Sunday, September 12, 2004

Interview Analysis: Part III

Continuing with the exchange, Sam Harris answers:

SH: Well, you bring up a very interesting point, and there are many different forces in our discourse intersecting here. First, let me just agree with you that liberal, ivory-tower discourse right now is certainly in many sectors bereft of real moral acuity, and the kind of discourse you have about Israel in particular vis a vis the conflict with the Palestinians – all of that is deplorable, and we might want to get into that.

Now, I'll give Mr. Harris some credit here. He seems to understand implicitly that the universities have issues (strange as it sounds, some people actually do believe that they are seats of "secular reason") but his understanding appears superficial. He does not zoom in on the source of the problem but merely mentions one of the most obvious manifestations -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nevertheless, he appears willing to condemn the universities in that respect which is certainly a positive thing. Harris concludes his answer by asking Prager to define morality.

SH: But your first question, really, it all turns on what you mean by morality.

DP: I’m very precise: Good and evil.

SH: Right. Take something even more precise than that. Just our aversion to human cruelty.
DP: OK. That’s great. I’m with you. Go ahead.

As usual in the above exchange both sides have problems. Harris's attempt to have Prager clarify what he means by morality is very appropriate. Prager's response is quite insufficient. However, Harris's attempt to be more precise is arguably even worse. Let's start with Prager.

Prager, due to his focus on the amoralism of what he terms the "secular left," clearly assumes that the terms "good and evil" are not controversial, or more accurately, that if they are accepted, there is no discussion about their application, that is, one either accepts good and evil or one does not, but if one does, there is no disagreement. This is clearly nonsense. It is true that there are now large segments in academia that do not think that morality and moral terms are relevant or useful. However, it is also true that there are other sections of academia and the left that have not abandoned those terms but insist on applying them and justifiying them in quite different ways than Prager and his religious friends would. Peter Singer, for example, certainly accepts good and evil and bases his defense of good and evil on utilitarian grounds. Prager and Singer have very little in common. Among other horrendous views, Peter Singer is a defender of animal rights. So Prager evades the existence of other moral views. What Prager should have said, if he wanted to be somewhat more specific, would be something along the lines of: "Good and Evil as established by traditional Judeo-Christian ethics." That is certainly what Prager believes and this moral view can be distinguished from other moral views by looking at what traditional Judaism and Christianity have held to be moral.

Mr. Harris apparently thinks that "our aversion to human cruelty" is more precise a view of morality than merely stating "good and evil." I am frankly baffled by what Mr. Harris means here but he elaborates as follows.

SH: I think that all of us who are well wired neurologically, and do not come into this world with whatever causes, you know, sociopathy – all of us have a predisposition to recoil at cruelty such as torturing other people certainly, and animals, and so forth. And we can all agree on that. I would argue that we don’t get that out of our religious books. In fact, our religious books offer rather equivocal testimony on the moral status of cruelty. There’s a lot of cruelty in them.

Whenever moderns start bringing in neurological explanations, I get highly suspicious. This is the same kind of thinking that leads to the denial of consciousness and free will. Here, Harris appears to be arguing that we are born with some form of empathy. I am not certain of this at all. I wonder what his evidence is. It seems to me that there is, for example, plenty of anecdotal evidence of cruelty in even young children. I still fail to see the relevance of this to moral questions. Whether or not we are born with a certain level of built-in empathy is clearly overshadowed but the vast amounts of lack of empathy throughout history. Certainly, religious books have plenty of cruelty, though particularly in the last century and until just recently, cruelty has not been limited to, nor primarily derived from religious sources. And I still fail to see how any of this is making morality more precise. It seems to be getting us off the subject completely. The most generous interpretation one could put on what Harris is saying is that cruelty, and thus evil, is learned, not inborn.

This is true but does not clarify very much what good and evil actually consists of. Again cruelty means different things in different moral views, whether religious or secular. And I could think of some cases where cruelty would be morally justified. But let's leave that aside for now and proceed with the analysis.

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