In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Sam Harris argues for moral realism, and a version of consequentialism in which the proper target for moral concern is the maximization of human well-being. Furthermore, he says the substance of well-being consists in the qualities of conscious experience, and modern neuroscience is giving us the tools to assess conscious states: hence answering moral questions is properly within the domain of science.
Harris endeavors in the early parts of the book to anticipate some complaints and potential misunderstandings. He says: “I am not suggesting we are guaranteed to resolve every moral controversy through science. (p.3)” But he insists there are answers in principle even if not always in practice. When thinking about morals, many seem to make a mistake in thinking that persistent disagreements and difficulties mean there are no correct answers in principle: Harris persuasively points out that we don’t seem to make this assumption in other analogous contexts (e.g. health, economics). He also thinks there may be more than one way to maximize well-being (multiple peaks on a “landscape”). Finally, he is not saying any of this will be easy!
Along the way, he argues against the idea that facts and values are in different domains: values are features of conscious states, and these are themselves natural facts. The lack of separation between facts and values may also supported by neuroscientific evidence, particularly studies of how we form beliefs.
Because this is a book by Sam Harris, we also get plenty of pointed criticism of traditional religion. This time, however, it is coupled with indignation toward secular liberals who express various degrees of moral relativism or anti-realism.
I think Harris is on the right track: I’m a moral realist and I think he’s got the right target for moral concern: the qualities of conscious experience.
I concur with one criticism made of Harris, which is that he should concede he needs more than science to build his foundation. He can acknowledge that this is a philosophical project, and argue (persuasively I think) that our moral reasoning will be much more successful now that we can leverage modern scientific tools and techniques. As I set out below, I think the project would also benefit from an explicit metaphysical grounding.
But first, let me mention some criticism of Harris I don’t agree with. Moral philosophy is an incredibly complicated subject and there are extreme practical challenges faced by any sort of consequentialism. But I don’t think it is an adequate critique to throw out examples of these moral dilemmas and difficulties. The review by Kwame Anthony Appiah fit this pattern: he emphasizes the challenges that historically have faced philosophical utilitarianism/consequentialism (a sentence begins: “Even if you accept the basic premise…). But the point should be to seek some consensus on the principles, and then form a coherent research program for tackling the complicated practical questions with the aid of modern tools.
Appiah also questions (as does Jean Kazez, in her review) whether the moral relativism that Harris targets is all that common. They believe most secular liberals are more likely to be moral realists. This may be true if you conduct a survey, but I would assert that holding to a vague sense of moral realism that lacks a clear foundation for where moral facts reside is a poor backdrop for making moral arguments. A case in point was found in my post about cosmologist Sean M. Carroll’s responses to Harris, where Carroll’s inability to locate a ground for morality in either natural facts or the supernatural left him without a convincing way to refute Harris’ thesis.
This points to a broader issue. Most secular thinkers tend to hold to a variety of scientific materialism which doesn’t have a clear home for conscious experience: the idea is that third person descriptions of brain states, which can be explained ultimately in terms of physics, are what constitute the facts. This stance strands our subjective, qualitative experience outside of nature, and this leads in turn to a difficulty in seeing values and morals as truly real. Harris is arguing that values and morals are natural facts like all the others, but he isn’t putting forth a metaphysical picture which backs this up. I think this is what leads to differences between him and other materialists on this topic. Religious folks, of course, are more confident they have a foundation for morals in their embrace of the supernatural.
I would argue that Harris would benefit from adopting an explicitly expanded version of naturalism which treats first-person experience as a fundamental feature of reality.
I recommend the book because I think the argument Harris puts forth is one people should hear about and grapple with. One quibble: I had listened to his TED talk and read his essays on the topic beforehand, and the book didn’t actually flesh out the thesis all that much more. It was padded with some off-topic material (some of which you’ll enjoy if you liked his previous books).