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.

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  1. ‘not because everything possesses agency but because, seemingly, nothing does.’

    And yet apparently we have enough agency to determine whether a criminal deserves punishment or mere incarceration!

  2. Ken Hymes

    My brain has enough agency to allow me to think this: Sam Harris is a f#%£-ing crypto-fascist moron, with seemingly no awareness of the precedents for his foolish and dangerous ideas. Great piece, and a wonderfully cogent insight into the similarities to, but also the distinctions from, Old Testament ideas about morality and agency. I suggest even more attention to the (pardon me) unholy alliance developing between neuroscience and authoritarian politics and economics. Also, Awais Aftab above makes a great point about the way these thinkers reserve agency for people like themselves.

    • Can we have this debate without descending into abuse? Part of the problem (and not just on this issue) has been the way that both sides have confused name-calling with critiques of the substantive points. Having said that, I do agree that there is an issue that needs addressing more about the way that authoritarian political arguments are often these days undergrid by supposed scientific claims. It cuts both ways – politicians look to science to justify authoritarian policies, while many scientists and philosophers promote a top-down view of the role of science in managing people and behaviour.

      • Ken Hymes

        Your sympathy with any part of Harris’ argument simply cries out for righteous indignation and, yes, anger, one of those inconvenient human traits which Harris and his ilk wish to drug or jail out of us. I would call Harris’ entire output a sustained torrent of abuse, which requires no respect from me. My outburst was intentionally outrageous to make a point: I AM HERE. I don’t make a habit of it.

  3. The C.S. Lewis (and I expect most Christians agree) says that our bodies give us preferences, passions and inclinations – but the soul must manage all that as best it can. God will then judge the soul.

    The distinction between mentally ill and mentally healthy criminals tries to approximate this. But you don’t have to be Harris or Rosenberg to spot trouble; there is no clearly distinct soul, all our decisions come from Lewis called the body. Also, mental illness is often hard to define, and mental “normality” might not even be a good concept.

    This doesn’t me we should rip up criminal justice as we know it. But there can be piecemeal change. For example, modern prisons are already nominally supposed to reform the prisoner. That doesn’t seem to work, but concrete suggestions to improve the situation should be welcome – if they work.

    • I have sympathy with many of the criticisms of the criminal justice system raised by people like Harris and Rosenberg. Where I disagree with them is in their analysis of the reasons for the failures.

  4. As someone who instinctively sympathises with Harris’s and Savulescu’s arguments, I thank you Kenan for making me reexamine my biases with this post. However, I do have a few objections, or questions rather. 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 bad, and that may even be used for good. 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?

    • Correction: “You used the examples of trust and anger as emotions that are not necessarily bad, and that may even be used for good” should read “You used the examples of trust and anger as emotions that are not necessarily good for the former or bad for the latter.”

    • Darrick, it’s an important question and gets to the heart of the debate about what we mean by a ‘materialist view of the mind’. I will see if I can write a proper post in the next few days in response to this. If I don’t have the time, I’ll do a shorter reply here.

  5. northstar

    “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…”

    Wow. One of your more powerful posts. The above statements were particularly striking, and very much crystallizes what I have been mulling about morality.

    I wonder, is not an attempt to establish an objective moral truth in reality an attempt to establish an unassailable moral Utopia? On the other hand, in recognizing that morality is subjective and dynamic, does not one risk a slide into relativism, emotivism or even nihilism?

  6. You have a typo on the date of the Lisbon earthquake.

    On a more substantive note, Nancey Murphy & George Ellis take on a very different account of the relation between morality and natural science in their On the Moral Nature of the Universe.

    • Thanks for spotting the error in the date, it’s sorted. As for Murphy and Ellis, I’m afraid I don’t see their theological arguments as carrying much weight.

  7. John

    The notion that because our minds are the product of biology (and therefore a part of the deterministic physical world) we lack any possible moral agency is a flawed one. Harris’s “combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas and bad luck” is undoubtably a fair description (although if I had more time I’d take issue with the use of the term “bad” in relation to genes) of most, if not all, of those incarcerated for criminal behaviour. However what  Harris – and those who attempt similar arguments – fail to recognise is that people do not ‘have’ those things, people ‘are’ those things. The ‘self’ is the nexus of all those influences (and many many more) and not a soul floating above being dragged inexorably along for the ride.

    Consequently it is not invalid for society to punish those who transgress because the punishment is not directed towards the soul but towards the ‘self’ where the punishment can become another one of the influences that make up the ‘self’. Sensible punishments should be designed to be a(n at least) potentially positive influence on the ‘self’, decreasing the likelihood of future transgression. (Mental illness is correctly regarded as a special case.)

    It has been frequently noted that if the physical world were not deterministic we would have far more difficulty with moral agency because of course you can’t hold someone responsible for their actions if those actions are a product of random processes.

    That Harris and the like can be under such gross misapprehensions regarding the nature of moral agency indicates that perhaps their ‘findings’ were subject to preconceived notions and bias rather than an adherence to the scientific method.

    And isn’t Harris being half hearted in his commitment to the view that there is no moral agency by engaging in these issues in the first place. If he took his own purported view seriously it wouldn’t be worth worrying about any of this.

  8. Great post Kenan. I think you are correct in your assessment of human agency. It seems to be a heavy burden for human beings at any time in history, though our creative ingenuity in finding new methods of fooling ourselves into thinking we have gotten rid of it, deserves some credit.

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