November 16, 2010

Knowing right from wrong

By Father Thomas Berg *

American culture is happily awash of late with appeals to human reason.

Case in point is a new book by ultra anti-religionist Sam Harris. Although the fundamental thesis of The Moral Landscape -- that "science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviors...are morally good" -- is quite a stretch even by secular standards, Harris nonetheless does a couple of remarkable things for a leading public atheist.

First he insists that a knowledge of right and wrong should be a matter of objective, straightforward human knowledge, thus dismissing three centuries of philosophers who, in one form or another, have insisted that 'the good' does not name some objective quality at all, but only serves to euphemistically veil our own personal preferences: 'X is morally good' means nothing but 'I like X and I want you to like X too'.

More fascinating still is his insistence that both sides of the culture wars -- the Evangelical Christian right just as surely as the hard core champions of reductionist evolutionary psychology -- have erred in their notions of how we determine right from wrong, and this because they have failed to understand the full possibilities of human reason. "[A] shared belief in the limitations of reason," affirms Harris, "lies at the bottom of [our] cultural divides." Both sides of the 'culture wars', he insists, "believe that reason is powerless to answer the most important questions in human life."

One cannot read this without the uncanny sense that Harris was somehow channeling another renowned critic of western thought, and one of Harris's own arch nemeses -- Benedict XVI. Readers of this column will already be familiar with similar assessments of western thought penned by Benedict (then Joseph Ratzinger) in his seminal work Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures

It is true that the positivist philosophies contain important elements of truth; but these are based on a self-limitation of reason that is typical of one determined cultural situation, that of the modern West, and, as such, certainly cannot be considered the last word of reason... This is why they are not the philosophy which one day could enjoy validity throughout the whole world.

With Harris, Benedict roundly rejects the misshapen conceptions about human reason on both sides of the culture wars. Our highly technological and procedural western culture has found great use for reason in an era dominated by largely pragmatic concerns; but it has found little use for reason on the big questions like the existence of God, and what ultimately constitutes right and wrong moral choices. And this is as true of the staunchest secularists as of many of the most Bible-based Christian evangelicals: reason is of little help on these matters.

Now, when Harris speaks of 'human reason', he means the drawing of conclusions from empirically based knowledge -- that and nothing more. When Benedict, and more broadly the natural law tradition, speaks of 'human reason', we mean, in addition to this, our ability to grasp innate truths about ourselves which are manifest to us independently of empirical evidence. For example, I do not need to be taught, much less convinced by recent studies, that the trafficking of children to fuel the international porn industry constitutes a grave moral evil. While Harris would undoubtedly concede trafficking of children is manifestly evil, he would hold, however, that such evidence is based on centuries of accrued human experience, not on the almost instantaneous insights of human reason.

True to form, Harris' disparagement of religion in The Moral Landscape is as boundless as his exaltation of the hard sciences. Yet, Harris, Benedict and the tradition actually agree that (a) morality is ultimately rooted in an objective understanding of what fulfills us as human beings; and that (b) an understanding of the behaviors that are corrosive to that fulfillment can be known objectively and transculturally. That's not bad for two otherwise highly disparate thinkers. It is a crying shame in fact that Harris is apparently so clueless about the Catholic natural law tradition. If he would just for a moment set aside his over-the-top diatribes against formal religion, and read his Benedict more carefully, he might just find good reason to think perhaps we believers are not so wacked after all.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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