Scientific reasoning can (and should) determine moral values
Imagine that I catch you stealing something from me and arrange for your hands to be cut off as punishment. Is this a healthy response to the crime? If your answer is no, then you too realize that there are better solutions. The practice of cutting off hands as punishment for stealing, with a few variations, is still practiced in many Islamic countries today under Sharia Law. Surely the Western response to theft—rehabilitating jail time or a fine—is a less harmful crime deterrent. In admitting this, one can easily see how scientific reasoning can help determine our moral values.
In opposition to scientific reasoning, a lot of people cite something similar to David Hume’s distinction between “facts” and “values.” Facts are things we can verifiably observe in the world around us while values are subjective judgements that change from person to person and culture to culture. People also claim that facts and values are non-overlapping magisteria—one cannot affect the other. This is entirely illusory. Let’s define morality as a system of ideas aimed at maintaining human survival and well-being. Our well-being has clear scientific elements to it. You won’t experience well-being if you’re malnourished or in constant pain. We can easily use our growing knowledge of human antomy and psychology to determine living conditions that are most conducive to our continued survival.
Western nations are doing this better than, say, Saudi Arabia. Newsweek recently reported, “You may think crucifixion has gone out of penological style. But not in Saudi Arabia, where a group of seven young men face execution for robbing jewelry stores.” The fact that this still happens in 2013 is extremely disconcerting. Any reasonable person would say that crucifixion is a barbaric punishment that no one deserves to endure. It should be entirely uncontroversial to say that the United States and Western Europe have better moral systems than the likes of Saudi Arabia. Why is this the case? We have used scientific reasoning to determine, as best we can, the conditions and punishments that are most conducive to rehabilitation in response to crime, while Sharia law derives its cruel and extreme methods from ancient dogmas (the Qur’an and Hadith). Our systems of law could use reform and don’t always function as they should, but they’re still centuries ahead of many other systems currently in practice.
Sam Harris is one of the foremost proponents of scientific reasoning determining moral values. In his book The Moral Landscape, he says, “If our well-being depends upon the interaction between events in our brains and events in the world, and there are better and worse ways to secure it, then some cultures will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some world views will be mistaken in ways that cause needless human misery.” This is blatantly clear to me, yet many people I’ve encountered at Gustavus would cringe at the likes of the above passage. It connects to a strange way of thinking that has spread through mainstream culture to many liberal religious sects, such as the ELCA. This way of thinking is postmodern relativism.
I’ve mentioned postmodern relativism in a previous article, but I dealt specifically with its tendency to avoid confrontation and conflict. One of the ways it does this is by recognizing many truths, all equally deserving of respect and recognition. Truth becomes an individualized entity where everyone is right in their own way, despite the incalculable number of contradictions that will undoubtedly occur. At bottom, relativism fails to achieve its seemingly friendly, multicultural goals. Simply by stating that everyone’s perception of truth is correct, you are claiming to be preeminently aware of the nature of truth.
I’m sure many of you are already realizing how detrimental such a way of thinking is to rational inquiry. As evidenced in my examples above, there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. There are better and worse cultures to be born into. There are more and less accurate ways of looking at the world. I find it incredibly strange to think that someone’s personal superstition should get as much respect and recognition in society at large as a view derived from empirical evidence and scientific reasoning—because we know that the latter gets results. To use a poignant example originally cited by Richard Dawkins, “Science works. Planes fly. Magic carpets and broomsticks don’t. Gravity is not a version of the truth, it is the truth. Anybody who doubts it is invited to jump out a tenth floor window.”