- Moral values can and should be determined by what best contributes to the well-being of conscious creatures.
- Science can tell us, with increasing accuracy, what does or does not contribute to the well-being of conscious creatures.
- Science can determine moral values.
This is common ground that everyone can stand on, regardless of religous beliefs. Harris is arguing from an atheist perspective, but even people of faith should concede that whatever system of values is given us by our faith, those values mean nothing if they do not contribute to well-being, and especially so if they subtract from well-being.
For example, I as a Christian believe that Jesus, as reported in the Gospels, summed up all moral law with 2 commandments: 1) Love God with everything you have; and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself. Now, if I have some moral value that I extrapolate from the teachings of Jesus, and science is able to demonstrate with overwhelming evidence that that particular value actually does more harm to myself or others than it does good, then I should reject that value and assume that I have misunderstood the teaching of Christ on that matter. Afterall, what else could it mean that Jesus said that these 2 commandments are the sum of the law, other than that all other particular laws and moral values given in the Scriptures should be understood in light of these 2? It seems to me that Jesus made Harris’ arguments 2,000 years prior.
We should all, atheist and believer alike, laud Harris’ book for its forceful rejection of moral relativism.
My only critique of the book is that even though Harris states his thesis this way in the introduction, he does not restrict himself to just those arguments. (I get the feeling that had he done so, the book could not have been more than 50 pages.) He goes on to offer a range of arguments in support of radically reductive theories of mind, including an absolute rejection of any notion of free will, which he argues is pure illusion.
By including all of this in his book, Harris seems to be making the claim that these theories of mind go hand-in-hand with the proposition that science can determine moral values. I would argue that they are irrelevant. Generally, knowing the ultimate source of something is irrelevant to practical application. One does not need calculus and theories of gravity in order to properly execute a lay-up in basketball, or to become an expert in archery.
Harris is stretching the argument further than it wants to go, implying that since science can determine the best moral principles , then religion (or any notion of transcendent reality for that matter) makes no meaningful contribution to human values. That is a non sequitir. It would be akin to arguing that because we can fly planes, launch spacecraft, etc., that the search for a Theory of Everything is superfluous. But we know it’s not. In fact, many would argue that knowledge has its own merit, greater than its practical applications. How many physicists would, in a heartbeat, give up our mastery of air and spacecraft in exchange for finally attaining a Theory of Everything, if such a choice were presented? I would guess that most would.
Why? I would argue it’s because we have an inescapable intuition that things have meaning, that the signifiers have real world referents, that something lies beyond morality that is much greater than simply it’s utility to conscious creatures.