Sam Harris is Back, Arguing Science Can Answer Moral Questions

March 22, 2010

After completing his Ph.D in neuroscience from UCLA, Sam Harris — author of "End of Faith" (2004) and "Letter to a Christian Nation" (2006) — has returned to writing and speaking. In his new book, " The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values ," Harris argues that, in reverse of current thought, science can — and should — be an authority on moral issues, shaping morality and setting out what constitutes a good life.

Harris gave a 23-minute primer on his new book at the recent TED conference; video can be found on YouTube here .

"It’s generally understood that questions of morality — questions of good and evil, and right and wrong — are questions about which science officially has no opinion. It’s thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value," he said in his talk. "Consequently, most people … think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life. Questions like what is worth living for, what is worth dying for; what constitutes a good life."

Harris contends that this is an illusion. Consider how we act toward rocks, insects, and primates: the fact that we give each more moral respect than the last is based on factual claims about the ability of rocks, insects, and primates to experience pain and happiness. If there was compelling new evidence telling us rocks or insects can suffer on par with primates, we would be forced to change our moral views (and be a little more careful on the sidewalk).

Harris also reasons that human flourishing is better seen on a continuum, or what he calls a "moral landscape." That is, while oppression of women is wrong, the sex-crazed Western society isn’t necessarily desirable. Moreover, there can be many ways to thrive as humans — just as there are many ways to win a game of chess, there are many ways to live well. But, Harris maintans, this doesn’t prevent an objective philosophical outlook.

To be sure, there was more to Harris’ talk than just the above. To read an entry at Huffington Post that covers some issues I do not, click here .

Four immediate thoughts:

First, Harris doesn’t pay much time to David Hume’s is-ought problem. One would think this a problem considering the above. However, this was a 23-minute talk; comparatively, Harris will speak for an hour on his book tour, and have 320 pages to cover the issue in his book. He has already signaled he will discuss this more in both the extended talks and the book.

Second, I understand it was a short talk, but I’d like to see more direct lines from scientific knowledge existing to moral questions being answered.

Third, Harris has a very interesting retort to the usual relatavist line, "who are we to say…?" Again he reverses on common thinking, asking "Who are we not to say this?" Referring to such practices as honor killing, Harris charges: "Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well-being that we have to be non-judgemental about a practice like this?" 

Fourth, Harris does add that he doesn’t think science is guaranteed to provide all the answers — just that it can currently weigh in on many questions.

I’m excited for this book. I’m also excited that Harris will visit NYC this October — once for CFI — as part of his book tour. On Oct. 5, he will be at Cooper Union as part of their speaker series; and on Oct. 7, he will speak for the Center for Inquiry at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Click here other dates and catch him if he’s coming your way.