Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rational Morality: What Is Evil? - Part 1

Sam Harris believes that morality can be reached without the intervention of religion. In fact, he seems to believe that religion, as often as not, complicates issues of morality more than it provides any clarity. He's an interesting guy, though I have not yet read his books (but that will change soon), so I was pleased to when I heard about his TED talk on the issue of morality derived from scientific principles.

The speech appears to be based on ideas and material from Harris' upcoming book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. For those who, like me, can't wait for a meatier approach to the issue, consider this May article from the Huffington Post, "Toward a Science of Morality."

I'm very sorry to have missed these discussions when they first came out, because they parallel many of my own thoughts in recent years ... thoughts which have led me into a serious consideration of how to define morality in a purely rational framework.

Me, Joe Lieberman, and a Moral Quandry
Specifically, these thoughts can be traced back to the 2004 Senate primary campaign of Connecticut Independent (then-Democrat) Joseph Lieberman.

Lieberman lost the Democratic primary in 2004 because he supported the Iraqi War, and he did so because he thought that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator who deserved to be stopped. This is the story as I understood it at the time and, frankly, I saw no reason then (and see no reason now) to question the sincerity of this stance.

While I didn't particularly agree with Lieberman's stance on the war itself, I was disturbed while witnessing some of the passionate disagreements with him. In part, they seemed to focus on a fundamental opposition to him taking a moral stance. In other words, it seemed like many educated liberals were attacking him specifically over his use of the word "evil" to describe a man who often tortured people, murdered his own citizens, and had "rape rooms." Lieberman was being attacked by Democrats, at least in part, because he was not adopting a moral relativistic stance, at least in regards to the Saddam Hussein's particular evil quotient.

I, too, thought that Saddam Hussein was evil. But why? I am also an intellectual, and I didn't have any particular religious-based convictions to give me guidance on evil. Was my only basis for calling Hussein "evil" a moral conceit, ingrained into me by the society in which I happened to be raised, or did I have a better grasp on the subject that I couldn't yet fully explain?

I didn't know, and that really bugged the bejesus out of me, so I began trying to figure out if there was a rational basis for my moral evaluation of Hussein as "evil" in some objective sense.

Framing the Question
My first step was to determine if this is the right question. Just a few moments' worth of consideration led me to believe that it had been framed wrong from the very beginning, because I actually had no idea if Hussein himself was evil as a person, but I did believe that the actions which he had been accused of (and to this day have no reason to doubt) were evil.

So my real question is what makes an action evil, not what makes a person evil. (The "evil person" question that had started this line of reasoning could be tackled later, I decided, if it was actually needed.)

Where, then, should be my starting point for defining evil? I believe that you can begin with a simple concept: suffering.

In fact, at this point I realized a beneficial aspect of this approach, and one which resonates strongly with the aforementioned Harris/Carroll discussion. It is my belief that when devising a rationale system of morality, it is best to start from the "evil" and work to the "good," rather than vice versa. I believe this for three reasons:

1. Morality in society is usually invoked harmfully through the "evil" label. If evangelical Christian pastors gave sermons about how wonderful and good the heterosexual lifestyle was, they would not inspire hate speech or crimes against homosexuals (but, I might add, would still get their basic message across). If Muslim terrorists spoke exclusively about the virtue of their Muslim religion, they would not feel the need to be terrorists. It is primarily through attaching the label of "evil" to others that religion and morality causes the most damage, so the "evil" label is the more important one to make rational.

2. "Suffering" is, I think, a more well-defined concept than "pleasure," "well-being," or any of the other concepts which might be used to define a "good" action. If I wanted to make someone suffer, there are a clear set of things that I could do that would guarantee their suffering. I could, for example, hit them in the knee with a hammer. Suffering accomplished.

3. If, however, I wanted to please them, it's less clear. Oh, I could offer them food, but what food would I have to offer them? What if they've got a nut allergy? Questions must be asked about causing pleasure which did not have to be asked in the attempt to cause suffering. (In that case, the only question that needed to be asked is, "Does he have a wooden leg?" Even then, I imagine banging on someone's wooden leg with a hammer would still qualify as making them suffer, though to a far lesser degree than intended.)

To use Sam Harris' metaphor from the TED talk, this is like pointing out that the best place to understand health is by really getting a firm handle on what it means to be dead. Once you've clearly nailed down the dead state, you can begin having a discussion about what would then constitute being alive.

Therefore, the first iteration of my rational definition of morality was as follows:

An evil act is one which causes suffering.

Though a nice start, we will see in the next installment of this discussion that this proves to be insufficient.

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