The righteous rationalist and why we should be wary…

or, you know, NOT.

I read this SciAm article last night criticising Sam Harris for his book and his position that science can be used to decide issues of morality. Now, whether or not I agree with Sam Harris’ views about science and morality (and I do, in principle), the article in question here is just plain illogical.

Here’s the author’s reasoning: The Tuskeegee experiment was run by scientists. So was the project to inject Guatemalan prisoners with syphilis. There are also other failures of medical ethics that one can find in recent history. Hence proved that science cannot be a moral guidepost.

That’s the entirety of the article. Even by the author’s own assessment.

I’ll assume that we all agree that what happened in Tuskeegee and Guatemala is morally reprehensible. We know this, right? How? A naive answer is that the simplest medical ethics textbook will say so. Which, to me, isn’t that bad an answer.

We know that these acts lead to the suffering of people who had no say in the matter. Which is obviously wrong. Which, unless I’m mistaken, is what Sam Harris says as well – human suffering is morally wrong; anything that minimises human suffering is morally right. (To which I should add, if Harris hasn’t done it himself: the individual cannot be sacrificed for the collective, without the individual’s consent.)

This train of thought has had no input from outside medicine (or science, or logic, if you want) and the strongest critics of the ethical lapses in Tuskeegee or Guatemala have been medical ethicists. Which, to me, is the difference between calling Tuskeegee the fault of medicine, or science, and calling the institutionalised rape of children in the catholic church the fault of christianity. The catholic church, and its entire hierarchy including the vatican, have actively tried to cover up instances of child rape, even getting victims to sign non-disclosure agreements.

I’m guessing that Sam Harris, in an attempt to explain how to quantify human happiness, must have gestured towards neuroscience as a possible answer. This brings out the “neuroscience isn’t perfect; you can’t explain so many things with neuroscience” line. For crying out loud, would somebody point the author to Asimov’s essay?

There’s also the canard about arrogance and how scientists should be less arrogant than to claim that science can decide questions of morality. Saying I know something doesn’t make me arrogant. Especially not if I’m prepared to accept, upon being shown otherwise, that I don’t. I see absolutely nothing in way of proof from this article.

At one point, the article says:

But those who fervently believe their own rhetoric about saving humanity may be even more dangerous.

You only have to compare Joseph Ratzinger with Sam Harris to realise that there isn’t even a comparison to make.


2 thoughts on “The righteous rationalist and why we should be wary…”

  1. I think science can teach us a lot about morality. Since morality is inseparable from human nature, a scientific understanding of human nature will be definition teach us something about morals.

    Lots of people claim that atheists have no morals. As if one needed god to be a decent fellow! Do we really need god to tell us for example that murdering someone is wrong? Even without god, as a collection of intelligent people, wouldn’t we have someday sat down together and said “You know what? Let’s not kill each other!”

    As we better understand our own nature, I believe science has the best chance of indicating what is morally right and wrong. Of course, we’re complex beyond imagining so such a venture might never come off. But it’s interesting to see where it will lead…

  2. If I hadn’t seen this personally, I would’ve been tempted to think that the ‘atheists have no morals’ statement is a strawman. Unfortunately, I have seen this; if only rarely.

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