Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape has fallen among the atheist community like a cannon shell, and I for one couldn’t be happier. This is an important and long-overdue project for us to begin: to take morality out of the hands of religionists, to rigorously define it as the achievement of human well-being rather than the set of rituals that must be undertaken to please an ineffable god, and to begin a discussion about the best way to accomplish this end. Establishing this firm foundation will give the atheist community its own distinct and recognizable voice, and will make us a stronger and more compelling alternative to the religious dogmas that pass for ethics in society’s discourse. (It doesn’t hurt, I have to admit, that Sam’s argument is the same one I’ve been making for years.)
It’s true that you can’t take any catalogue of facts about human nature, however comprehensive, and from them distill the conclusion: “We ought to value human flourishing.” But for the same reason, it’s also true that you can’t start with any catalogue of facts about human history or the world, however comprehensive, and from them distill the conclusion: “We ought to use the scientific method to study reality.” Does this cast doubt on the legitimacy of science as a human endeavor? More importantly, does it imply that there exist other ways of knowing that are just as valid?
No system of thought can be derived out of thin air. They all have to be based on axioms that can, in principle, be rejected. But if that’s a strike against objective morality, it’s also a strike against philosophy, science, mathematics, and every other branch of human inquiry as well. Just as the hypothetical evildoer can say, “Why should I care about human happiness or well-being?”, the hypothetical creationist or homeopath or astrologer can say, “Why should I care about falsifiability, repeatability or empirical evidence?”
And what to do with those stubborn philosophical skeptics, who insist to their last breath that we can’t prove that human well-being should be valued above other qualities? Let them be. If our approach to morality is correct, its superiority will be borne out in practice and people will eventually be persuaded to come along for the ride, just as theists switched from faith healing to antibiotics when they saw how much more effective the latter was. If the error theorists are correct, any attempt to rationally work out the principles of ethics will only end in discord and confusion (and since they, by definition, believe that no other outcome is possible, it’s hard to see why they should object to the attempt).
On the other hand, if we’re correct, people who begin with the same moral premises will eventually converge on the same conclusions. In fact, I would argue that human history offers some important clues that this convergence is already in progress!