July 5, 2012 § 16 Comments
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’. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
I was asked by the The Browser, a wonderful, indispensable website that trawls the web and fishes out some of the best writing, to choose, for its ‘Five books’ section, five books (naturally) on morality without God. Here’s my somewhat eclectic list and the interview that accompanies it.
Many believers think that the only way to be truly moral is to follow a religion which teaches us morality. How would you respond?
One of the great selling points of religions – in particular the monotheistic religions – throughout their history has been their importance as a bedrock of moral values. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism. ‘To remove God’, as the theologian Alister McGrath has put it, ‘is to eliminate the final restraint on human brutality.’
Looking back on history one might question just how successful God has been as ‘the final restraint on human brutality’. What really concerns me, however, is the way that religious concepts of morality degrade what it means to be human by diminishing the importance of human agency in the creation of a moral framework. From a religious perspective, it is the weakness of human nature that ensures that God has to establish and anchor moral rules.
In truth, morality, like God, is a human creation. Even believers have to decide which of the values found in the Torah or the Bible or the Qur’an they accept and which they reject. What God provides is not the source of moral values but, if you like, the ethical concrete in which those values are set. Rooting morality in religion is a means of putting certain values or practices beyond question by insisting they are God-given. The success of religious morality derives from its ability to combine extreme flexibility – just look at the degree to which religious morals have changed over the centuries – with the insistence that certain beliefs and values and practices are sacred and absolute because they are divinely sanctioned. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 6, 2011 § 4 Comments
In the series of extracts I’m running from my still-being-written book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 8, which explores the struggle between the Rationalists and the Traditionalists in early Islam, and the significance of that struggle not just to Islam but to Christianity and to the development of modern secularism too.
The expansion of the Islamic empire from India to Iberia created new political tensions and theological dilemmas. It also created new kinds of administrative problems, the most pressing being the practical question of how to collect taxes, keep accounts and maintain records of state in an empire consisting of dozens of languages, forms of law and administrative styles. In the early eighth century Caliphs decided that Arabic should be the common language of empire, and the one in which public records and accounts were to be kept. So there began what came to be called the translation movement – a huge project sponsored by caliphs, local governors and rich philanthropists to translate local records into Arabic. Soon the translation movement spread its wings. The new empire had within its borders a treasure house of philosophical, scientific and religious texts, mainly Greek and Persian. Translators began first with those works that helped meet the pragmatic needs of the new rulers – works on subjects such as medicine, natural history, astronomy and astrology. Over time, intellectual horizons broadened further still. Translators moved from works of practical learning to more speculative philosophy. The Arab world discovered Plato and Aristotle.
The acquisition by Arabs of the philosophical jewels of the Greek and Persian worlds helped transform the intellectual culture of the new empire. In the mid-eighth century the Caliph al-Mansur built the new city of Baghdad to be his imperial capital. And here his great grandson, the Caliph Al-Ma’mun, created the ‘House of Wisdom’, a celebrated library and centre for scholarship that helped turn Baghdad into the world’s greatest intellectual centre of its time, the Athens of its age. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 4, 2011 Comments Off
June 1, 2011 § 1 Comment
This week’s Moral Maze on Radio 4 explores the relationship between science and morality, and in particular the idea that science provides the means to establish moral norms. It has an all-star cast of witnesses including Jerry Coyne, Joshua Greene, Ray Tallis and Giles Fraser.
I gave a talk last year to the ‘Talking Brains’ conference at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, on ‘Science, Morality and the Euthyphro Dilemma’ that took a skeptical look at some of the arguments of those whom I call ‘neuromoralists’. It picks up and develops many of the themes I touched on in my review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape and examines a few of the issues that hopefully we will debate on The Moral Maze. Here is a shortened, edited version of the talk.
SCIENCE, MORALITY AND THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA
Can science help define our moral framework? And if so how? The idea that science, and in particular neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, can throw light on moral choices has become conventional wisdom in recent years. How it can do so is, however, still a matter for fierce debate.
There is a wide spectrum of views about how science can illuminate our moral lives. At the soft end of this spectrum is the suggestion that our capacity for moral thought lies in our evolutionary history, the evidence for which derives primarily from primatology and evolutionary and developmental psychology. The degree to which our capacity for moral thought is the product of natural selection remains a matter of debate. In principle, however, the idea that our ability to think in terms of right and wrong may in part have evolutionary roots should not be controversial. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 8, 2011 § 6 Comments
Continuing the series of monthly extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, here is the fourth excerpt (naturally from Chapter 4). The first three chapters in the book deal with Greek and Hellenistic thought. Chapter 4 begins the discussion of the monotheistic religions, moving from the origins of Judaism to early Christianity (the exploration of Islam comes later). This extract is taken from the section on Augustine, the most important of early Christian theologians, indeed with Aquinas the most important thinker in the history of the faith, and one whose views on human nature, free will and, in particular, Original Sin, has been deeply influential.
AUGUSTINE WAS BORN IN 354 IN THE NORTH AFRICAN TOWN OF THAGASTE, IN what is now Tunisia. The city lay inside the Roman Empire and its citizens were deeply Latinized. Augustine’s father Particius was a pagan, his mother Monnica a pious Christian with whom he had intense and often conflictual relationship that helped shape the way he thought about God. Pursuing a promising intellectual career, Augustine became a teacher of rhetoric, first in Carthage, and then in Rome, before taking up a post as an imperial orator in Milan. But increasingly he felt himself tormented by emotional doubt, a torment driven by a desire to make sense of good and evil, and leading to an ever-more desperate search for a safe spiritual harbour. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 31, 2011 Comments Off
IF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY SAW THE ‘DEATH OF GOD’ – MUCH EXAGGERATED though that death may have been – the twentieth century witnessed what we might call the Fall of Man. The history of the twentieth century – two world wars, the Depression and Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Gulags, climate change and ethnic cleansing – helped further gnaw away at Enlightenment hope, leaving many people disillusioned about what it means to be human. ‘For the first time since 1750’, Michael Ignatieff has written, ‘people experience history not running forwards, from savagery to civilisation, but backwards to barbarism.’
In his book The Twilight of Atheism, the theologian Alister McGrath talks of what he calls ‘The remarkable rise and subsequent fall of atheism’, a rise and fall framed by two pivotal events: the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and that of the Berlin wall in 1989. In between the Bastille and the Berlin Wall lay what McGrath calls the ‘Golden age of atheism’.
In fact the golden age of atheism is a convenient fiction for both sides in the contemporary God Wars. Atheism has never flourished as a significant social force, nor ever even begun to displace faith in any real sense. The fall of the Bastille and the Berlin Wall bookended the golden age not of atheism but of politics. The French Revolution opened up the belief that collective human action could will social change and transformation. The fall of the Berlin Wall came to symbolise almost the opposite: not just rejection of the tyranny of the Soviet Union but also disenchantment with the very idea of human-directed transformation. « Read the rest of this entry »