I’m grateful to Sam Harris for the thoughtfulness and civility that he continues to show even when he responds to criticisms. I’m also conscious that there’s much which he and I agree on.
For example, I am sceptical that science, by itself, can provide values or moral principles, but I don’t see religion - any religion - as faring any better. I also agree with him in opposing popular, but crude, forms of moral relativism that counsel us to a sort of quietism about the practices of other cultures. I support Harris in speaking out against cruel practices wherever they take place.
Our disagreements are at a rather theoretical level, involving matters of meta-ethics and normative ethical theory. This can be dry stuff, and my gratitude to Harris extends to the way that he’s made it interesting and opened up a popular debate.
There’s a philosophical interest in sorting out these kinds of questions, but also a practical concern: the answers we give affect how we live our lives and judge our own life choices, what laws and political programs we decide to support, and how we teach the next generation of citizens. It’s worthwhile trying to get these things right.
Harris claims that science can determine human values, but he goes about this in an odd way. Despite his protestations, he continues to rely on a fundamental value that is, by his own admission, not determined by science, the value of maximising general well-being - whatever “well-being” actually is.
In doing so, he deprecates the problem that we have no agreed conception of well-being, let alone a way of measuring it. Is it having various feelings such as pleasure or satisfaction, or having your preferences satisfied, or being able to do certain things if you wish, or leading a certain kind of life that is thought to be a flourishing one … or what? After many hundreds of years, this is still debated.
Something similar applies to health, Harris says, so where’s the problem? Surely, he argues, we can have a science of health. That may be true, though we can hardly aim to maximize health if the concept really is as fuzzy and contested as the concept of well-being.
As it happens, there’s a vast literature in the fields of bioethics and health policy trying to nail down what health really is - inconclusively so far. Fortunately, medical practice can get by from day to day with more modest concepts than maximizing health, such as treating wounds and injuries, curing and preventing diseases, relieving pain, and so on.
I don’t doubt that biomedical science finds out many truths about the functioning of the human body, and I don’t doubt that the practice of medicine is a rational one, informed by, among other things, the findings of biomedical science.
Similarly, I don’t doubt that we can engage in a rational practice when we criticize various laws, customs and social norms. Nor do I doubt that this can be informed by findings from various areas of science.
More generally, I believe that we can subject the whole phenomenon of morality to a process of rational study. What we can’t do is try to maximize well-being if well-being can’t be defined and measured.
Perhaps this problem can be overcome, but it’s not clear that it’s yet been overcome even with the concept of health, so that analogy is not reassuring.
Still, this is the least of the problems for Harris in The Moral Landscape. Deeper issues would arise even if we could agree on what well-being really is.
Even if we were, somehow or other, required to maximize well-being (however defined), Harris evidently agrees with me that this would not be an empirical finding. The requirement to maximize well-being is not something that is discovered by science or by any other area of empirical inquiry that the word “science” could be stretched to cover.
The best he can claim is that our laws, customs, policies, social norms, and so on could determined by the combination of this fundamental, presupposed value with information that we might obtain from science, and elsewhere.
That’s not so implausible, but nor is it especially surprising. Harris seemingly wants to establish a stronger, more novel, claim, but I cannot see how he has done so.
In The Moral Landscape, and in responding to criticisms, he sometimes suggests that science depends on certain values, but that is very different from saying that it determines values. In any event, what does this amount to?