Over at commonsenseatheism, Luke Muehlhauser has posted an interesting review of Sam Harris’ latest book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values“. Here are some highlights:
Harris’ central claim is that: “ …questions about values – about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose – are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures …”
But why doesn’t the well-being of non-conscious creatures matter? What is well-being, and why should it be maximized instead of preference satisfaction or desire fulfillment or happiness or pleasure? In fact, why should well-being be maximized at all? Harris denies that anything has intrinsic value, which means well-being has no intrinsic value. So why should we maximize well-being? Is it because well-being is what we care about? If so, what about the other things we care about besides well-being? Or does Harris define well-being so that it, by definition, encompasses everything we care about? What are the primary objects of moral evaluation? Acts? Rules? Desires? Institutions? Are one of these central, such that the others derive their valence from it? If not, what if they come into conflict?
The point about the definition of “well-being” is an important one. I read an article in New Scientist a while back which complained that politicians were making policy decisions on the basis of ideology rather than on the basis of scientific facts. To illustrate the point, the article produced statistics indicating that conservative, abstinence-based programs of sex education were less effective than more liberal programs at lowering the occurrence of teenage pregnancy. “There you go”, they’d say, “ideology says abstinence but science says give them condoms!”
The problem with this argument is that it assumes a definition of “well-being” that isn’t agreed to by all sides. Christians, for example, would not subscribe to a view of teenage sexuality that states that the all that matters is that our daughters don’t get pregnant before they’re 20. Christians don’t think that teenagers should be having sex at all, even with a condom, because they argue that teenagers aren’t mature enough to handle the emotional, psychological ramifications, that sex is best in a loving, committed relationship, that girls looking for love will be used by boys looking for anything, that condoms fail more than 10% of the time are not failsafe.
I’m not going to wade into that debate, but my point should be obvious. Science tells us how the world is, not how it should be.