His new book, “The Moral Landscape,” aims to meet head-on a claim he has often encountered when speaking out against religion: that the scientific worldview he favors has nothing to say on moral questions. That claim often keeps company with the thesis, elaborated by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion have “nonoverlapping magisteria.” The authority of science and the authority of religion cover different domains, Gould thought, and the methods of each are inappropriate for the study of the other’s problems. Religion deals with questions about what Harris calls “meaning, morality and life’s larger purpose,” questions that have no scientific answers.
Harris, who has a doctorate in neuroscience, holds the opposite view. Only science can help us answer these questions, he says. That’s because truths about morality and meaning must “relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures,” and science alone — especially neuroscience, his field — can uncover those facts. So rather than consulting Aristotle or Kant (let alone the Bible or the Koran) about what is necessary for humans to flourish, why not go to the sciences that study conscious mental life?
Harris means to deny a thought often ascribed to David Hume, according to which there is a clear conceptual distinction between facts and values. Facts are susceptible of rational investigation; values, supposedly, not. But according to Harris, values, too, can be uncovered by science — the right values being ones that promote well-being. “Just as it is possible for individuals and groups to be wrong about how best to maintain their physical health,” he writes, “it is possible for them to be wrong about how to maximize their personal and social well-being.”
But wait: how 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.
In fact, what he ends up endorsing is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?
It’s not that Harris is unaware of these questions, exactly. He refers to the work of Derek Parfit, who has done more than any philosopher alive to explore such difficulties. But having acknowledged some of these complications, he is inclined to push them aside and continue down his path.
That’s the case even with something as basic as what’s meant by well-being. Harris often writes as if all that matters is our conscious experience. Yet he also insists that truth is an important value. So does it count against your well-being if your happiness is based on an illusion — say, the false belief that your wife loves you? Or is subjective experience all that matters, in which case a situation in which the husband is fooled, and the wife gets pleasure from fooling him, is morally preferable to one in which she acknowledges the truth? Harris never articulates his central claim clearly enough to let us know where he would come down. But if he thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact.
Harris was a philosophy major at Stanford, but he is inclined to scant most of what philosophers have had to say about well-being. There is, for example, a movement in contemporary philosophy and economics known as “the capabilities approach,” which takes seriously the question of identifying the components of well-being and measuring them. But neither of the two leading exponents of this approach — the philosopher and economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher and classicist Martha Nussbaum — gets a mention in the book.