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Notes and Reflections on Books and Media

by Hannah Leitheiser


The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

Sam Harris




What, after all, is the problem with desecrating a copy of the Qur’an? There would be no problem but for the fact that people believe that the Qur’an is a divinely authored text. Such people almost surely believe that some harm could come to them or to their tribe as a result of such sacrileges—if not in this world, then in the next. A more esoteric view might be that any person who desecrates scripture will have harmed himself directly: a lack of reverence might be its own punishment, dimming the eyes of faith. Whatever interpretation one favors, sacredness and respect for religious authority seem to reduce to a concern about harm just the same. The same point can be made in the opposite direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of thinking in terms of harm and fairness, can readily see that my vision of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others. When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls just as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I expect that epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years. Just imagine, for instance, how liberals might be disposed to think about the threat of Islam after an incident of nuclear terrorism. Liberal hankering for happiness and freedom might one day produce some very strident calls for stricter laws and tribal loyalty. Will this mean that liberals have become religious conservatives pining for the beehive? Or is the liberal notion of avoiding harm flexible enough to encompass the need for order and differences between in-group and out-group? - Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2011)