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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).
The Chinese philosopher is one who dreams with one eye open, who views life with love and sweet irony, who mixes his cynicism with a kindly tolerance, and who alternately wakes up from life's dream and then nods again, feeling more alive when he is dreaming than when he is awake.
Lin Yutang (1895-1976), The Importance of Living