Can we justify real morality in a godless world?

Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape, promises us that morals can be objective and scientific with no reference to a deity.  All we have to do is accept the supposedly common sense idea that morality is nothing else than the well-being or happiness of conscious creatures.  Since, according to Harris, humankind is just material in makeup, happiness is simply physical and psychological.  He thinks that brain scans and neuroscience are key to unlocking more of our moral questions.  Well-being just is morality and morality well-being, so to speak.

The problem with this is that well-being and morality do not appear to be identical.  To figure out if two things are identical, we just need to consider whether they have the same properties.  For example, if I say red is the same as blue, we can determine quickly that they are not the same.  If I say that my wife, Meridith, is the same as Cleopatra, then all of the two women’s attributes would have to match.  In the same way, morality and well-being would have to be identical for them to be the same thing.

Are they?  Nerp.  Not exactly.  Let me illustrate.  It is possible to experience well-being upon sipping a cup of coffee or climbing a mountain.  Does that mean we have done something moral?  What about moral choices where our own well-being is negated, such as sacrificing our joy for the sake of another?  Further, what if we simply handed out medication to increase serotonin levels and make everyone happy?  Would that make the world moral?  I don’t think so.  Simply put, since well-being and moral actions do not have the exact same properties, they cannot be the same thing.  Well-being is part of morality, surely, but it is not the whole thing.

But let’s take this further.   Does it even make sense to say that physical states of well-being are the same as moral states?  I’d say no.  This is because of the is/ought problem.  What is this?  The philosopher, David Hume, pointed out that material things, or the “is,” can never imply a moral “ought.”  Stay with me here.  According to Hume, there is nothing about the world itself in its matter that could justify us saying, “you shouldn’t act like that.”  My brain states or chemistry can never produce a moral ought, such as “it’s wrong to take my Eggo waffle.”  Make sense?  It’s hard to wrap the mind around this, which is why Harris can get away with his casual dismissal of the is/ought problem.  Another example comes to us from the classic movie, “Psycho.”  As the murderer creeps up to the shower with his knife in hand, is there anything about that state of affairs that makes it so that he ought not kill the hapless woman?  Not really.  There is no ought coming from the killer or the knife or the shower curtain or the blissfully ignorant woman.  Moral duties or “oughts” need to come from some from somewhere, such as a non-physical being, adequate to explain moral experience.  Theists explain this with God, an all-powerful, good, and loving law-giver.  Harris’s best counter argument against the is/ought distinction, however, is simply to dismiss it out of hand and scoff at it.

One part of his argument is true, however; we can investigate nature and come to understand ethical situations better through various sciences.  Psychology might teach us more about why people behave with bias, giving us more compassion for others when they display it.  Social science shows us that a close connection with a mother and a father are vital for a child’s development and that a good relationship with a father figures curb violent tendencies in males.  Looking to nature to inform ethics is called natural law, an idea which helped form the foundation of our legal system.  But Harris’s anti-God worldview leads to a universe where there is no ultimate purpose, value, or meaning.  Unfortunately, even conscious creatures like us do not have the miraculous power to endow nature with these bountiful gifts.

Earth Mother Strikes Back

The other day I took six middle schoolers on a field trip to the Denver Art Museum.  One of the strangest and most wonderful pieces we saw there was the earth mother sculpture called “Mud Woman Rolls On.”  It features a very large, clay womanlike giant.  She is sitting with four children between her legs.  Each child has another child between his legs and so on.  It gives one the impression of a giant Russian Nesting Doll.

According to our tour guide, the artist wanted to convey a sense that we are all from the earth and are responsible to it and to one another.  We are all called to be earth mothers of a sort.  We must teach our children good ethics.  Each generation must continue this chain of teaching.  The artist herself writes, “To hurt one part of the chain of life is to disrupt the flow that nurtures the generations to come. I believe this story is certainly one that needs telling at this time.”

I find it fascinating that this lesson continues to resonate with all kinds of people.  Indeed, it is impossible for human beings to really abandon ethics altogether.  C.S. Lewis in his book the Abolition of Man discussed this topic.  Every culture has a traditional understanding of what is valuable.  The similarities between human cultures regarding value far outweigh the differences.  Things like “don’t lie, don’t steal, respect your parents, don’t commit adultery, love the good and beautiful” and so on are universal.  This is true even though they may be practiced in different particular ways in some cultures.  At the end of Lewis’s book, he points out a list of moral precepts from around the world that all agree.

Of course, today, we often recognize this, but then at the same time, some people want to say that morals are culturally relative, that they are completely subjective to different cultures.  Some even say traditional morals are oppressive.  They say this in a completely non-evaluative and non-oppressive way of course.  Others state that the differences between moral values in various cultures prove that morals are relative.  Yet, differences can’t really show that.  If I think cannibalism is right and you think it’s wrong (in the same time and sense), how does that lead to the conclusion that it is both right and wrong?  If I say the skyscraper is vast and you say it’s little, does that mean there is no skyscraper?  There could still be a right answer.

Rarely, in fact, does the moral relativist truly get rid of all her morals.  Sometimes she simply rejects some of them and accepts other ones based on enlightened self-interest or  a personal sense of what she wants to be right.  Yet the danger here is that moral relativism really means complete relativism, not partial relativism, not mostly relativism.  Hopefully, the relativist’s enlightened self-interest will lead her not to steal, murder, and cheat, otherwise there may be very odd natural consequences.

One thing is for sure, the Earth Mother is not a moral relativist.  Where does she get her values from I wonder?  That’s a question.  Obviously not directly from the earth.  The earth is very silent about values.  Believe me.  I’ve listened closely.  All I hear are worms wriggling and wind blowing over grassy knolls and so on.  Perhaps the earth mother’s morals come from a society or a religion.  Perhaps she herself is a kind of deity, doling out moral values to her progeny.  We all must meet the challenge of explaining where we get our sense of right and wrong and why we all have such a similar set of moral values and duties.   Perhaps they come from God.  Another possible source is the blind hand of chance in an unguided form of evolution.  And the latter option appears to lead to, well, relativism.