Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

In one of the most memorable examples in The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris reflects on his own thoughts after his wife told him that another man had openly flirted with her in the gym, even though she had said she was a happily married woman. Sam Harris imagines how men in certain cultures would have reacted to this information. The first thing a man should do if he want to keep his pride is to beat the rivaling male, perhaps kill him too. In some cases it would also have been culturally appropriate to punish the wife for.... well I don’t know... sub consciously tempting the man to approach her? In extreme cases it would have been appropriate to also kill the wife, just to emphasise the way in which your property is not to be meddled with!

Sam Harris admits that he initially did feel hostility towards the other male (something which I think men world wide will sympathise with). He felt that his behavior was wrong. However, having been brought up in a western society he did not follow through on these feelings. He realized that killing the other person would not lead to positive outcomes for anybody, and he realized that it was certainly not his wife’s fault. In addition, he also thinks that his wife is attractive and can understand that another man finds her attractive too.

The main thesis of Sam Harris book is that just like statements about the world can be right or wrong (for example, it is wrong to say earth is flat), moral statements can also be right or wrong. What makes an act/policy/moral guideline right or wrong? Well according to Harris this is determined by the degree to which it increases/decreased the well being of humans. For those who remember their philosophy, this is in essence a utilitarian argument. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that there are no categorical imperatives (as Kant said). Whether something is good or evil depends on the consequences. Thus it can be good to lie if it prevents sadness in a lot of people. To calculate the effect of a certain act on the well being of the rest of the world is of course more or less impossible. For example, frequent lying can ruin relationships leading to divorce, leading to depressions etc etc...

Harris acknowledges that there is large gray area where it is hard to say if a certain action or moral guideline aids general well being or not. This does not mean however, that anything goes. However, some acts, such as killing another man and your wife because of minor flirtation is really unlikely to lead to greater well being. It is comparable to arguing that the earth I'd merely 6000 years old - not entirely impossible but really really unlikely.

Simply put, some moral guidelines or cultural norms are more conducive towards human well being than others.

Still many people (perhaps mainly academics living comfortable lives), would argue that cultural norms are merely cultural and that we should not criticize other cultures for holding certain values, because values are subjective etc. However, even among cultural relativists there are few people who argue this way when discussing terrible acts. Can people who consider themselves to be cultural relativists abstain from judgement and condemnation when they hear about say Josef Fritzl or the genocide in Rwanda. Would they be indifferent to whether their children were raised in Josef Fritzl's basement, or in a Tutsi family experiencing mutilation from Hutu militia. Are these alternatives merely an interesting cultural alternative? What sane parent would not prefer their child to grow up in a western society with individual rights and a police force that protects their citizens?

Can we not say that the genocide in Rwanda was wrong? Can we not deplore the ethical code of the catholic church when they excommunicate a doctor for performing an abortion on a girl raped by her father and pregnant with twins, while not excommunicating a single Nazi? If we can it follows that we can say something about which norms are good and bad.