Sam Harris is one of the special thinkers, like Richard Dawkins, who dares to stand up to popular thought and challenge our ideas of religion against our ideals of relative moralism. Sam’s new book is “The Moral Landscape” and he teaches us why morality is biological.
Where do we learn our human morals? Is morality a gift from God, or is morality a requirement of science? What does biology, and not religion, require of us as a species?
Here’s what Richard Dawkins says about “The Moral Landscape” —
I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. It should change it for philosophers too. Philosophers of mind have already discovered that they can’t duck the study of neuroscience, and the best of them have raised their game as a result. Sam Harris shows that the same should be true of moral philosophers, and it will turn their world exhilaratingly upside down. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.
Here’s what Sam has to say about the idea of his book —
Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life, and this makes them terrible guides to securing it in this one. Of course, there are a few gems to be found in every religious tradition, but in so far as these precepts are wise and useful they are not, in principle, religious. You do not need to believe that the Bible was dictated by the Creator of the Universe, or that Jesus Christ was his son, to see the wisdom and utility of following the Golden Rule.
The problem with religious morality is that it often causes people to care about the wrong things, leading them to make choices that needlessly perpetuate human suffering. Consider the Catholic Church: This is an institution that excommunicates women who want to become priests, but it does not excommunicate male priests who rape children. The Church is more concerned about stopping contraception than stopping genocide. It is more worried about gay marriage than about nuclear proliferation.
When we realize that morality relates to questions of human and animal well-being, we can see that the Catholic Church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology. It is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.
Even the faithful can’t really get their deepest moral principles from religion—because books like the Bible and the Qur’an are full of barbaric injunctions that all decent and sane people must now reinterpret or ignore. How is it that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims are opposed to slavery? You don’t get this moral insight from scripture, because the God of Abraham expects us to keep slaves.
Consequently, even religious fundamentalists draw many of their moral positions from a wider conversation about human values that is not, in principle, religious. We are the guarantors of the wisdom we find in scripture, such as it is. And we are the ones who must ignore God when he tells us to kill people for working on the Sabbath.
Here’s what I think —
Sam Harris makes a compelling argument that religion can augment our lives, but, he warns, the moral precepts that lash us together are actually mandated by the hard science of the body and by the reflexive imagery of the mind in which we cradle our hopes for propulsion into the future. “The Moral Landscape” explains why we genetically do better as a species when we help each other because it directly benefits us as a whole, and not because of some abstract notion of trying to please a wrathful God or a punishing religious doctrine.
Interesting article, David.
Jewish law guides much of what I do every day from when I get up to when I go to bed however I like the idea that we biologically are bound to behave in a moral manner. Very nice read.
It’s a great book, Gordon, and I hope you’ll consider reading it.