We can be moral without God

The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values by Sam Harris (Bantam)

Imagine a world in which lie detectors, using brain-scan technology, are all around us.

Wherever you are (the doctor, a job interview), you can presume that a lie detector is nearby, reading your brain activity from a shortish distance. It could be disguised as a little iPod-like unit on your boss’s desk, or it could be gazing down at you from what appears to be a smoke detector above your head.

We can assume that, in such a world, human behaviour would change radically. We simply couldn’t tell any lies, white or otherwise. We’d have to be 100% truthful all the time. We’d probably also become fairly paranoid. What if the officiating clergyman at a wedding ran a hand-held lie detector over the bride and groom’s heads as they said ‘I do”? Or the hostess at a cocktail party had one concealed in her jewellery, say, and could tell how sincere you were when you said ‘You’re looking good, Mona”? Bleep, bleep!

Sam Harris says that such technology is not very far in the future. He is famous for his brilliant and devastating attack on religious belief, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004), but his own earlier research was on using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to find out what kinds of brain activity correlate with the sets of beliefs humans use to make ­decisions about facts and values.

Hidden emotional vectors
Which is where it gets complicated, as Harris outlines in The Moral Landscape.

That’s because our beliefs and what we deem to be true or factual, and how that is wrapped up with our values, make it hard to argue that we’re making free, rational decisions about anything.

The most up-to-date research indicates that hidden emotional vectors and deep-seated instincts drive our behaviours more than our conscious reasoning processes do and that, in fact, to speak of a unitary, organised and fully aware selfhood at all is to play with an illusion.

This has enormous consequences for human agency and responsibility. We can’t let child abusers off the hook because they can argue ‘my brain made me do it”.

But Harris wants to disentangle all this and work out what the implications are for our desire for a better world—for, as Jeremy Bentham put it 150 years ago, ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number” of people. If science can now tell us a lot more about how our brains work, can it tell us something about right and wrong?

Unwinnable battle
Basically, do we have moral instincts, and can they be measured and usefully deployed?
First, though, Harris has to go back to the long-running battle between science and religion.

The bulk of humanity seems to believe that without a god or religion we have no basis for any distinction between good and evil, whereas science, trying to keep itself out of this battle (which looks unwinnable), has often claimed to be morally neutral—to be dealing with facts and not values.

Yet, as Harris argues: ‘Science has long been in the values business. Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, scientific validity is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgements; rather, ­scientific validity is the result of ­scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality through reliable chains of evidence and ­argument.”

Moral judgment, he argues, can find simple, reliable metrics: instead of Bentham’s ‘happiness” or John Stuart Mill’s related ‘greater good”, we can talk of wellbeing. Thus we can make a call on whether a particular behaviour (female genital mutilation is a favourite example) contributes to the wellbeing of the individual or society. On that basis, and looking at life over larger time frames, we can conceptualise humanity as travelling through a moral landscape, one with hills of greater wellbeing and valleys of relative suffering. We can work out whether certain beliefs contribute to wellbeing or not.

Massacres in the name of God

In particular, Harris is concerned (as in The End of Faith) to show how, in today’s world, religious beliefs are usually harmful, especially if they provide rationales for acts that are fundamentally destructive of ­others’ wellbeing.

Certainly, a belief in an afterlife of reward or punishment makes real-world behaviour, let alone suffering, take on a different meaning. Think of all those ­massacres in the name of God.

There is much in this book to chew on; the science is fascinating and the arguments compelling. Yet Harris’s project demonstrates what I think is an emerging dichotomy in the secular theory of morality. On the one hand, it’s descended from the Enlightenment and the belief that reason is our strongest suit in deciding questions of ethics and human wellbeing—Harris’s book itself is a case of reason in action.

On the other, the rationalist ­science so deeply informed by the Enlightenment is showing, increasingly, that our faith in reason may often be ­misplaced: much of what our prefrontal cortex and other apparent reasoning ­centres are doing is, in fact, retrospective rationalisation.

This contradiction comes to a head in the debate about free will, which has roots as old as humanity’s ­capacity to examine its own mental equipment. Harris dumps the idea of ‘metaphysical” free will, as he calls it, but he wants to rehabilitate the concept at least sufficiently to make human action meaningful. Without that, is there any possible basis
for ethics?

Here, I’m not sure I’m getting the argument. I take his point, with ­Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves as reference, that we should not confuse determinism and fatalism (and ­neither is arguing for a simplistic idea of what, in human thought and action, is in fact determined by genes, environment, culture and preset brain patterns). I can go with Harris’s formulation that ‘‘free will’ describes what it feels like to be identified with the content of each thought as it arises in consciousness”.

But I can’t say I understand what he means, however determinedly he italicises it, when he says ‘The illusion of free will is itself an illusion”.

Either way, The Moral Landscape raises deeply important questions about how we, as individuals and societies, make moral choices. If we have any concern for human well-being beyond the selfish desires of each atomised individual, these are questions we need to ask.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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