Pledging “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor”? No, guys, that’s just an illusion. You are really pledging your selfish genes
|February 24, 2011||Posted by O'Leary under Atheism, Darwinism, Ethics|
A friend writes to advise me of a “vicious” review by Scott Atran of Sam Harris’s latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values in the most recent issue of National Interest, which – he tells me – otherwise focuses on foreign and defense policy. Atran, an anthropologist connected with U Michigan, doesn’t like Harris anyway, I gather, because the latter wouldn’t dismiss the effects of laboratory research into telepathy and telekinesis.
Atran, for his own reasons, doesn’t think that “science” is in any position to determine morality.
Harris tells us: “I find reasons for hope” because “moral progress seems to me unmistakable. . . . Consider the degree to which racism in the United States has diminished in the last hundred years.” Yet it was not utilitarianism or science that drove America’s nineteenth-century abolitionist movement, observes Columbia University historian Simon Schama in The American Future, or the twentieth century’s civil-rights movement. It was a religious reckoning against “the national sin.” Secular intellectuals later helped to rouse support for civil rights, but it was the black churches and the inspiration to sustained struggle and sacrifice from preachers like Martin Luther King Jr. and his forebears that began creating a color-blind America, or at least a rainbow with no hard lines.
Recent work by teams of anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists and behavioral economists indicates that every cultural group entertains “sacred” and transcendent values that belie the logic of consequentialism, defying cost-benefit calculations and motivating costly commitments that involve undertaking actions independently of, or all out of proportion to, prospects of success. Thus, taking on the mightiest empire against all odds, the signers of the Declaration of Independence concluded: “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Atran has a point there. Morality always begins with the recognition that one must adhere to values that are not obviously rewarding. That’s what makes evolutionary psychology such a gas factory.
Funny how people who missed such obvious truths in Grade Three would now sit in judgement over the rest of us, in the name of a “science” that pursues swamp gas.