Here’s a pair of brave women.

The villains here are, unfortunately, all men — men who think they can use and abuse women. It makes me embarrassed for my sex … and it embarrasses me further that there will no doubt be whiny little half-men complaining in the comments of this article. Could you all try to make that prediction false?

Wait, I thought they believed in an absolute morality?

It’s always interesting when some god-walloper honestly follows through on the logical implications of his beliefs — he basically is compelled to admit that if you worship a tyrannical monster, you have to end up rationalizing monstrous tyrannies. The latest to enlighten us with excuses for bronze age barbarisms and brutalities is William Lane Craig, who thinks that tales from the Bible of God’s Chosen People slaughtering babies is A-OK:

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

Therefore, if I station myself outside a church door with an AK-47 and murder all the happy saved Christians exiting the service, I am doing the Lord’s work. Well, gosh, Willie, not only do I get to be a mass-murderer for fun, I can be self-righteous about it, too! It’s too bad I’m one of those atheists who doesn’t believe in a Happy Fun Land for the dead, so I can’t honestly do that in good conscience.

I will be interested to see if Craig now has a Christian perspective on abortion, that is, that it is a process that releases blameless innocents to heaven’s incomparable joy, and is therefore to be encouraged.

But you know who was really suffering when soldiers rampaged through a village, smashing babies’ heads against walls and raping the women and stabbing them to death afterwards? Not the women and children, oh no. Think of the rapists and murderers!

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

No. No, I can’t imagine that. I can imagine parts of it: I can imagine a long, heavy piece of sharp metal in my hands. I can imagine a frightened, unarmed woman in front of me, trying to shelter her children. The part I can’t imagine, the stuff I’m having real trouble with, is imagining voluntarily raising my hand and hacking them to death. I have a choice in that situation, and I know myself well enough that if have to choose between killing people and letting them live, I’d let them live, not that it would be a difficult decision at all. I also have no illusion that, in this imaginary situation where I have all the power and my ‘enemies’ are weak and helpless, I am the one who is being wronged.

I also tried imagining myself with a nasty cruel weapon standing before a cowering William Lane Craig. Nope, still doesn’t work; I’d set the blade aside. Except in this case I’d take a great more care to make sure Craig couldn’t get his hands on it — I don’t trust that amoral bastard.

Greta Christina makes a very good point about this. I don’t think William Lane Craig is an intrinsically evil human being. But this is a case where it is clear that religion is a tool that allows good people to bypass decent moral positions and find justification to do evil.

The Minnesota Anti-Texan Act of 2011

I would like to propose a new law for consideration by our legislature, which I am calling The Minnesota Anti-Texan Act of 2011. I need to work on the formal language for it, but I can give the gist of it here.

If any person within the boundaries of the fine state of Minnesota exhibits any of the signifiers of a Texas origin — wearing a cowboy hat, for instance, or Big Hair, or having a drawl, or chewing tobacco — you can shoot them. You catch someone listening to Clint Black on the radio, bang, blow them away, you’ve got a justifiable defense. Someone says “sheeeeeee-it” instead of “uff-da,” you’ve got cause: kill them on the spot. It’s perfectly fair to hang out at the airport waiting for incoming flights from Houston, and following visitors outside the terminal to group hunts, too; it might even be a new source of revenue for local guides.

To be fair, after the bill is passed I support a waiting period of one year before it’s implemented, so that there’s time to spread the news and give Texans warning. They will be allowed to enter the state, as long as they respect our traditions: no leather clothing, just layers. The only hats allowed are stocking caps or tuques. They should study the movie Fargo to learn the lingo, and listening to lots of Prairie Home Companion will help them understand the local mores. We’re not so much against Texans as we are against blatant Texans, and as long as they show appropriate shame for their nature, and try hard to cover up, we’ll do our best to tolerate them.

Wait, you may be thinking, this isn’t justice: a death sentence for wearing the wrong kind of headware? No one deserves to suffer for trivial fashion choices, or because a bunch of yankees have prejudices about who someone is. But I think it’s only right that if someone takes pride in being a dumb cracker, and inflames our senses by flaunting their inherent Texish character, then they deserve what’s coming to them.

And we’re just following Texas’ lead.

A meeting Thursday night that was billed as a way to discuss concerns some have about the investigation into a series of alleged sexual assaults on an 11-year-old girl turned into a forum that many used to blame the girl police contend is the victim of heinous attacks.

Many who attended the meeting said they supported the group of men and boys who have been charged in the case. Supporters didn’t claim that the men and boys did not have sex with the young girl; instead they blamed the girl for the way she dressed or claimed she must have lied about her age — accusations that have drawn strong responses from those who note an 11-year-old cannot consent to sex and that it doesn’t matter how she was dressed.

See? My proposed Minnesota law is hallowed by good ol’ boy tradition. Texans are clearly just asking for it.

Oh, wait…there’s that remark about how lying about her age would have excused the gang rape, and this:

“She’s 11 years old. It shouldn’t have happened. That’s a child,” Oscar Carter, 56, who is related to an uncle of one 16-year-old charged in the case, said in an interview earlier in the week. “Somebody should have said what we are doing is wrong.”

So it would have been OK if the girl was 17, the age of consent in Texas? I guess I’ll have to put a clause in my law that says it’s only OK to murder Texans or people who look like Texans or people who imply they are Texan with subtle behaviors if they are over 17.

I am a just and fair person, after all.

And remember, if nobody tells you that what you are doing is wrong, it’s not your fault if you rape or murder someone. You can’t possibly detect the evil that you’re doing unless someone else reminds you. If you’re a Texan.

This is not a case about abortion

I have been receiving lots of triumphant mail from anti-choice people claiming vindication, that abortion is wrong, and demanding to know how I can possibly support abortion rights after hearing about the case of Dr Kermit Gosnell. Gosnell ran an abortion mill in Philadelphia, and was a hack who maimed and killed women while doing abortions on demand, for a substantial fee. He was unqualified, uncertified in obstetrics and gynecology, and his facility was unmonitored and relatively uninspected. He gave untrained, inexperienced staff critical jobs in the surgery — he allowed a 15 year old high school student to handle anesthesia. He killed a patient by overdosing her on drugs, and is also charged with killing 7 babies in late-term abortions.

Gosnell is precisely the kind of butcher the pro-choice movement opposes. No one endorses bad medicine and unrestricted, unregulated, cowboy surgery like Gosnell practiced — what he represents is the kind of back-alley deadly hackery that the anti-choice movement would have as the only possible recourse, if they had their way. If anything, the Gosnell case is an argument for legal abortion.

It is entirely appropriate that this monster be shut down and charged with serious crimes against women. This isn’t the first death for which he’s responsible; another woman died of a perforated uterus, others suffered from punctured internal organs, others were left sterile by his botched work. The most shocking news is that this guy has been chopping up poor women since 1979, and that the last time the state actually inspected his facilities was in 1993. Why have people looked the other way and allowed this to continue for 30 years?

He has also been charged with the murders of seven babies, and there I have to disagree. There has to be a difference in degree, or the mothers of those infants would also have to be charged as collaborators (they were all willing volunteers for this medical procedure, and they knew the result would be termination of their pregnancy). They haven’t, and they shouldn’t. Much noise is being made about the “horrific” killings, but late term abortions, even the ones done in clean, properly maintained facilities with well-trained personnel, are always necessarily bloody and unpleasant affairs, like most surgeries. The important word there is “necessary”. Late term abortions should be carried out when it is essential for the life and health of the woman, who is the most important participant in these circumstances, and opening the door to accusing doctors who perform necessary operations as murder is a dangerous precedent.

Gosnell committed many crimes. He posed as a qualified practitioner of his art, when he wasn’t. He did not maintain a medical facility in an appropriate manner. He had even less qualified people do life-threatening work. He lied to women about their pregnancies. He mutilated and killed women. He did harm. That should be what generates public outrage, not the fact that he did abortions.

“the outworking of the corrosive nihilistic amorality that is inherent to evolutionary materialism”

The IDiots at Uncommon Descent are horrified and appalled by my ideas about the status of fetuses and babies … so horrified, in fact, that some of them want to make me the poster child for the fall of Western Civilization into a godless, nihilistic chaos in which babies are casually destroyed, and there are of course, a few comparisons to Hitler. But then, they are IDiots, after all.

I was amused by this remark from one of the deathcultists:

Sad to say, what we just saw from PZM, is the outworking of the corrosive nihilistic amorality that is inherent to evolutionary materialism. Hopefully, sufficient of us still have enough moral sensitivity to see the absurdity and the danger if this agenda is allowed to triumph in our civilisation.

Anyway, they found this list of the 25 most influential atheists, and fired off a questionnaire to all of them, looking to see if all atheists are as evil as I am, or whether I’m just the most evil of them all.

(a) Do you believe that a newborn baby is fully human? Yes/No

(b) Do you believe that a newborn baby is a person? Yes/No

(c) Do you believe that a newborn baby has a right to life? Yes/No

(d) Do you believe that every human person has a duty towards newborn babies, to refrain from killing them? Yes/No

(e) Do you believe that killing a newborn baby is just as wrong as killing an adult? Yes/No

As you can see, they’re blinded by an assumption that you can reduce a continuum of potential and actuality to black & white answers, which is the whole problem I’ve complained about before, and what they’ve written is actually a confirmation of my complaint about pro-lifers: they don’t think, and they don’t comprehend. They’ve gotten a few replies from those influential atheists, and most have fallen into the trap. I have to give James Randi credit for making the best answer:

I will not respond to such a heavily biased set of questions, and I could not do so without providing extensive explanations for my answers. The “quiz” is short, but the answers would be far too involved and lengthy.

I will simply repeat what I’ve said before, and not bother with their stupid poll. We all understand “being human” to mean something more than being a eukaryote with a certain assortment of genes: there are “fully human” cells that I will unconcernedly dump into the toilet and flush away every morning, and there are fully developed individuals in my life who I will revere and honor, and everything in between. The dehumanizing aspect of the so-called pro-life position is the flattening of the complexity of humanity and personhood, and its reduction to nothing more than possession of a specific set of chromosomes. To regard a freshly fertilized zygote as the full legal, ethical, and social equivalent of a young woman diminishes the woman; it does not elevate the zygote, which is still just a single cell. It is that fundamentalist Christian view, shallow and ignorant as it is, that is ultimately the corrosive agent in our culture, since it demands unthinking obedience to a rigid dogma rather than an honest evaluation of reality, and it harms the conscious agents who actually create and maintain our culture.

My position is one that demands we respect an organism for what it is, not what it isn’t. It recognizes that an epithelial cell shed from the lining of my colon is less valuable than a gamete is less valuable than a zygote is less valuable than a fetus is less valuable than a newborn. It does not imply that one must still adhere to the black & and white thinking of the IDiots and draw a line, and say that on one side of the line, everything is garbage that can be destroyed without concern, and on the other side, everything is sacred and must be preserved at all costs.

A seed is not a tree. That doesn’t imply that I’m on a crusade to destroy seeds.

An ethical dilemma!

It’s hard not to crack a cheerful smile at this story, but do try to take it seriously. A coven of Westboro Baptist anti-gay kooks went off to protest outside a soldier’s funeral in Oklahoma, and returned to their car to find their tires slashed. When they drove into town on the flat tires anyway, to try and get them repaired, they were refused any help at all.

There’s a grim part of me that feels a kind of satisfaction at that, I’ll admit. But I think it was wrong.

Don’t harm the WBC cretins no matter how awfully they prance. Do not vandalize their possessions. Don’t even threaten them. Even if they weren’t a lawsuit-happy group of parasites, they have a right to free speech and can protest all they want. This seems clear to me, with no ambiguity at all; and if I witnessed someone trying to slash the tires on a car with a “god hates fags” bumper-sticker, I’d try to stop them and alert the police. Somebody crossed the line in Oklahoma when they did property damage, even if it was to an odious gang of idiots.

I’m torn on the refusal to help them afterwards, though. If I were a tire salesman, and Fred Phelps came through the door and asked to buy a new pair of Firestones, what would I do? I despise the man and everything he stands for!

I think I’d sell him his damned tires. I think I’d even help him put them on his car. Oh, but it would pain me. It just seems to me that there is a principle at stake here, of an obligation to grant equal treatment to even the nastiest members of our society, and we violate it if we turn anyone into a pariah because of their beliefs.

So I can feel some schadenfreude here, and think Phelps actually deserves worse…but I’m also disappointed in the people of McAlester, Oklahoma who didn’t demonstrate that they were better citizens than the mad dogs of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Free Gregory Koger

Gregory Koger is an ex-con and a revolutionary communist…and none of that should matter in the slightest. He’s also a person who was beat up, handcuffed, maced, arrested, and now faces the prospect of a three year jail sentence for the crime of holding up his iPhone to take pictures of police harrassment. Koger is the young man who was documenting Sunsara Taylor’s protest of the behavior of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago (which, by the way, ought to change their name to drop the first word), and who, oddly, was manhandled and arrested for taking videos of the event, while Taylor herself, who was doing all the talking, got away relatively unhassled.

Koger has now been convicted of trespassing, and will be sentenced on Wednesday. The whole thing has been Kafkaesque — it’s the most hysterical, overblown response to a guy taking a picture of a public event that I’ve ever heard of, and it’s a slap against everyone’s personal freedoms.

Here is the statement from Sunsara Taylor:

There is no justice in the outrageous conviction of Gregory Koger on charges of trespass, resisting arrest, and battery for the “crime” of videotaping a statement I gave at the “Ethical” Humanist Society of Chicago after they dis-invited me from a long scheduled presentation I was to give on November 1st, 2009. Gregory Koger is not only innocent of all charges he has now been convicted of, he is a righteous and beautiful human being who all people seeking to live an ethical life should support as well as learn deeply from.

How is it that Gregory Koger came to be my videographer last November at the “Ethical” Humanist Society of Chicago?

Gregory’s struggle to understand the source of his own long and bitter experiences of injustice and dehumanization as a young man led him to conclusions that were about much more than himself.

How many young men these days put their bodies on the line to defend the doctors who provide the right to abortion women need to even have a chance at a decent and equal life?

Gregory traveled to Kansas to defend Dr. Leroy Carhart when Carhart was declared “Enemy #1” by the same forces who had long-persecuted the recently murdered Dr. George Tiller.

How many Americans these days take responsibility for stopping the torture committed by the U.S. government in our names, not only under Bush, but also under Obama? How many who claim to oppose the wars and occupations by the U.S. government of Iraq and Afghanistan do more than complain under their breath and then change the channel or turn the page?

Gregory donned the orange jumpsuit of Guantanamo detainees in public protests and he marched against these wars, determined to make his opposition felt by people everywhere, including our sisters and brothers across the globe.

How many white people even notice, let alone stand up against, the systematic police terror and brutality that is a fact of life for youth, especially Black and Latino youth, in the inner cities everywhere?

Gregory went to the Southside of Chicago to speak out against a spate of police shootings of young Black men. He has consistently exposed the disproportionate incarceration and violence experienced by Black people in the criminal justice system.

It is through his activity in these realms, as well as his work with the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund to get revolutionary literature into the U.S. prison system that now holds more than 2.3 million human beings, that I came to know Gregory. It was his interest in morality and ethics, in philosophy and revolution, as well as his passion for film that led him to volunteer for me the weekend I was scheduled to give a talk titled, “Morality Without Gods,” at the “Ethical” Humanist Society of Chicago.

The themes of my talk, which drew on the theoretical framework developed by Bob Avakian in his book, AWAY WITH ALL GODS! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, examined the basis for a morality that is rooted neither in the brutality and ignorance of Biblical times nor the narrow-minded individualism and relativism of modern U.S. capitalism. I posed the need for a morality that both reflects and serves the struggle to bring into being a world free of all forms of exploitation and oppression, a communist world, a world where everyone contributes whatever they can to society and gets back what they need to live a life worthy of human beings.

The irony is bitter; when it comes to “morality without gods,” it is difficult to think of a starker living contrast than that between Gregory Koger and the conduct of the “Ethical” Humanist Society of Chicago.

I recount all this not only to demonstrate how deeply immoral it is that the “Ethical” Humanist Society of Chicago, spearheaded by their president Matt Cole, has viciously and vengefully persecuted Gregory Koger. I recount this to make clear that it is not only Gregory who will suffer due to this outrageous and unjust verdict, but that all those who are victims of the many injustices and oppression that Gregory fought against will also suffer.

It is incumbent upon all who care about the truth, who care about justice and the human spirit, who care about freedom and rights of the most oppressed and exploited in this country and worldwide, to not only join in insisting that Gregory be immediately released on bail and his conviction overturned, but to learn from Gregory’s example and step up their own involvement in the struggle for human emancipation.


  • Immediately send statements of support for Gregory to the defense committee AdHoc4Reason@gmail.com

  • Donate money for the appeal. Go to the defense committee website for more information

  • Show your support at the sentencing hearing on September 8.

  • More information will be coming; keep in touch with the Ad Hoc Committee at AdHoc4Reason@gmail.com

The conviction was insane to begin with, but imprisoning a social activist for the crime of photography is simply beyond the pale.

Drop the charges and free Gregory Koger.

How many little girls are slaughtered unnoticed?

I’m still wrestling with Sam Harris’s and Richard Carrier’s ideas that there can be a scientific foundation for morality. I guess I am concerned with the claim that we can science our way to a moral society; I am more comfortable with the idea that we can develop an objective criterion for judging an act as not moral, or not just, or not contributing to the wellbeing of individuals or cultures. Can I, as a godless humanist, say that this is wrong?

An Islamist rebel administration in Somalia has had a 13-year-old girl stoned to death for adultery after the child’s father reported that she was raped by three men.

Yes, I’m sure I can. It is morally reprehensible, it is not fair or just, it does great harm not just to the victim but to the people who perpetrate such hateful acts, and to the rapists who are granted freedom to destroy more lives. The culture that would tolerate and encourage such behavior is not one I want to be a member of, and not even one that I want to share the planet with.

It is very hard to think about it purely rationally, though, when all you can feel is grief for a lost life and so many minds destroyed by hatred.

The secret life of babies

Years ago, when the Trophy Wife™ was a psychology grad student, she participated in research on what babies think. It was interesting stuff because it was methodologically tricky — they can’t talk, they barely respond in comprehensible way to the world, but as it turns out you can get surprisingly consistent, robust results from techniques like tracking their gaze, observing how long they stare at something, or even the rate at which they suck on a pacifier (Maggie, on The Simpsons, is known to communicate quite a bit with simple pauses in sucking.)

There is a fascinating article in the NY Time magazine on infant morality. Set babies to watching puppet shows with nonverbal moral messages acted out, and their responses afterward indicate a preference for helpful agents and an avoidance of hindering agents, and they can express surprise and puzzlement when puppet actors make bad or unexpected choices. There are rudiments of moral foundations churning about in infant brains, things like empathy and likes and dislikes, and they acquire these abilities untaught.

This, of course, plays into a common argument from morality for religion. It’s unfortunate that the article cites deranged dullard Dinesh D’Souza as a source — is there no more credible proponent of this idea? That would say volumes right there — but at least the author is tearing him down.

A few years ago, in his book “What’s So Great About Christianity,” the social and cultural critic Dinesh D’Souza revived this argument [that a godly force must intervene to create morality]. He conceded that evolution can explain our niceness in instances like kindness to kin, where the niceness has a clear genetic payoff, but he drew the line at “high altruism,” acts of entirely disinterested kindness. For D’Souza, “there is no Darwinian rationale” for why you would give up your seat for an old lady on a bus, an act of nice-guyness that does nothing for your genes. And what about those who donate blood to strangers or sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause? D’Souza reasoned that these stirrings of conscience are best explained not by evolution or psychology but by “the voice of God within our souls.”

The evolutionary psychologist has a quick response to this: To say that a biological trait evolves for a purpose doesn’t mean that it always functions, in the here and now, for that purpose. Sexual arousal, for instance, presumably evolved because of its connection to making babies; but of course we can get aroused in all sorts of situations in which baby-making just isn’t an option — for instance, while looking at pornography. Similarly, our impulse to help others has likely evolved because of the reproductive benefit that it gives us in certain contexts — and it’s not a problem for this argument that some acts of niceness that people perform don’t provide this sort of benefit. (And for what it’s worth, giving up a bus seat for an old lady, although the motives might be psychologically pure, turns out to be a coldbloodedly smart move from a Darwinian standpoint, an easy way to show off yourself as an attractively good person.)

So far, so good. I think this next bit gives far too much credit to Alfred Russel Wallace and D’Souza, though, but don’t worry — he’ll eventually get around to showing how they’re wrong again.

The general argument that critics like Wallace and D’Souza put forward, however, still needs to be taken seriously. The morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with; moral actions are often of a sort that have no plausible relation to our reproductive success and don’t appear to be accidental byproducts of evolved adaptations. Many of us care about strangers in faraway lands, sometimes to the extent that we give up resources that could be used for our friends and family; many of us care about the fates of nonhuman animals, so much so that we deprive ourselves of pleasures like rib-eye steak and veal scaloppine. We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies. Of course, our actions typically fall short, often far short, of our moral principles, but these principles do shape, in a substantial way, the world that we live in. It makes sense then to marvel at the extent of our moral insight and to reject the notion that it can be explained in the language of natural selection. If this higher morality or higher altruism were found in babies, the case for divine creation would get just a bit stronger.

No, I disagree with the rationale here. It is not a problem for evolution at all to find that humans exhibit an excessive altruism. Chance plays a role; our ancestors did not necessarily get a choice of a fine-tuned altruism that works exclusively to the benefit of our kin — we may well have acquired a sloppy and indiscriminate innate tendency towards altruism because that’s all chance variation in a protein or two can give us. There’s no reason to suppose that a mutation could even exist that would enable us to feel empathy for cousins but completely abolish empathy by Americans for Lithuanians, for instance, or that is neatly coupled to kin recognition modules in the brain. It could be that a broad genetic predisposition to be nice to fellow human beings could have been good enough to favored by selection, even if its execution caused benefits to splash onto other individuals who did not contribute to the well-being of the possessor.

But that idea may be entirely moot, because there is some evidence that babies are born (or soon become) bigoted little bastards who do quickly cobble up a kind of biased preferential morality. Evolution has granted us a general “Be nice!” brain, and also that we acquire capacities that put up boundaries and foster a kind of primitive tribalism.

But it is not present in babies. In fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

That’s kind of cool, if horrifying. It also, though, points out that you can’t separate culture from biological predispositions. Babies can’t learn who their own kind is without some kind of socialization first, so part of this is all about learned identity. And also, we can understand why people become vegetarians as adults, or join the Peace Corps to help strangers in far away lands — it’s because human beings have a capacity for rational thought that they can use to override the more selfish, piggy biases of our infancy.

Again, no gods or spirits or souls are required to understand how any of this works.

Although, if they did a study in which babies were given crackers and the little Catholic babies all made the sign of the cross before eating them, while all the little Lutheran babies would crawl off to make coffee and babble about the weather, then I might reconsider whether we’re born religious. I don’t expect that result, though.

Sam Harris v. Sean Carroll

The discussion is interesting. Sam Harris recently and infamously proposed that, contra Hume, you can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and that science can therefore provide reasonable guidance towards a moral life. Sean Carroll disagrees at length.

I’m afraid that so far I’m in the Carroll camp. I think Harris is following a provocative and potentially useful track, but I’m not convinced. I think he’s right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it’s a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don’t survive). However, I don’t think Harris’s criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can’t. We can certainly use science to say how we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it. Harris is smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.

One good example Harris uses is the oppression of women and raging misogyny of the Taliban. Can we use science to determine whether that is a good strategy for human success? I think we can, but not in the way Harris is trying to do so: we could ask empirically, after the fact, whether the Taliban was successful in expanding, maintaining its population, and responding to its environment in a productive way. We cannot, though, say a priori that it is wrong because abusing and denigrating half the population is unconscionable and vile, because that is not a scientific foundation for the conclusion. It’s an emotional one; it’s also a rational one, given the premise that we should treat all people equitably…but that premise can’t claim scientific justification. That’s what Harris has to show!

That is different from saying is is an unjustified premise, though — I agree with Harris entirely that the oppression of women is an evil, a wrong, a violation of a social contract that all members of a society should share. I just don’t see a scientific reason for that — I see reasons of biological predisposition (we are empathic, social animals), of culture (this is a conclusion of Enlightenment history), and personal values, but not science. Science is an amoral judge: science could find that a slave culture of ant-like servility was a species optimum, or that a strong behavioral sexual dimorphism, where men and women had radically different statuses in society, was an excellent working solution. We bring in emotional and personal beliefs when we say that we’d rather not live in those kinds of cultures, and want to work towards building a just society.

And that’s OK. I think that deciding that my sisters and female friends and women all around the world ought to have just as good a chance to thrive as I do is justified given a desire to improve the well-being and happiness of all people. I am not endorsing moral relativism at all — we should work towards liberating everyone, and the Taliban are contemptible scum — I’m just not going to pretend that that goal is built on an entirely objective, scientific framework.

Carroll brings up another set of problems. Harris is building his arguments around a notion that we ought to maximize well-being; Caroll points out that “well-being” is an awfully fuzzy concept that means different things to different people, and that it isn’t clear that “well-being” isn’t necessarily a goal of morality. Harris does have an answer to those arguments, sort of.

Those who assumed that any emphasis on human “wellbeing” would lead us to enslave half of humanity, or harvest the organs of the bottom ten percent, or nuke the developing world, or nurture our children a continuous drip of heroin are, it seems to me, not really thinking about these issues seriously. It seems rather obvious that fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality have rather a lot to do with our creating a thriving global civilization–and, therefore, with the greater wellbeing of humanity. And, as I emphasized in my talk, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive–many peaks on the moral landscape–so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science. As I said in my talk, the concept of “wellbeing,” like the concept of “health,” is truly open for revision and discovery. Just how happy is it possible for us to be, personally and collectively? What are the conditions–ranging from changes in the genome to changes in economic systems–that will produce such happiness? We simply do not know.

The phrase beginning “It seems rather obvious…” is an unfortunate give-away. Don’t tell me it’s obvious, tell me how you can derive your conclusion from the simple facts of the world. He also slips in a new goal: “creating a thriving global civilization.” I like that goal; I think that is an entirely reasonable objective for a member of a species to strive for, to see that their species achieves a stable, long-term strategy for survival. However, the idea that it should be achieved by promoting fairness, justice, compassion, etc., is not a scientific requirement. As Harris notes, there could be many different peaks in the moral landscape — what are the objective reasons for picking those properties as the best elements of a strategy? He doesn’t say.

I’m fine with setting up a set of desirable social goals — fairness, justice, compassion, and equality are just a start — and declaring that these will be the hallmark of our ideal society, and then using reason and science to work towards those objectives. I just don’t see a scientific reason for the premises, wonderful as they are and as strongly as they speak to me. I also don’t feel a need to label a desire as “scientific”.