Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Second Look at The Moral Landscape

Alright, I told you guys I’d be back with some more summarization of the book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris and that’s just what I’m going to do. I want to pick out various sections of the book that interested me and discuss them for awhile. There are definitely some cool topics that Harris gets into ranging from psychopathology to evolution's significance regarding the study of morality. Psychopaths have always intrigued me and Harris devotes a reasonable portion of the book to the topic—though I wish he would have expanded on this fascinating area more.

I guess the most suitable place for me to start is with the “hypothetical space” which Harris refers to as The Moral Landscape. This space consists of peaks that correspond with the heights of potential well-being and valleys that correspond with the deepest depths of suffering. Harris isn’t suggesting that there is a single best way to live; he is suggesting that there are a multitude of peaks across the landscape that have definite answers, though sometimes very difficult to assess, which science is best suited to uncover. Unfortunately, science has allowed religious dogma and bigotry to ’rule the roost’ when it comes to questions pertaining to the topic of morality. Science has bought into a moral relativism which Harris believes is problematic. Harris argues that we spend far too much time on inconsequential issues like gay marriage because of religion’s monopoly on morality when we should be investing energy on far more pressing matters, like nuclear proliferation and failing schools.

Science has shied away from saying anything on the concept of “is” and “ought”. In other words, the common misconception is that science may be able to say a great deal about what something is but very little about how something ought to be. Harris insists that science has valuable things to say about what ought to happen when we talk in terms of well-being. We can speak about the process of genital mutilation of young girls in an objective manner but we can also speak about how the process serves their well-being, obviously not too well.

Harris is optimistic about the future of morality and makes salient points about the subject of racism. Only about a century ago, whites were torturing blacks and, then, hanging them in trees. People of all persuasions would be observed in photos from the early 19th century, posing in front of the charred bodies of dead African-Americans. Everyone, from preachers to senators, would partake in the events; some would even cut parts off the body (genitalia, ears, knee caps) and take them home as souvenirs—some even had them prominently displayed at their place of business. Most of us are appalled and deeply embarrassed by these past nefarious acts and there’s little doubt that future societies will be embarrassed by our current morality too. This is the ongoing saga of moral progress and it can be pushed along faster with human inquiry and science, as Harris believes. Conversely, it can continue to cling to ideologies of the past and Bronze Age perceptions of morality; this would just continue to stale progress and our possible unification into a ‘global civilization’, as Harris puts it.

Harris talks about psychopaths and their inability to feel empathy for others. Also, according to research, psychopaths have a difficult time recognizing fear and anxiety through facial expressions. So, what about those psychopaths who think they are experiencing a profound state of well-being--as twisted as that thought may be? Harris believes that they would be mistaken to believe that they are experiencing the highest possible form of human flourishing. It should also be noted that psychopaths do not perceive their lives as being fulfilled. They are often confused about why they have this insatiable appetite for torture and murder. Furthermore, they are certainly not increasing the well-being of their victims and that’s part of the problem since we are a social species. Harris would argue that you’re not truly at your best when you don’t feel a profound desire to help others. He stated in the book that he knows that he would experience a greater sense of well-being if he actually wanted to help others more. For example, he himself stated that not wanting to help starving children more than indulging in personal passions was actually inhibiting him from achieving a greater level of well-being. So, simply put, the psychopath just doesn’t know what’s good for them. They have deficiencies that prevent them from experiencing the ‘good life’, as Harris puts it.

Harris gives examples of people on totally two different ends of the spectrum. One person has experienced the hells of living in a war infested, smothering jungle with those closest to them dying in front of their face. The other person has led a highly successful life, consisting of a fulfilling job and many deeply meaningful relationships. Harris states that we can make valid assessments of these two cases and clearly conclude that the "good life" manifests greater well-being than does the "bad life". Undoubtedly, there are people living on the planet at this very moment at both ends of the spectrum. Many others are caught somewhere in the middle. Science ought to have a say in which way of living is superior to the other. It’s not a matter merely relative to the culture or a religion; it’s a matter based on the person’s well-being.

On the subject of evolution, Harris paraphrases the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker: “If conforming to the dictates of evolution were the foundation of subjective well-being, most men would discover no higher calling in life than to make daily contributions to their local sperm bank.” Harris encourages us to look beyond our evolutionary yearnings and to find better ways to maximize our long-term well-being. Furthermore, Harris looks to Daniel Dennett who has explained that not everything in human life has been selected for at all. Some things just may “simply be” and are forced naturally from the regularities of the world.

Of course, there is much to say about Harris’ criticism of religion and that may take an entire new post of its own. Suffice it to say, Harris sees attachment to religion as the ultimate deterrent to being able to think like a scientist. He butchers Francis Collins for failing to use any of his own skills as a scientist when it comes to religion. This seems to be the one area where all sense of reason and logic is abandoned so that the f word (FAITH) can be heralded and exalted as some higher principle to live by than logic and reason could ever be.

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