Saturday, 14 August 2010


In the debate about Sam Harris on science and morality (links in this post) I want to side-step some of the philosophy, because much of it is influenced by the armchair philosophy of the past when science had nothing to offer at all, a time when philosophers plumbed the depths of their minds searching for something solid that indicated dry land in sight.

I see all moral codes as arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. They mean nothing outside a biological and social evolution. Prior to the evolution of consciousness, self-awareness and language what we think of as morals would have been biological imperatives. It's our self-awareness, empathy, language and the classification of ideas that has caused us to label behaviour as good, bad, evil, right, wrong, moral, immoral. It's our deep remaining biological imperatives that dictate which of these labels, and hence which behaviours, we prefer.

Within the contexts of separately developing cultures of the past there was still scope for moral codes to emerge as quite different from one culture to another. It may even have been possible to live by the maxim, "When in Rome do as the Romans do", particularly for travellers who relished variety. Minority congregations that have travelled to a different culture still live by their own rules, and this can cause serious conflict of cultures - occasional 'honour killings' occur in the UK within cultures that value family honour greater than personal freedom and life of loved ones; and you can still get a good whisky in The United Arab Emirates, which restricts the purchase of alcohol from a liquor store to non-Muslim foreigners. We can see the social development of morals on top of biologically evolved imperatives.

Pre-TV we relied on news media that were much more susceptible of political and cultural influence. It was still possible for news reports to be so heavily censored, either for political reasons, or in acknowledgement of the sensitivity of the readers (i.e. the newspapers had a great concern for the dear ladies, and a fear of the indignant religious opinion). We were spared the blood and guts of foreign affairs. Only genuine travellers, and often soldiers, really knew the reality of events taking place elsewhere that didn't fit our coy world view.

Innocent ignorance was real. During WWII my mother, 14 at the time, live near an aircraft factory in Manchester. During one attack a German plane strafed them in the street as she was walking to school, but it was soon shot down. She and her friends went to see the monster that had parachuted into a nearby field - they were expecting a real monster, a dreadful beast of a man, and were utterly shocked so see a very handsome blond haired terrified young man who looked not much older than them. The propaganda about the evil 'Hun' had been only words on a crackly radio, but those words had evoked vivid nightmarish images that had attributed evil to every member of another nation - every German was immoral.

The growth of TV was primed nicely for the Vietnam war. Horror came right into our homes. The Sixties and Seventies saw the dawning of a questioning of the morality of our own governments like never before. The threat of nuclear annihilation was real, and we questioned the immoral madness of it.

The subsequent rise of postmodernism awoke in us an appreciation of the arbitrariness of our own standards. Moral relativism seemed a logical necessity if we were to apply the Golden Rule to whole cultures - what right did we have to dictate to others how they should behave.

But as we've witnessed more of what goes on in other cultures, particularly with the rise of the internet, we've begun to question the soundness of the moral relativist argument. Do the Johnny come lately cultural customs of acceptable behaviour overrule our deeper stronger biological imperatives?

It's difficult to pin down where the fault lies when we intuitively know there's a fault. Many atheists have been quick to condemn Islam for it's barbaric practices, only to learn that the cultural influence of the religion of Islam has itself been influenced by cultural values - some of the practices performed in the name of Islam are specific to one culture.

We know instinctively that female genital mutilation is 'bad', 'wrong', 'immoral'. Our empathy tells us this. But note even here, when I'm trying to be rational, the judgemental term 'mutilation' rather than 'female circumcision', or 'female genital cutting'.

Is the Jewish practice of circumcision also 'mutilation'? Some adult 'victims' think it is. But some non-Jews don't want to interfere with this ancient tradition, and yet are outspoken about female genital mutilation because, to us in the West, it's news; most of us weren't really aware it happened. Cutting was OK for Jesus, but not for some young girl? Yes, there are differences in what is cut - perhaps there might be greater outcry against circumcision if the male glans were cut off, as the clitoris is cut off in girls. What are the moral implications? Should we address this imbalance? Cut the skin but not the clitoris/glans; cut the clitoris and glans; or stop the practice altogether. Would it be immoral to interfere in both cultural practices, or just one, or to not interfere at all? Our gut feelings are in conflict with our own Western postmodern cultural relativism, resulting in a moral relativist angst.

How arbitrary is all that!

We have many instincts trying to get the attention of our conscious minds. Our empathy tells us killing is wrong. But our empathy for the killed is in conflict with our empathy for the killer, depending on the circumstances. If it's self-defense against an aggressive assault we side with the killer. Some found it difficult to side with the killed when Tony Martin shot dead a fleeing burglar. Even within our Western culture we can't always decide. Why? If morals are God given or absolutes, why is it so difficult to be consistent?

Morality doesn't come from some holy book, and it isn't written in the foundations of the cosmos. We evolved with it and invent it's varieties. And my moral instincts tell me that we need to figure out where we stand with our morals before we pass judgment. We need to understand the moral implications of our moral behaviour. We need to stop being so parochial and arbitrary, because otherwise we are betraying our own commitment to one of our most empathetically driven moral codes - fairness.

I know what I think morality is, but others have different views. We need to figure out what morality really is. We need to decide which culturally derived morals, or customs, are acceptable to our evolved instincts. Various international human rights organisations make fair attempts, but are often thwarted by member nations with cultures where the cultural customs have a more powerful base than science and reason.

Using philosophy alone we've raised questions but provided no answers. So if Sam Harris wants to try going down the route of using science, then I'm all for it. And in defense of Sam Harris, I really don't think he means that the abstract process that is 'science' make decisions for us, or that it (science) will dictate how we should behave. That decision is ours, using our reason, along with the science that we perform.

The behavioural act of performing science on issues relating to how we make moral decisions and how we attribute value, and how we measure value, and what we do with the data we uncover, is a complete and entirely human process that can only improve our moral behaviour. I really think this is what Sam Harris means.


Lesley said...

Like your post Ron, so what is morality for you?

Ron Murphy said...

Thanks Lesley.

Morality for me is a way of controlling some aspects of our behaviour, based on least harm, the golden rule, some aspects of utilitarianism. This I arrive at by an overwhelming empathy with people who I see suffer, and a desire not cause such suffering, a consideration of how that can be achieved without undue restriction of my freedom, ... all the usual stuff.

It's when I start to wonder what makes me feel that way, and I consider some of the philosophy and the science, that I come to the conclusion that the above explanation is most convincing. Consequently I think it worth exploring, and Sam Harris seems to be suggesting we do just that.