On the polarizing effect of The Moral Landscape

Sept • 09 • 2013

By Anton Drake

Ross Douthat’s September 5th 2013 New York Times editorial piece ( Sam Harris and Scientism ) underlines the real reasons for religion’s zero-tolerance policy on the mixing of science and morality.

Just what is it about the central idea of Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape—that Science has proven itself to be mankind’s best hope for minimizing human suffering and maximizing human wellbeing and might eventually become the core of an enlightened compass of human morality—that is so difficult for its opponents to swallow? Paradoxically, the frontline arguments against Harris’s thinking on this matter often emphasize the amoral nature of science—essentially arguing that science must not be allowed to enter into morality because traditional religious morality has not been permitted to enter into science. It is of course customary to also point out the various failures of outmoded scientific paradigms and to highlight the most unscientific of what has been labeled as “science” in the past, quickly throwing as much sand as possible into people’s eyes as a way of communicating a broad emotional distrust of science and “unbridled scientific hubris.” Rinsing our eyes for a moment in the cool water of reason and patience, however, we can still rightly ask ourselves the same question: just what, exactly, is so intolerable about the idea that science might help to delineate the fundamental values of human wellbeing and morality? After all, most people over forty would not even be alive today if not for scientific advancements made in the last 200 years.

1. Pure science is impartial and objective.
Paradoxically, what we could call the religious objection to scientifically based morality is rooted in the instinct toward selfishness. Since pure science is objective and impartial, it does not play favorites; any scientific discussion of morality or human wellbeing, therefore, runs the risk of looking beyond the immediate concerns of the individual (or those of his tribe, ethnic group, religious or political party, nation, etc.) and viewing mankind in terms of a more universal scope. Instinctively, perhaps unconsciously, many people immediately sense that allowing science into the discussion of morality could lead to questions of just how “wellbeing” might be distributed reasonably across population groups or geographic regions. Even if considerations of sustainability, stability and mutual self-interest were to be factored in, such questions might require a degree of compromise or compassion, or at the very least a frank and honest evaluation of our values and priorities. Thus, the mere prospect of science having a voice can abruptly slam the brakes on discussions of practical morality, requiring an urgent sidebar to establish that science must a priori be excluded from any discussion of what is fundamentally right or wrong, good or bad.

Like many arguing this point, Douthat eventually winds up dispensing with the possibility of moral certainty altogether, offering the consolation that the worst possible suffering for all mankind might possibly give us the silver lining of another Michelangelo; we’ll return to this in a moment. Crucially, though, if we are very clear we might admit to ourselves that, in practice, “morality” has proven itself often to be hugely based on nothing more than self-interest, resonating emotionally as “good” and “right” to the tune of one’s instinctive favoritism toward those who are most like oneself—ethnically, politically, and nationally. The flipside of this, of course, is that such “morality” has routinely shown itself capable of the most inhuman atrocities against whoever could be successfully labeled as “the other.” And ironically, it is precisely on this point where science has made some of its most modern and earthshaking advances: the science of genetics and DNA is encroaching daily upon the sanctity of traditional religious morality by revealing the deep universal similarity of all human beings, chipping away continually at the cherished traditional notion of the hated “other.”

2. Science is something real, while God is something undefined.
We must also consider that “God,” as someone or something utterly nebulous, never explicitly reveals himself and therefore never actually intervenes to hold anyone accountable, for anything; in practice, this allows for an infinite freedom of interpretation wherever religious morality is concerned. Religious authorities certainly make ironhanded efforts to corral the infinite potency of each individual believer’s unshakeable faith and deep personal connection with the almighty, and to channel its collective force toward its own finite political objectives—resisting the birth control coverage in Obamacare, for example, or criminalizing gay marriage, and so forth. In actuality, however, one’s relationship with a personal God, who is coincidentally never around when true moral temptation presents itself, can usually be likened to something like a circus mirror reflection of one’s own ego, a one-way mirror behind which is concealed one’s tucked away prefab moral judgments and guilt complexes, as well as the ever-present engine of one’s own darker impulses. In the heat of temptation or moral crisis, this system allows for infinite rationalizations as to what is or is not moral, easily twisting and bending the precepts of morality and personal agency to the immediate demands of desire and emotion, operating just out of view of the righteous conscious soul. Since the default argument of the educated for defending God against science has now become that science has nothing to say about the existence of God because God does not exist within the physical universe (existing, instead, outside of it within an undefined spiritual realm that is beyond the domain of science) and that God is, in any case, defined only by his ineffably indefinable nature, we might begin to wonder whether an insistence on “God” as the sole arbiter of personal morality might function as a kind of subterfuge, a wink and a nod toward something harmlessly nonexistent that allows one to endlessly reinterpret morality along whatever lines of selfishness, tribalism or nationalism happen to be convenient.

What commentators like Douthat find truly objectionable about science’s intrusion into the moral sphere, which is hinted at in his use of the word “scientism” in the title of his article, is that science actually exists. Douthat kind of nibbles around the fabric of this idea, however it is precisely this fact, that science is at bottom something fully existent and accountable within the domain of the real (whereas God by definition cannot be, “existing” as he does only in an undefined and unknowable state “outside the physical universe” of energy, matter and time) that traditional moralists find so objectionable. Here again science’s pesky ideals of objectivity and impartiality are problematic, in that they do not even attempt to clarify who the chosen and the favored are to be, leaving its outcomes and conclusions undetermined. This precise objection is rarely voiced overtly, but tends rather to cloak itself behind the general mistrust of science; a derisive scorn for the fact that scientific paradigms are never set in stone and are always capable of changing and evolving—an absolutely central tenet of the scientific method—is common here: “science can change its mind, so how can it be trusted?” This “mistrust” of science, where it is not simply a fear of the oncoming future, could be better described as a mistrust of impartial objectivity; the prospect of merging science and morality immediately crystallizes this into the concern that a morality of the future might one day explicitly limit our ideals of personal selfishness—which are, of course, classically represented by the promise of an afterlife paradise of infinite wealth and infinite pleasure, lasting an infinite eternity of time, where one is infinitely free to revel in the infinite suffering of those who have been denied entrance. Those who reflexively lash out most vehemently at the idea of a future scientific morality appear in the position of spoiled and petulant children who, having been unconditionally promised ice cream by their parents, argue strenuously against the wise babysitter’s dictum that ice cream is only for those who behave and eat their vegetables. Meanwhile, for those living in regions where the lines of demarcation between suffering and wellbeing are less abstract, inside countries wrecked by famine, war, disease and lawlessness, the prospect of modern science helping to make the world a more peaceful, prosperous and “moral” place is far less trivial and far less troubling.

Considered carefully, the problem posed by The Moral Landscape is essentially unanswerable, and is therefore poised to perturb the archaic mainframe of religious authority from here forward. Harris’s unassuming and understated little mind-virus, still in its early infancy, will inevitably grow progressively stronger, looming larger and larger over the subject of morality, overshadowing every discussion of religious moral authority. As scientific research marches forward at an accelerating pace on all fronts, scientific insights into the human condition will multiply exponentially in unforeseeable ways, and the revelations of science will continue to make life better, longer and more enjoyable; meanwhile, religion and religious morality will still occupy their current fixed, static position. While Harris’s points to the possibility of an objective, shared universal language of morality, which might someday detangle the ugly, self-perpetuating tribal gridlocks passed down to us from our brutal primate heritage (see also: Syria, 2013), religiously-based opponents like Douthat have shown themselves willing to jump all the way from scriptural moral absolutism to the total abandonment of even the possibility of universal human morality almost in a single move. If Harris’s hypothesis can push the religiosos into the far corner of the chessboard even now, forcing them to abandon the ideals of human reason and objectivity and to huddle under makeshift banners of “postmodernism” and “moral-relativism,” what will this argument look like in ten, twenty , or thirty year’s time?

Douthat snarkily offers up Orson Welles as Harry Lime (looking peculiarly like a clean-shaven retro version of himself) to make his big point along these lines, which somehow also includes an oblique dig at the Swiss; he then ejaculates immediately that this movie clip “cannot be refuted!” and proceeds forward triumphantly. Hopefully, however, it should be obvious to everyone but Douthat himself that, while a medieval climate of “terror, warfare, murder, bloodshed” might somehow have indirectly contributed to the artistic greatness of a Michelango or a da Vinci, the people of that era were undoubtedly striving for happiness, life and wellbeing as best they could, under the constraints of their time. That the European Renaissance was, by modern standards, a depressingly primitive era that would likely make Game of Thrones look like clean, idyllic science fiction by comparison was certainly nobody’s intention at the time. It should be obvious, then, that it can never be an authentic choice for people in the modern day to purposefully choose global “terror, warfare, murder, bloodshed” or for that matter starvation, disease, environmental disaster, chaos or ignorance, while these things might otherwise be avoided. At a certain level of technological and moral development, which humanity has reached, it is simply inauthentic for humanity to even contemplate disregarding its current and future wellbeing.

That Douthat can even suggest the idea that humanity might, with any kind of moral authenticity, abdicate the moral authority of reason or consciously choose to opt for stupidity, strife and suffering (because they might eventually lead to something like the gilded artistic flourishes of the Sistine Chapel) even while science offers better possibilities… simply underlines the absolute unwillingness of traditional religion to meaningfully and realistically address the subject of morality.