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Ch. 5: The Future of Happiness (The Moral Landscape) 
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 Ch. 5: The Future of Happiness (The Moral Landscape)
Ch. 5: The Future of Happiness (The Moral Landscape)

Thu Dec 09, 2010 10:07 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5: The Future of Happiness (The Moral Landscape)
This comes after a chapter pillorying religion, but Harris makes clear that his main target in the book isn’t religion but people like him, that is the scientific establishment. It is they who have refused to reconsider their position that “answers to questions of human value will fall perpetually beyond our reach” (190). Harris restates his thesis: if we are to admit that values exist at all, they must have value to someone, and this value has to be assignable to facts about how we experience well-being. So, once again, we see there is not a sharp distinction between facts and values. Failure to see this has given the religious right the big advantage of having the run of the field of human morality, elevating such matters as gay marriage, sex education, and stem cell research at the expense of climate change, nuclear proliferation, education, and several other more pressing needs. It has made the educated West unable to advance coherent objections to practices and beliefs shielded by religion and culture.

Harris tells us that many people object to terms like happiness, well-being, and flourishing, not just because they are vague but because they seem not serious enough. Still, he sticks with them and sees no alternative to basing morality on them. These words don’t have to designate a complacent contentment; they can be compatible with having to commit to actions that may be painful in the short-term. There is also the fact, scientifically established, that following our innate ideas about what increases our happiness and well-being often delivers bad results; that is, we don’t become happier. We may have to re-educate ourselves not to listen so closely to our instincts.

I’ve found Harris to be quite good throughout the book at examining the difficulties to accepting his positions. In doing this he sometimes affects me with a certain pessimism about getting any handle on a science of morality. But credit him for honesty. The only area for which might not show a proper skepticism is neuroscience itself. We just don’t know what this science will make possible, but we do have an idea of its current limitations.

In the end, Harris seems willing to settle for just a small part of what he has asked us to concede. If we will simply begin to think of human well-being when we hear the terms morality and values, that will be a step ahead. Seeing morality and values as a legitimate field of inquiry will be a further advance.

“Whether or not we ever understand meaning, morality, and values in practice, I have attempted to show that there must be something to know about them in principle. And I am convinced that merely admitting this will transform the way we think about human happiness and the public good” (191).

Sun Feb 06, 2011 11:32 am
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Post Re: Ch. 5: The Future of Happiness (The Moral Landscape)
Perhaps it is unfair to Harris, and the science is too young at this point, but he didn't seem to give us much of an idea of the practical impact of the scientific evidence in handling the hard cases -- i.e. where reasonable people disagree about them. Everything seems to be knowable "in principle"

If we agree with his thesis, then we can criticize the extreme moral relativists and say that honor killings and repression of women for example are bad. OK, that's progress of sorts -- I'm not sure convincing the skeptics is a pressing issue -- what else can we say? As I recall, one example he mentioned was corporal punishment, and how the evidence could be used to evaluate it.

Last edited by Dexter on Sun Feb 06, 2011 11:48 am, edited 2 times in total.

Sun Feb 06, 2011 11:47 am
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Post Re: Ch. 5: The Future of Happiness (The Moral Landscape)
In that chapter he also said that we might not be able to work out the answers, even though they are knowable in principle. Too much gets in the way, such as all data needing to be interpreted "against a background theory, and different theories come bundled with a fair amount of contextual reasoning" (179). I agree with the devil being in the details and about the low-hanging fruit that Harris plucks. He says that the answers to questions about maximum well-being are out there, but being able to agree on those answers makes all the difference.

For instance, take China today. Does China represent a peak on the moral landscape? By a peak, Harris actually means an area of rising well-being, not an area where well-being it at its maximum state. We don't know what the maximum is. But clearly, if China is a peak on the moral landscape, if it provides for the current as well as long-term well-being of its people, it's a different peak than would be represented by the U. S. (assuming we agree that we can say that the U.S. represents a peak. What if, instead, the U. S. would be represented as a landscape of valleys, mountains, and depressions?). The point is that China lacks some features of a capitalistic democracy. Its people don't even have free access to news about events in Egypt, for crying out loud, since the government has put a block on the internet. Do we judge that well-being can't exist under such conditions, or is this a variation that is different but not morally wrong?
Ideas about the moral rightness of freedom led us into a quagmire of a war, so the answer to that is important.

Sun Feb 06, 2011 4:29 pm

Post Re: Ch. 5: The Future of Happiness (The Moral Landscape)
Harris has left a great many questions unanswered; or at least, unresolved. Harris gives us reason for optimism. Consider, he says, the progress we’ve made in America in the last century with respect to racism.

Sun Feb 13, 2011 8:19 pm
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