Being outraged is what Sam Harris does best. His angry indignation is what made The End of Faith so captivating, and in that book it was appropriate. Harris was angry about 9/11, and about the crazy religious ideas that were in the minds of the 9/11 terrorists, and about unwillingness to look at religion as a cause of violence, and about other religious ideas that have caused other forms of violence. In The Moral Landscape, he's still outraged. Partly it's the same outrage, at the same things, but in the first chapter he's outraged about something new--morality denialists, as he might call them (considering his outrage). Harris thinks there are a lot of them--
It seems me ... that most educated, secular people (and this includes most scientists, academics, and journalists) believe that there is no such thing as moral truth--only moral preference, moral opinion, and emotional reactions that we mistake for genuine knowledge of right and wrong.Because of all this rejection of moral truth, these people make bad relativistic judgments, Harris says. For example, he thinks it's because "educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values" that they're excessively tolerant of practices like female genital mutilation, and excessively intolerant of people like Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the Danish cartoonists. The answer? We should understand that there are "right answers to moral questions for science to discover." The answers are going to be based on scientific facts about human well-being.
In principle, I should be receptive to Harris. I actually wrote a book about well-being (or "the good life"), and in the book I argue that we should use our understanding of well-being to evaluate the rightness and wrongness of real-world practices (like FGM), whether or not they take place within other cultures. I have a chapter arguing against moral relativism, and defending the idea that there are moral truths. I'm all for drawing on science to illuminate what well-being is, and what increases it and decreases it. So what's the problem?
Problem #1--I think he's wrong about the prevalence of moral skepticism. I've talked to lots of people about the nature of moral truth: mainly students in ethics classes. When they discuss metaethics, they do often embrace skeptical positions like relativism. However, this is essentially epiphenomenal--their relativism has no effect at all when it comes to the way they think about moral issues. All students, including the morality skeptics, think it's right for me to grade their papers fairly, wrong for me to assign them grades randomly. They can reject moral truth when metaethics is the subject, then adamantly argue for the death penalty (or against abortion, or for stem cell research, or whatever) in the next breath.
The shallowness of moral skepticism is a lot like the shallowness of mathematical skepticism. If you ask people if math is a body of truths that we discover, or invent, many people will say "invent." They just don't see how numbers, and the relationships between them, can be part of the fabric of the world. Numbers are weird things, and mathematicians don't operate like the classic fact-finders, empirical scientists. But just minutes after expressing skepticism about mathematical truth, all skeptics will act as if it's deeply rooted in the nature of things. They want the bridges to be built according to "normal math," not some other invented system. They want to get the right change from cashiers and the right interest on their bank accounts.
Real, functioning moral skepticism is rare, and I don't see it much, whether in students, journalists, or academics. Even when people are tolerant about goings on in other cultures, it shouldn't be assumed that the basis of that is genuine relativism. It could be, rather, that they are reasoning from a different notion of well-being than Harris favors, or notions of personal or cultural autonomy that Harris would reject. It's downright absurd to think that no moral principles could be appealed to in any conceivable argument challenging the Danish cartoonists, or even Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Salman Rushdie. Note to Mr. Harris: all moral conclusions you disagree with do not come from moral relativism. They can proceed from a package of moral principles and factual assumptions some parts of which you reject.
But sure. There are some genuine moral relativists, who really do arrive at a refusal to make any judgments, no matter how horrendous the horror, from relativism. But why (on earth) pretend that "most educated secular people" think like this?
Problem #2. The "right answers to moral questions" are (surely) not simply "for science to discover." If scientists start announcing the discovery of moral facts--future headline in New York Times: SCIENTISTS DISCOVER STEM CELL RESEARCH IS MORALLY REQUIRED--no sane person will go along with it. To get to a headline like that, you need moral premises. They may be true, fact-stating, robust, maybe even as solid as mathematical truths; but the moral premises aren't going to be drawn directly from science itself. We're going to have to have rational, philosophical conversations to find these truths.
OK, so I don't care for chapter 1, but I'm still hopeful about chapter 2.
Previously on The Moral Landscape: Are Liberals Relativists?