command to slaughter wholesale a people morally obligatory when that perpetrated by Ratko Mladić is reviled?
Asked if genocide is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, most people – believers included – would say ‘no’, and rightfully so. Change that to the specific example of the Canaanite genocide and believers will then make excuses for this heinous act (and it is heinous) to preserve the illusion of an omnibenevolent god. It is the act that is heinough. Who ordered it is irrelevant except in explaining it away post hoc.
It’s moral relativism for sure. But instead of based in culture and geography, it is based on who is giving the command to commit mass murder. I for one am very glad that the majority of believers that engage in such apologetics as a response are just deluding themselves as well. The only justifiable response to anyone commanding genocide – man or god – is “Hell, NO!”, and the vast majority would give that response.
I’ve given an explanation for the latter type of moral relativist, but I need to give one for the former. Several hundred years of colonial rule and exportation/forced acceptance of European value systems has made us in the west self-conscious about further interference in foreign cultures. I have to admit, there is something to this. But the individuals who self-identified as ‘moral relativist’ go to the opposite extreme, allowing behaviors and actions in other cultures that they would consider prohibited in their own and measurably harmful ones at that. It is this fear of being accused of bigotry that allows female genital mutilation, honor killing, stoning of adulterers, mysogyny, etc. to continue, and even legitimizes the behavior. It gives the proponents of harmful values an excuse with which to bludgeon people who hold this weak position into acquiescence. It is wrong, and measurably so.