Liberalism Claims the Transcendent
Of the great mid-2000s tranche of “celebrity atheists,” each has his own distinctive style: the professorial Dennett, the street-fighter Hitchens, the smartypants Dawkins, and so on. For me at least, Sam Harris is the least distinctive of the crowd, the one who leaves the blurriest image in one’s mind.
It did other things, too: fortified my suspicion that modern liberalism is a kind of religion, or at least draws on some of the theogenic modules of the human mind for its inspirations. It also left me thinking that the word “scientism,” as used pejoratively by believers, may not be as empty of semantic content as I’ve supposed.
Tremendously compressed précis of Sam’s talk: “There are indeed moral facts, but they are nothing like as relativistic as you’d infer from a study of anthropology or comparative religion.”
Even more compressed précis: “There are indeed moral facts, and I know what they are!”
Child-beating, for example, is wrong, according to Sam; that’s a moral fact, whatever the Bible says to the contrary. (And presumably notwithstanding that child-beating has been routine practice for 99.99 percent of human history.)
It’s still a style of magical thinking, an appeal to the Transcendent — a claim to know the Transcendent in fact. (That the Transcendent exists in some style, I could easily be persuaded; that anyone knows anything about it, seems to me improbable at a very high order.) Yes, religious, really.
Contrariwise, the view of morality I myself find most plausible is the “grammar of action” notion put forward by (I think) Rawls. We have the capacity to react instinctively against some classes of acts, just as we have a capacity to react instinctively against some classes of utterances. A man clubbing his child to death is wrong in our perception, in the same kind of way that a sentence like “The house be on fire” is wrong.
As with actual language, the whole business is mightily confused by the peculiarities of particular communities’ “languages” and the weaknesses or habits of individual “language” users: this one muddles up his tenses carelessly, that one winces at a split infinitive. Also by one of those “good enough” principles so common in human affairs, yet so shocking to intellectuals. If the house actually is on fire, “The house be on fire!” is a good enough warning.
Those instinctive reactions are there, though, in our nature — in our brains, most likely — not in the sky — and they have some kind of phylogeny in the history of social animals. All our ethical systems are built on them.
I have a dim memory of having reviewed one of Sam’s books somewhere … Yep.