Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Staying out of the Moral Graveyard

Sam Harris' TED lecture "Science can Answer Moral Questions", and my subsequent reading of his book, The Moral Landscape, significantly influenced my perspective on morality with respect to its relationship with human well-being.




Harris argues that morality can be mapped/conceptualized as a hilly landscape, with peaks representing societies that successfully promote human well-being, and valleys in which human well being is poorly attained. In The Moral Landscape, he writes: "The moment one begins thinking about morality in terms of well-being, it becomes remarkably easy to discern a moral hierarchy across human societies". For Harris, loving another indicates a concern for well-being. And by extension actions that diminish others' well-being suggest less or no love. Along these lines, he asks: "How, for instance, can we love our children and yet be totally indifferent to their suffering and death?" His answer: "I suspect we cannot."

For those who are following the Shafia trial or who were also haunted by the murder of Aqsa Parvez by her father, Harris' question strikes a chord. Much of the discussion around these cases revolves around the applicability of the term 'honor killing' . . i.e. is it useful or accurate to sub-categorize a murder into cultural terms. And where do we begin to tease out individual malfunction that leads to crime/the devaluing of human life (psychosis etc.) vs. culturally sanctioned actions.

For Harris, the question: Does Mohammed Shafia love his children as much as we love ours? is answered by a resounding no. We care too much for our children to kill them for what we interpret as transgresions. If Shafia's murderous actions were in part culturally motivated, is it fair to say that in his culture, females are generally loved/valued less? I'd be inclined to think so.

So, here's where it gets sticky for me. Murder is an extreme. In less extreme cases, in societies/cultures where the punishment women are doled out for similar 'transgressions' is not as severe, e.g. in a culture where a women deemed immodest is not killed by her kin, but instead is shunned or ostracized. In this society, can we infer that females are loved/valued less than males of that culture (though more than in a culture where she might be killed)? And in another society where a woman would not necessarily be overtly shunned for transgressing, but neither is she given comparable opportunities for advancement as her male counterparts, is this also a reflection of a society where women are  valued to a lesser degree than men? Though vastly different in the quality of life for the women within, all of these cultures reflect a patriarchal society in which male/female roles are clearly delineated and to varying degrees fairly uniformly adhered to.  I think Harris would argue that each of these societies would indicate valleys in well-being for women, but some valleys are deeper than others. My concern is how do those in "shallower valleys" make sure they do not dig their own graves, when the underlying inequality in terms of what the culture values is similar.

2 comments:

  1. I watched the video and I'm glad I did. I always hear that without god there is no reason why not murdering an innocent person is anything more than a personal opinion, so this was nice to see.

    Also, I think I would have done a better job answering the question regarding burkas and moral relativism. You don't have to get into the whole argument that these women who cover themselves willingly aren't really making an informed choice. All you have to do to expose the immorality of burkas is to ask, "How would a Muslim man feel if he had to walk around with a mask for the rest of his life?" I suspect that after one week of doing so he would feel completely dehumanized.

    I also appreciated that the speaker pointed out that the other extreme is also dehumanizing and objectifying. This earned him a lot of credibility with me.

    As to the question about women not digging their own graves, I believe the cynical answer is the only realistic one: Get out or play by the rules.

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  2. Thanks CG! Glad you liked it! It's my favorite TED talk.

    >I always hear that without god there is no reason why not murdering an innocent person is anything more than a personal opinion, so this was nice to see.

    Yes, it's such a common and ridiculous assumption. When I first "came out" as an atheist to my in-laws, my b-i-l practically jumped across the table and yelled, "But then why would you do anything good?" I remember thinking how pathetic it is to only be good to other people out fear of punishment in the afterlife. Religion - contrary to popular belief - really does not have a monopoly on morality. If anything, the Bible is replete with utter immorality by today's standards.

    >I also appreciated that the speaker pointed out that the other extreme is also dehumanizing and objectifying.

    I thought that was important as well. Unfortunately though the extremes are easy identify, navigating the in-between is difficult.

    >Get out or play by the rules.

    Much easier said than done! The stakes are so high for so many.

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