My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.Maybe one day everyone will agree on some naturalistic story about right and wrong, like "right actions maximize happiness." If that day ever comes, we'll be able to turn to scientists to find out what's right and wrong. However, to get to that point, you have to struggle with which account of right and wrong is correct. The folks who do the struggling are not doing science; they're ethicists, philosophers, judges, writers, you and me.
Some of my critics got off the train before it even left the station, by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms. Many think that science is synonymous with mathematical modeling, or with immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn.Uh oh. If science "simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe," then it's going to cover practically anything. Ethics is easily going to turn out be part of science, but then so is theology, at least as far as theologians are concerned.
Many people seem to think that because moral facts relate entirely to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e. biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue.Good point.
When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal wellbeing that we can, in principle, know—simply because wellbeing (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.The tricky part is the equation. How would we know which facts about wellbeing are relevant to questions of morality? Not by doing science.
Many of my critics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time.I sympathize with Harris's impatience. It's a perfectly respectable position in metaethics to say there are facts about morality, Hume notwithstanding. "Cognitivism" (the view that there are such facts) is probably the majority view. (Note: "facts" doesn't have to mean "scientific facts.")
In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.”The thing is, there are lots of different states of mind that could be relevant to a theory about rightness, and lots of ways to use them to build different theories. It ignores all the complexity to say "consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value."
And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of wellbeing in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I’ve read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit).OK, so in some way, shape, or form rightness has something to do with consciousness. It doesn't follow that the science of consciousness is going to tell us what rightness has to do with consciousness. We need ethicists for that!
I worry that a public intellectual like Sam Harris is waging battles that don't put him in the best possible position to do good metaethics. The public respects religion and respects science. If you're going to pull morality out of the religion column, an effective way to make that palatable is to put it in the science column. But does it really belong in the science column? By all means, not yet. And it's at least possible not ever.
There are metaethical options that dissociate ethics from science. It could just be that "torturing babies for fun is wrong" is true like "2+2=4" is true. Though pain is a natural phenomenon studied by science, wrongness might just be a property beyond the scope of empirical science, like mathematical equality is. For purposes of wooing the public away from religion, certain kinds of metaethics just won't do. But they might be worthy of consideration anyway, if the goal is just figuring out the truth.