The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Read: 29 November, 2013

Agatha and Sophie both know their place. Sophie is beautiful and makes sure to do good works. Agatha is ugly and lives in a cemetery. When the two are taken to the School for Good and Evil, it seemed clear how they would be sorted.

School is clearly written for middle grades, which I hadn’t realized when I started. Even so, I enjoyed the writing style and found the plot compelling.

The “twist” that Agatha and Sophie weren’t really put into the wrong schools was fairly obvious from the outset, even before they are taken from their village, though I struggled to find why they were the only ones who seemed to have been sorted by inner character rather than outward appearance (Tedros certainly fails to act like a Good and Dot seems rather out of place among the Evils). It makes sense given the final reveal, but little sense within the context of the story itself. I also felt that the purpose for the switcharoo (I don’t want to give too much away, but it has something to do with the School Master) felt a little cobbled.

All in all, I did really enjoy it. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

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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.

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