PZ Myers, backing the physicist Sean Carroll in the argument, says no:
Sam Harris recently and infamously proposed that, contra Hume, you can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and that science can therefore provide reasonable guidance towards a moral life. Sean Carroll disagrees at length.
I’m afraid that so far I’m in the Carroll camp. I think Harris is following a provocative and potentially useful track, but I’m not convinced. I think he’s right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it’s a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don’t survive). However, I don’t think Harris’s criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can’t. We can certainly use science to say how we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it. Harris is smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.
To which Sam Harris retorts:
To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is exactly like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. We need not enter either of these philosophical cul-de-sacs.
Carroll and Myers both believe nothing much turns on whether we find a universal foundation for morality. I disagree. Granted, the practical effects cannot be our reason for linking morality and science — we have to form our beliefs about reality based on what we think is actually true. But the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous. And science’s failure to address the most important questions in human life has made it seem like little more than an incubator for technology. It has also given faith-based religion — that great engine of ignorance and bigotry — a nearly uncontested claim to being the only source of moral wisdom. This has been bad for everyone. What is more, it has been unnecessary — because we can speak about the well-being of conscious creatures rationally, and in the context of science. I think it is time we tried.
And I think that Harris is right about trying, and is getting the better of this argument. My bet is that PZ Myers, sometime over the next year, and before all of this is done playing out, will flip on the issue. I’m less certain about Carroll.
But what is lurking here, of course, is Nietzsche. And Hitler. Deriving ethics from the sciences—especially from biology—has, to put it mildly, gone badly in the past. It is best to keep them separate. At least that’s the argument. But I think that Nietzsche was on to something when he expressed a desire to derive ethics from a foundation other than religion, and this led him to science as a logical atheist substitute. Here’s Alistair Kee, of the University of Edinburgh, from his book Nietzsche against the Crucified (SCM Press, 1999, 53-54):
[Nietzsche] reckons that ‘Christianity is Platonism for the people,’ and judges that Plato ‘is still Europe’s greatest misfortune’. . . . If Nietzsche rejects the supernatural origin of values, what then might be their natural basis? Kaufmann suggests a starting point. ‘Nietzsche was aroused from his dogmatic slumber by Darwin, as Kant had been by Hume a century earlier.’ As Nietzsche asks in his earliest book, ‘what kind of figure does ethics cut once we decide to view it in the biological perspective?’ If moral values arise from the earth rather than descend from the heavens, then what are their physiological and social origins and functions? If we reject the idealist account of moral values, what are their materialist origins? At what level must the question begin? Nietzsche tells us that we require ‘a chemistry of the moral, religious and aesthetic conceptions and sensations’. What is going on here? What has morality to do with chemistry? In 1882 he wrote to Erwin Rohde of his plan to become a full-time student again, studying science at the University of Vienna. He wished to ‘consecrate’ the rest of his life to this study. Science of course was not his fundamental interest: it was the path to a deeper interest. This plan was not to be carried out, and we can only speculate on the prospect of a young instructor faced with a tutorial group which included F. Nietzsche.
I would say the same thing of Sam Harris: he’s the grad student in the room who is disrupting the parameters of a too easy discourse, questioning what has long been regarded a settled issue: we don’t derive “ought” from “is”. What Harris is doing is pushing secularism—and atheism, in particular—out of its comfort zone (as Nietzsche also did). Harris is saying, in effect, that if we, as atheists, are not Platonists, then what are we? Darwinists? And if we are, how serious are we about it? How might biology and anthropology inform our moral thinking?
The danger is that Harris might well find himself staring into an abyss that ill-fits liberalism. Nietzsche, for example, thought that grounding morality in biology taught either ego-centered or community-centered vitalism—life for life’s sake—and brought us to the hyper-masculinist culture of pre-Socratic Greece as a model. And Nietzsche didn’t blink at the implications (from his Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, 1881):
Decisive eras of history which determined the character of mankind: eras in which suffering counted as virtue, cruelty counted as virtue, dissembling counted as virtue, revenge counted as virtue, denial of reason counted as virtue, while on the other hand well-being was accounted a danger, desire for knowledge was accounted a danger, peace was accounted a danger, pity was accounted a danger, being pitied was accounted an affront, work was accounted an affront, madness was accounted godliness, and change was accounted immoral and pregnant with disaster.
It will be interesting to see whether contemporary atheists, engaging in this morality-science dialogue, find themselves—alas!—driven into rereading Nietzsche, and blushing there, retreat yet again to the comfy and fuzzy realms of relativism and the “is-ought” division.