July 13, 2012 § 6 Comments
‘I’m going to assume that you accept the materialist view of personality, that character/mind is determined by both the brain and environmental factors. You used the examples of trust and anger as emotions that are not necessarily good for the former or bad for the latter. But what about indisputably pernicious tendencies like sexual predation/violence, psychopathy or homicidal urges? If one accepted a materialist conception of the mind, then wouldn’t it be an uncontroversial good to use medical/scientific means to purge these sorts of tendencies from people? And if you answer “no”, what would be the moral justification for letting a portion of society continually pose a (perhaps fatal) risk to others?’
So asked the blogger, Darrick Lim in response to my post on ‘Where Science Harks Back to a Biblical View of Morality’. Darrick poses here questions that get to the heart of the debate about crime, punishment, morality and free will raised by thinkers like Julian Savulescu, Sam Harris and Alex Rosenberg. Two issues in particular are important: What do we mean by a ‘materialist view of the mind’? And how do we decide what is moral? I could write a long book on each of these questions (I am, in fact, writing a book that touches on the latter one), but I do not have the time to write even a short essay. So instead here are a few short points in response, hopefully to kickstart a debate. « Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
April 23, 2012 § 10 Comments
‘We want to create a European version of al-Qaeda’, the ‘most successful revolutionary movement in the world’. So claimed Anders Behring Breivik at his trial in Oslo last week. In his sick, twisted, paranoid fantasy world, Breivik sees himself as warrior defending Christian Europe against a Muslim invasion. Yet, nothing so resembles Breivik’s mindset as that of an Islamist jihadist. Not just because Breivik admires the organizational ability of al-Qaeda, but because both Breivik and jihadists draw upon the same deluded notions of culture, identity and belongingness.
In his book, The Fear of Barbarians, the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes that whereas during the Cold War the faultlines that divided the world were broadly ideological, today the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. There is today, he suggests, a deep-rooted fear of the ‘Other’ driven by a sense of ‘humiliation, real and imaginary’ that has bred resentments against those ‘held responsible for private misery and public powerlessness’. So it is for both jihadists and for figures like Breivik. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
The latest strip from the irrepressible Jesus and Mo may seem like a typical dig at the inconsistencies and illogicalities of religious faith. But, in its own inimitable way, it taps into one of the most difficult theological conumdrums for believers.
A common argument in the increasingly tedious ‘God Wars’ is the claim by believers that atheists are naive about religious belief. They read holy books too literally and think of God as an old man with a white beard. But, say believers, religion has long since moved on from such unsophisticated conceptions. It is, for instance, the argument that lies at the heart of Terry Eagleton’s broadside against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists. Among the latest to join this chorus of ‘We’re more sophisticated than you’ is Ross Douthat in the New York Times.
Atheists can indeed be naïve about religion and theology, and I myself have been critical of many of the arguments. But the apologists for religion are equally naïve, not to mention disingenuous, in their defence of belief. It is true that there has long been a sophisticated strain of theology that sees God not as a person but as the ‘condition of being’, the prerequisite for the existence of the universe and the functioning of life. But there has also been a constant and profound tension between this abstract, non-figurative imagining of God and the God that does all the other things that religion requires of Him: perform miracles, answer our prayers, wrestle with the devil, set down moral law, explain the finer points of sex, punish sinners. And tell us to keep off the bacon sarnies. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 7, 2011 § 2 Comments
The philosopher Joel Marks caused a stir recently with an essay in the New York Times. Called ‘Confessions of an ex-moralist’, the essay explained how Marks had come to realize that there is nothing objective about morality and that moral choices are simply subjective preferences:
A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: ‘Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.’
But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?
So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all. For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism. « Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
April 14, 2011 § 4 Comments
‘IF GOD DOES NOT EXIST, EVERYTHING is permitted.‘ Dostoevsky never actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have. It has become the almost reflexive response of believers when faced with an argument for a godless world. 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.
In recent years, the riposte of many to this challenge has been to argue that moral codes are not revealed by God but instantiated in nature, and in particular in the brain. Ethics is not a theological matter but a scientific one. Science is not simply means of making sense of facts about the world, but also about values, because values are in essence facts in another form. « Read the rest of this entry »