The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Read: 22 October, 2010

The basic premise of The Moral Landscape is that the well-being of sentient creatures is the proper measuring stick to determine morality. He convincingly argues that defining morality simply as that which God likes or dislikes is absurd, in the same way as defining it based on the wishes of a king would be absurd. But on the other side of the debate, the idea that morality is a natural offshoot from our evolution as social animals, merely describes an ‘is’ and does not allow us to argue for or against the ‘shoulds’ we may encounter in our navigation of ethics. The well-being of creatures sufficiently aware to care about well-being is the only measure that makes any sense.

In the book, Harris anticipates and responds to a number of criticisms. The greatest of these is the question of whether well-being is even worth valuing in the first place – what makes this, above all others, the concept that ought to be at the centre of this debate? To answer this, Harris compares well-being to health. Why should we value health? None of us would think twice about calling someone insane who argues that health ought to be defined as weight as much as possible, so why do claim that there is no way to say whether a patriarchal system in which half the population is kept under constant bondage is any worse than a society in which genders are viewed as equal?

He also brings up the idea of neuroscience – that we will one day be able to scan people’s brains to determine what truly contributes to well-being, and what people have merely been acculturated into thinking it does.

I’ve been surprised by how poor the book’s reception has been among the atheist community. It seems that many have fallen into the trap Harris anticipated, arguing that there is no reason to value well-being above any other criteria. But for my own part, I’m convinced. Harris challenges his readers to think of any criteria that would be equally valuable in resolving ethical issues, and I’ve been unable to think of any. It seems as obvious to me that well-being is the only foundation that makes any sense at all. Once we accept this premise, it seems obvious to me that ethical questions could potentially be resolved with right or wrong answers.

Find your basis for secular objective morality by buying The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values from Amazon (and support this blog in the process)!

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