Friday, January 20, 2012
The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
It has been a very long time since I have added anything to this blog.
I promised, well over a year ago that I would get around to reviewing Sam Harris's new book The Moral Landscape. It has actually been out for more than a year now itself, and I have already read it.
Harris's main thesis here is that, contrary to the assertions of many theists, objective moral truths really do exist, and reason and science should serve as tools to discover them. One of the main areas in which I find myself in agreement with atheists is the issue of unquestioning obedience. A common criticism aimed at atheists is that without a god, we are therefore free to make up any rules we like, even though very few atheists are true moral relativists. The problem is that unquestioning obedience to scripture, which is often implied, is the alternative to reason, runs straight into serious moral problems, especially when it comes to the doctrine of eternal punishment for sinners, and also the atrocities committed in the name of God in the Old Testament. The reason fundementalist Christians hold fast to both of these, as I'll argue further in another essay, has nothing to do with morality at all. And I might offend some Christians with what I am about to say next.
When it comes to moral guidence, I do not rely, first and formost, on scripture. I rely on prayer.
Harris, who literally calls for the end of faith, would do away with scripture entirely. And since he does not believe in faith, he would also, of necessity, do away with prayer as well.
Science and reason, he beleives, are the most reliable tools we have, not only for discovering facts about the material universe, but facts regarding morality as well. Since, as a theist, I agree with him that moral objectivism is correct, I also agree that objective moral truths may indeed to discoverable through rational inquiry. The thing is, as Harris demonstrates in his book, the moral truth in some areas may be very difficult to discern. Since most of us are not scientists, and do not have the toos of scientific inquiry at our disposal, prayer and intuitive reasoning will have to suffice for the short term.
In the past, Harris has defined true morality as a question of happiness vs. suffering, but think it is fairly obvious that this definition is not quite sufficient. Consider a virtual reality program in which all the inhabitants are kept in a state of everlasting bliss. Would such a state represent the peak of moral good? Few people would actually answer "yes." Part of the reason is that such a world would be an utter sham, and we tend to place high moral value on the quality of Truth. The apparent pointlessness of a state of eternal euphoria, too, is also a problem, and part of the reason the common perception of heaven is, in fact, fraught with moral difficulties. Using the degree of happiness vs. suffering as a yardstick to determine morality, indeed, leads to difficulty, as may be seen by Peter Singer's now notorious defense of infanticide:
Harris, who seems to have realized the problem inherent with "happiness vs. suffering" prior to writing this, alters his definition of morality somewht however, to "Human and animal well-being," indeed, a definition with a far closer proximity to the truth. It is true that most of us can generally determine how "moral" a thing is by its contribution to human well-being. Harris is critical of the supposed "morality" of suicide bombers on precisely these grounds. Morality cannot be simply a matter of "pleasing God," even though there are scads of both Christians and Muslims who would define it thusly. While we can rationally argue that if the actions of Muslim terrorists tie directly with the writings of their holy book, than it is a reasonable assertion that their faith itself is in error. It is my beleif that the same charge cannot be brought to bear upon the Christian faith. Don't beleive me? Name any terrible act done allegedly in name of Jesus Christ, and it will, of necessity, go diretly against His teachings.
Because most religions concieve of morality as a matter of being obedient to the word of God (generally for the sake of recieving supernatural reward), their precepts often have nothing to do with maximizing well-being in this world. Religious beleivers can, therefore, assert the immorality of contraception, masturbation, homosexuality, etc., with ever feeling obliged to argue that these practices actually cause suffering. They can also pursue aims that are flagrantly immoral, in that they needlessly pereptuate human misery, while beleiving these actions are morally oligatory. This pious uncoupling of moral concern from the reality of human and animal suffering has caused tremendous harm.
A scathing indightment of morality= "pleasing God." Indeed, very many religius folks, when faced with addressing the immorality of homosexuality, often fall back on the arguemnt of "it's not my opinion; it's what God's Word says." What they (and Harris) neglect to mention (and perhaps even to consider), is that anything branded as sinful by the Bible does, or did (indeed there were some prohibitions, like eating shelfish, that were verturned by the time o Christ), contribute to human harm. I won't go into the health risks associated with homosexuality, but they are leigion. I will mention briefly that the fact that so many innocent children contracted HIV back in the eighties, and were themselves aften the targets of persecution by the fearful, was largey a result of homosexual activity and drug abuse, is appalling to say the least, polliticaly incorrect as it is. So far as contraception, it may be right in some cases, and wrong in others depending on the circumstances. I might add that there is no Biblical passage at all even suggesting the immorality of contraception. That it has become a religous issue to such an extant has far more to do with the need to preserve culture and tradition than any connection with the teachings of Christ, or even of Moses. Ditto with homosexuality; while I explained the immorality above, and the fact that it is indeed prohibited by scripture (if not the actual teachings of Christ) the chief reason so many conservative Christians seem opposed to gayness, and gay marriage in particular, has more to do with a perceived threat to the nuclear family. Is the tradtional, nucelear family the most conducive to human welfare? Quite possibly, in most cases, it is. In others, perhaps not so, which is why adherence for rules for rules sake offers little reliable guidence for moral conduct.
Harris's book does, however, make some fascinating insights into the socio-cultural biases which tend to affect that which we percieve as moral. According to a study he cites, socio-political liberals tend to view morality in terms of harm and fairness. Conservatives tend to view morality in terms of harm, fairness, respect for authority, and group loyality. Notice that conservatives do not jettison harm and fairness, but add the two additional qualities. Harris beleives that conservatives may still be thinking on terms of harm, though it may be a different sort of harm considered by liberals. Perhaps conservatives also consider "harm to one's group," as equally immoral. This rather demonstrates that there is a tribalitic bias at work in conservative thought, and tribalism tends to be antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. One thinks of the associations of "God and country," and the often aggressive pro-millitary stance of the Religious Right. On the other hand, Harris cites an additional study which demonstrated that liberals tends to harbor a strong, yet appantently unconscious, racial bias in favor of minorities. According to this, liberals were eager to sacrifice the life of single white person to save the lives a group of non-whites, but not he other way around, all the while maintaining that the issue of race had not entered into their consideration.
The Moral Landscape is indeed a thought-provoking book, and it will certainly contribute to the debate surrounding how humans ought to regard right and wrong.