(Would it be) be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings? Provided that we take the time to really imagine the details (which is not easy), I think the answer is clearly “yes.” There seems no reason to suppose that we must occupy the highest peak on the moral landscape.
I came across this quote from Sam Harris in a review of his new book The Moral Landscape, and I found it startling. I’ve never understood why some people are attracted to atheism. Agnosticism, provided it springs from honest doubt, I can understand. But it seems to me that to claim with certainty that there is no God is to make a religious claim, given that the claim is unproveable and must therefore rest on faith. Atheism then, at least to my small mind, must derive from ignorance, arrogance or stubbornness. I include “ignorance” in that list because I have come across several folks in my life who called themselves atheists without understanding the meaning of the word. Most were merely agnostic and one or two were theists who rejected Christian orthodoxy. But for those who understand what it is to be an atheist and still claim the title, my sense is that they so strongly want there to be no God that they make a leap of faith into atheism and they hold their ground out of stubborness and arrogance.
Which brings me back to Mr. Harris and his remarkable comment on Nozick’s “utility monster.” Is humanity (along with everything else on our planet) so devoid of intrinsic worth that all we know could ethically be sacrificed to bring happiness to some “superbeings”? And is this amazing proposition not just possibly true, but clearly true?
I admit that I have not read any of the series of best-sellers being cranked out these days by the school of militant atheism. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others have certainly discovered a product that sells. It seems that lots of folks want to be given scientific reasons to be atheists–as if atheism is something that can be proven scientifically. From what I’ve seen of the work of Dawkins and Hitchens, their weapon of choice is not something like the intellectually valid Problem of Evil, for example, but rather the undeniable fact that the stories of the Old Testament are often shocking and nonsensical in the contemporary world. Nevermind that the truth of that proposition does not negate the existence of God–not even the particular God Yahweh. But I suppose an honest assessment of their work would require that I actually read it, and since I haven’t done that, any more on that topic will have to wait.
I am confident, however, that the vast majority of theists and agnostics would agree with me that there is no imaginable scenario in which our world might be ethically sacrificed for the happiness of alien superbeings, at least not on the grounds that we might not occupy a sufficiently high peak on the moral landscape. While nearly all of us would acknowledge that there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for another, we would not accept the notion that humanity might be expendable for the utility of some species that is “superior” to our own and whose moral code would trump our very existence.
But it seems to me that Mr. Harris’ conclusion is intellectually honest if premised on his atheism. If there is no God whose existence binds the universe together, if there is no love which transcends our material existence, if the imago dei is not imprinted on humanity, then whatever importance we attach to our “species” is a mere animalistic survival mechanism or the wanderings of minds which haven’t evolved to a purely precise and rational operation. And why such a world-view could be attractive to intelligent human beings is more mysterious to me than any theological issue could ever be.