smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)
I just finished Bruce Sterling's Zeitgeist, which---considering it came out ten years ago---means my relationship with trendiness has not changed.

And I was struck by a couple of paragraphs near the end of the book:
"Check this out, man, I've got a theory. A good person can subsume the narrative of a bad person. Because it's easy for a good person to imagine being bad. But a bad person can't subsume the narrative of a good person. Because they have no understanding of what that's like. It's just beyond them, it's beyond their language."

"I like that theory," said Khoklov. "It's mathematical. It's about surface areas, basically. It's a kind of moral topology."

So naturally this reminded me of Sam Harris's new book, The Moral Landscape, which is all about how a naturalistic understanding of morality would look something like a fitness landscape, where moving upward would represent moral success and moving downward would represent moral failure. You don't need to be able to make claims of certainty for moral principles in order to have moral knowledge, but moral knowledge could---like scientific knowledge---be acquired and refined gradually as we map the metaphorical landscape of possibility with respect to the experiences of conscious creatures like human beings (and perhaps other "higher" organisms).

Of course, now I'm wondering if Sterling got his idea for a moral topology from somewhere else. (I suspect there's a long tradition of moral topology theory of which I'm pathetically ignorant.) Still, by Googling "moral topolgy," I quickly found a map of Dante's Inferno. Which (ironically, considering Sam Harris's passionate atheism) is not a bad first approximation of a moral landscape, for a medieval moralist. In Dante, Sterling, and Harris, moral ignorance (and not just incorrigible wickedness) and moral knowledge are both possible, and although people high on the landscape can look down and see what being bad might be like, people mired in their own dysfunction tend not to see the higher possibilities without assistance.

And, like Vergil in Dante's poem, a person with moral knowledge would be a person capable of navigating from point A to point B (or capable of helping another navigate from point A to point B) in the moral landscape. Unlike Dante's poem, in the natural world moral possibilities are not guarded by demons and angels, though the forces of society, economics, and psychology might play similar roles at times.

Finally, there just something appealing about the idea of a moral landscape. A landscape is something that can drawn, painted, mapped, and even shaped to some degree. A scientific understanding of morality should no more unweave the rainbow of human values than a scientific understanding of botany drains color and scent from flowers.


smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)

June 2012



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