Apr 23 2010

Movie Friday: Sam Harris at TED

A common defense of religious belief and practice is that without religion (and the teachings of the holy books), there would be no morality. In a historical, practical sense this is at least partially true. Morals were dictated and enforced by religious authority, and justified on religious grounds – God says not to steal, therefore we will punish stealing. However, it is important to recognize that just because something has worked in the past, that does not make it true, nor does it mean we must continue to use it when we have much better alternatives. As Brian Lychenhaun noted in his presentation that I talked about on Wednesday, not only is it possible to make moral decisions without relying on religious teachings, we do it already. I would argue (and, I think, so would Brian) that it is in fact better to make moral decisions that are informed by critical thinking and logic rather than relying on a mistranslated text written thousands of years ago that invoke, as their reasoning, an entity whose existence cannot be proven.

Author Sam Harris makes a similar argument that science can inform our moral decisions. He does so at TED, which is a lecture series given by prominent scientists, authors and thinkers. If you haven’t watched TED videos before, you should. I promise not to make every Movie Friday a TED lecture, but they will show up with regularity because they’ve got some really fantastic ideas. Anyway, check out the video:

I am with Sam most of the way. I think he fails to make a solidly coherent point – I’m sure he has one, but he seems to dance around it a bit. The central thesis seems to be that values reduce to facts, and we can examine and test the truth of those facts. Knowledge of those facts will help inform the decisions we make. I’m with him only part of the way. He uses “values” in a more colloquial way than I do. He seems to be talking about decisions and policies whereas I see values as the set of emotional and mental prescripts that underpin those decisions – being anti-abortion is not a “value”, it is a position that is driven by the underlying emotional opinion that human beings come into existence at the moment of conception. Of course, that value can be examined by science, but there needs to first be a definition of what a “human” is. However, the take-away message (or at least the one that I took away) is that we can use science and the scientific method (logic applied to agreed-upon first principles, verified by observation) to answer moral questions. We do not need religion, as religious texts are not comprehensive enough to give reliable answers in the face of novel ethical dilemmas.

I also particularly love the section where he throws away the tired liberal doctrine of “who are we to say that another culture/practice/person is wrong?” He turns it right back on its head and asks “who are we not to say?” We can establish standards for what is right and wrong, based on an agreed-upon first principle of ‘good’. We can test the value of that ‘goodness’ through logic and observation – if adherence to scripture is ‘the good’, what effect will that have? Is that a desirable effect for human survival and social stability? Harris offers “human happiness” as an idea for ‘the good’, which is the basic principle held by secular humanists. Sure it has its flaws but it is far superior (for humans, who are the ones making the decisions) to any religious exhortation to please the invisible YahwAlladdha.

I also love the lines that he goes out on:

“We can no more respect and tolerate vast differences in notions of human well-being than we can respect or tolerate vast differences in the notion of how disease spreads or the safety standards of large buildings or airplanes. We simply must converge on the answers we give to the most important questions in human life; and to do that, we have to admit these questions have answers.”

Just fantastic.

1 comment

  1. 1
    Brian Lynchehaun

    “I would argue (and, I think, so would Brian) that it is in fact better to make moral decisions that are informed by critical thinking and logic rather than relying on a mistranslated text”

    If the choice is:

    a) limit the inputs to my moral system to a list of rules from a text with multiple unknown authors


    b) don’t limit my inputs

    then b) is the better choice, every single time. Don’t get me wrong: there’s *plenty* of reasons not to ‘get’ your morality from the bible (including the fact that it’s full of nonsense), but at the very least the narrowness of scope should immediately rule it out.

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