Science and Morality April 12, 2011Posted by Ian in Morality.
Tags: Morality, Objective, Sam Harris, William Lane Craig
Sam Harris’s book and recent debate with William Lane Craig have re-opened my thinking on moral evaluation and I have come to realise there seems to be a substantial “blind spot” in this discussion.
The primary (perhaps even only) argument anyone has for the objectiveness of morality is that we can list a bunch of things and agree that they are “wrong”. That isn’t good enough and anyone familiar with the scientific method (and the reasons for it) should see why immediately but for some reason in this sphere of discussion it is often overlooked.
Consider the optical illusion below. We can all agree that squares A and B look like they are different colours but it is clearly shown that this is not the case. In that sense our perception, despite being universally shared, is wrong. Well actually that isn’t quite true – we all do perceive them as different colours but we are able to go beyond that and show that this perception is false – that they really are the same colour.
In fact there is no problem if everyone agrees that A&B appear to be the same colour and leave it there. The problem appears if people were to extrapolate and say A&B are the same colour, and everyone agrees with me, so therefore it is true. This is a classic example of the logical fallacy argumentum ad populum.
My problem is that it seems to me like everyone is doing precisely the same thing with the objectiveness of morality including people on both sides of the theistic divide. We can all agree that killing feels wrong so therefore killing is wrong and now we have a basis for objective morality. Except that we really don’t – because all we can say is that we all perceive certain actions to be wrong. It simply isn’t enough to say with any form of certainty that morality does have an objective base and therefore any arguments that build on that premise are on very shaky ground.
In the Harris/Craig debate both assumed objective morality and went from there. This made life easy for Craig because all he has to do is keep asking where it comes from – something that science, which hasn’t even got to the point of granting the premise the whole debate is based on, can’t possibly contribute. Neither could religion but religion has a lot more space to move in these debates because “god” isn’t bound by the same rules as science.
Another thing that bugs me is the arrogance implicit in the assumption that things that we once thought moral and now don’t (the changing moral zeitgeist argument against objective morality) is because we were wrong in the past and see things more clearly now. Here is where the we all agree argument really falls apart. We all agreed then, we all agree now, but those two opinions are different. How can we possibly argue that slavery is immoral except to say “we are more moral than people in the past”. There is no objective basis to make this statement though except that we perceive it to be so now so they must have been wrong and we are right.