I saw Sam Harris speak on his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values. I've already disagreed with Sam Harris on this topic, but how does he fare on second glance?
At these talks, I always try to come up with a good brief question to ask the speaker. I never actually ask the question, because I lack the confidence. I don't know why I'm afraid, when so many of the other questions tend to be terrible and long-winded can-you-get-to-the-question questions. But there you go, confidence is irrational.
Question to Sam Harris: "The subtitle of your book suggests that your main claim is about meta-ethics. Your talk suggests that you don't really care about meta-ethics. Which is it?"
Meta-ethics, by the way, is the philosophy concerning the nature of ethics (rather than the nitty gritty). Meta-ethics is to ethics as philosophy of science is to science. Knowing philosophy of science is neither necessary nor sufficient to being good at science, though it might be interesting and might suggest certain scientific practices.
The reason I'd ask this question of Sam Harris is because it seems to me like Sam Harris only cares about meta-ethics to the extent that he can use it (abuse it?) to reach his goals.
At least his goals are fairly respectable. He spent most of the talk highlighting egregious evils caused by religion, and the way that people tend to give it a free pass through some sort of moral relativism. He's also advancing the idea that some cultures are morally better or worse than others (and in particular, some religions create better cultures than others). That I can agree with. Pretty much all of social activism is premised on the idea that we can improve culture.
At first I was bothered that he'd only talk about the most extreme examples of moral relativism. It's making straw men. But, you know what? Attacking the egregiously wrong is a respectable thing to do. It may not be the most intellectually deep exercise, but if people actually believe these things, then the stupidest beliefs are also the most harmful. This is also why the atheist movement is right to focus on the egregiously wrong beliefs of the people rather than the merely wrong beliefs of theologians.
So I largely agree with Sam Harris' major points and goals. But in his arguments, he's using meta-ethics, and Sam Harris sucks at meta-ethics. I'm not saying this from an ivory tower perspective; I'm not saying that you have to be a professional philosopher to say anything about ethics or meta-ethics. All I'm saying is that if Sam Harris is good at meta-ethics, then so is Ayn Rand. (Burn!)
Sam Harris thinks that there is objective moral truth, it's just that it's really hard to determine. Just like how economics is really hard, but must have some underlying truth. He argues this by coming up with extreme hypotheticals, saying that they are certainly morally undesirable. I think the conclusion he wants to draw is that the set of all possible outcomes can in principle be uniquely ordered by moral desirability. How he gets from here to there is kind of sketchy to me.
But, to use a recent example on my blog, I think moral truth is like the question of nature vs nurture. If you ask, "How much of a given human trait caused by genetics?" that is an ill-defined question. Science produces an answer to this bad question by subtly replacing it with a good question. Similarly, if you ask, "What is good and bad?" as far as science is concerned, that's a bad question. Science can only answer this bad question by subtly replacing with another one. Sam Harris replaced it with, "What produces the most well-being?"
And that's a fine replacement. It's good enough to condemn Islam, anyways. However, I'm skeptical that this perspective is of much use to, say, a working ethicist.