The Moral Landscape

“She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.
She: But that’s only your opinion.
Me: Okay … Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?
She: It would depend on why they were doing it.
Me [slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head]: Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, ‘Every third must walk in darkness.’
She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

The Moral Landscape

This is a passage from Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape (2011). The book is controversial and very thought-provoking, both philosophically and practically, especially to the liberal notions of the West. It has certainly changed my views of morality.

Namely, Harris argues that moral relativism has gone too far in our current world, and that it has caused morally inferior practices (such as the burqa) to persist without serious criticism. In addition, he notes of these practices, several are especially difficult to criticize, because to criticize them would be considered offensive to religion. Moreover, because morals are associated by many to religion, it is difficult to seriously argue what is right or wrong, again out of fear of being labeled as offensive or intolerant. And out of this, many moral issues are left unresolved because to debate them is considered wrong.

Can One Culture Be Inferior?

Consider two societies that had the same moral code in all ways except, as in the example earlier, one society required removing the eyes of every third-born, while the other did not. Can we say that the former has an inferior culture? Maybe, maybe not. But this question has an answer, according to Harris, although most of the world would think that it does not. In our world, the tendency is to say that all cultures are equal, that they deserve the same respect, or something along those lines. We would be viewed as supremely intolerant if we were to say otherwise.

And yet, there are issues with this: Can we really view a culture that plucks out the eyes of third-borns out of tradition as an equal culture? What about a culture that condones slavery, or one that requires the burqa, or one that isn’t taken aback by suicide bombing? In the back of my mind, at least, I think such cultures can be viewed as wrong in those areas, but of course, it is an entirely different thing to say it publicly. (See what I did there?)

In the section “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance'”:

There are very practical concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything—the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference. While much of the debate on these issues must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the “crime” of getting raped. The amazing thing is that some Western intellectuals won’t even blink when asked to defend these practices on philosophical grounds. I once spoke at an academic conference on themes similar to those discussed here. Near the end of my lecture, I made what I thought would be a quite incontestable assertion: We already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing.

As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy. At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. In fact, this person has since been appointed to the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues…. Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
…”

4 thoughts on “The Moral Landscape”

  1. The trouble is, the people who are throwing acid in women’s faces are using the same moral calculus, just a different set of debits and credits. That’s the real problem and the moral realist problem in general.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree, and in addition, the message of the book was that we should be allowed to say that a particular system of “debits and credits” can be superior to another.

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  2. I thing the problem is the system of debits an credits itself. I seems to beg for a means of evaluating the valuations of those debits and credits, and so on down the line. This is at the heart of the “is/ought problem”: how to derive an evaluation from a description. An authoritative claim appears to lie at the bottom, if there is to be a bottom at all. So as far as I can tell, we must abandon the is and submit to authority or abandon the ought and accept a more humble, local ethic.

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