In our last post we explored whether it is wrong for moral values to be imposed upon society. This is an important question because in our day, there is this idea that no one’s values should be imposed upon anyone, much less society. To do so is to commit the modern-day mortal sin.
But the idea that moral values should not be imposed upon others — especially that we should be protected from others imposing their moral values upon us — is itself a moral value. This demonstrates what I called in our last post Newton’s Third Law of Belief: For every objection to the imposition of belief, there is an equal and opposite viewpoint imposing its own belief.What then makes one moral value acceptable, and another condemnable? What makes “no one should be permitted to say something that offends me” right, and “people in a free, pluralistic society should be able to express their beliefs” wrong? Or, a bit closer to home, what makes “a woman should reserve the right to do with her body as she wants” right, and “no one has the right to take a life” wrong?
What makes one moral value acceptable, and another condemnable? What makes “no one should be permitted to say something that offends me” right, and “people in a free, pluralistic society should be able to express their beliefs” wrong?
The simplest answer is: “The one which is true.” But how can we know whether a moral values is true or false?
Neuroscientist and bestselling author Sam Harris believes science can tell us. In his book, “The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values,” he argues: “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.”
In other words, according to Harris all questions about right and wrong essentially boil down to what promotes well-being. Therefore, if science can measure what conduct and behavior optimally promotes well-being, science will have determined moral values.
Now Harris is a smart guy. But the discerning reader may observe that Harris has not really found a way for science to determine moral values; he has simply found a way for science to assist him to implement his own moral values. The real moral value in this equation is: “Humanity should promote well-being” (or, more accurately: “Ideas about right and wrong should and must be limited to that which promotes well-being”). Such ideas are not derived from science.
Harris has not really found a way for science to determine moral values; he has simply found a way for science to assist him implement his own moral values.
The fact is, science cannot determine moral values any more than it can determine life’s “meaning and larger purpose.” Though Harris wishes and believes it to be otherwise, science by its very nature can only tell us what is. It lacks the machinery to tell us what should be — and is even less capable of telling us what it all means. Moral values — and the ultimate source which confirms them as either true or false — lie beyond the domain of science.
Which is important to understand. Many have this idea nowadays that the moral values modern society embraces are superior to traditional religious values simply because they are modern: That because we have changed our mind on key moral issues, it means we have progressed.
But on what basis can one make such a claim? It certainly isn’t science. But if it is not science, then what is it?
In truth, modern society has not rejected religious values because it has necessarily progressed; it has simply changed its mind.