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Moral Relativism and Sam Harris

Some of us judge not only what is good or bad for ourselves but for other adults. We have sociological, economic and political opinions. We may also have opinions about right or wrong drawn from Scripture. The neuroscientist and ethicist, Sam Harris, also makes moral judgments. He doesn't think that he and everyone else should surrender what he thinks is right and wrong to a relativity in which all values are equivalent.

In his book The Moral Landscape, Harris proposes making judgments built on an empirical awareness and reason. He connects science to the creation of the values. In the book he describes a hypothetical culture that ritualistically blinds every third child, a practice based on "religious superstition." Harris contends that such a practice would be detrimental to the well-being of these people and that he would be justified in labeling the practice as immoral, and he describes a conversation he had with a member of a Presidential commission who objected and told him he "could never say they were wrong."

Such opinions, writes Harris, "are not uncommon in the Ivory Tower." Her error in the opinion of Harris is in holding moral truths to be relative. He describes it as a tolerance based on the assumption that "no moral truth can supersede any other." Harris mentions fellow scientist Steven Pinker complaining that one person committing an act that we could consider criminal being okay to cultural relativists if it is done by millions.

Harris points to a philosophical tradition that separates describing facts and proclaiming values, to which David Hume, GE Moore and Karl Popper belonged. This, I believe, has value in writing narrative. The writer, sometimes motivated by rage, describes but leaves his readers to respond to the description with their own instincts and moral inclinations. The writer isn't pretending to be objective and doesn't want to pontificate. He just wants to let good people know what happened.

This brings the issue of subjectivity, which Harris addresses. He is not suggesting a morality outside his own head. He is doing what I and others do: believing that he is a better judge than some others. Who believes that no one in the world has values worse than his own? How many of us attribute moral equivalence between ourselves and everybody else in the world? Scientists don't look upon their conclusions as no better than the opinions of anyone else. Instead, we run with our opinions. In doing so we recognize that our brain is the source of our ideas and dependent on our ability to organize. Harris recognizes that this subjectivity doesn't give one license to organize his thought any way he pleases.

Harris appears realistic and coherent – an evaluation that some will object to. On the other hand, on this issue those who choose relativism appear to be fragmented. In the coming weeks, I'll find some arguments against Harris on the issue of relativism and discuss it.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.