We had a fun evening on Friday—a crowd of a few hundred people sat down to consider the problem of a morality at the University of Chicago. At the front of the room we had Bob Bossie (a very liberal Catholic), Sunsara Taylor (a very articulate Communist) and me to make a few opening remarks and open the floodgates of questions from the audience. It was interesting and thoughtful, and nothing at all like this incredible session on Fox News.
Let me emphasize that Bob was not that crazy priest in the video, declaring that godlessness meant the death of hope and the decline of your money making ability, that socialism and secularism were a failure, and capitalism was the only economic philosophy that could possibly lead to morality. That is, Bob was not freaking insane. He does believe in God, but his God seems to be a superfluous entity bobbing on top of a core of very humanist values, and when he talked about what he really cared about, it was communities of people.
Taylor’s position was very similar in a lot of ways — that we need to change the world through liberation of the oppressed, and the way to do that was through revolutionary Communism. In her case, though, the philosophical justification wasn’t at all superfluous — Communism was the best strategy for bringing about change. We had a little set of questions we’d worked out before the event, and she had the advantage of us all in providing the most coherent answers to them…I just don’t think she’s entirely right. I don’t like the idea of a revolution led by a vanguard, I’m more of an evolution driven by the education and inspiration of the masses kind of guy.
Here are the answers to our guiding questions that I gave (sort of) in my opening remarks.
1. Can science provide a morality to change the world?
Science merely describes what is, not what should be, and it also takes a rather universal view: science as science takes no sides on matters relevant to a particular species, and would not say that an ape is more important than a mouse is more important than a rock. Don’t ask science to tell you what to do when making some fine-grained moral decision, because that is not what science is good at.
What science is, is a policeman of the truth. What it’s very good at is telling you when a moral decision is being made badly, in opposition to the facts. If you try to claim that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural, science can provide you a long list of animals that practice homosexuality freely, naturally, and with no ill consequences. If you try to claim that abortion is bad because it has horrible physiological consequences to pregnant women, science will provide you with the evidence that it does no such thing, and also that childbirth is far more physiologically debilitating.
If you want to claim that homosexuals should be stoned to death because the Bible says so, science will tell you yep, that’s what it says, and further, we’ll point out that the Abrahamic religions seem to be part of a culturally successful and relatively stable matrix. “Science”, if we’re imagining it as some institutional entity in the world, really doesn’t care — there is no grand objective morality, no goal or purpose to life other than survival over multiple generations, and it could dispassionately conclude that many cultures with moral rules that we might personally consider abhorrent can be viable.
However, I would suggest that science would also concede that we as a species ought to support a particular moral philosophy, not because it is objectively superior, but because it is subjectively the proper emphasis of humanity…and that philosophy is humanism. In the same way, of course, we’d also suggest that cephalopods would ideally follow the precepts of cephalopodism.
So don’t look to science for a moral philosophy: look to humanism. Humanism says that we should strive to maximize the long-term welfare and happiness of humans; that we should look to ourselves, not to imaginary beings in the sky or to the imperatives written down in old books, to aspire to something better, something more coherent and successful at promoting our existence on the planet.
Science wouldn’t disagree. But it would be a kind of passive agreement that says, sure, nothing in that idea is in violation of reality, go for it. It would also be egging the cephalopods on, though.
2. Are science, religion, and communism complementary, conflictual or mutually exclusive of one another?
Science and religion are definitely in conflict. Again, science is only acting as a policeman, though: it’s firing up the sirens and flashing lights to pull over the priests and tell them that claiming authority on the basis of an imaginary man in the sky is fallacious and discredits your entire paradigm. Rethink the basis of your beliefs, and maybe we can get along.
I think science and communism are also in conflict, but perhaps less dramatically so. There, we have to point out an empirical problem, that communist societies haven’t fared so well. The concession I would have to make is that communism is a young philosophy, unlike religion, so it can be excused to some degree for being at the start of the learning curve. I find it a little hard to excuse some of the human costs of communism, but then science also has had human costs.
But science isn’t a moral philosophy. I’ve proposed humanism as our tool; are communism and religion in conflict with that? And that’s where the answer gets murkier, because more progressive versions of those philosophies all seem to converge on humanism, anyway. The quest for social justice is a humanist ideal, and it’s also front and center in communism and liberal religion; you can be either of those and also be a humanist. I wouldn’t exactly call them complementary, but I would call them compatible.
3. How will we motivate people, and with what moral paradigm to change the world?
As I’ve said repeatedly, science doesn’t provide a morality. What it does provide, and what I optimistically and subjectively think will motivate people, is that it provides rigor and a path to the truth of the world. I know, I could be cynical and suggest that what people really want is delusions, distractions, and reassurances to help them hide away from reality — but what I’ve noticed is that people who accept reality seem to be better able to deal with it, and are often happier and more content. And further, they are better prepared to change the actual world, rather than burying themselves deeper in their fantasies.
All three of us disagreed on many things…but trust me, this wasn’t Fox News. It wasn’t a coterie of flaming idiots, for one thing.