Thursday, June 20, 2013

What Rabbi Sacks should know!

Oh dear oh dear.  If ever you were to need an exercise in identifying your logical fallacies, you could happily wile away an hour or two on this article.  But forget all that shooting fish in a barrel, there's a serious problem here, a serious misrepresentation of the state of secular ethics, and this by someone who really could know better, namely Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who agrees with Nietzsche that: 
" losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more ‘Thou shalt not’; instead people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak. ‘An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be “unjust” as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.’ "
"Richard Dawkins, whom I respect, partly understands this. He has said often that Darwinism is a science, not an ethic. Turn natural selection into a code of conduct and you get disaster. But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem. Let someone else worry about it."
Right, well perhaps this is true of some atheists, but it doesn't mean that the problem of secular ethics isn't soluble.   The thing is that despite the fact that the theory and process of evolution is almost as  profound and as universal as it can get, and indeed, for example, that ethical knowledge is highly likely to improve through an evolutionary process of hypothesis and criticism, there is nothing so over-arching about the violent side of natural selection that would mean that it would necessarily be required to form the basis of an ethical system.  Really, we are not bound by a constant fight for survival and a limit upon consciousness and choices.   Since morality is all about seeking ways of living well, we can surely seek better solutions than living and dying by the sword.
Despite the current limits on our understanding of the laws of epistemology and the workings of the human brain, it appears that plenty of ethical problems can already be pretty satisfactorily solved, (with the proviso that apparent solutions could always be improved upon of course, since most atheists sensibly accept the tentative and improvable nature of knowledge).     
Just for starters, how about this for one simple but hugely significant line in secular ethics:  an improvement upon the "Do as you will be done by" ethic. ...(didn't that always grate so badly?)  Fear not though, that problem is largely solved since those of libertarian leaning have for a long time grasped the fact that not everyone wishes to be treated in the same way that you would treat yourself...that others don't want to be loved as you would love yourself, for example.   Instead, they appreciate that the real problem is coercion and that the reason that coercion is a problem is not because of some inexplicable god-given diktat,  but because of how the human mind actually works.  
In this case, if one accepts (and a simple check of personal experience will suffice here), that coercion inhibits the capacity to reason and be creative for the reason that it forces one to enact a theory that is not active in the mind, it follows that if we value our lives, as we often appear to pretty instinctively, we will therefore  see the value of solving problems and will therefore do our utmost to maximize rationality and creativity by avoiding coercion whenever possible.  This doesn't mean "do as you would be done by" and it doesn't mean self-coercion.  It means seeking win-win solutions.  
This is a secular ethic with a profound and real explanation and wide-reaching implications which is so far removed from the nature red in tooth and claw of Rabbi Sacks' imaginings. 
Yep, give us time and the internet, and atheists are quite able to produce a very satisfactory explanation-derived ethics.  And for the reason for the importance of explanations and other good examples of secular ethics, you couldn't do better than to start with this book:  "Beginning of Infinity.  Explanations that Transform the World", by quantum physicist David Deutsch and of course, "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris.
UPDATE:  for a brilliant riposte to Sack's article, see the letter in this week's Speccie.

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