What is the moral landscape?
The moral landscape is the world of values we live in. A world inhabited by sentient, conscious, beings aware of right and wrong and all the subtleties in-between. Sam Harris has called the best possible existence, the one which is the most ethical, brings the greatest amount of happiness, and allows for the most flourishing is, subsequently, the best level of well-being we could achieve. Therefore, the goal is to mark out this moral landscape and try to work toward better echelons of human well-being. It is here where we will find an objective morality.
By the way, although I need not point this out, Sam’s concept of a moral landscape is fully compatible with the definition of morality. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English (2005) morality consists of principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior, and/or is a particular system of values and principles of conduct. It seems that marking out the moral landscape would necessitate testing various meta-ethical philosophies all the while discovering the various distinctions between the various shades of right and wrong, good and bad, in what Sam calls the peaks and valleys of the moral landscape. But more on this in a bit.
Does Morality Stem from God?
First, let us consider where we do not find morality.
That’s right. Contrary to what many religious adherents espouse, morality does not come from God. This is a fact. How can I be so certain?
God is not a concept that has been proved.
Are you to tell me that our morality stems from an unproved concept? I don’t think so.
God believers often assume that morality is evidence for God. But this is the wrong way around. Morality is something which exists, because it is exhibited in the behavior of sentient, conscious, beings such as ourselves. But to misconstrue it as evidence for God is a conflation of prior convictions with the evidence. Christians hold that God is all good, so naturally morality would stem from this sort of being. However, the problem is that Christians are forcing the facts to fit the theories when, in actuality, it should be the theories conforming to to facts.
In other words, before you can prove God is a moral being, or that he is a source of morality as assumed, you first have to prove God. When somebody says morality comes from God, all we need say is: prove it–but first, if you don’t mind terribly, prove God. If you can’t prove God exists beyond a reason of a doubt, not only does this falsify your premise (i.e., no god = no morality therefore renders the assumption that god equals morality invalid), but it also raises the obvious question: then where do our moral values come from?
Presumptions Galore on top of Faulty Causality
If the believer posits God (even as there is utterly no evidence for such a being) they have merely gone in a circle. Their reasoning being circular, they have based their conclusion on a false premise, and this is faulty causality on top of circular reasoning. Furthermore, they are relying far too heavily on conjecture, i.e. they presume God exists, they presume God is all good, they presume he is a moral law giver, so presumably infringing his laws would be wrong, thus divine command theory suggests we ought to be good because God is, presumably, the source of all moral goodness and the authority by which we are obliged, or duty bound, to act morally. All this mind you, on the mere assumption that God is real. But this is far too much speculation to base definitive conclusions on.
Moreover, even if we give them the benefit of the doubt (pardon me as I clear my throat to avoid laughing out loud) and assume God is a moral being (never mind that this bald faced assumption is contradicted by the very fact that the character of said God has been demonstrated to be downright immoral, in their own religious holy book none-the-less, or by the very fact that believers fail to act more moral than nonbeliever–even as they are tapping the supposed source of all morality–and so is a negation of the very thing they are seeking to establish in the first place)–even if we assume God is moral, this doesn’t give us any reason to believe moral imperatives follow from him. God could, theoretically speaking (of course), be good independent of human morality. It’s only because of divine command theory that a theist can lay claim to the idea that we ought to obey God.
The Problem with Divine Command Theory
The problem I have with divine command theory is that while it may seek to ground the nature of ethical demands in the commands of God, they are only representative of a God which is already good. Which means good must be ascribed to God in order for divine command theory to even make any sense. But then, this means they have to prove the existence of said God in order to show he is moral. Instead of working as evidence, or proof, for their idea of God it backfires by throwing up a major tautology. God is good so goodness proves God thus we ought to be good, and since God is the foundation of all morality this proves God exists. And, well, you can see the problem.
Not only this but divine command theory is not without controversy. Needless to say, divine command theory is itself an assumption, and before we automatically assume the theory is valid it has to pass a series of objections, such as: the omnipotence objection, the benevolence objection, the autonomy objection, the pluralism objection, the problem of free will and so on and so forth. As you can see, divine command theory has not met all the challenges put to it and so cannot just be assumed as a working theory.
This brings up back to the moral landscape as posited by Sam Harris.
The Moral Landscape Revisited
One might object, and say, that’s all fine and well that their exists a moral landscape, but how do you know what moral imperatives to follow? How do you know what is right and wrong? How can you distinguish between good and bad, if not for some external moral sense? Who says? Easy. Nobody says we must be good but ourselves. Morality is hardwired into us. It’s a side-effect of our biology and the way we have adapted to the world around us. It’s an evolutionary trait.
We feel pain and suffering, therefore we know that pain is bad–and that too much of it is certainly a bad thing. Pain hurts. It causes us to be unhappy. And in many cases it can prove to be lethal. Thus we tend to want to avoid pain altogether, quite naturally.
This is why Sam’s suggestion makes so much sense–it stems from the above observation. If we are sentient, conscious, creatures, then, we can be acutely aware of our fellow sentient and conscious creatures suffering.
Knowing that we would not wish to endure undue suffering ourselves, we can sympathize with our fellow creatures. This empathy, then, allows us to envision ourselves in their shoes, so to speak, and more than this, from experience, we can imagine exactly what it would feel like. This mental anguish, caused by our very anticipation of the suffering and the empathy we share with our fellow beings, compels us to act instinctively, as we would if it were us who was suffering. Usually it compels us to actively seek to help alleviate the suffering of others. It is our very nature which drives us to do good.
Granted, we are also selfish, often petty, beings. A weakness of being mere biological animals. Sometimes we malfunction, and our brains don’t function properly and sociopaths and psychopaths lose touch with what constitutes suffering. Often times these failing compound and cause us to behave badly, counter to the above example, but we are not intrinsically evil–because if anything our instincts have been honed for our survival. Thus in normal, healthy, individuals we have the moral imperative programmed into us at the biological level to avoid suffering and desire flourishing. We will therefore, more often than not, desire the healthy course of increasing our well-being over indifference or death.
The only thing that is left to do is start planting flags as we mark out the moral landscape, and with luck, leave a map for following generations so that they may continue the process of discovering higher echelons of morality as they continue to work toward increasing their overall well-being and happiness.