21st Century Spirituality

The Contortionist: Science, Morality and Extreme Relativism

A debate has raged since the publication of Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, as to whether or not moral questions can be approached using the scientific method. Even among Harris’ readers there has been a lot of skepticism, and the academic philosophy community has widely criticized his contention that science has a role to play in evaluating moral claims.

The issues here are deep and broad, but I want to hone in on a few that came up in our lively and passionate YogaBrains discussion of this topic last night.

The word “morality” is a tough one for intellectuals unimpressed by the claims of religion. For many years I felt that it was a bogus concept based on the judgmental righteousness of claiming an absolute truth via the authority of God-dictated scripture. In some ways, this is what the attempt to ground morality in reason and evidence seeks to remedy.

Science & Religion

There is an enduring epistemological discussion of what can and cannot be known, and via which methodologies. For centuries there were questions thought to be only in the domain of religious faith. This changed when, for example, early telescopes revealed to Galileo that in fact the Sun did not go around the Earth. This contradiction to Biblical dogma was a significant early encroachment of scientific observation on matters of faith. Since then the progress of human knowledge has unrelentingly continued this encroachment.

Darwin’s discovery of evolution and the subsequent mountains of evidence for its veracity have similarly meant that previous ideas about humanity being distinct from the animal kingdom became defunct, even though many insist on maintaining their outdated beliefs.

Old world religious beliefs that make claims about objective reality have always attempted to fill in the gaps of human knowledge with creation myths, supernatural forces and metaphysical purpose. The discovery of the microwave background cosmic radiation and Hubble observations that led to the Big Bang theory also represent encroachments into religious cosmology.

Inner space has its own version of this: the current neuroscience revolution goes back all the way to the 1848 case of Phineas Gage, which gave us the first inkling that the brain (rather than an immaterial soul) was the source of human personality, moral character, and behavior.

As this process unfolded, certain questions also moved from being considered solely in the domain of theology to being seen as philosophical in nature. Western philosophy became less and less religious and more intellectual—“moral philosophy” was born.

Inevitably, as science progresses, it becomes possible to look at philosophical questions using the tools and methods of science. But can this be extended to questions of morality? I think this raises a false dualism for many, in which the imaginary force of dry and mechanistic science is seen battling the righteous indignation of religious moralism against a background of vague irrelevance.

Morality = Ethics

For some intellectuals, morality is an area that seems so subjective, so baseless, that to conceive of a science of morality seems ludicrous. After all, who is to say what is right or wrong? Science cannot answer theses sorts of questions! For others, moral questions must remain the province of personal belief and religious conviction, and science has no business butting in with a reductive materialist agenda.

For still others, morality exists in an imaginary air-tight compartment, not unlike the concepts of “love” or “consciousness,” somehow impenetrable to science, eternally secret and unknowable in its mysterious essence.

But what if we drop the problematic word “morality,” and instead use the less loaded word, “ethics?”

Are ethics purely relative? Can we say whether certain actions or beliefs are more or less ethical and make good arguments in this regard? Can we use the scientific method, to some extent, to evaluate the veracity of these arguments? When we use a less religious sounding term, do these questions seem more manageable?

My understanding of the core of Harris’ position is simply a two-step argument—I’ll use the synonym we have chosen, just to make my point:

  1. Ethical questions have to do with human well-being (or the well-being of conscious creatures).
  2. Questions of human well-being can be examined using the scientific method.

Therefore science has something to say about ethics.

The exponential growth of neuroscience over the last 20 years is part of what inspires Harris’ claim, as well as his desire to demonstrate that not all moral claims are equal—and perhaps especially that those rooted in religious authority may be least equal of all.

Relativist Contortions

Here the specter of extreme relativism often rears its well-meaning head to say that there is no way of defining or quantifying human well-being. This is an odd claim that will usually stand its ground in the face of the most extreme examples—because, you see, we cannot really know whether or not being raped, tortured and beaten is not really a form of human well-being for some people. Or so the relativist will assert.

Similarly if we say that something as onerous as female genital mutilation (FGM)—a grotesque cultural practice performed to ensure the virginity of young brides in certain African and Middle Eastern countries—is ethically (or morally) wrong, there is more of a flinching than was elicited by describing that this involves cutting off the clitoris and outer labia with a razor blade and then sewing shut the opening of the vagina.

We are so oddly uncomfortable with statements of right and wrong. I believe this comes from a well-meaning desire to both overcome cultural bias and to be skeptical about ultimate metaphysical claims of a divine morality handed down from God. But we can move beyond both of these impediments without hamstringing ourselves into the impractical situation of eschewing moral/ethical judgments altogether.

Here, some will make the important distinction that it is not so much that, say, performing this torturous act of mutilation on a teenage girl is wrong in and of itself, but that the consequences of this action are damaging. Of course these are ultimately the same thing, but I understand the desire to move away from unsupported reflexive moral judgments. This consequentialism is also entirely in keeping with Harris and my own position.

What staggers me is the level of abstraction that seems to emerge when discussing these kinds of examples. It is as if, in the attempt not to be biased, the relativist disconnects from empathy. I would argue that it is precisely in our capacity for empathy that we find the true origins our moral sense.

It is also found in our capacity for realism: there is not an actual human reality possible in which actual FGM is not a horrific crime, and yet, once disconnected from the simple empathic response to such brutality, the relativist will (on principle) claim they can imagine one.

Now, of course, we must acknowledge that the dominant worldview within these cultures sees FGM as a good and necessary practice. This fact does not mean that they are not wrong. They are no less wrong than racists, slave owners and pedophiles, and their being enshrined in culture does not exempt these practices and beliefs from ethical evaluation.  I can imagine Eva Braun thought that Hitler was a teddy bear, and many of his followers thought he was a visionary savior figure, but this has no bearing on how much harm he caused to real people.

The progress of human knowledge and society leads toward liberal democracy, not simply because this is a subjective preference, no better or worse than dictatorships, monarchies or theocracies, but because this system of governance provides for the greatest well-being of the greatest number of people. Freedom and human rights are not mere stylistic cultural choices, they are powerful indicators of the evolution of human morality.

How we decide what is right and wrong is rooted in empathy, and also in reason. The principles that underlie basic human rights and evaluations of what constitutes criminal behavior toward another person that are central to Western values are based in a process of moral reasoning that simply extrapolates on the notion of putting yourself in the place of the other. Yes, “love thy neighbor as thyself” is New Testament stuff, but don’t let that bother you, it is an idea that crops up wherever human beings are thoughtfully engaging in moral inquiry, be they religious or secular.

This does not mean that morality is always simple or unambiguous, but it does mean that straightforward examples like FGM should not make us squirm under the influence of cultural relativism and discomfort around moral judgment. Nor should they make us contort our emotional intelligence into imagining possible scenarios under which cutting off a woman’s clitoris might not be bad, or dare I say…evil.

Though there will no doubt be endless nuances and difficult details, the general defining aspects of human well-being are not that complicated, they can be built on the foundation of human rights, and extrapolated upon by questions of life span, poverty, health, and freedom, all of which are variables that we can attempt to measure and quantify using scientific method. In the example of FGM, life threatening infection, incontinence, death during childbirth and both the trauma of the procedure as well as the subsequent violence of sexual intercourse having to break the scar tissue to gain entry are all surely trackable and measurable variables, from the physical to the psychological negative outcomes.

Other examples come to mind: corporal punishment, bullying, homophobia, the effects of racism and sexism, the outcomes for unwanted children born to mothers denied abortions, the relationships between poverty, education and crime. It just seems reasonable to me to consider that using the scientific method to either evaluate, refute or support claims made regarding moral questions would be as natural as using science to address other questions that are a part of the natural world.

In the end moral questions have to do with human well-being, and human well-being is something that we can look at through the lens of science.

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