Coyne on Horgan on “The Moral Landscape” …

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted something from Jerry Coyne, and I have a little time today to talk about a post he just made about a review by John Horgan of Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”:

I only briefly skimmed Horgan’s review, but it didn’t impress me that much, so I’m not going after that.  I’m also not going to go after Coyne’s comments on the book itself; I’ll wait for his review.  So I just want to talk about a couple of points Coyne raises.


“Horgan’s claim here—that if we blame religion for its misuse by bad people then we must also blame science for similar misuses—is very common. I would argue that it’s much more inherent in religion than in science to make its adherents behave badly: as Steven Weinberg said, “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”  And codes of conduct are inherent in religion but not in science.”


Two comments here:

1) Weinberg’s comment is patently wrong.  Good people have done terrible things in the name of secular ideologies.  It doesn’t take religion at all, but simply this: a belief that the ends justify the means, and that you have sufficient ends.  Scientific knowledge itself could be seen as a sufficient end, and while Horgan ascribes the scientific lapses to greed and such, I think that in some cases finding out how to cure disease could be a sufficient end.  Milgram’s experiment on authority demonstrated that people will shock other people to death if a scientist tells them to.  And ask consequentialist morality about what it says we ought to do in some cases.  Religion is not the problem here, other than that people take it seriously.  But anything taken seriously — even secular humanism — can and probably will have the same effect.

2) That science has no code of conduct doesn’t count in its favour; there’s nothing that we can hold science accountable to if that’s really the case.  We can’t point out that science advocating killing any person with a genetic defect so that it doesn’t propogate is non-scientific unless we can say that that sort of suggestion is one that science can make, but we could say that doing so violates the commandments of a particular religion in at least some cases.  If science had a code of conduct, then it would be equally open to correction by appeal to that code of conduct.  But it doesn’t have one, so it can’t.

And the second thing:


“Harris’s take on burqas is that the compulsion to wear them is bad for general well-being since it oppresses women, and that’s not good for society as a whole.  What he’s objecting to is not an individual’s right to wear the garment, but religious and legal dictates that they must wear the garment—and the effect of those dictates on the health of Islamic society.”


Absolutely, but this only reveals the problem with Harris’ position.  For one thing, the reply of individual freedom does work against at least some of Harris’ objections because he wants to condemn a cultural restriction based on what he thinks of it, and how he interprets well-being and oppression of women.  But the people in that culture don’t see it that way.  Who’s right?  Second, the argument from the people in that culture is that, yes, it is in fact better for the overall well-being for that to be forced.  Harris is going to have to accept that some things have to be forced on people in order to facilitate overall well-being, so he can’t reject it on the grounds that forcing people to do things is bad, but has to in fact address well-being in those specific cases.  And so far Harris has given us no way of settling it, but is in fact convinced that forcing the burqa on women is not conducive to well-being.  But if he has no current grounds for settling this, how can he be so certain?   And if he does, why can’t he share them with us?

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