home | morality

Moral Relativism and Sam Harris

Some of us judge good and bad others as well as ourselves. We have sociological, economic and political opinions. The neuroscientist and ethicist Sam Harris is one of us. He doesn't think we should surrender what we think is right and wrong to a relativity that holds all values to be equivalent.

In his book The Moral Landscape, Harris proposes making judgments built on empirical awareness and reason. He connects science to the creation of the values. In his book he describes a hypothetical culture that ritualistically blinds every third child, a practice based on "religious superstition." Harris contends that such a practice would be detrimental to the well-being of these people and that he would be justified in labeling the practice as immoral, and he describes a conversation with a member of a Presidential commission who objected and told him he "could never say they were wrong."

Such opinions, writes Harris, "are not uncommon in the Ivory Tower." Her error in the opinion of Harris is in holding moral truths to be relative. He describes it as a tolerance based on the assumption that "no moral truth can supersede any other." (Harris mentions fellow scientist Steven Pinker complaining that one person committing an act that we could consider criminal being okay to cultural relativists if it is done by millions.)

Harris points to the philosophical tradition that separates describing facts and proclaiming values to which David Hume, GE Moore and Karl Popper belonged. This has value if a writer wants to leave his reader to respond to his narrative with his or her moral inclinations. But Harris is not stuck on the issue of writing narrative. Harris moves on and addresses the issue of subjectivity. He is not suggesting a morality outside his own head. He is doing what I and others do: believing that he has an ability to judge that might be better than someone else. Who believes that no one in the world has values worse than his own? How many of us attribute moral equivalence between ourselves and everybody else in the world? Scientists don't look upon their conclusions as no better than the opinions of anyone else. Instead, they run with their opinions, and they do it recognizing that their brain is the source of their ideas and dependent on their ability to organize. Harris recognizes that this subjectivity doesn't give one license to organize his thought any way he pleases.

Harris appears realistic and coherent and those who choose relativism, as I see it, appear fragmented.

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.