Morality without God

A new wave of secular books has challenged religion’s claim to supply meaning and morality. Simon Blackburn reflects on the root of human values
March 23, 2011
The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for how we live nowEd George Levine, (Princeton University Press, £24.95)

The Moral Landscapeby Sam Harris, (Bantam Press, £20.00)

When the sociologist Max Weber wrote of the disenchantment of the modern world in the late 19th and early 20th century, he struck a loud and resonant chord. Just look at the dog-eat-dog, bureaucratic, soulless world we live in. Ugh! How pleasant to dream of something better: a magical world unfolding in providential ways: perplexing, perhaps, and sometimes sad, but in the end benign, good and safe. How nice as well to be part of a congregation or church, united in celebrating these venerable enchantments through rituals, poetry and music, all expressing awe and wonder, gratitude, hope and consolation. On the one hand, meaningless bustle, absurdity and despair; on the other, peace, warmth and comfort. If these are the alternatives, the surprise is not that religions refuse to die, but that they ever become sickly.

Let us say religionists are those who consider themselves to owe allegiance to a religion, and a secularist is anyone who isn’t a religionist. Religion is a many-faceted phenomenon, and any definition is bound to be contested. Religions do not require deities (at its purest Buddhism does not) nor even positive beliefs (the apophatic tradition holds that God is unapproachable by description). But it is characteristic of religionists to think their practices and thoughts give lives something valuable that cannot be found any other way.

Secularists, on the other hand, want to show that this is not an either/or, and that nothing of true value is lost when we grow out of reliance on old enchantments. I say true value, because everyone should admit there is a value in music and poetry, perhaps value in ritual, and a kind of value in myth and fiction. Outright falsehoods can be adaptive. Wishful thinking offers many comforts. But in stern secularist eyes this is not something of which to be proud.

George Levine has put together a diverse collection on what it means to be a secularist, with thoughtful essays from philosophers, historians, literary critics, and evolutionary theorists. The result is an effort to get beyond the polarisation between strident religionists and their strident opponents. The publishers describe it as arguing that secularism “presents a vision of a natural and difficult world—without miracles or supernatural interventions—that is far richer and more satisfying than the religious one beyond.” This implies that all religions involve belief in more than one world, which may be true in America, but probably rules out most of the Church of England.

Among the essayists, Bruce Robbins voices especially bracing mistrust of enchantments themselves. Philip Kitcher gives a lucid account of the political and moral obligations that secularists must acknowledge. Frans de Waal rehearses his well-known discoveries of embryonic moral interactions between other primates than ourselves. David Sloan Wilson’s contribution, “The Truth is Sacred,” is particularly interesting as an example of the way in which evolutionary theory has enthusiastically, if belatedly, taken up the phenomena of culture. The essays are literate and sophisticated, although there is an air of high-minded protestation, so that the authors resemble partygoers continually reassuring their host that they are really, really enjoying themselves.

Such tact does not much trouble Sam Harris, a knockabout atheist. He holds that “questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.” His idea is that with sufficient knowledge, and generous help from neuroscience, we can learn to gauge “wellbeing” and then it is just a technical question of how to maximise it. Not only religion, but moral philosophy with its dilemmas and conflicts, is unnecessary, now that we can observe and calculate. On the dust-jacket, Richard Dawkins enthusiastically endorses the same triumphalist line.

It is one thing to say that behaving well requires knowledge. It clearly does, and the more we know about the world the better (and worse) we can behave in it. But it is quite another thing to think of “science” as taking over the entire domain of morality, and that there is a reason that it cannot do so. While it is one thing to know the empirical facts, it is another to select and prioritise and campaign and sacrifice to promote some and diminish others.

Aristotle himself thought that ethics concerned wellbeing. But he appreciated, as Harris does not, the twists and turns involved in that simple sounding idea. According to Aristotle, wellbeing is the state of living well, in favourable relationships with the world around one. My successes and failures, knowledge, social relations, memories, hopes, fears and loves make up my wellbeing. This could not be indexed by a brain scanner, which would be insensitive to the difference between a person in a fool’s paradise, largely deceived about his relations with the world, and a person who has got them right.

Harris’s view of wellbeing is nearer to that of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, who saw it as a simple balance of pleasure over pain. Perhaps sufficient knowledge of the state of someone’s brain could help to measure this ratio, and it would no doubt be quite high for the citizens in Brave New World. But in spite of Dawkins’s enthusiasm, that does not really help, for if Bentham’s hedonist is in one brain state and Aristotle’s active subject is in another, as no doubt they would be, it is a moral, not an empirical, problem to say which is to be preferred. Even if this were solved, how are we to balance my right to pursue my wellbeing against the demand to help maximise that of everyone? Striving to maximise the sum of human wellbeing is making oneself a servant of the world, and it cannot be science that tells me to do that, nor how to solve the conflict, which was central, for instance, to the utilitarian thinking of Henry Sidgwick. Harris considers none of all this, and thereby joins the prodigious ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just an instance of their doing it very badly.

Religionists often try to claim meaning and morality as their own private property. The standard secularist will reply that this is so far from the truth that religion cannot even claim a proper share of them. For example, if religion’s contribution to morality is, at base, a matter of bribing us to behave well for fear of supernatural consequences, then it is only a poor substitute for the real thing—like Kant’s shopkeeper giving the right change only because he was afraid of being caught cheating. Such action may accord with a principle of honesty, but he is not acting from that principle, which is what the properly moral person does. I help my child with his homework because he needs help, not to obey the dictates of a supernatural commandant.

The sophisticated religionist will reply that it is not like this: God’s schedule of rewards and punishments is for teaching purposes, “leading strings” as Kant called them, pulling the child, say, towards concern for the helpless. The end-product is the love of others, and the love of principle and justice. Perhaps so, but in that case religious hopes and terrors have nothing essential to do with the motives of morality, any more than parental admonitions, even if they too were accompanied with threats of hellfire.

With meaning we have the same opposition. Faced with the night sky, Darwin’s entangled bank, or the newborn baby, the secularist’s feelings of awe or wonder are directed where they should be: at the sky, the bank, or the baby. His attention does not stray to thinking about his own soul, or the purposes of providence, although he may entertain thoughts about our small place in the vast deserts of space and time. If someone cannot find meaning in the baby’s smile because it is so small in comparison with the cosmos, or because it is not going to last forever, then he is to be pitied, not admired as especially spiritual.

Morality is a natural phenomenon. Its roots lie in our needs and our capacities for sympathetically imagining the feelings of others, for inventing co-operative principles, for being able to take an impersonal view of our own doings. We have what Adam Smith called a “man within the breast” monitoring our feelings and actions in the name of those with whom we live. Imagining their admiration, we feel pride; imagining their anger, guilt, their contempt, shame. In his essay “Disenchantment—Reenchantment” in The Joy of Secularism, the philosopher Charles Taylor says that this does not explain what he calls “strong evaluations,” which are cases in which we feel that there is a truth about the matter, or that in valuing something we are not simply projecting attitude and desire, but are getting something right.

The phenomenon is real enough, but it is naturally explicable. Some concerns are nearer to our cores than others. If I prefer strawberry ice cream to chocolate, I would not think less well of you if you prefer the opposite. Nor would I be distressed to learn that one day I might change my mind. But if we visit the Grand Canyon and I am overawed by its grandeur, while you see it just as a good place for tourist concessions, then I may well think less of you. And if I learn that one day I shall become like you, I would be depressed and ashamed, just as I would if I learned that one day I might lose my love of my children, or my concern for truth. I may voice this by saying that the canyon demands the reaction of wonder. But of course it doesn’t issue any demands— indeed its ageless, implacable, indifferent silence is part of what makes it sublime. It is we who demand these reactions from ourselves and others, and rightly so. Admiring the canyon is better than admiring gods, for they, being human creations, suffer from all kinds of nasty traits, where it does not.