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The party will go on without you February 26, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion.

In a recent debate between Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Bradley Artson on the topic “Is there an afterlife?”,  the rabbis repeatedly played the “sophisticated theology” card: when faced with a rational challenge to the core doctrines of your religion — doctrines that millions of people really believe and are motivated by (that the Bible stories are true, that the dead will be resurrected, etc.) — you accuse your opponent of caricaturing faith and ignoring religious “nuance.” Apparently, no prophet or sage ever meant anything literally: it’s all metaphor and allegory and peace and love. The unsophisticated masses have hijacked the true religion and misunderstood the true nature of God!

After one such move by Artson, Hitchens remarked that this is why he never tires of debating religious people: you never know what they’ll say next.

This evening we’ve already had your suggestion that God is only really a guru — a friend when you’re in need. I mean, he wouldn’t do anything like bugger around with Job to prove a point. Which, if I now tell you that must mean that that book is not the word of God, you’d say: Well, who ever believed that it was the word of God? Let me just tell you something: For hundreds and thousands of years, this kind of discussion would have been in most places impossible to have, or Sam and I would have been having it at the risk of our lives. Religion now comes to us in this smiling-face, ingratiating way, because it’s had to give so much ground, and because we know so much more. But you’ve no right to forget the way it behaved when it was strong, and when it really did believe that it had God on its side.

Earlier, Hitchens reflected on what religion is actually offering when it promises eternal life:

It will happen to all of us, that at some point you get tapped on the shoulder and told, not just that the party’s over, but slightly worse: the party’s going on — but you have to leave. And it’s going on without you. That’s the reflection that I think most upsets people about their demise. All right, then, because it might make us feel better, let’s pretend the opposite. Instead, you’ll get tapped on the shoulder and told, Great news: this party’s going on forever — and you can’t leave. You’ve got to stay; the boss says so. And he also insists that you have a good time.


Ian McEwan in Jerusalem February 23, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Literature.
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Ian McEwan attended the Jerusalem International Book Fair this week, where he accepted the Jerusalem Prize for “Freedom of the Individual in Society.” (Previous recipients include Bertrand Russell, Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller…) I attended a public talk between McEwan and Israeli writer Meir Shalev.

While discussing how they came to be writers by first being readers, Shalev recalled being given David Copperfield by his father around the age of twelve, but being unable to get past the part where young David is beaten by his stepfather. McEwan then told of reading Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Benjamin Bunny to his young son. When they reached the part where Benjamin’s father beats him with a switch (for going back into Mr. McGregor’s garden with his cousin Peter Rabbit), McEwan’s son was shocked, saying: “How could he hit him? He’s his father!” McEwan admitted that this reaction caused him to blush with pride.

The subject of human morality and cooperation kept reappearing throughout the talk. McEwan said that the work of Isaiah Berlin (another recipient of the Jerusalem Prize) taught him to be wary of utopian thinking: those who believe they will bring about the perfect human society often think that 20 million deaths along the way is a small price to pay. (Omelets and eggs, as they say.) In his writing, McEwan often examines the moral dilemmas, large and small, that are thrust upon us. In Enduring Love, inspired by a true incident, several strangers find themselves holding on to a runaway hot air balloon with a child inside. If they all stand fast, they can keep it down; but if some let go, the balloon will get away — and you don’t want to be the last one still hanging on. McEwan observed that being moral is easy when everyone is doing it; but when others behave immorally, looking out for yourself begins to seem more and more rational.

There is a strong undercurrent of chance in McEwan’s writing as well. Shalev asked him if he sees religion or God playing a part in human stories. “I have no God,” said McEwan. “But maybe God has you?” suggested Shalev. “Only the God I invented,” replied McEwan: “God is man-made.” In Atonement, Briony must come to terms with the fact that there is no one greater than herself who can forgive her for the injury she caused.

McEwan sees the novel as an inherently secular medium, where “coincidence or human machinations, not God, order destinies.” We are all, to a great degree, products of randomness: we would not even exist if our parents had not happened to meet. McEwan recalled that whenever he drives by a car accident, he recognizes that if he would have left home a mere 90 seconds earlier, he might have been involved in the disaster himself; and yet, he doesn’t think the world is all about him — that someone meant for him to be saved while others died. It’s just chance.

Both writers acknowledged how ideas come to them in random times and places, which is why they always carry a notebook and pen. Shalev recounted how a pickpocket in Italy once stole a notebook containing ideas for the novel he was working on (while leaving his wallet). Shalev was devastated. Then he thought: What would an Italian pickpocket do with a notebook full of Hebrew? He’ll surely throw it away. After wandering the streets for half a day, Shalev finally found his ideas in a garbage bin. At first he was insulted, but then he felt a surge of happiness and relief — like finding a lost child.

McEwan then told the story of how, when jet-lagged in a foreign country, he once left his notebook beside his cup of coffee on a restaurant table while he went to the bathroom. When he returned, only the coffee remained. He was convinced that the notebook had been full of great writing that he would never be able to reconstruct. Eighteen months later, the notebook was shoved through his letter box inside a plain brown envelope. McEwan flung the door open, but there was no one in the street. He opened his long lost notebook and reread what he had written — only to discover that it was full of banalities.

Tony Blair wants more “respect” for “faith” February 19, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Politics, Reason, Religion.

Tony BlairTony Blair loves the words “faith” and “respect,” and he especially loves using them together. He established the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, whose mission is “to promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.” What Blair actually means by “respect” is refraining from criticism — because, don’t you know, the world’s social problems are caused by not being understanding enough of other cultures and not being open enough toward their traditions:

A new type of debate is taking shape… In the Middle East, it is about whether the West fundamentally respects or does not the religion of Islam; and the Israel-Palestine dispute is caught up with it…

In meeting this challenge, democracy and even economic change are not enough. There is a social challenge too. Do we want societies that are open to those who have different faiths and cultures to our own traditions; or do we want, in the face of insecurity and economic crisis, to close down, to look after what some would call “our own” first and foremost? And if we want open ones, what are the conditions for such openness to prevail? The one lesson we learn unequivocally from Europe’s past is that when we close down, we lose…

The missing bit of Middle East policy is inter-faith. Because if the concern is that Muslims feel Islam is disrespected by the West, the answer is to engage in a dialogue that proves it isn’t. This begins in school, should be analysed and debated in university and should be grounded in political, social and cultural exchange…

But though the circumstances of the Middle East may be unique, the same necessity of understanding the importance of religion, can be found everywhere. In China… Faith shapes many lives. It is true of course of India. The same could be said in Latin America and even if the numbers of practicing worshippers in Europe is lower, the importance of Judeo-Christian culture is palpable. In the USA who could say religious faith doesn’t count? Would an atheist be elected president? Probably not.

Americans probably wouldn’t elect a homosexual president either, or a non-Christian for that matter, but what does that show? No one is denying that religion is widespread in our world, as is human prejudice, but that doesn’t mean that the former is any more a “force for good” than the latter.

Blair doesn’t seem to understand the distinction between respecting people’s rights and respecting their beliefs. He says that “Religious awareness is as important as gender or race awareness” — implying that saying something bad about a person’s religion is equivalent to sexism or racism. But you don’t choose your gender or race, while you do choose what to put your faith in. And rational argument can cause people to change their minds: if no one ever challenged bad ideas, we’d still be burning witches.

Why, then, should I respect a belief system that treats women as chattel, homosexuals as abominations, blasphemers and apostates as criminals — and wants to impose its irrational rules on everyone? Moreover, why should I respect faith at all — why should I respect the willingness to believe things for which there is no good evidence? That willingness is the true root of so many of the world’s conflicts, and that’s why Blair is on a fool’s errand. There is no way for a devout Christian and a devout Muslim to ever resolve their differences: they hold mutually incompatible dogmas. And once you give up reason as a method for solving disagreements, the only alternative is violence.

Resistance to science (and what we can do about it) February 17, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Evolution, Science, Superstition.
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In their article “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science, Paul Bloom and Deena Weisberg try to understand why 40 percent of Americans reject the well-established theory of evolution, why so many people believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions, and other such embarrassments. Resistance to science has important implications for our society: “a scientifically ignorant public is unprepared to evaluate policies about global warming, vaccination,  genetically modified organisms, stem cell research, and cloning.”

Alternative intuitions about the movement of a ball out of a curved tube

One problem is that scientific truths are often counter-intuitive. For example, which of the lines depicted to the right predicts the movement of a ball coming out of a curved tube? Many college students answer incorrectly, choosing B instead of A. Another common intuition that conflicts with modern science is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain. It’s hard for people to accept that mental life emerges from physical processes, but this misconception interferes with our debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals. As for evolution, studies show that children tend to exhibit “promiscuous teleology,” thinking that everything in the world has a purpose — e.g., clouds exist in order for us to have rain. This helps explain why evolution is more difficult to accept than creationism.

But what accounts for the significant differences in resistance to science between cultures, and for the different levels of resistance shown to different scientific theories within the same culture? Why, for example, are Americans more resistant to evolutionary theory than are citizens of most other countries, and why do they not resist other counter-intuitive theories, such as the germ theory of disease or heliocentrism? Bloom and Weisberg distinguish between a society’s “common knowledge” — information that is implicitly assumed and treated as certain, like electricity and germs — and knowledge that is explicitly asserted, and sometimes marked as tentative, like evolution. When faced with a claim of the latter kind, people often decide whether to accept it based on the deemed trustworthiness of its source; so resistance to science is especially strong when “there is a nonscientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are thought of as reliable and trustworthy.” In the U.S., for instance, nonscientific intuitions about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and animals “are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities.”

It seems to me, then, that we should be asking ourselves why people promoting these anti-scientific ideas are nevertheless considered reliable and trustworthy in our society. For comparison, notice that we no longer see many religious and political authorities proclaiming that the sun revolves around the earth, or that disease is caused by demons. Why not? Because nobody likes to be laughed at. The problem is that some ideas which should have been laughed off the face of the earth decades (if not centuries) ago are continuously treated with a respect they do not deserve. We live in a culture which, due to misplaced concerns about political correctness and fear of giving offense, often fails to put pressure on bad thinking and bad ideas, instead endorsing the absurd notion that all opinions on a subject are equally valid and must be treated with equal respect.

The U.K. government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, is mad as hell about this, and he’s not going to take it any more:

In closing remarks to an annual conference of around 300 scientific civil servants on 3 February, in London, Beddington said that selective use of science ought to be treated in the same way as racism and homophobia. “We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality…We are not—and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this—grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method,” he said.

[…] “I really would urge you to be grossly intolerant…We should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems.

“There are enough difficult and important problems out there without having to… deal with what is politically or morally or religiously motivated nonsense.”

Beddington also had harsh words for journalists who treat the opinions of non-scientist commentators as being equivalent to the opinions of what he called “properly trained, properly assessed” scientists. “The media see the discussions about really important scientific events as if it’s a bloody football match. It is ridiculous.”

Indeed it is: we do not show respect to Holocaust deniers, nor do we give equal air time to geocentrists, and we must behave likewise towards other discredited ideas like creationism, dualism, homeopathy, etc. If we are to successfully meet the challenges that face us, we must demand a higher level of intellectual honesty in our discourse, where people are expected to support their views rationally, and are ridiculed and marginalized if they cannot. We need more intolerance — of bad ideas.

Crossing red lines February 11, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Freedom, Religion.
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The police have been questioning several rabbis who wrote or endorsed the book The King’s Torah, which purports to present the Jewish “Laws of Life and Death between Israel and the Nations”:

“The prohibition ‘Thou Shalt Not Murder’” applies only “to a Jew who kills a Jew,” … Non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and attacks on them “curb their evil inclination,” while babies and children of Israel’s enemies may be killed since “it is clear that they will grow to harm us.”

Many rabbis who condemn the book’s contents, are nevertheless enraged over the police investigation, claiming that it violates freedom of expression. Thousands of people have rallied in support of Rabbi Dov Lior (who endorsed the book) — a warrant for his arrest was issued after he refused to appear for questioning.

“If the state declares that rabbis are not allowed to voice a political opinion, it will be like in the Soviet Union, where there were commissars who said what was allowed and what was forbidden,” Lior said at the rally. “It is inconceivable that a little official in the Justice Ministry can say what rabbis are permitted to do.” …

[MK Michael Ben Ari] added: “Issuing an arrest warrant against a great Torah figure of such magnitude, when all this is about is the backing he gave to a book, is a crossing of a red line, McCarthyism … Would they have behaved this way against an academic of the left?”

Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, a settlement leader and former Knesset member, said the rally was to “protest the desecration of the soul of the State of Israel. Rabbis are the soul of the state. Their dignity must not be harmed.”

First of all, it is always nice to hear rabbis supporting freedom of expression, which is a modern, secular value — in the Bible, criticizing your leaders gets you killed. But the rabbis have apparently failed to understand another fundamental democratic principle: rule of law. Freedom of expression can rightfully be limited when it conflicts with other rights — as in cases of incitement to violence. And if the law has been broken, then no one deserves special allowances because of who he is, or because his motivation happened to be religious. If anything, since rabbis are community leaders whose words can have great impact, one would expect them to be held (and to hold themselves) to a higher standard.

We can only stand in awe at the hypocrisy of those who go ballistic over the slightest infringement of their own freedom or dignity, but care nothing for the rights of others (such as the right not to be discriminated against or killed just because of your nationality). One might almost think the Torah is not such a good source of moral guidance after all.

Saints and heroes February 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy.
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Is it possible for an action to be morally good but not morally obligatory? In other words, is there such a thing (in ethics) as going beyond the call of duty?

In his 1958 paper “Saints and Heroes”, philosopher J. O. Urmson brings the example of a doctor who volunteers to join the depleted medical forces in a plague-stricken city (whom we would call a “saint”), or a soldier who throws himself on a grenade in order to save his comrades (whom we would call a “hero”). Such actions are considered morally worthy, but are they obligatory? Urmson maintains that while moral obligations “can be extracted from a man like a debt,” we could not say that a doctor who didn’t volunteer for a plague-stricken city, or a soldier who didn’t throw himself on a grenade, has failed in his duty; and no one could ever tell someone else he ought to do such a deed. Therefore, ethical systems must allow for actions that are morally praiseworthy but optional.

Urmson thinks it is essential to distinguish, in principle, between those minimum requirements necessary for us to live together in a society (like keeping promises and refraining from stealing) — which may be grounded in self-interest, or a desire to avoid the worst possible outcome for everyone — and actions inspired by a positive ideal. He offers an analogy to membership in a club: the club rules are basic requirements that are a condition of membership, but there is an important distinction between those members who merely follow the rules, and those who go beyond the call of duty and contribute to the club by doing things that are not (and could not be) demanded in the rules.

According to Urmson, moral obligations must conform to restrictions similar to those we would place on a legal system: moral duties must be “within the capacity of the ordinary man,” and must be “formulable in rules of manageable complexity.” Passing a law which most people are incapable of obeying merely serves to weaken the general respect for the law (as was the case with the prohibition of alcohol in the Unites States in the early twentieth century); and the “ordinary man” must be able to understand and apply the laws on his own — precluding laws that require complex judgment calls (i.e., that do not concern behavior which is almost invariably good or bad). These considerations would seem to bolster Urmson’s argument that saintly and heroic acts cannot be considered moral obligations.

Elizabeth Pybus, however, rejects the analogy between moral duty and legal systems. She argues that the set of obligations we have as moral agents — as people — is not readily codifiable as a list of simple rules. For example, even relatively absolute moral precepts, like keeping promises and avoiding murder, clearly admit of contextual exceptions that may require nontrivial judgment calls — like not returning a borrowed weapon to someone who intends to misuse it, or killing a robber who threatens to shoot a hostage.

Moreover, why should our determination of what is morally right be dependent on how difficult it may be for some people to do it? Pybus maintains that any moral commendation of an action (including the heroic and the saintly) commits us to the view that others ought to do the same in similar circumstances, and that those who do not should be regarded as falling short of the moral ideal. Contrary to Urmson’s assumption, however, it does not follow that we must always go around demanding that other people perform such actions — just as we do not do so for some of Urmson’s “basic rules,” like honesty (though we may still be silently judgmental).

Pybus argues that morality is not a set of socially or legally imposed rules, but a realization of attainable values that we ought to strive for. Morality is a matter of “evaluation and action intertwined,” where our moral evaluations commit us to actions, and our moral actions are an attempt to bring about what we regard as worthwhile. If saints and heroes have done something morally good, then we all ought to be like them.

This does not mean that everyone must do exactly what they have done. It is not necessary (or desirable) for all soldiers to throw themselves on grenades or for all doctors to go to plague-ridden cities, and most of us will never find ourselves facing those specific dilemmas anyway. But if we think that certain acts of self-endangerment or self-sacrifice are good, we must believe that we too ought to perform self-endangering or self-sacrificing actions, in whatever way is appropriate to our own circumstances. Different things are difficult for different people. By praising saints and heroes, we are actually praising certain dispositions or virtues — having the courage to do what is morally necessary. And that is required of everyone: someone who goes through life fulfilling only the most basic moral requirements can be faulted. “Keeping the basic rules is not enough.”

Still, it might seem that an ethical system where every morally worthy deed is obligatory is somehow impoverished. Urmson fears that under such a system, the value of people’s most charitable and courageous acts is diminished, since they are reduced to mere fulfillment of demands. While we have no choice but to force compliance with the basic rules, free choice is generally better than constraint. It would be preferable for goodness to be encouraged rather than demanded, so that virtuous acts are done for their own sake and not from a desire to avoid condemnation.

But this concern seems misplaced. Performing an action that you deem to be morally obligatory does not amount to doing it because others demand it — presumably, you consider the action obligatory because you recognize its value. (And as previously mentioned, judging an action to be a moral duty does not necessarily require public condemnation of those who don’t do it.) Pybus argues that in distinguishing between a morality of duty and a higher morality of aspiration, Urmson unnecessarily lowers the concept of duty, while putting his ideals outside morality altogether: “I cannot at the same time say that something is a moral ideal, and feel that I have no sort of obligation to pursue it.” Moral commendation of an act implies that it exemplifies a morally worthwhile ideal; in which case it follows that we all ought to act in pursuit of that ideal.

So it seems to me that all morally relevant actions fall on a single continuum: there is no principled distinction between basic duties and the actions of heroes and saints, since they all derive their value from the same standard. We can still give special praise to those individuals who managed to do the right thing in especially difficult circumstances where many others might not have; but in doing so, we are recognizing that those saints and heroes have succeeded in being what we all ought to be.

It’s a miracle! February 7, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion, Superstition.
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Imagine that while you and your family are away on vacation, a friend burns your house down. Would you feel the need to thank him for it?

Ikea’s Netanya branch burnt to the ground Saturday in a fire that cost the company over a $100 million, but CEO of Ikea Israel, Shlomi Gabbai, sees the positive side.

“The fact that we are a company that observes the Sabbath and has a kosher only restaurant protected us. A great miracle happened here in that the fire broke out on the Sabbath when the store was closed, so no [one] was killed or even injured,” he said.

A great miracle

Let me get this straight. Good things happen — praise the Lord; bad things happen — praise the Lord. It is a miracle!

Here’s a thought for you, Mr. Gabbai: maybe your store burned down on a day it was closed because on any other day, the fire would have been noticed immediately and extinguished before it got out of control?

And by the way, I know plenty of non-kosher, Sabbath-desecrating restaurants that are alive and well, so maybe a 24/7 seafood diner will do a better job of “protecting” your establishment next time.

The only miracle here is that intelligent people fall for this racket.

(via Religion and State in Israel)

There’s no such thing as a Jewish democracy February 4, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Equality, Politics, Religion.
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Arye Carmon, Mordechai Kremnitzer and Yedidia Stern, of the Israel Democracy Institute, are rightfully worried about the state of Israeli democracy: there seems to have been a recent increase in discriminatory laws, incitement to violence, racist rhetoric, etc.

The above phenomena are related to the ongoing struggle over Israel’s dual identity as a Jewish and democratic state, which has been under attack for years … The main source of energy that is feeding this attack is a distorted interpretation of the Jewish character of the state, which pits Israel’s Jewish character against its democratic principles…

Another aspect of the attack on democracy has its origins in religious beliefs… A number of Rabbis have challenged the validity of Knesset decisions, while others are pressing impressionable youth to disobey military commanders. The infamous “Rabbis’ Letter,” which prohibits the rental of property in Israel to non-Jews, has tried to make use of religious values to prevent equal rights for Arab citizens. At the most extreme fringe, we have witnessed systematic distortions of the Torah that permit violence and bloodshed aimed at non-Jews.

The Zionist Israeli center—religious and secular alike—must take responsibility for the Jewish character of the state and not leave this task in the hands of radicals who are not committed to democracy.  It must fight for the humanistic interpretations of Jewish sources in order to develop a nation state that respects the “Other” and treats those who are different in the classical Jewish spirit, following the precepts “and you shall love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19) and “the stranger will be like a citizen” (Leviticus 24:22).

I agree that Israeli democracy is in trouble, and I support some of the political reforms proposed by Carmon et al.; but I think they are confused about the root of the problem — and hence about the solution we should be aiming for. This confusion is illustrated by their appeal to “the classical Jewish spirit,” supported by Biblical quotations — while it is a plain fact that for every Bible verse which seems to promote tolerance and coexistence, there are ten verses (at least) that promote xenophobia, intolerance, discrimination and racism. Anyone who thinks that legitimizing “violence and bloodshed aimed at non-Jews” requires “systematic distortions of the Torah” has not read it. So if we want a liberal democracy, sending people to Jewish sources for inspiration is not a good idea.

The deeper issue is that quoting scripture in this way legitimizes appeals to tradition and authority, when we should be stressing the opposite: just because something is in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s right. We need to talk clearly about why we don’t want to live in the type of society recommended by Jewish scripture. All positions on public matters ought to be rationally defended, and we can then keep the good ideas (even if they are foreign to Judaism) and get rid of the bad ones (even if they are ancient Jewish traditions). What we need is not “humanistic interpretations of Jewish sources;” we need to argue the merits of humanism — and equality, and liberty, and rule of law, etc. — without anchoring ourselves to traditions that reject these values.

What Israel most desperately needs is complete separation between religion and the state. The government must not be allowed to pass any law privileging one religion over another, or privileging religion over non-religion. Tax money should not be used to support religious institutions. The government must not be in the business of determining a person’s religion or adjudicating religious questions. Such actions are inherently discriminatory, and they are the source of many of our never-ending political problems. For example, it is simply intolerable that two Israeli citizens who wish to marry cannot do so if they are of different religions (as determined by the state), or if they do not wish to go through certain religious rituals.

The only sense in which Israel can legitimately be a “Jewish state” is in an unofficial sense: Israel is a state with a Jewish majority, and this fact has obvious (and legitimate) implications on its culture. But a state with an officially privileged religion cannot be fully democratic. Jews immigrated to Israel to avoid discrimination in their homelands; but by officially designating Israel a Jewish state, we become guilty of discrimination ourselves.

Could science prove that vanilla is better than chocolate? February 1, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Science.

Science can undoubtedly help us get what we want, but could science ever tell us what we ought to want, or what we ought to value? Sam Harris thinks so: he argues that the only reasonable source of value in this universe is the well-being of conscious creatures, which is constrained by the laws of nature — placing morality under the purview of science. But if that were true — so goes one of the criticisms Harris engages — couldn’t we say the same for any aspect of human subjectivity or culture?

after all, a preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream is a natural phenomenon, as is a preference for the comic Sarah Silverman over Bob Hope. Are we to imagine that there are universal truths about ice cream and comedy that admit of scientific analysis?

Clearly, science might tell us a lot about why certain people prefer chocolate over vanilla or find some jokes funnier than others. But could science ever conclude that chocolate is objectively better than vanilla or that Sarah Silverman is objectively funnier than Bob Hope? Could we ever say that someone’s preference on such matters was wrong?

[…] I don’t think the distinction between morality and something like taste is as clear or as categorical as we might suppose. If, for instance, a preference for chocolate ice cream allowed for the most rewarding experience a human being could have, while a preference for vanilla did not, we would deem it morally important to help people overcome any defect in their sense of taste that caused them to prefer vanilla — in the same way that we currently treat people for curable forms of blindness. It seems to me that the boundary between mere aesthetics and moral imperative — the difference between not liking Matisse and not liking the Golden Rule — is more a matter of there being higher stakes, and consequences that reach into the lives of others, than of there being distinct classes of facts regarding the nature of human experience.

It’s surely possible for a person to have values or desires that lead to unnecessary suffering (for himself as well as for others) — and that would seem to be an objectively bad situation. An interesting way to think about this is to imagine a world where we could change people’s values and desires.

Consider how we would view a situation in which all of us miraculously began to behave so as to maximize our collective well-being. Imagine that on the basis of remarkable breakthroughs in technology, economics, and politic skill, we create a genuine utopia on earth. Needless to say, this wouldn’t be boring, because we will have wisely avoided all the boring utopias. Rather, we will have created a global civilization of astonishing creativity, security, and happiness.

However, some people were not ready for this earthly paradise once it arrived. Some were psychopaths who, despite enjoying the general change in quality of life, were nevertheless eager to break into their neighbors’ homes and torture them from time to time. A few had preferences that were incompatible with the flourishing of whole societies: Try as he might, Kim Jong Il just couldn’t shake the feeling that his cognac didn’t taste as sweet without millions of people starving beyond his palace gates. Given our advances in science, however, we were able to alter preferences of this kind. In fact, we painlessly delivered a firmware update to everyone. Now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be.

It seems to me that this scenario cuts through the worry that the concept of well-being might leave out something that is worth caring about: for if you care about something that is not compatible with a peak of human flourishing — given the requisite changes in your brain, you would recognize that you were wrong to care about this thing in the first place. Wrong in what sense? Wrong in the sense that you didn’t know what you were missing. This is the core of my argument: I am claiming that there must be frontiers of human well-being that await our discovery — and certain interests and preferences surely blind us to them.

Well, I guess it would be nice to be rid of murder, rape, theft, etc… But I, for one, would rather die a vanilla lover than live in some utopia where everyone prefers chocolate!