The Science of Right and Wrong

Orr_1-051211_jpg_470x425_q85 H. Allen Orr reviews Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values in th NYRB:

Harris was trained as a neuroscientist and received his doctoral degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2009. He is best known as the author of two previous books. In 2004, he published The End of Faith, a fierce attack on organized religion. The book, which propelled Harris from near obscurity to near stardom—he has appeared on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The O’Reilly Factor—is one of the canonical works of the New Atheist movement, along with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006). Harris seemed mostly to play the part of polemicist in the movement. He possesses a sharp wit and an even sharper pen, and his attacks on mainstream religion had a scorched-earth intensity. In 2006, Harris followed this up with Letter to a Christian Nation, an uncompromising response to his Christian critics.

In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Harris shifts his sights somewhat. He is now concerned with the sorry state of moral thinking among both religious and secular people in the West. While the former are convinced that moral truths are handed down from on high, the latter are perpetually muddled, frequently believing that morals are relative, the product of arbitrary tradition and social conditioning. Harris hopes to sweep aside both kinds of confusion, convincing his readers that objective moral truths exist and that we possess a (properly secular) means for discovering them.

It may not come as a surprise that Harris thinks these required means are scientific. Science, he insists, will someday show us the way to the good life. Harris’s claims are both bold and, as expected from his previous writings, plainly put: “I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” Indeed, as the subtitle of his book promises, he will show “how science can determine human values.” Though Harris concedes that the science required for this task, particularly neurobiology, remains in its infancy, the requisite developments, he suggests, may be on the horizon. We must all face up to the fact that “science will gradually encompass life’s deepest questions.”