Flaming arrows are heading Sam Harris’ way because of his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. The problem, says my old blogging friend Josh Rosenau, is the truck-sized hole in the middle of Harris’ argument. Times reviewer Kwame Anthony Appiah adds:
(H)ow do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.
Josh talks through the implications of science as morality in this example:
How awesome would it be to say to an anti-abortion activist: “sorry, your moral system is scientifically disproven, like geocentrism”? But talking about abortion gets to the core of Harris’s problem: to whom we accord moral status (is an 8-cell embryo morally equivalent to an adult human?), how much status we accord to sentient non-humans (we accord chimps fewer rights than humans, but where does an 8-cell embryo fall on that axis?), and how we balance different people’s needs (must we let a woman die to protect the life of an embryo?) are all questions that are fundamentally about values, and that are not ultimately scientific, and however much Harris wishes otherwise, he can’t answer them.
I’ve ordered but have not yet received the book, so my comments must remain uninformed worries for the moment. I’m worried about Harris’ tendency to simplify complexities and ignore inconvenient facts. I’m wondering how science detached from values could make the right calls on such moral issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. (For one frightening example, take a look at the “science” that is already being employed in the marriage debate.) But I do remained intrigued by Harris’ landscape metaphor. The idea that there are similar but different moral peaks is intriguing. I look forward to reading the book.