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So, it’s Saturday.  And, I know, I know.  I’ve been saying for days that I was going to get around to writing about Sam Harris’s new book, The Moral Landscape, and why it’s a train wreck.

And I am, sort of, because the book is a train wreck, on a number of levels.

At the moment, however, I’d actually like to write about the one way in which Mr. Harris and I agree–or, really the one way in which he and I came to the same conclusion about a particular area of moral thinking.

It was odd, really, because while I was reading this book–sort of, I’m finding it very difficult to get through, precisely because it should not be difficult to get through–

Anyway, while I was reading this book, I was having a discussion through e-mail about whether or not morality could be objectively based.  And my correspondent was saying it could not be, because:

*no matter what moral rules you devised, some people somewhere would not agree with them

*no matter what moral rules you devised, some people–maybe even most people–wouldn’t follow them.

Now, I want you to think about those requirements for a minute.

If we applied them to, say, chemistry–would be be able to say that chemistry has an objective basis?

After all, there are plenty of people who reject findings in the chemical sciences all the time, and even more who reject the technology (in, say, agriculture) arising from it. 

Does the fact that many people reject chemical fertilizers because they are potentially poisonous mean they don’t work?   Does the fact that many other people reject the entire idea of chemical science in favor of various religions (especially in Africa) mean that chemistry is not objectively based?

For no other area of human study other than morality do we make the requirement that it cannot be rejected unless everybody agrees with it. 

If we did make such a requirement, all science would cease to exist.  There isn’t anything “everybody” agrees with.  There isn’t anything that somebody cannot come up with another preference, idea, counterfact for. 

The second requirement is even stranger.

Consider, for a moment, the science of nutrition.  We certainly study human nutrition, what the human body needs to be healthy and to function well.

And we certainly turn the results of these studies into rules for diet and exercise.

It’s even the case that most people accept that these rules are objectively based and rightly formulated.

Does that mean that most people follow them?

Of course not.  In fact, most people don’t follow them.  Steamed veggies and poached chicken may be good for us, but the vast majority heads for the fried chicken, spare ribs and chocolate layer cake every time.

Does that lead us to conclude that nutrition science is not objectively based?

No, of course not.  And if we did come to any such conclusion, we’d feel like idiots.

But you don’t have to go into the hard or even the applied sciences–as the word “science” is used in this century–to find the same phenomenon.

There are, for instance, rules for rhetoric and valid argumentation.  These rules are not arbitrary.  They are indeed objective, in that they accurately describe the ways in which language can be used to reach certain results, and the ways it cannot be used.

The ad populam argument is not invalid because we don’t like it.  It’s invalid because it’s objectively wrong. 

If 50 million people declare that the earth is flat, the earth is still round.  Facts are not determined by their popularity.

The ad ignoratem argument is not invalid because we don’t like it.  It’s invalid because it’s objectively wrong.

It is not true that ghosts must have moved my toaster this morning, just because nobody can think of any other explanation for it having een moved.

Why is it, then, that we are able to see the objectivity of so many other forms of human endeavor, even when lots of people don’t agree with them and lots of people will not follow the rules that result from them? 

Why is it only the objectivity of morality we try to reject on these grounds?

And I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve come up with this:

I think we try to reject the objective basis of morality because we don’t want morality to be objectively based.

And we don’t want it to be objectively based, because we all fear that we will find, on at least some points, that we don’t want to follow that objectively based morality.

The moralist will tell us we need steamed veggies, and we’ll want the chocolate cheesecake instead.

The problem is that rules of morality are not like rules of nutrition.  If we want the chocolate cheesecake instead, we tend to feel justified, and more annoyed at the rules for making us worry about it.

But when we want the equivalent of chocolate cheesecake in morality, we feel guilty, and we feel guilty even when the rules we break are fairly minor.

To break the rules of nutrition is to get fat, or die young, or have an upset stomach.

To break the rules of morality is to be branded unfit to live as a human being.

Those are stakes with implications far more serious than looking like an indiot in Spandex. 

I think that, deep down, most of us do feel unworthy to live as human beings.  I think we create an enormous safety barrier over those feelings, shoving them deep down inside, ignoring them as much as possible. 

But I think those feelings are there–hell, Christianity recognized them from the beginning, as did Hinduism from what I understand of it.  I’m willing to bet Islam understood them, too.

The fact that those feelings are there, however, means that we have an enormous stake in denying that an objectively based moral code is even possible–because if it’s not possible, then nobody has any grounds on which to judge that we are not fit to exist.

And we have no grounds on which we must pass that judgment on ourselves.

I think we’re all running for something we almost never let ourselves think about.

And that’s serious enough for a Saturday.  I’m going to run off and listen to something.

Maybe Bach.  Maybe Thelonious Monk.

Written by janeh

October 30th, 2010 at 9:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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