A New Way to Think of Right and Wrong

This post is inspired by Sam Harris’ TED talk. However, I may not necessarily believe everything I’m about to write. I’ll explain that at the end.

It is traditionally held that science — both the thinking and the method — has nothing to say about morality. Its genius is in telling us how the world is the way it is, but it can never really tell us why. It can teach us about the planet, but it can never provide a good enough rationale for why we should take care of it.

For these whys and so whats, we traditionally turn to religion, or at the least, to culture. There is nothing intrinsic in knowing the amazing complexity of the human anatomy that tells us why we should take care of it (actually, this complexity compels a class of people to slice it up and take it apart), but in grasping the notion that we were created in the loving image of a benign creator, we begin to take heed. That class of people who slice it up and take it apart then do so with caution — and usually only on the lifeless — and do so with the purpose of learning about it and then using this knowledge to better the lives of their fellow human beings. It is this very value that makes them surgeons, not butchers.

And that value cannot be derived from scientific fact, but from religious doctrine. Hence, the division of labor: science tells us how, religion tells us why. But is that really true? What if we treat a value as a statement of fact? Because, in a large way, it is.

The surgeon, knowing that he and his fellow men are created in the image of God, will never — even with all his expertise — walk up to a pedestrian, pounce on him, and conduct open heart surgery on the sidewalk. That religious belief instills in him a respect for human beings, thus setting boundaries on what he can and cannot do to fellow human beings. The way this religious belief operates in this surgeon is not as an opinion (“I think it’s not okay to hurt another person in public”) but as fact (“I know it isn’t okay to hurt another person in public”). Hence, value is a statement of fact.

But we don’t even have to go to religion.

In Philippine society, we cannot go to work naked (and I think this is true for most societies). We eat food three times a day (and we reach out to those who can’t). We do our best to finish school. We work hard to earn a living. We respect the wisdom of our elders. We hold the family in high esteem. I can go on and on. All these are values. And to those who hold them, they are statements of fact. To be particular, it is a fact we know about our well-being. It’s something we know we have or do in order to live a better life.

However, what happens when values come into conflict?

I’m not referring to simple differences in taste (I like white chocolate over milk chocolate) or aesthetic preferences (I live the combination of blue and orange). I’m referring to a real difference of opinion over how best to live our lives.

In the heat of the RH Bill this past week, I began reading up on Mechai Viravaidya. He is affectionately known in Thailand as “The Condom King”. Since 1974, Mr. Mechai has initiated community-based family planning services as the center of a poverty reduction program. Essentially, he gave out condoms for free to anyone who would — or even would not — take it. In a TED video that has to be seen to be believed, a Buddhist monk blessed him on his journey. And at the height of the AIDs epidemic in Thailand, his program helped reduced HIV cases by 90% percent — ninety percent! He’s a hero in Thailand, and an advocate of reproductive health all over the world.

And yet, not too far away, a neighbor with a majority-Catholic population is at a 14-year logjam over a Reproductive Health Bill. At the heart of the fight is the country’s Catholic Church, holding its line against a bill that will provide free condoms (among other contraceptives) and reproductive health education and services all using taxpayer money. With the majority of the taxpayers being Catholic, and having been taught that the purpose of the sexual act is to create a child, the moral dilemma of this public policy is clear as day. There can be no promotion of artificial methods of contraception therefore, in a country where majority is taught to use only natural means. This belief then informs other arguments: that overpopulation isn’t the real problem, that the economy should be grown instead, that the politicians — corrupt as they are — are trying to control the population instead of changing their own ways.

Therefore, who is right? With values coming into conflict, who holds the better argument: The Condom King or the Catholic Church?

Note that these two aren’t even engaged in a debate. We are looking at two different values in two different cultures. Ah, there’s the problem then! These are two different cultures! There are different contexts here. Different dynamics!

And yet when we see images of Afghan women wearing a burka under the scorching heat of the sun. Or when we hear of the latest drunken mishap of the likes of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears. Or when we learn of girls in Africa being stoned to death by her own father after finding out she was raped. Or when a golf superstar commits adultery. Or when we see the images of the Twin Towers crumbling to the ground after terrorists drove a plane into them with the belief that heavenly rewards await them. When we encounter these we don’t choke it up to cultural differences. All these scenarios represent values of a sort, and we know it in our gut that there is something wrong.

Often we think — who are we to say if the Condom King or the Catholic Church were right? Indeed. But who are we not to?

For when we take values as statements of facts, then they can be subjected to experience, to research, to tests. Thus the implication being that it is possible for a person, or an entire society even, to believe in the wrong things.

The Catholic Church once considered Hindu-Arabic numerals as the work of Satan. They cast out whoever believed that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but merely one planet revolving around a sun. And there used to be a time when it was forbidden to say Mass in any language other than Latin. All of these are in the past.

In the midst of the RH bill row, I confronted a Catholic seminarian with this question: What if you’re wrong? And he began to enumerate the examples above. The Church, he says, is always in a process of discernment. The will of the Holy Spirit is a mystery that continues to be revealed.

I respect that. However the implication of discernment is that one must be ready to be wrong. And in the seeming uncompromising stance of the Church on the RH bill, they don’t come across as being in discernment. But to be fair, I suppose it is indeed difficult for an institution that premises itself on being the Truth, the Way, and the Life to be wrong. The only difference now, is that they are living in a world where that isn’t necessarily true.


[Now for the caveat]

I mentioned in the caveat that I may not necessarily believe in what I wrote. These ideas are not mine, but an application of the ideas currently being set forth by Sam Harris in his upcoming book, “The Moral Landscape”. For a preview, you can listen to his amazing TED talk.

So why don’t I buy all of it?

Just this: Because if Harris’ views reflect his values, then it is possible — empirically — that he is also wrong. It is a self-defeating proposition.

In philosophical terms, Harris is more of a moral realist. It is a certain view that presupposes that there is a standard for right behavior that can be discerned through empirical observation. This is opposite of the moral anti-realist or even the moral relativist, which is more humanistic in the sense that they take into account context, history, and levels of meaning. Perhaps a prime example of this is Karen Armstrong (a person I can describe more a ‘moral pluralist’) in her view that all religions are true in their own contexts and they really just speak about achieving One Thing (Nirvana, Moksha, God, Way — all One Thing).

Harris’ view is useful in public policy, I think, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good politics. Armstrong is the opposite. I think there is great wisdom in listening to both, but where does that lead me? Moral realist or moral pluralist?

You very well know that I’m not a fan of isms.


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