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.