Tuesday, April 19, 2011

the only way is ethics

My getting to work timing was pretty much spot on yesterday morning: late enough to catch the start of Start The Week after the 9 o'clock news, and to hear the opening exchange between Andrew Marr and the always interesting Sam Harris, but early enough that I was pulling into the car park and switching the radio off by the time Marr got round to asking the Reverend Lucy Winkett for a response, so all I heard was something along the lines of "well, I totally agree with Sam about bad religions, but....". To be honest I think I can fill in how the rest of that sentence went myself, near enough.

Harris was there to plug his new book, The Moral Landscape, which attempts (as I understand it anyway) to apply scientific methods to notions of "good" and "evil" and how those terms might be applied to certain patterns of behaviour; in other words, to remove any vestige of the notion that we need religion to enable us to make these judgments.

To be honest (and no doubt the Reverend Lucy Winkett would disagree) this all seems a bit superfluous to me, as people as far back as Plato and Epicurus had pointed out some obvious problems with the religious approach several hundred years before the bible was even written. There's some fascinating stuff to be written about how human morality and ethics evolved: the constraints of living in close-knit societies, game theory, shared ritual as a means of identifying who's "one of us" and who isn't when societal groups are big enough that you don't just know everyone by sight, that sort of thing - I'm not so sure, from the brief synopses I've heard so far, that this is it. But, as with the Grayling book, no doubt it's a bit more nuanced than the soundbites being thrown around so far suggest.

One of the more gnarly problems associated with all this is that as fascinating as the story of how ethics and morality have evolved is, it really tells us nothing, on the face of it at least, about how we ought to behave. Add to that that our instinctive icky feelings towards certain things really have no basis in rationality and you have some interesting hurdles to overcome; note again that I'm not saying Harris doesn't address all this, indeed I'm sure he probably does. An excellent illustration of the problem is this example which is attibuted to psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it OK for them to make love?
Now clearly on a simple balancing-out of what Harris calls "well-being", it's all good here; no-one gets hurt, no-one else finds out. And yet most people would have an instinctive reaction in the opposite direction, despite all the obvious arguments (genetic defects of offspring, etc.) having been pre-empted. Your willingness to examine and analyse your own reactions to questions like this marks out, among other things, where you lie on the liberal/conservative spectrum - here's Haidt on that very subject.

If you can bear watching professional religious apologist, liar and charlatan William Lane Craig for a bit then there is a long series of YouTube clips of a recent debate between Harris and Craig touching on this very subject, starting here - alternatively the whole thing can be seen here. Just to give you an idea of what to expect, this (i.e. Craig) is a man who thinks the Kalam cosmological argument is a slam-dunk winner, philosophy-wise. No, really.

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