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Atheist author Sam Harris (AP)
Atheist author Sam Harris (AP)

Review: Non-fiction

The acid test for doing the right thing Add to ...

Sam Harris is one of my favourite religion-bashers. In The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation and his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Harris depicts religion as wrong, both empirically and morally. Empirically because it postulates things that science tells us can't happen, like resurrections and water turning into wine. Morally because it encourages believers to commit crimes against infidels, like crusades, inquisitions and suicide bombings.

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A neuroscientist, Harris views science as our best hope for understanding and improving our world and for eliminating all our primitive, superstitious beliefs. Politically, he's a dovish liberal democrat, who supports equal rights for gays, women and racial minorities and favours spending less on armaments and more on education, health and other social programs. Harris dismisses postmodernism, which holds that science does not really discover "truth" (whatever that is) so much as it constructs it. He also rejects moral relativism, the claim that all moral programs are equally valid, or invalid.

I share these views with Harris, and so I found much to admire in The Moral Landscape. Harris mounts a rousing defence of the secular outlook, packed with intriguing scientific findings and bold philosophical propositions. The book is worth reading simply for Harris's discussion of research on deep, consequential flaws in our moral reasoning. For example, psychologist Paul Slovic has shown that our compassion for others' suffering is inversely proportional to the number of sufferers. This phenomenon explains why we are "more distressed by the suffering of a single child (or even a single animal) than by a proper genocide."

The book's central thesis nonetheless strikes me as not only misguided but potentially harmful. Harris challenges the prohibition, which dates back at least to the 18th-century British philosopher David Hume, of deriving "ought" from "is." Hume, followed by G.E. Moore and other philosophers, decreed that "no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us about how we ought to behave (morality)," as Harris puts it. In other words, we can't translate scientific laws into ethical laws, or even guidelines.

Harris argues that questions about values and ethics can be reduced to questions about "well-being," which includes physical, mental and even spiritual health. And well-being can, at least in principle, be measured with brain scans and other techniques. Just as science can steer us toward a healthy diet or exercise regime, so it can help us make decisions about how to reconcile, say, individual freedom with group welfare. This effort will ultimately yield a set of moral truths that transcend culture, just as quantum mechanics and relativity do. "Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra," Harris declares, "we will see that there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality."

I have two objections to this thesis. First, I don't buy Harris's argument for some sort of equivalence between scientific and moral statements. Science has discovered - not constructed, as postmodernists tell us - many components of reality, including galaxies, electrons, elements, chromosomes, gravity, the expansion of the cosmos, the evolution of species. Hence many scientific statements about the world deserve to be called not only true but absolutely, objectively True.

The term "moral truth," on the other hand, is an oxymoron. All moral statements are provisional; they hold only in certain contexts. Even the Golden Rule is really only a guideline, a suggestion. I wish that everyone on Earth would obey the ancient commandment, Thou shalt not kill. But devout Jews, Christians and Muslims routinely violate this commandment, and I would too if someone threatened to kill me or my loved ones. Hume was right: The realm of ought is qualitatively different from the realm of is.

My second, more serious objection to Harris's thesis stems from my knowledge of past attempts to create what he calls a "science of human flourishing." Just 100 years ago, Marxism and eugenics struck many reasonable people as brilliant, fact-based schemes for improving human well-being. These pseudo-scientific ideologies culminated in two of the most lethal regimes in history, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Harris repeatedly insists that we shouldn't rule out the scientific revelation of an objectively true, universal morality just because it isn't possible yet. As long as this achievement is possible in principle, he says, we shouldn't worry that it still isn't possible in practice. But we live in the world of practice, where even the smartest, best-informed, best-intentioned people make terrible mistakes. I therefore fear the practical consequences of a scientific movement to derive a universal morality

Harris is right that religion - and especially ancient texts like the Bible or Koran, which contain teachings regarded today as morally repugnant - makes a lousy basis for morality. But science poses pitfalls too. I favour common sense. We start with a few assumptions - life is good, non-suffering is better than suffering - on which most people can agree. From these axioms we try to deduce reasonable solutions to ethical quandaries, such as when or whether a woman should be able to terminate her pregnancy, or when a sick person (or healthy person?) should be allowed to take his own life.

Harris might be on sounder ground if he likened morality not to science but to engineering. Science seeks one true answer to the questions it poses: How does heredity work? What keeps the moon moving in its orbit? Engineers would go mad if they thought in terms of exclusively true solutions to problems like building a bridge or designing a new cellphone. Engineers seek the best of many possible solutions given the physical and economic constraints imposed on them by particular problems. Whatever works, works. If one solution fails, you try another. Same with morality. But we should seek solutions humbly, and we should never fool ourselves into believing that a solution to a moral question is True.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. His most recent book is Rational Mysticism.

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