When I finally finish reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, I’m sure I’ll review it here, because it’s absolutely fascinating.
Just the first two chapters have me thinking already—thinking about how much I agree with his point that we can blather on and define morality in a thousand different ways, but what it all comes down to is maximizing well-being for conscious creatures (human and animal).
And I love him for having given me this clear and concise explanation for what I’ve felt for many years, but couldn’t articulate. What I’ve felt, in fact, since I realized I was an atheist, and people started to say things like “But how can you be a good person with God?” And “But how can you teach your kids the right way to live without God?”
It’s easy. We should endeavor to always do the things that will maximize well-being for ourselves along with our friends and family, strangers we meet during the day, and everyone in the world. Of course, that’s not a simple proposition and figuring out how to do it will take a lot of work (and sometimes we’re going to be wrong), but it’s a good goal.
And it’s not that hard to explain to a kid. Why don’t we steal the candy we want from the store? Not because a deity told us not to, but because that means that someone at the store won’t have the candy. Or, for an older child, because then the people at the store might not have enough money to pay their employees or buy more candy to sell to other people.
We don’t hit other people because that won’t make us feel any better and it certainly will make them unhappy. We recycle because it makes the world a little bit better for people and animals. We eat less meat for the same reason.
Even little things like why we smile and say hello when someone greets us become easier to explain. “Does it make you happy when someone smiles at you?” I asked Yael some time ago.
“Then you should try and smile at other people, because maybe it will make them happy.”
Yael is still a bit too shy for that, but I hope that my explanation sunk in. She looked like she was thinking about it (although she might just have been trying to figure out how to get a second dessert).
Of course, I’ve always talked to her about why we give to charity, using simple language like “There are some people who don’t have enough food to eat, so we give them money to buy food. I would be sad if I didn’t have enough food, wouldn’t you?”
And that’s why I give to charity: Not because my god or my synagogue told me to, but because I believe that we should all strive to maximize well-being everywhere. Like Harris, I know I’m not perfect (far far far from it), but I’m trying. As the saying goes, it’s not a destination, but a journey.
I need to give more money to charity. I need to use less energy and water. I need to be kinder (yes, even to people who annoy the bejeezus out of me). I need to work on forgiveness. I need to be less grudging in helping others, even when it inconveniences me (this is a big one, ’cause I’m hella lazy). I need to volunteer more! (I’ve volunteered for Field Day at Yael’s school. Does that count?)
I can’t wait to read the rest of the book and see what suggestions Harris has for using science to figure out how to maximize well-being on a grander scale. Meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to think about how to do more small bits of goodness in my life.