Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Two Subjectives do not = Objective Truth

That damned Greg Laden just had to post this video, in which Sam Harris makes the absurd claim that science can speak to objective moral truth (followed up here). It hurts me head. It also makes me very, very cranky.

Before I go on, I do think it is important for me to define my biases. My biases are not something that influenced my position on this issue of universal moral truths. I spent the vast majority of my 34 years, struggling with my religious beliefs. I think that the shedding of my faith can ultimately be summed up rather simply and in a fashion that is very relevant to the discussion at hand - I just thought of this as I was sitting here typing. The last vestiges of faith were decimated, the moment I realized that there is no objective moral truth. This is not to say that my lack of faith is contingent on a lack of moral truth. Rather, that is what put me over the edge - finally.

But my biases - we were exploring my biases. While my relationship with religious dogma was peculiar in later years, it was dogma just the same. There was some kind of external force that lent authority to my moral frame - even though my moral frame was very much my own. I am done with that bullshit. My morality is my governor of my actions. I do what I believe is right because I believe it is the right thing to do, not because some god tells me to and not because there is some universal compelling force.

There are some rather serious flaws in Dr. Harris' arguments. The first seems to be what may well make this a semantic argument first and fore. It is hard to say, because unlike what I was led to believe is one of the most important aspects of using science as a tool for exploring the world, Harris doesn't seem to actually define the most important term in this discussion - "morality." It just seems to be assumed that we know what this means in Sam's head and what difference we miss will be picked up in context. Not wanting to make that mistake myself, I am going to define morality as I understand and accept it;

Morality is every individual's framework for deciding the "right" and "wrong" ways of interacting with people and the world around them. The only universal moral truth, is that excepting pathological sociopaths, everyone has a moral frame which is relative to time, space, culture and the individual. The context of time is both the macrocosm of human and protohuman history and the microcosm of the individuals own life. Moral frames are not static, rather they change as an individual grows and changes.

Sam Harris, on the other hand, seems to be defining morality as values and objective facts that influence our wellbeing. The first fatal flaw here, is that Harris is taking one subjective measure, to use as the metric for defining a subjective abstraction. This is not something I am certain of, because as I mentioned he doesn't actually define the most important term. Neither does he really define what, if we are going to be using it as the metric, becomes the second most important term - "wellbeing."

Having defined morality and then referred to it as an abstraction, I want to clarify that referring to it as an abstraction was not to detract from it's importance. Many abstractions are important, morality being among the most important. But as an abstraction, it is important to realize that by definition it can only ever be relative. Nor is there anything wrong with that - nothing dangerous or evil about it. We have laws to govern society. And most of our moral frames are largely derived from our cultural context, so while we all have our differences, there are enough similarities for us to get along. When the getting along based on moral and ethical choices fails, we also have laws and external enforcement mechanisms to back them up - flawed as those mechanisms might be.

I really need to get to bed - I have a lot of work to do tomorrow, not the least being getting to class on time in the morning. I do want to leave this with some examples of moral minutia. Thankfully, I posted them earlier, when I should have been writing my papers. But fuck it, I can probably work this into one of them.
People like to bring up things like murder, rape or care of children to make these universal claims - but it falls apart. Murder is the worst - what exactly is murder? Does this mean that any taking of human life is immoral? If not, who's line between rightful and wrongful death is the universal moral truth? But what about rape then? If there is a universal moral truth about rape, then first off, we need to absolutely define rape - something that right or wrong, a lot of people define in a lot of different ways. And even if we could agree, do we then make the claim that every culture that has looked at rape as a amoral act at worse was totally without moral compass? That they simply didn't have any moral frame? And when it comes to kids, our western ideals are born of a very different culture. That is not to say that people in developing countries don't love their children - they most certainly do. But they also have a very different attitude about losing children - their infant mortality rates require it. There have been and as far as I know still are cultures that practice infanticide to prevent a child that will starve otherwise, from going through that suffering and to make sure there is that little bit more for those who are more likely to.

We won't even go into China and the impact of their one child laws.

Fuck these claims of universal moral truths. The ideal is patently absurd and the desire to find such truths is little different than the drive to Believe in something greater than oneself.

We can try to play semantic games that make morality something else. We can call it an ideal or some such bullshit. We can make it into an abstraction of an abstraction if we want to play the games with morality that religious people play. But in so doing, we would render the entire concept of morality completely damned useless in any practical sense. Or we can accept that moral relativity isn't the end of the world. That moral relativity doesn't = an excuse for hedonism and the worst excesses of debauchery.

Look at it this way; Atheists have been around for a very long time. Atheists who are out and proud have been around for a little while now. And without some dogmatic universal moral frame, we have managed to avoid murdering people, eating babies and stealing each others significant others (though some might borrow in the context of an understanding mind - I don't think that is immoral at all - even though I don't do that myself)...We're still here and generally behaving like reasonable and even responsible people.

No comments: