Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Good Without God Pt. II

Writer and philosopher Sam Harris interviewed his fellow naturalist Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, about Shermer's book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.

Shermer made a couple of statements in the interview that I thought tied in well with the recent post on Viewpoint titled Good Without God? Here are some excerpts. Shermer states:
The criterion I use [for moral judgment]...is “the survival and flourishing of sentient beings.” By survival I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health. I am trying to make an evolutionary/biological case for starting here by arguing that any organism subject to natural selection—which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well—will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish. If it didn’t, it would not live long enough to reproduce and would therefore not be subject to natural selection.

By sentient I mean emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and therefore able to feel and to suffer. Here I’m following the argument made by Jeremy Bentham with regard to animals: It isn’t their intelligence, language, tool use, or reasoning power that should elicit our moral concerns, but their capacity to feel and suffer.

In this sense, my argument is one for natural rights. I know that Bentham called “rights” nonsense and “natural rights” nonsense on stilts, but he came before Darwin and all the rights revolutions.
There are several points to be made in reply to this. First, it's very difficult to espy the difference that Darwin's theory would make for Bentham's observation. Indeed, on naturalism, Bentham is surely correct. How can an impersonal process like evolution confer rights on individuals? The notion of human rights, given the truth of naturalism, is simply a comfortable fiction we live by. It doesn't refer to anything in the real world. Natural rights can only exist if they're conferred by a transcendent person who possesses the authority to confer them and the power to enforce them.

Thomas Jefferson, following John Locke, wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our rights derive from our Creator. These we possess by virtue of the fact that we are created in his image and loved by him. Take this away and all talk of natural rights is, as Bentham aptly put it, "nonsense on stilts."

Shermer continues:
By extension, I then make the case that social problems such as homicide and violence ought to be—and in fact are—treated as public health issues. Over the centuries the rates of violence in general and homicide in particular have plummeted, primarily as a result of better governance, better policing, and numerous other social policies grounded in reasoned arguments and empirical data. If you agree that millions of lives have been saved over the past couple of centuries by a reduction in violence due to improved technologies and policies, then you might well concur that applying the methods of the social sciences to solving problems such as crime and violence is also something we ought to do.

Why? Because saving lives is moral. Why is saving lives moral? Because the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is our moral starting point.
Several more questions assert themselves here. Such a starting point seems arbitrary. Given his Darwinian presuppositions it's strange that he wouldn't say that in fact it's only his survival and flourishing, the survival and flourishing of the individual, which is the moral starting point. Indeed, elsewhere in the interview he makes it very plain that he believes that it is the individual, not the species, which is the relevant focus of evolutionary pressures.

Shermer takes as an axiom that we should care about others, but this is the very point at which all naturalistic ethics falters because it can't give us a reason why it would be wrong to care only for oneself. Why would it be wrong, on Shermer's view, to not care about others except insofar as their welfare benefits oneself? And if their welfare doesn't benefit oneself why is it wrong simply to ignore them, or even, as many try to do today to those whose existence they find inconvenient, kill them?

Shermer would doubtless be aghast at such a question, but I doubt he could give a convincing answer to it. As naturalistic philosopher Richard Rorty once said, "The secular man has no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?' "

Here's another question for Shermer. On atheism, what does it mean to say that an act is "wrong"? If there's nothing or no one to hold us accountable and no non-arbitrary standard of behavior, what does it mean to say that a behavior is wrong to do? If a dictator has the power to enslave, torture, and kill his subjects with impunity what makes his deeds wrong? It can't just be that his subjects don't like what he does. Why should he care what they like? Nor can it be that the dictator is wrong because he's violating the Golden Rule. Who or what obligates him to follow the Golden Rule? Who or what enforces it? As naturalistic biologist Richard Dawkins once pondered, "What's to prevent us from saying that Hitler wasn't actually wrong? That's a genuinely perplexing question."

Shermer tacitly admits that there's no good answer to this question when he says further along in the interview that,
[M]ost people act in what they consider to be moral ways, so when we can clearly see (and measure) that they are in fact behaving in ways that lead to the suffering or death of sentient beings, it is probably more accurate to say that they are mistaken in their beliefs than that they are simply immoral or evil. And the solution is not so much that we need to make them more moral as it is that we need to correct their mistaken beliefs. Science and reason are the best tools we have for doing just that, so ultimately moral progress comes about from generating better ideas rather than better morality.
In other words, according to Shermer, our hypothetical dictator suffers from an epistemic deficiency, not a moral deficiency. His crimes are really not wrong in a moral sense, they're not evil, they're only wrong in the same way that saying 2 + 2 = 5 is wrong. I can't think of a way to more effectively trivialize what human beings have done to each other throughout history than to say that the perpetrators of great misery simply had mistaken beliefs and needed more science. But science is silent about moral value. Science can tell us what is, but it cannot, despite Shermer's protestations to the contrary, tell us what ought to be. As Physicist Steven Weinberg put it,
The worldview of science is rather chilling, Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature.... We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
Shermer himself seems to intuit this. He starts out the interview using moral language and winds up denying, as we saw above, that there really is any immorality or moral evil.

This is precisely where naturalism leads. Apart from a transcendent moral authority there can be no objective moral duties. To quote Dawkins again, "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."