Monday, November 1, 2010

Compartmentalization in Moral Reasoning

One of the things that frustrates atheists about theists is their psychological compartmentalization. Theists often carefully protect their ideas from scrutiny while dismissing parallel beliefs; they can think critically about financial decisions, but somehow they shrink from applying that skill to how they think the universe works as a whole. This talent is certainly not limited to theists; unfortunately, humans are very good at avoiding recognition of the strange discontinuities in the way we categorize the world. Where moral judgment is concerned, Sam Harris seems bothered by the same kind of attitude from otherwise intelligent people. Here is a quote from his recent talk at UCSD (which you can watch here.) He was telling a story about a woman who was horrified when Harris suggested that the Taliban, with regard to morality and human fluorishing, were "doing it wrong". He suggested the following to her:

Let's say we found a culture that was removing the eyeballs of every third child. Okay, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was not perfectly maximizing human well-being? And she "Well it would depend on why they were doing it." [audience laughs darkly] And uh, after I picked my jaw back up off the floor, I said, okay, let's say they're doing it for religious reasons. Let's say they have a scripture that says every third should walk in darkness, or some such nonsense.

Then she said, "Then you could never say that they were wrong."

There are many people - among them many atheists - who are vexed by Harris's line of reasoning. If I can do it justice, that line is essentially: morality has something to do with suffering and well-being. Suffering and well-being are experiential states which depend lawfully on the physical world. The physical world can be described by science. Therefore, science has something to say about morality, up to and including whether a moral system is a successful one.

The exchange that Harris related raises a question for those who have a problem with his argument, who resist any attempt to judge morality, especially across cultural lines. If they were putting every third child's eyes out for political reasons, would that be okay? Or what if their corporation told them to? Or their school or favorite pro sports team? What if they started calling their political ideology a religion? If the problem is that we can't judge people in a different culture: I live in San Diego County. In San Diego County culture, we can put children's eyes out. Or maybe it's specifically a La Jolla thing. Or maybe just on my street, or in my house. What, I'm being ridiculous? How dare you say La Jolla culture isn't a distinct culture within the U.S.! Would you say the same kinds of insensitive, cultural-identity-denying things about Palestine, or Basque Country, or the Blackfoot Reservation in Montana, just because they happen to be sub-national entities? Who are you to make such a determination? And what if you were wrong about your definition of any of these things, would that impact the morality of what was happening (whether it's me in my house, or a Palestinian or Basque or Navajo taking their kids' eyes out)?

If you think that someone's being part of "another culture" or doing something because of their religion protects them from moral scrutiny, then this kind of definitional hair-splitting must not only be tolerated, it's essential to your moral theory. If you're deciding when it's okay for kids' eyes to be put out, you damn well better know the exact definition of what's a religion and what's not, and more importantly why it even matters. This problem is not coincidentally reminiscent to the silliness that ensues when you try to pin down someone who believes in the existence of the souls. "Do chimps have souls? Yes? Right then, how about adenoviruses? No. Well okay then, lampreys? Yes. E. coli? No. (It's Newton's method for finding the soul-boundary, join the fun!) Ah, coral, coral is the simplest organism that has a soul? We have a winner! So at one point on Earth there was no coral, then how did the souls appear when coral appeared? And one day when we can make coral Craig Venter-style will it retroactively stop having a soul?" Oddly enough, these questions are usually met with another irritated "Now you're being ridiculous." Translation: this reductio ad absurdum shows that the whole thing is ridiculous and they'd rather not think about that. But sloppy thinking about animacy is more tolerable than sloppy thinking about human suffering.

Bottom line: when you're justifying human suffering contingent upon how you happen to arbitrarily categorize the ideology of the person who's causing it - then maybe you have some thinking to do.


TGP said...


Make-believe creatures need special protection. They don't even exist, so they're even more rare than endangered species!

Remember kids, if an old man tells you that God says, "Kill!" then it's OK. If your dog says Satan says, "Kill!" then it's not OK.

Fuck Christmas.

Michael Caton said...

What if God talks to you in Morse code through the pattern of rain drops hitting your window?

The Navajos told me they're sending a Skinwalker after you.

TGP said...

What if God talks to you through a transmitter in your dental appliance? "Kent, this is God... And from now on, stop playing with yourself."