Monday, April 17, 2017


In the “Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values,” atheist Sam Harris argues that we do not need religion to tell us what is right and wrong. Instead, science can do this for us.

Atheist Steven Pinker praises the book:

·       Harris makes a powerful case for a morality that is based on human flourishing and thoroughly enmeshed with science and rationality.

“The Free Press” (FP) argues that Harris has provided the necessary objective basis for morality in science:

·       Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to “respect” the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors. 

Harris is understandably trying to find an objective basis for morality. Without this, we are left with a virtual Tower of Babel, where each individual chooses what is right for him without any higher and objective standard to mediate among a cacophony of subjective opinions. As FP writes, Harris believes that he has found this objective standard in science:

·       Harris demonstrates that we already know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply false—and comes at increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.

Harris is clearly right about the costs of moral relativism. However, based on the FP appraisal, I don’t think that he has been able to address the critique of the skeptical philosopher David Hume:

·       I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

According to Hume, Harris’ system is a one of the “vulgar systems of morality.” Here is why - Hume correctly observed that there exists an impassable chasm between what “is” and what “ought to be.” While science can tell us how we might love another, it cannot tell us why we ought to love one another. Science can guide us as to how to serve our beloved healthy foods instead of arsenic, but it cannot tell us why we should love our beloved, in any objective sense.

Likewise, there are many other values that science cannot supply. For instance, “Why should we value the human over a mosquito, a termite, or the Ebola virus?” Science might tell us how to value the human over the virus by purifying water and disinfecting contaminated objects. However, science cannot tell is why we should value the human over the virus.

Science is the servant of our values. It cannot invent values. However, FP writes:

·       Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of “morality”; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.

Notice that science depends upon a pre-existing, assumed value – “to live the best lives possible” or “human flourishing.” FP doesn’t seem to recognize that science cannot serve us until we first inform science how to serve us. It can only serve us after we instruct science that we want to live “the best lives possible.”

But what is the best possible life? Some would say that the best possible life involves a high degree of suffering. Others maintain that life is an illusion, which we must not indulge but transcend, while others will insist that it is all about the survival-of-the-fittest. Does science favor any of these views? Certainly not! It can make no moral pronouncements.

In the latter case, science might serve the Social Darwinist by inventing tools of mass destruction to eliminate the “inferior races.” This is because science cannot generate its own values. Nor can science indict the Social Darwinist for having violated an objective value.

Based upon FP, I do not see how Harris has offered the moral relativist any objective means to escape their moral relativism.

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