I realize that I am adding my voice to the discussion about Sam Harris’s book long after its initial publication and after many others have spoken. My excuse is that I have only recently read it.
Harris spends a lot of time in his book going over what I consider the prolonged and painful contemplation of the obvious. Of course there is a difference between right and wrong. Of course we should all act in ways that contribute the most to the general well-being. I am astonished that cultural relativists still exist and stand ready to exonerate evil practices simply because one society or another may consider them a cultural norm. If a tribe somewhere practices human sacrifice, it is simply wrong, even if it is a cherished tradition within that culture. I am astonished that some liberals defend the right of Fundamentalist Mormon polygamists to invite thirteen-year-old girls to be one of their many concubines (unofficial wives). (The mainstream Mormon church abandoned this practice in the late nineteenth century.) The thirteen-year-old girls cannot freely choose to be “multiple wives.” They are too young to understand what they are doing, and are easily overwhelmed by the powerful church leader who tells them that they will go to hell if they do not submit to being a multiple wife. (I obtained this information from a different book, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.) We all know this and there is no point in wasting time discussing such points with cultural relativists. They have had a field day attacking Harris with their own brand of fundamentalism: the unswerving belief that there is no absolute morality. So one problem I had with Harris’s book was that it defends an idea nearly all of us already know.
But there was a problem with Harris’s approach. He said that science can determine what is right and wrong. I do not believe that science is equipped to do this. I suggest that it is much easier if we take an evolutionary approach. Perhaps our major human evolutionary adaptation is altruism. Therefore, for our species, and probably for all other intelligent social species in the universe, things are good if they promote general altruism, and bad if they erode it. By general altruism, I mean for everybody, not just for your own rapacious tribe. Altruism can be scientifically studied. The only assumption we have to make is that this adaptation is not only successful but good. We have to start with some assumption somewhere. Harris points out that scientists assume the scientific method is good; that it is good to be honest about data and to be logically consistent about reasoning.
So I believe that Harris reached the right conclusion, and did so by the right path. He just apparently misnamed the path, calling it science instead of altruism. And we can scientifically study the degree to which any given behavior enhances altruism. Anyone who questions the goodness of altruism does not understand our species very well.
I have now begun to lose faith in the pervasiveness of altruism in the human species. It exists, it is an instinct, and there are many individuals who have it. I once considered it almost ubiquitous, now I consider it a rare cause for celebration when it is found. Whether altruism is common or rare, I believe the argument above remains unchanged.
I understand why creationists and those in the business of using religion to control the minds of others get mad at Sam Harris. But it is even more repulsive when supposed free-thinking liberals attack him, the subject of the next essay.