I’m beginning to understand Sam Harris’ argument. He’s seeking an alternative to religion as the basis for morality, and he’s seeing morality as the core issue of our time. In a presentation and lengthy discussion at the Edge Foundation conference on The New Science of Morality, Harris explained that he wants science to take on the project of moral persuasion.
How can we persuade all of the people who are committed to silly and harmful things in the name of “morality” to change their commitments, to have different goals in life, and to lead better lives? I think that this third project is actually the most important project facing humanity at this point in time.
It subsumes everything else we could care about — from arresting climate change, to stopping nuclear proliferation, to curing cancer, to saving the whales. Any effort that requires that we collectively get our priorities straight and marshal massive commitments of time and resources would fall within the scope of this project. To build a viable global civilization we must begin to converge on the same economic, political, and environmental goals.
I agree with Harris that the foundation of almost all suffering may well be our human inability to understand how to act morally and to act on that knowledge. However, I’m not certain science — or as Harris explains — a scientific approach is the answer. My year-long search for goodness is, at least in part, my quest to understand this problem and to glimpse possible answers.
But the more I listen to Harris, the more I see the danger of our shared quest. Human experience is littered with the bodies and minds of those who have been sacrificed on the altar of Moral Right. (Think Taliban. Think Ugandan anti-gay lawmakers. Think genocide: I’m right. You’re wrong. Therefore, you must do what I say.)
I suspect that it’s fear of the errors of the past (and sometimes of the present) that makes so many people shy away from the topic of morality. And yet, the problem we’re considering — that sinking, awful lack of morality that’s crippling society — is real.
How do we do this morality thing in a way that actually helps people, instead of hurting them?