Scientific Morality and the Streetlight Effect - The Objective Standard

Note: This essay is included in the anthology Rational Egoism: The Morality for Human Flourishing, which makes an excellent gift and is available at Amazon.com.

Night has fallen, and a police officer sees a man on his hands and knees under a streetlight looking for something. “Can I help you?” asks the officer. “Yes,” says the man. “I dropped my key, and I’m having trouble finding it.” The officer helps the man search for a few minutes, but to no avail. “Are you sure you dropped it here?” he asks. “Oh, no,” replies the man, “I dropped it over there,” pointing to a dark area across the street. “Then why are you searching for it over here?” asks the officer. “Because,” says the man, “the light is over here.”1

A similar approach can be seen among intellectuals searching for secular, objective morality.

Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and other secularists claim to be searching for a rational, fact-based, scientific morality. But they are looking for it only in the “light” of socially accepted ideas. And that is not where it lies. . . .

Endnotes

1. This is my version of the fable known as the “streetlight effect.” See “Streetlight Effect” at Wikipedia for its origins and other versions, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streetlight_effect.

2. See Alan Germani, “The Mystical Ethics of the New Atheists,” The Objective Standard 3, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 25.

3. Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 78.

4. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 82.

5. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 55.

6. Christopher Hitchens, “Going Godless: Atheists Rise,” Good Morning America, November 14, 2007.

7. See Craig Biddle, “Altruism: The Morality of Logical Fallacies,” TOS Blog, May 22, 2006.

8. See Craig Biddle, “The Is-Altruism Dichotomy,” The Objective Standard 8, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 46.

9. See Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1962); Craig Biddle, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts That Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002); or Craig Biddle, “Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism,” The Objective Standard7, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 31.

10. For a brief indication of how scientific morality is derived from observation and logic, see Craig Biddle, “Secular, Objective Morality: Look and See,” The Objective Standard 12, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 47. For lengthier discussions, including more detail about the guidance provided by such morality, see Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness; and Biddle, Loving Life.

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