Erik Larson

Sep 27, 2007

Sliding scale ethics

A quick note on Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. Harris excoriates religion (most of his points I agree with), and then sees, rightly, that what follows froma large scale rejection of historic religion as thebasis for morality is a conceptual hole that will need to be filled. His answer: scientific realism about ethics. Not sure how persuasive he is defending sr —the task, once it becomes philosophical, becomes correspondingly difficult anyway—but certainly I agree with him that some ethical intuitions we (mostly) all share. What we need is a framework within which to apply the intuitions. More specifically:

  1. Identify the most universal ethical intuitions. These are the cross cultural beliefs about rightness and wrongness. (Call these “top tier” or “first order” ethical intuitions?).

  2. Set up a system whereby our justification for acting is a function of how directly these ethical intuitions can undewrite the actions. So we’re really off the scales when arguing for waging a war against infidels by the killing of innocents. But, with something like a first trimester abortion, the universal ethical intuitions aren’t doing as much work. (The easiest way to see this is that reasonable people still, manifestly, disagree.) Our tolerance then for opposing views ought to be higher— in principle higher—given the murkier epistemic waters we’re now swimming. And, oh, of course: the Golden Rule fares quite well in this admittedly hasty scheme I’ve sketched.