Sam Harris, one of the village atheists these days, thinks that he can devise a scientific basis for absolute morality. He’s understandably uncomfortable with other atheists who confess along with Dostoevsky that ultimately, “if there is not God, all things are permitted.” That is, without a God who speaks, providing man with a transcendent basis for morality, ethics are up for grabs, mere opinion, and lack any real teeth (the kind needed to ground our beliefs about human rights, for instance). Harris thinks we don’t have to go there and that science, as our generations deity, can reveal what is absolutely right and wrong, that it can provide us with a non-negotiable and totally universal, system of ethics, which is not relative to time and place. He thinks he can escape the “naturalistic fallacy” identified by skeptic David Hume centuries ago when he noted that it is a logical fallacy to say that what is natural can’t be wrong. Hume meant that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” no matter how hard one tries. Science (empirical observation) can tell us only what is the case empirically (stabbing kills). But it is powerless to tell us what ought to be the case (stabbing is wrong). In this blog post by Statistician William Briggs, we see that Harris fails.
I’ll add that even if science could suggest to us what is right and wrong, we often wouldn’t like those suggestions and would deliberately defiantly ignore them. Science, for instance, can tell us that experimenting on live humans will save human lives, millions of them. We don’t do that not because of scientific reasoning but despite it. We say, no matter what science tells us, we know (from a higher law perhaps?) that human experimentation is just fundamentally wrong. We hold beliefs about ethics that are simply not based on science, and that’s often a good thing.
So Sam, forget it. Just recognize what most of your atheist friends do on their best days. Your materialistic ground for ethics gives us a very loose footing (to say the least). If there is no God, nothing can take His place, and you can’t have absolute morality without an absolute person to command it. No atheist has said it better, in my opinion, than Arthur Leff in the Duke Law Review years ago (essay, Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law). Quote:
I want to believe — and so do you — in a complete, immanent, and transcendent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe — and so do you — in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same to discover the right and the good and to create it.
Coming to grips with his own naturalistic presuppositions (something Harris is not yet prepared to do), Leff goes on to show clearly that this is simply wishful thinking and ends his on this ominous note:
All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves, and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs.
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.
Here’s Brigg’s post (along with the Harris TED talk about which he responds).