Sam Harris gives a Ted Talk consoling “people like us” with the good news that science will provide universal standards of right and wrong, good and evil. Thank you, Science! All those pesky relativist and fanatical religious type can now be put in their place.
His argument is pernicious because it is intuitively appealing (in part through the abuse of the beleaguered relativist straw-man) and evocative in its promise of overcoming moral meaninglessness found at the heart of the modern condition with the exciting and hard to understand magic of neuroscience. But he misses the problem, much less the answer by miles – for a less low-rent version of this line of thinking I would suggest figures like Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre, not only do they confront the problem more directly, they don’t wave their hands over a brain scan and promise us that “science” will provide an objective and sustaining account of the good life.
A proper comment on such matters will surely follow, but for now: Mr. Dewey, did you have something to add?
All the serious perplexities of life come back to the genuine difficulty of forming a judgment as to the values of the situation; they come back to a conflict of goods. Only dogmatism can suppose that serious moral conflict is between something clearly bad and something known to be good, and that uncertainty lies wholly in the will of the one choosing. Most conflicts of importance are conflicts between things which are or have been satisfying, not between good and evil. And to suppose that we can make a hierarchical table of values at large once for all, a kind of catalogue in which they are arranged in an order of ascending or descending worth, is to indulge in a gloss on our inability to frame intelligent judgments in the concrete. Or else it is to dignify customary choice and prejudice by a title of honour. [emphasis added]
John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929)
Preemptive Update – it turns our Kwame Anthony Appiah has already taken care of the task of dignifying Harris with a response, in a review piece for the New York Times (hat tip to Critique my Thinking for the link, as I missed Appiah’s piece when it appeared).