Sam Harris, Science and a Universal Morality

Bestselling author Sam Harris has proposed yet another heretical idea:  the notion that science can and should answer questions of good and evil, right and wrong. He appears to be arguing that  science should shape morality and define goodness and what constitutes a properly lived life.

First unveiled in a TED talk in February, Harris’ ideas are already sparking a firestorm on the web. Most fascinating to me is the more than 440-comment debate bubbling up at Harris’ Project Reason web site. In it, people call Harris and his ideas genius, bash him for turning his back on his atheist credentials (which he didn’t do), and argue that there is, in fact, no such thing as right and wrong. That last point certainly surprised me. I had no idea anyone actually thought that.

Harris’ ideas are interesting, but the debate on the Project Reason site is even more fascinating. The argument is revealing what appear to be strata of secular, progressive thinking about morality. For that reason alone, it’s worth reading, although many of the comments are rather distressing, at least to me. Even tackling the topic of morality — or thinking that there are moral answers — appears to throw some people into mouth-frothing fits of anger. I don’t understand this. Can anyone clue me in as to why?

Harris’  book The Moral Landscape is out Oct. 5.

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8 Responses to Sam Harris, Science and a Universal Morality

  1. Like most of your posts, this one got me thinking in depth. I’ll be pondering it for some time to come (and I’ve read just enough of what Harris had to say to know I want to read his book). I don’t have time today to go into all the places where this is leading me.
    But I would suggest one reason why the idea that there are moral answers upsets some people: Perhaps it’s because some of the so-called “moral answers” that have been touted in the past have done more harm than good. For example, the people who — to paraphrase the songwriter/artist Terry Allen — tell you that sex is immoral, dirty, nasty, and should be saved for marriage to someone you love.
    I think the fault is in those particular moral answers, not in the seeking of moral answers.
    This also gets into the territory you explored earlier of goodness being confused with “doing those things we were taught we should do to be little ladies and gentlemen.”
    Anyway, you’ll be glad to know you’re making me think!

  2. dianesilver says:

    Agreed! The concept of “morality” has certainly been misused, and that has made many of us gun shy, but we have got to find a way to get over that and claim, for want of a better phrase, a New Morality. My guess is that this is what Harris is attempting, although I get a tad nervous about the idea of using science to determine morality because science has been misused in the past. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing his full argument.

  3. skadhu says:

    Ideas of “right” and “wrong” have historically been used to diminish, discount and oppress those who simply do things differently from a particular group. As I understand it (having never really studied this) the postmodern answer to this problem was moral relativism: things can only be judged within a culture, not from outside it, and there is no “right” or “wrong”.

    The issue that I see with this is that there are some things that genuinely are wrong, or evil—deliberately harming others, for example—no matter what the motive or culturally defined norm. So we’re left with the problem of finding a moral stance that can’t be used to oppress and simultaneously can’t be used to excuse, and that’s really difficult. It’s easier to go to one extreme or the other.

    And then of course there’s the fact that people don’t tend to like any moral position that prevents them from doing what they want. They’ll accept it when it’s culturally pervasive, but are more likely to resist when the ideas aren’t.

  4. dianesilver says:

    Well said! And I agree, except that I wonder if we go down the wrong path when we talk about finding the right “moral stance” and/or moral code, even if we’re discussing one “that can’t be used to oppress and simultaneously can’t be used to excuse.” Could it be that life is simply too complex for any code or stance to always work? Instead of perfecting our moral stance, I wonder if we, instead, need to figure out how to perfect ourselves? This is the point Zen Master Stanley Lombardo and Dharma Master Judy Roitman made.

  5. skadhu says:

    Running off to teach, so no time to respond in detail… but (not to say we shouldn’t try) if we only attempt to perfect ourselves we will be focusing too much inwardly and potentially walking away from evil in the world. I think that maybe what’s needed is a moral stance that supports justice, not codified definitions of right/wrong. (Justice may mean different results or actions to different people, but if you start from the proposition that no harm should be done, it gets easier to sort out… maybe?)

    Must run. Interesting to think about.

  6. dianesilver says:

    I agree that only attempting to perfect ourselves is a terrible idea, but I worry that moral codes without self knowledge or, for want of better words, self perfection can lead us down the merry path to harming others, even if we’re attempting to do good.

  7. keith says:

    The specific answer as to why people get angry about such issues is, I think, that the topic of morality seems to sit in a no man’s land between personal taste and hard facts. People who believe the former will be the ones who have loud conversations on their mobile phones and are either unaware or dismissive of the fact that their personal taste is bothering others: I like talking loudly, you don’t. What is there to disagree about? They will see any attempt to formalize rules of behaviour as the work of bigoted, narrow-minded Nazis. They don’t want their freedoms impinged upon, since they are convinced that they themselves are tolerant and let others do what they like. Such people are often unaware that others are actually not doing what they like, but are already curbing their behaviour so as to avoid annoying others. These people, quite understandably, get irate when the loud-phone-talkers don’t curb their behaviour. They see morality not as some personal difference in taste, but a matter of public policy involving everyone. For them, we have to agree on what is acceptable and what isn’t. This involves seeing morality not as a matter of taste but as something based on objective facts.

    These are differences of opinion, and differences of opinion, whether about which football team is the best, which religion is true, or how best to love each other, generally express themselves in terms of anger. Discussions about morality and kindness aren’t exceptions to this tendency and there is no inherent contradiction to getting angry about morality.

  8. Pingback: No Man’s Land | In Search of Goodness

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