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Moral Landscape – the hypocrisy of moral relativism

January 23, 2014

After reading the introduction to Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape I am left deeply frustrated and disappointed. I feel that Harris has asserted what he intends to prove and has not dealt adequately with weaknesses and objections to his thesis. Yet on pages 27 and 28 this finally changed. I found something where I agree wholeheartedly with Harris – his criticism of moral relativism.

He demonstrates he wholeheartedly holds to the moral realist philosophical tradition by firmly asserting the existence of ‘moral truth’ (p.27). He is critical of highly educated people who claim that ‘morality is a myth’. He rightly points out the hypocrisy of attempting to combat human evil “all the while knowing that our notions of “good” and “evil” are completely unwarranted.” I quite enjoyed his little anecdote,

“It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the “contextual” legitimacy of the burqa or of female genital mutilation, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that moral relativism does nothing to diminish a person’s commitment to making the world a better place” (p.27)

I think Sam Harris is correct in outlining the hypocrisy of moral relativism. However I do have a couple of comments reflecting on Harris’ position.

  • I do agree with Harris that an objective moral reality exists which means I am also critical of moral relativism. Yet Harris struggles to adequately ground his own moral reality in an objective foundation. Whilst he is attempting to do this through his Moral Landscape project, it is ultimately doomed to failure i.e. he can’t satisfactorily bridge the ‘is’ / ‘ought’ boundary. Hence ironically, Harris, like all atheists must adopt a form of moral relativism because as famed atheist Sartre writes, “There can no longer be any good, a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men.”
  • Unfortunately Harris’ own conception of morality, namely maximising well being, also does away with notions of “good” and “evil”. In the moral landscape we can only speak of something as ‘better’ or ‘worse’, we can never categorically state something as evil, contrary to his own criticism.
  • The Moral Landscape is itself morally relativistic. In only a few pages on page 33 Harris states that “there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive – many peaks on the moral landscape” (p.33). This is a form of moral relativism, there are many ‘right’ ways to fulfillment, what may be right for one person is right for another. The only way Harris can weed out those with radically different notions of wellbeing (like Jeffrey Dahmer who has sex with corpses) is not to allow their views to count! (p.34). Imposing a form of potential cultural imperialism and prejudice doesn’t demonstrate ‘moral truth’.

So why I agree with Harris in his criticism of moral relativism, unfortunately his own Moral Landscape project, despite his own claims adopts a form of moral relativism.

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2 Comments
  1. Frederick permalink

    Applied moral relativism 101:
    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel13 also panel 21
    Plus google
    Columbus & Other Cannibals by Jack Forbes
    American Holocaust by David Stannard
    Britain’s Empire by Richard Gott
    The Criminal History of the Papacy (and other books) by Tony Bushby
    the website jesusneverexisted

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