Thursday, January 6, 2011

Knowing the Good

Recently a drama that started eight years ago here in Utah came a few steps closer to its conclusion, when Brian David Mitchell was tried for the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in Utah’s US District Court. Mitchell has been in jail since 2003, judged incompetent to stand trial due to his delusional disorder that God was talking to him.

Specifically, God had told him to kidnap and rape a 14 year old girl.

It's not as if Mitchell was a rare case: There are many people who claim that God is talking to them.

However, few of them claim that God wants them to commit kidnapping and rape. Essentially, the federal court had the jury decide, not if God would tell a man to do these things, but if Mitchell was deluded or if he was a manipulating creep. The jury decided that Mitchell clearly was a manipulating creep who used the faith of other people to get his way.

It seems that was a simple enough case. However, there is more to the story.

I had an exchange with an orthodox Jew not so very long ago. We were talking about where moral law comes from. “If God told you to do something immoral, would you do it anyway?” I asked him. He said God would never tell him to do something immoral. “But suppose God did tell you. What would you do?” He explained that as far as he was concerned, what God tells him is moral by definition. In other words, he would not question Mitchell’s behavior if he believed Mitchell was sincere about hearing God.

He isn’t alone. Many Christians believe the same thing, as do Muslims. The three Abrahamic religions lay claim to being the source of all moral law, and consequently their deity can do no wrong, by definition.

And yet no one raised that defense for Mitchell. Why?

I believe it is because most of us do not agree that God’s law is the highest law, regardless what we might say in church. The USA has a criminal code that forbids what Mitchell did. That was the higher law, and no one (as far as I have heard, anyway) was about to suggest otherwise.

The trouble is, of course, that it isn’t always so. There are often times when the moral content of a secular law is perhaps less obvious (usually due to tradition, racism, tribalism, sexism, or others of our unlovely faults), and religionists may argue vigorously that God’s law trumps the law of the land. (Two good examples are racial segregation and female genital mutilation.) These arguments are more troubling because otherwise reasonable people might stand aside, claiming that all moral points of view are relative.

Sam Harris wants to say that moral relativism is bankrupt. Distinct from religionists who want everyone to follow their version of divinely revealed law, Harris argues, in The Moral Landscape, that there are objective ways of judging the moral worth of an action. His premise is simple: we value certain things because they promote well being. We despise other things because they diminish well being. These are not culturally relative, since there are scientific, objective ways of determining if a person is flourishing or not.

Harris points out that most of the time we act from instinct. Two powerful instincts drive us to be fair and to avoid harming others. Another makes us feel good when we cooperate. Harris suggests that these instincts are not the end of moral behavior. They evolved to make it possible for us as a species to get to this point. Now it is up to us to find where we want to go next. The way to do it, Harris suggests, is to imagine a moral landscape, with peaks of wellbeing and valleys of despair. Many of the peaks may be of similar height, which makes them similarly desirable from a moral perspective. It may not be clear how to get to the peaks, Harris says, but it is usually easy to tell when you’re moving up, and when you’re moving down. Moral behavior is that kind of behavior that moves us up.

Harris imagines a science of morality. The science would know about human behavior, and what helps us flourish. He agrees that there are difficulties. We often don’t agree with each other what would make us happy. Even individually, we apparently make poor choices, even (or especially) when we have all of our options open. But Harris writes, again and again, that just because answers are difficult to find doesn’t mean there are no answers.

The book is less of a dissertation on moral law than it is an essay on the need for creating a science of morality. Morality that is based on superstitions, Harris argues, fails us time and again. We cannot afford to rely on it anymore.

The book is mostly well researched, with pages of notes and bibliography for those who want to pursue the subject more closely. But Harris also has his blind spots. He has a weakness for straw man arguments, and sometimes, instead of honestly engaging others in debate he waves away their arguments with scoffing and ridicule. These spots are few enough that I still highly recommend the book, but they do leave the book open for similar dismissive scoffing and handwaving from his detractors.

If you’re thinking about where your moral behavior comes from, and what kind of behavior is moral behavior - as opposed to doing whatever ecclesiastical authorities tell you - then give this book a try. Harris may end up pointing you in fruitful directions of thought.

If you’re convinced that God’s law is the Alpha and Omega, give Harris a try, anyway. He’ll make you wince, because he will marshal every argument you’ve heard against religion, and likely a few that are new to you. But stick it through. In the end, even if you’re not ready to abandon religion for atheism, you will end up having thought more deeply about what it means to be a moral person.