Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos

A couple months have passed since Ernie and I found some statements (goalposts) we were each willing to defend. Most of the intervening time we have spent looking at his first statement: "Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry." On the other hand, I claimed that "a theory built on naturalism ... can provide a more reliable foundation for morality than supposed divine authority."

I have not explicitly been defending that claim, though naturally there has been some relevant discussion as I have responded to Ernie's position. I did recently come across an article by Sam Harris, The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos that briefly addresses this topic, specifically under his third point:

If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy.

Clearly, we can think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a law-giving God. In The End of Faith, I argued that questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering. If there are objectively better and worse ways to live so as to maximize happiness in this world, these would be objective moral truths worth knowing. Whether we will ever be in a position to discover these truths and agree about them cannot be known in advance (and this is the case for all questions of scientific fact). But if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being—and why wouldn’t there be?—then these laws are potentially discoverable. Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. In the meantime, everything about human experience suggests that love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world. This is an objective claim about the human mind, the dynamics of social relations, and the moral order of our world. While we do not have anything like a final, scientific approach to maximizing human happiness, it seems safe to say that raping and killing children will not be one of its primary constituents.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict. The idea that there is a necessary link between religious faith and morality is one of the principal myths keeping religion in good standing among otherwise reasonable men and women. And yet, it is a myth that is easily dispelled.

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