Sam Harris thinks we should create a universal morality through…science!
Carroll and Myers both believe nothing much turns on whether we find a universal foundation for morality. I disagree. Granted, the practical effects cannot be our reason for linking morality and science — we have to form our beliefs about reality based on what we think is actually true. But the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous.
They have? Name a single disaster that has resulted from “moral relativism.” Couldn’t, could you? Here’s what happens to Sam Harris when he tries, earlier in the essay.
Many people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose, because we can combat human evil while knowing that our notions of “good” and “evil” are unwarranted. It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the “contextual” legitimacy of the burqa
Okay, stop right there. The burqa is “abominable behavior”? Has Mr Harris traveled to Afghanistan or rural Iran and asked women whether they would like to go out in public without a burqa? What responses did he receive? Gender-based dress codes inculcated at young ages become part of people’s cultural assumptions. Women in traditional areas of rural Iran or Afghanistan aren’t up in arms over their traditional form of dress. They’re probably much more upset that their men beat them. Women in urban Iran want to be able to dress as they please and resent legally imposed dress codes, but guess what: they arrived at that desire entirely without the aid of any scientifically grounded system of morality, and Westerners have universally supported them on the basis of existing Western liberal ideas about personal freedom, again without any need for a scientific grounding of morality. Now, systems of norms that allow men to beat women, or expect them to commit shame killings for violations of caste or religious expectations, are indeed “abominations”. But those abominations don’t suit Sam Harris’s purposes, because he wouldn’t be able to find any so-called moral relativists to defend them, so they don’t help him to denounce moral relativism. Continuing:
…or a practice like female genital excision, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that his moral relativism does nothing to diminish his commitment to making the world a better place.
How many Westerners can Sam Harris find who defend female genital excision? There basically aren’t any, and indeed the overwhelming majority of those who denounce female genital excision are secular Western leftists, precisely those whom Harris would presumably denounce as moral relativists. The defense of female genital excision is carried out by Muslim men and women who live in the countries where it is practiced. And here’s the key: Western governments have had no trouble whatsoever enacting or enforcing bans on FGM on their own territory, while Western anti-FGM activists have had only moderate and gradual success in fighting the practice through propaganda in the countries where it is practiced. And neither of those things would change one whit if we decided that we had some kind of science-based morality in addition to the Western rationalist secular moral tradition that has been getting along quite well over the past several hundred years.
I am a big believer in science. That’s why I think it shouldn’t attempt to generate knowledge in fields where it can’t generate knowledge. Science has been badly damaged, over the past century-plus, on those occasions when it has attempted to make claims in normative political arenas where it cannot justify those claims: Nazi racial “science” (projecting aesthetic and nationalist sentiments into biology), early “criminology” (of the phrenological variety), the “science” of marijuana-fiend drug abuse, and so forth. The wave of anti-scientific and anti-rationalist feeling that began in the ’60s came in reaction to attempts to misuse the mantle of science in service of moralistic claims. It doesn’t make any sense to repeat that episode.
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