Klinghoffer on Science and Morality

We are always being told by creationists that unless we see things their way, we can’t possibly know right from wrong. A typical example is this in a post we wrote about ol’ Hambo: Ken Ham: The Sole Source of Morality. We’ve been debunking such nonsense since as far back as 2009 when we wrote Creationism and Morality, in which we said:

Claims to the effect that “Without Genesis there is no morality” come up frequently, and it’s always surprising, because basic morality is such a simple thing. Suppose you evolved from some primordial blob without any divine action at all. Okay, you’re on your own, with no bible, just your intelligence to guide you. You’re looking for a place to settle down with your family and your flocks. Assume that the cities you might move to have signs outside their gates, telling you the rules. One says: “Murder is okay with us!” Another says: “Welcome, and we’ll rape your women!” Yet another says: “No private property here. We’ll take all your stuff!” Do you need to consult Genesis before you to decide to avoid those places? You’ll choose a city with a sign saying “No murder, rape, or theft,” as will most people. Those are the successful societies.

We took another stab at it in Morality, Evolution, and Darwin, in which we said:

[E]very sane adult you ask will tell you that: (1) he doesn’t want to be murdered, enslaved, raped, or otherwise assaulted; (2) he doesn’t want his property stolen; (3) he doesn’t want to be told lies or be cheated; (4) he doesn’t want his private behavior or his honest and voluntary dealings with others to be restricted; and (5) he doesn’t want his thoughts regulated. Given mankind’s unanimity on the foregoing, would it not be reasonable to conclude that the desire to be free from those conditions is an objectively verifiable attribute of all humans, and therefore any system of morality should be based thereon?

After that, in A Secular Source of Morality, we re-evaluated our thinking in the light of philosophy’s is-ought problem (you can’t get an “ought” from what “is”). We modified our previous effort (where we determined what people don’t want) by saying this:

You don’t tell people what they should do — that’s left up to them. You only tell them what they should not do.

We thought that our method, based on what is, would result in a very acceptable society with a perfectly functional moral code — with no need to know about Genesis, Noah’s Ark, or any of the rest of it.

Nevertheless, creationists insist that they — and they alone — know what’s moral and what isn’t. And now, even the Discovery Institute — which pretends to be a non-religious science outfit — is making that claim. They just posted Can Science Define Morality? Sam Harris Thinks So. It was written by David Klinghoffer, a Discoveroid “senior fellow” (i.e., flaming, full-blown creationist), who eagerly functions as their journalistic slasher and poo flinger.

He leads off with a video about a speech by “atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris, offering the case that science can tell us right from wrong, implicitly making religious traditions superfluous at best,” and then he says, with bold font added by us for emphasis:

His point is simple: Morality is about empathy, caring for other people’s and our own feelings, maximizing happiness and minimizing pain. Neuroimaging increasingly has the power to say what makes us happy, what makes us flourish as human beings. Therefore all that’s needed is to map flourishing again behavior. He doesn’t deny that’s a complex task and perhaps beyond current technology. However, the patterns of behavior that, if implemented, would lead to the most generalized happiness, are what’s moral.

That sounds possible, albeit far more complicated than our own system. And some people might generate pleasurable responses from some dubious behavior, so we would still need to decide what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Anyway, Klinghoffer doesn’t like it. He tells us:

There are several things left out here. First, under Harris’s picture of reality, I’m not sure what it is that creates the “ought.” If I can maximize my “flourishing” at your expense, please tell me why I should not do so, if there’s no standard of what’s right that transcends you and me? Clearly, that’s a matter beyond science’s reach.

Ah yes, the “is-ought” problem. Our system side-steps it, but the one proposed by Harris doesn’t. Let’s read on:

Our culture, for all its confusion about ultimate questions of faith and meaning, still lives, parasitically, off the remains of past moral cultures that drew their sustenance from religious tradition. That includes atheists, and some, unlike Harris, are sufficiently self-aware to realize this and honest enough to admit it.

Ah yes, it’s just as Hambo claims — knowingly or not, we’re all following the rules set down in the bible. Klinghoffer continues:

His illustrations come largely from Islam. Others lean heavily on the Westboro Baptist Church.

Aha — those people don’t have the true faith! Hambo couldn’t have said it better. Here’s more:

Finally, regarding his suggestion that things like brain scans can establish “a foundation for morality and human values,” the naïvety is striking. Judaism and Christianity are realistic about the brokenness of human beings — congenitally splintered between an impulse to good and an impulse to its opposite. The two faiths use different terminology in describing this feature of existence but it amounts to the same thing.

Skipping some blather, Klinghoffer declares:

But from the way he presents his subject here, you would get no inkling of the need for community, caring, consolation, guidance, ritual, mystery, eternity that faith seeks to give to countless of his fellow human beings. Clear out the old ways that fulfilled those needs, or tried to do so, and we’re left with what…technology? Perhaps the Internet will take the place of churches and synagogues, everyone isolated and hunched over his or her favorite device. Is that it?

Yes, we all need that old-time religion. Here’s one last excerpt:

For all that it’s challenging now to be one’s best self, as it ever was, we’re supposed to believe the situation will be improved when our chief guide and inspiration is a neuroscience textbook.

We’re left with the inescapable conclusion that Klinghoffer agrees with hard-core creationists like Hambo. Science is a dead-end, and only the bible can provide us with a guide to morality. We should all forget about Darwin, because science will lead you dangerously astray. That’s the message from the Discoveroids.

And that leaves us with a question: Are the Discoveroids at the leading edge of science, as they always claim, or are they really at the trailing edge — the last gasp — of Bronze Age mythology? We report, you decide.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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11 responses to “Klinghoffer on Science and Morality

  1. “Perhaps the Internet will take the place of churches and synagogues, everyone isolated and hunched over his or her favorite device. Is that it?”

    Says Klinghoffer. On the Internet.

    (SC, about halfway through, you quote the same Klinghoffer drivel twice, starting with “Our culture…”)

  2. The Klinghofer/Ham thesis is basically sectarian bigotry gussied up in big “philosophical” words.

    It boils down to, “We are morally superior to you; and we would be putting you to death if it weren’t for those pesky secular laws by a meddling government and those ‘activist liberal courts’ that are preventing us from having the power to do so.”

  3. michaelfugate

    I think Harris is wrong on the “is-ought” problem. That said, morality is absolute and found in ancient texts claimed to be revealed to us by gods. It is part of a feedback loop between what we think is and what we think we ought to do. Science is needed for knowing what is and that is continually being challenged and updated. Morality is also and informs in some way the questions we ask about what is. Take any subject and you will see a debate about exceptions to supposed absolutes – abortion? torture? war? genetic engineering? poverty? slavery? All of these are still in play and anyone who thinks he or she knows what everyone ought to do is fooling himself or herself.

  4. Mark Germano says:

    SC, about halfway through, you quote the same Klinghoffer drivel twice, starting with “Our culture…”

    Egad! It’s fixed. Midway through this one I was losing my mind.

  5. I’ve written about this a bit myself (What is the Source of Morality). The bottom line for me is simple: Your behavior determines whether or not you can be considered ‘moral’ based on societal standards. The source of that standard, whether it be religious or something else, is immaterial, it’s the behavior that matters.

  6. Maybe worth keeping in mind here that, for Klinghoffer and his ID/Creationist cohorts, the “is/ought” issue is absolutely the main event.

    But not from the same angle as for the enlightened readers of this blog. For the Discoveroids and their ilk, the focus is justifying their imposition of “ought” on others. That’s the whole premise of their Wedge Document, and is the reason why I maintain–despite their howls of protest to the contrary–that they are indeed advocates of theocracy. After all, if one insists that only the Great God of Oogity-Boogity is the ‘source’ of moral ‘oughts’, and since the Great God of Oogity-Boogity routinely declines to put in any personal appearances, it has to be left to the self-appointed spokesmen of the Great God of Oogity-Boogity to pronounce on all questions of right and wrong–and to dish out punishments as they see fit, of course.

  7. michaelfugate

    We know ID/creationists definitely don’t get the “is” correct so who would trust them to get the “ought” correct?

  8. Our Curmudgeon asks “… or are they really at the trailing edge … of Bronze Age mythology?” It appears they’re barely clinging to the trailing edge.

  9. Ted Herrlich stated:

    The source of that standard, whether it be religious or something else, is immaterial, it’s the behavior that matters.

    Most religious people would strongly disagree. And that’s the problem. Religious people tend to get their “morality” from some arcane text, whether it be the Bible or Quran or Bhagabad Gita or Kama Sutra… okay, maybe not that last one… but the point is that they wind up with some “morals” that are only “bad” in their “worldviews”. This includes whether to work on Saturday (Seventh Day Adventist), length of hair (different sects of Amish), shaking hands using the left hand (Quran), homosexuality (fundamentalists of several different stripes), and even whether to learn about evolution. In your (and my) rational worldview, we decide whether something is “bad” based on the effect it has on others. None of these things listed above would have any bearing whatsoever on “morality”. But to religious people, these things are extremely important and therefore must be imposed upon the populous because they are “bad”.

  10. @Gary: We think alike, my friend. Must be something in the water at our alma mater. A rare element called “Rationalium”, perhaps.

  11. This whole argument about morality is an attempt to avoid confronting the actual evidence. If believing in evolution leads to evil behavior, then, goes the reasoning, such belief must be destroyed, and the evidence in its favor must be destroyed as well if it can’t be debunked or simply ignored.