Sam Harris’ pre-release publicity tour for his new book The Moral Landscape continues, as he once again tries to explain his point. This new Q & A on his website provides a good overview. I find his discussion of the term “moral landscape” to be the most heartening because it includes the notion that there is more than one way for humans to be moral. Perhaps the idea of multiple peaks of morality can help leaven the horrors that have often been committed in the name of One True Morality.
(The Moral Landscape) is the phrase I use to describe the space of all possible experience—where the peaks correspond to the heights of well-being and valleys represent the worst possible suffering. We are all someplace on this landscape, faced with the prospect of moving up or down. Given that our experience is fully constrained by the laws of the universe, there must be scientific answers to the question of how best to move upwards, toward greater happiness.
This is not to say that there is only one right way for human beings to live. There might be many peaks on this landscape—but there are clearly many ways not to be on a peak.
I also found his answer to a question about the role of religion in “determining human morality” to be interesting.
I think it is generally an unhelpful one. 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.