Sam Harris' utopia, "The Moral Landscape"

Discussion in 'Et Cetera, Et Cetera' started by D_Ewan Prettidik, Dec 20, 2010.

  1. D_Ewan Prettidik

    D_Ewan Prettidik New Member

    Joined:
    Dec 21, 2008
    Messages:
    19
    Likes Received:
    0
    Sam Harris' definition of morality is: maximizing human well-being.


    Harris' central idea in his new book, "The Moral Landscape", is that religion should not be allowed to monopolize the discourse on human values and morality; that there are objective -- right vs. wrong; good vs. evil -- scientific criteria for morality. Religion has failed us in addressing the very largest issues of morality (ie, minimzing war & genocide, alleviating hunger and pain) and, instead, focuses on fringe issues (gay marriage, stem cell research, etc).

    There are several utopian ideas in western literaure (Plato's Republic, Thomas More's Utopia, Tommaso Campanella's The City of the Sun), but Harris' utopian idea that a worldwide, universal morality can be forged based on science instead of miscellaneous religions seems very quixotic. It seems a good idea on paper, but impractical in actual implementation.


    This is classic Sam Harris: YouTube - Sam Harris Religion is a failed science

    and a promo for the book: YouTube - The Moral Landscape 2
     
  2. JustAsking

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2004
    Messages:
    3,249
    Likes Received:
    3
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Ohio
    I am a fan of Sam Harris. So my response here as a Christian is not meant to detract from your interesting OP.

    As an ELCA Lutheran Christian that definition from Sam Harris is very close to my own and what my denomination would espouse. I find that much of real mainstream Christian doctrine is not incompatible with secular humanism.

    The problem is that the fundamentalists have stolen the bully pulpit and mainstream denominations seem clueless to know how to get their message out. They are more like Democrats at a Tea Party rally, looking like deer caught in the headlights.

    I strongly believe that Jesus would endorse the notion that the highest Christian priority is to mitigate misery and suffering in the world, even at the expense of religious law and doctrine. He certainly spent plenty of time doing just that in the NT.

    Thanks for reminding us about Sam Harris's book. I have been meaning to read that.
     
  3. D_Ewan Prettidik

    D_Ewan Prettidik New Member

    Joined:
    Dec 21, 2008
    Messages:
    19
    Likes Received:
    0
    Whenever I visit conservative christian websites they are almost never interested in the big picture of human charity & morality, "the highest Christian priority" being "to mitigate misery and suffering in the world", as you say. The modern christian message seems to have been reduced to opposition to chain stores featuring "Happy Holidays" signs instead of "Merry Christmas"; recasting christianty as a free-market enterprise; stopping the radical gay & feminist activists pushing their agenda; squashing all opposition to Israel; curbing abortions; contraception issues. The range of ideas, what it is to be a christian, is so narrow and limited. How can you be more concerned with stopping contraception than stopping genocide, starvation and war?

    Anyway, I like your comment regarding a Jesus that would ameliorate human suffering "even at the expense of religious law and doctrine". This will probably never happen, so that is why people leave the church and look to science.
     
  4. JustAsking

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2004
    Messages:
    3,249
    Likes Received:
    3
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Ohio
    Ben,
    Thanks for your comments. I am not going to defend the actions of Christian groups too strongly here, since I am also disgusted with many of them as well.. I do want to say that the comments I made about Jesus, religious law, and suffering is not just wishful thinking. It is one of the main structural themes of the New Testament.

    Most evangelicals and fundamentalists seem to avoid about 90% of the NT and only quote the stuff that supports the kind of agendas you referred to. Naturally, that really pisses me off.

    The mainstream Protestant denominations all have doctrines that would be in line with what I was saying about Jesus. This is why they ordain women and gay pastors and have some of the best relief organizations in the world. But what pisses me off about them is that they seem to be clueless in representing themselves proportionally to the public.

    So it leaves everyone in the gravitational pull of the small but loud contingent of fundamentalists. Although I feel the urge to defend Christianity like this, I completely understand why you would generalize that all Christian groups are bigoted,homophobic, judgemental, right wing, science denying, fundamentalists.

    Let me leave you with a bright spot.
     
  5. Calboner

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Aug 16, 2007
    Messages:
    9,026
    Albums:
    5
    Likes Received:
    2,465
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    USA
    I have not read Harris's new book, and even when it becomes available in paperback I don't know how long it will be before I do so, but according to what I can gather of the book's argument from secondary sources, it seems to me to rest on a highly disputable dogmatic premise, namely that morality consists in the maximization of well-being. I would have to read the book to learn whether Harris has any kind of new or interesting conception of what well-being is, and whether he has had greater success than his predecessors in giving determinate sense to the notion of "maximizing" it. But I have not been impressed by any degree of philosophical acumen, let alone wisdom, in what I have read of his or heard from him hitherto.

    Consequentialist views like Harris's invite attack on several points. First, as I said, the identification of morality with the maximization of well-being is, as far as I can tell, a premise without rationale. Second, such a conception makes poor sense of concepts of justice, and faces an intuitive challenge from certain well-known problem examples, such as the imaginary case in which it produces more "well-being" to pin a crime on an innocent person than to admit that one cannot find the perpetrator. Third, as I said, the idea that "well-being" can be quantified is dubious. And fourth, such a conception simply denies human moral agency. Human beings, on this conception, are not sources of good or evil, but are mere receptacles for well-being; whether that well-being is produced by the intentional action of a human being or by an accident of nature is of no moral significance. These consequences probably do not deny Harris, who is probably among those who pooh-pooh the concepts of human dignity and free will; but if he is, then he is operating with a conception of human nature that should strike many readers---not least of all Christians, be they ever so liberal :)wink: JustAsking!)---as fundamentally depraved and impoverished.
     
  6. JustAsking

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2004
    Messages:
    3,249
    Likes Received:
    3
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Ohio
    Well, yes, but that is the rub with Jesus, too. In the NT, Jesus places religious law as subservient to love and compassion. But he doesn't provide a system of values that allow one to define which acts are more compassionate than other acts. He gives plenty of examples, but they are not comprehensive enough to make generalizations across the millennia.

    For example, would Jesus agree or disagree with the concept of a "just war".

    Martin Luther who was brilliant in some respect, was a kind of meat and potatoes philosopher. He acknowledged that law was subservient to love and compassion, but then was quick to disclaim that we are all pretty flawed in actually doing that very well. He said that if there was no such thing as a sinless compassionate act, then "go and sin boldly."

    Then Luther refers one back to the law as a kind of guideline. In other words, if you find yourself breaking commandments, such as killing people, you are probably not loving.

    So the question still comes back to how one defines morality. Replacing law with love might be an improvement (especially over OT law) but it doesn't solve the problem comprehensively.

    Regardless of how often and how shrill fundamentalists are about there being an absolute morality, they still haven't produced one.

    I have never thought about this in terms of "well being". I haven't got farther than being concerned with decreasing misery and suffering. That doesn't solve your philosophical problem either, but I think misery and suffering is easier to identify than lack of well being.

    I think I have come to be converted to Luther's way of looking at things. Recognizing that we are flawed, and that some of our compassionate acts might make things worse, we still should be called to action to minister to misery, suffering, and social injustice.
     
  7. Calboner

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Aug 16, 2007
    Messages:
    9,026
    Albums:
    5
    Likes Received:
    2,465
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    USA
    Sounds as if you are not much bothered about Harris's scientific pretensions, JA, or indeed much of his thesis.

    Hmm, just re-read my first message and discovered this aberration:
    I can't even remember what verb I meant to type---"disturb"? "deter? "bother"?---but it certainly wasn't "deny." Editorial mishap.
     
  8. JustAsking

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2004
    Messages:
    3,249
    Likes Received:
    3
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Ohio
    No, I agree with you on that. These are pretentions. My point was that neither love nor law solves the problem either. There is no objective standard for morality, either scientific or scriptural.
     
  9. D_Ewan Prettidik

    D_Ewan Prettidik New Member

    Joined:
    Dec 21, 2008
    Messages:
    19
    Likes Received:
    0
    I suppose one reason why I am most attracted to Harris' idea that science should move in on religion's territory is: from a Darwinian standpoint, morality is not a gift from the gods. Not only is morality man-made, but the entire concept of "morals" has roots in our animal-ancestor past, a product of evolution.

    This video helps in understanding where Harris is coming from. His definition of morality, I think, is rooted in the idea that all humans have a common evolutionary history, and therefore might be amenable to a "universal morality", an extension of values we all already hold in common.

    SAM HARRIS: ROOTS OF MORALITY


    Harris in a lecture:
    "There are right and wrong answers to the question of how to maximize human flourishing in any moment. This becomes incredibly easy to see when we imagine there being only two people on earth: we can call them Adam and Eve. Ask yourself, are there right and wrong answers to the question of how Adam and Eve might maximize their well-being? Clearly there are. Wrong answer number one: they can smash each other in the face with a large rock. This will not be the best strategy to maximize their well-being."

    The reason I called his conception "utopian", is, it seems very romantic or dreamy or starry-eyed to think you could get all nations to drop their religious texts and buy into a common universal morality.
     
  10. B_bi_mmf

    B_bi_mmf New Member

    Joined:
    Mar 28, 2008
    Messages:
    3,059
    Likes Received:
    20
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    U.S.
    I look forward to reading Harris' newest book.

    I am far more interested in what someone grounded in science has to say about morality than in what those who look to preposterous religious myths for enlightenment have to say about it.
     
    #10 B_bi_mmf, Dec 23, 2010
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2010
  11. JustAsking

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2004
    Messages:
    3,249
    Likes Received:
    3
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Ohio
    Not only that, but there is nothing more removed from being addressed by a reductionist approach like that than the notion of morality. Evolution does not strive towards any kind of perfection. It goes only as far as it needs along local maxima in the fitness landscape to increase the differential probability of reproduction.

    So you end up with crappy knees, bad backs, and all kinds of suboptimum physiology. Why would anyone draw a conclusion that our intellection has evolved to the point where we can draw from it some kind of absolute morality?

    Whatever behavior we have evolved over the millions of years is not that which seeks maximum well being, but rather that which seeks maximum probability for reproduction. Those two are not necessarily at the same point on the fitness landscape.

    I think whatever morality we have codified into civil and criminal law is an improvement over what we would do if left to our own devices. I think what I am trying to say is that morality is more cultural meme than driven by the gene.
     
Draft saved Draft deleted