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Columns

The Varieties of Moral Experience

Neither science nor religion alone can provide us with moral truth

By Avishai D. Don

“The separation between science and human values,” argued Sam Harris last month at the 2010 TED Conference, “is an illusion.” Although a myriad of philosophers believe that moral statements cannot be proven through facts alone, Harris asserted that through science we can indeed deem some actions as more objectively moral than others. Last week, in a discussion with her husband Steven Pinker at the Harvard Hillel, novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein also attempted to bridge the “is-ought gap.” It is reason alone, Goldstein claimed, that necessarily binds us to refrain from hurting others if we expect them to refrain from hurting us.

In a column last month on his New York Times blog, Stanley Fish takes the exact opposite approach. In his review of Steven Smith’s “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse,” Fish expounds the ineffectiveness of “secular reasons” in justifying political or moral decisions. “While secular discourse,” asserts Fish, can “amass scores of data,” it is unable to tell us what to do with that data. In other words, Fish claims, it is utterly impossible to make value judgments without religious principles.

Both sides in this debate, however, are equally erroneous. There is indeed a logical chasm between what “is” and what “ought” to be that cannot be breached by reason or science, but this does not mean that one must be religious to believe in moral truths.

Values can be reduced to facts, Harris asserts, because all worldly value systems are predicated on fostering the development of “human flourishing.” Just as we know, objectively, what constitutes human health as opposed to sickness, and just as we all strive for health and avoid illness, we can know, factually, what contributes to human flourishing and what does not. It therefore behooves us to make only those decisions that would “maximiz[e] human flourishing.”

Goldstein’s attempt to derive morality from reality is different. If she were sunbathing on a beach, Goldstein would excoriate a heavy-set male for stepping right on top of her. Now, if she truly believes that others ought to refrain from harming her, then she has one of two options. Either she should remain unharmed because she alone occupies a special place in the universe or because it is inherently wrong to harm someone else. Since the former is clearly absurd, if she genuinely expects others to abstain from causing her suffering, she is logically bound to do unto others as she would have others do unto her.

These attempts at bridging the “is-ought” gap, however, fail miserably. Harris’s approach is nothing more than a dressed-up version of utilitarianism, save for substituting “human flourishing” for “happiness.” It is impossible to prove scientifically that we are morally obligated to maximize human well-being, and even asserting that we are leaves Harris defenseless against hypotheticals such as if it were calculated that the world would objectively contain more human flourishing if it lacked Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals. Similarly, Goldstein’s approach falters because it assumes that people have a moral obligation to be logically consistent. That is, logic might impel me to abstain from hurting other people if I reasonably expect them not to hurt me, but there is no way of proving that I ought always act rationally.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the failure of reason and science to impart us with moral principles does not make belief in a divine lawgiver a more rational alternative. While Fish decries the inability of “secular reasons” to provide us with moral truth, he fails to explain why religious reasons are any better. His logic leads one directly back to the Euthyphro dilemma—is it good because God commanded it, or did God command it because it is good? That is, according to Fish’s logic, either morality is arbitrary, or there is a normative morality outside of God, independent of His existence.

Rather, it seems that Fish overextends the definition of “religious reasons” to include reasons that many would consider secular—namely, reasons that are based on an unprovable “metaphysical commitment.” But while all religious principles are metaphysical, not all metaphysical principles are religious. That is, we all make rationally unjustified leaps of faith in our beliefs, be they the belief that causation exists or that there is a world outside of our minds. The point is that not all of these leaps of faith are equal. It may not be such a stretch to say that other people exist, but it’s harder to believe that half of them are Martians. The question is where moral truths lie on this spectrum of believability, and it’s far from evident that God’s existence is either greater than or equal to the possibility that moral truths do, in fact, exist.

Atheists like Harris and Goldstein, therefore, should not pretend as though they do not inherently take a leap of faith from “is” to “ought,” because theists like Fish have no right to claim that they are religious for doing so. Indeed, although the separation between science and human values may not be an illusion, asserting that those who believe in these human values are necessarily theistic propagates one.

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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