Moral Health and Physical Health

If you’ve been with me through the last few posts, you know that Sam Harris argues in his book, The Moral Landscape, that questions of right and wrong really come down to questions about the well-being of conscious creatures *. Any other consideration is, by definition, of literally no interest.

This time, I’d like to share an analogy that Dr. Harris uses in support of his view. Here are two quotations from the introduction to his book:

Many readers might wonder how we can base our values on something as difficult to define as “well-being”? It seems to me, however, that the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition, and yet it is indispensable.

…consider how we currently think about food: no one would argue that there must be one right food to eat. And yet there is still an objective difference between healthy food and poison.

Many of us have a strong sense of right and wrong, even absent religious traditions or holy books that supposedly spell it all out. Statements like, “It’s all relative” or, “Anything goes” make us very uncomfortable. The analogy between moral and physical health is a welcome way to ground what we know intuitively. If valid, it neatly questions like these:

  • If we don’t believe in one, God-given moral system, what right do we have to say anything compelling about right and wrong — even to ourselves?
  • How can we be generally tolerant of other people’s moral views, yet take a strong stand against (to take the case that is always trotted out) the views of Hitler?

Analogies usually break down the more you push them, but I think this one is quite strong. What do you think?

* – To belabor a point: “conscious creatures” may include god(s) and “well-being” may incorporate an afterlife. Of course, Harris, an atheist, does not expand the terms in these ways for himself.

2 responses to “Moral Health and Physical Health

  1. When it comes to physical health, we have a pretty good understanding of what a person needs to do to promote good health in themselves. Eating right, exercising, and adequate rest are seemingly obvious and known to all these days. Is there a similar proscription for Harris’ “well-being”?

    • Similar in spirit, but not as well-defined. Harris admits that morality is “an undeveloped branch of science” but adds that we are discovering more answers all the time.

      It is similar to the development of our understanding of physical health. 300 years ago we thought that a good treatment for the flu was to bleed the patient with leeches. We thought that a prosperous-looking portliness was a healthy. Now we know better.

      We’re making progress with moral health,, too. For example, most of us value tolerance and freedom in ways that were unheard-of just a few generations ago.

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