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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sam Harris and Ethics/Morality

I’ve read Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and own both versions (hardback and paperback) as well as a paperback copy of The End of Faith long recommended to me by my second roommate. While I don’t share his enthusiasm or background in philosophy and neuroscience, I can agree in principle with the thoughts he espouses in this article, which line up with what I recall being important in Letter to a Christian Nation. Religion in the sense of a fundamentally unquestionable system does limit one’s perspective of moral and ethical issues. Fundamentalism, legalism and theocracy all express this type of dangerous thinking in one form or another. His more controversial thesis that has popped up in “atheist/secularist” videos I see on Facebook or the like is the connection of science with morality/ethics. The idea seems contradictory and paradoxical at first glance, and the clarification Harris puts forward makes for a mind-bender.

Normally religion/faith and science/logic are categorized as being concerned with two different spheres: beliefs on the one hand with faith and facts on the other hand with science. With ethics, one is concerned with what are termed normative claims much more than descriptive claims: that is, with what one ought to do over what people believe about ethics in general. The argument, then, is that science, being concerned with brute facts about nature and things above or below the observation of the naked eye, has no reasonable say in the area of ethics, since it is concerned with what are termed abstract facts. Concrete facts are those such as observation of gravity, measurement of mass/volume/etc as well as investigating the galaxy we live in down to the subatomic world of the very stuff that we’re made of. Abstract facts look into what are universal ideas to humanity, but manifest in diverse ways, conditioned by environment and genetic predisposition: including belief in God, belief about good and evil and what makes something true and false. Two out of these three admit to such diversity that the question boils down to faith, with truth or falsity breaching into the scientific disciplines in terms of verifying hypotheses and models (otherwise called theories in common parlance).

But Sam Harris argues that while there are things that are inexplicable and almost transcendent that we experience (he has been involved in Tibetan Buddhist meditation and Hindu spirituality to some extent), there are facts that are scientifically observable that are not conducive to human flourishing and consciousness thereof. The example of pouring battery acid on a girl’s face because she wants to read is extreme, but relevant no doubt with Harris’ focus on the issues that come with Islamic theocracy and terrorism. He notes that every ethics you look at, however much it may boil down to faith in one area or another, is concerned with human suffering, with the consciousness of that phenomenon and how to alleviate it when it is especially heinous. So Harris concludes that we should be more concerned with issues that affect everyone on a day to day basis or on a larger scale than things like abortion, contraception, or gay marriage (however much I speak on two of these issues, ironically). Being concerned with worldwide hunger, poverty, education, and nuclear proliferation strike Harris as much more important in a principled ethics that doesn’t consider things in terms of traditions resistant to change and archaic ideas of what good and evil are. In order to advance society to a point where there is less need to resort to violence or war, we must first take a stand for a form of objective ethics and direct our efforts afterwards towards alleviating the suffering that comes from the issues that otherwise reasonable people ignore in favor of such short sighted notions as protecting marriage or the unborn as if either of them will just disappear one day. Until next time, Namaste and Aloha.

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