One of the themes in contemporary discussions of morality of which I have been highly critical is the idea that science can, and should, determine right and wrong. Morality, as Sam Harris puts it in The Moral Landscape, is an ‘undeveloped branch of science’. Where there are disagreements over moral questions, he argues, ‘science will… decide’ which view is right ‘because the discrepant answers people give to them translate into differences in our brains, in the brains of others and in the world at large.’ ‘Science’ here seems to have taken on a life of its own, existing independently of humans, and imposing its will and mind on human thought and activity. It as if science possesses moral authority and human beings do not.
There are some philosophers, like the Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu, who take the argument further still, looking to science not simply to determine right and wrong but also to make humans more right than wrong. The human capacity for morality is ‘limited’, Savulescu suggests, because evolution favoured a tribal, short-sighted sense of morality that is insufficient to deal with the problems of the 21st century, from climate change to terrorism. But space age technology can put right our Stone Age morality. A combination of positive eugenics and neurological intervention will, he believes, allow us to ‘inculcate certain values and certain forms of morality’ rather than be ‘neutral as we traditionally have been in liberal societies to different conceptions of the good life, religious traditions and different versions of morality’. Such intervention can enhance good dispositions such as altruism, generosity and compassionate, and flush out unacceptable ones such as aggression and xenophobia. Drugs or neurosurgery could help purge racists of their immoral views, and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin could be added to the water supply to improve the general level of social trust. ‘Safe, effective moral enhancements’, should, Savulescu insists ‘be obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water.’
Even leaving aside the issue of the morality of eugenics or of moral neuro-enhancement, Savulescu’s argument raises a boxful of questions and more. Adding fluoride to water is a good because stronger teeth enamel is beneficial in all circumstances. But is it a good that trust be enhanced in all circumstances? After all, would not authoritarian regimes and even democratic politicians welcome a more trustful, and therefore a less questioning, population? Is aggression always bad? Is the aggression that the Arab masses have shown, and continue to show, in taking to the streets of in defence of brutal authoritarian regimes equivalent to the aggression of those authorities in brutalising and murdering the protestors? And if not does it make any sense to suggest, as Savulescu does, that ‘our futures may depend upon making ourselves wiser and less aggressive’, including through the ‘compulsory’ use of serotonin?
What is striking about such arguments is the almost Old Testament view of morality that they embody. Moral norms emerge not through a process of social engagement and collective conversation, nor in the course of self-improvement, but rather are laws to be revealed from on high and imposed upon those below. It is a moral Utopia that calls to mind Plato’s Republic, that best of societies in which ‘the desires of the inferior many are controlled by the wisdom and desires of the superior few’. Unlike a democracy, in which every citizen ruler is ‘always surrendering rule over himself to which ever desire comes along’, leading to an anything-goes morality, the rulers of Plato’s Republic are especially wise and rational philosopher kings, in whose Utopia a special breeding programme ensures that only the best marry the best, in which deficient children are culled, and in which all undergo a strict programme of education, indoctrination and discipline. No doubt, had Plato known of oxytocin and neural scanners, they too would have had their place in the Republic.
The Bible and Plato’s Republic embody very different ideas of morality. What links them is the attempt to define good and bad in a premodern world in which human agency – the capacity of humans consciously and collectively to transform their world – was severely constrained by economic and social circumstances. The work of Harris and Savulescu, on the other hand, reveals a response to morality in a postmodern age in which belief in agency is constrained by the imagination.
The curious relationship between postmodern scientific and premodern superstitious notions of agency is perhaps best expressed in some recent discussions of criminality and punishment. In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris makes a scientific argument against capital punishment and the morality of retributionist justice, insisting that ‘The urge for retribution…seems to depend upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior’. ‘The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas and bad luck’- none of which they are responsible for. Alex Rosenberg similarly argues in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality that the criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed because it is based on the idea that humans should be punished if they freely commit their crimes. If they are not responsible for their actions, however, by virtue of mental illness or brain disorder, the law generally treats them not as criminals but as people needing medical help. But, Rosenberg insists, ‘science shows that no one acts with free will. So, no wrongdoer ever earns punishment.’ Every prison must be ‘as much like a hospital as possible – with capacity for the incurably ill, the treatment of the curable, and the isolation of those who might spread their infection.’ What it cannot be about is ‘punishment’. Harris too, insists, that while there is no argument for punishment, there is a case for incarceration because it helps protect society. The analogy that Harris uses to make his point is both curious and telling:
Clearly we need to build prisons for people who are intent on harming others. But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well.
This, I know, is an analogy, not a campaign for the imprisonment of natural disasters. But even as an analogy, it harks back to pre-Enlightenment ways of thinking. The great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which laid to rubble eighty-five per cent of buildings in the Portuguese capital and killed up to 100,000 people, helped transform thinking about good and evil, undermining still further the old idea of a world supervised by a benevolent deity. It drove Voltaire to write his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne and his novel Candide and to attack the providential claim that we live in ’the best of all possible worlds’. ‘The earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz’, observed Theodore Adorno. In her book Evil in Modern Thought, the contemporary philosopher Susan Neiman goes as far as suggesting that ‘the Lisbon earthquake is a birthplace of modernity’ because ‘it demanded recognition that nature and morality are split’:
Before Lisbon, evils were divided into matters of nature, metaphysics or morality. After Lisbon, the word evil was restricted to what was once called moral evil. Modern evil is the product of will… Falling rocks and tidal waves do not have [will and intention]
In the ancient pantheistic world the distinction between humans, on the one hand, and earthquakes and hurricanes, on the other, was often blurred because all nature was imbued with agency. With the coming of monotheism, God became the principal source of agency in the cosmos and through Him nature could wreak terrible havoc. Humans possessed agency, but only through the grace of God. In the post-Enlightenment world, human agency became the key force transforming the world, while nature became ‘disenchanted’, to borrow Max Weber’s phrase, and God slowly faded from the picture. In the postmodern world humans, too, in the eyes of thinkers such as Harris, Rosenberg and Savulescu, have become disenchanted, and the distinction between moral and natural evil blurred, not because everything possesses agency but because, seemingly, nothing does.
The images are Tintoreto’s Moses Receiving the Tablets of Law and an eighteenth century engraving of the Lisbon earthquake.