Since Harris, in common with his detractors, values science, this puts him in the unenviable position of having to defend the proposition that science tells us to value science. If there is no other supervening influence, his moral schema must then bear a strong resemblance to such forms of divination as consulting oracles.
The bulk of Harris's elaboration doesn't bother to address this logical prickle. Rather, it goes like this: You had better hope I'm right that there are universal moral values discernible scientifically, because otherwise we will have no way to objectively separate good people from psychopaths.
What if a man like Jefferey Dahmer says, “The only peaks on the moral landscape that interest me are ones where I get to murder young men and have sex with their corpses.” This possibility—the prospect of radically different moral preferences—seems to be at the heart of many people’s concerns.
The fact that it might be difficult to decide exactly how to balance individual rights against collective good, or that there might be a thousand equivalent ways of doing this, does not mean that we must hesitate to condemn the morality of the Taliban, or the Nazis, or the Ku Klux Klan—not just personally, but from the point of view of science. As I said at TED, the moment we admit that there is anything to know about human wellbeing, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures might not know it.What Harris really means is that he wants to give up on the project of having to defend moral stances by delegating the questions to a neutral referee, namely, objective science. This is an appeal to ultimate fairness of a kind we haven't seen in the West since the death of God. Harris' exasperation that we should have to waste any time articulating why Nazis are wrong is understandable. But it is rather chilling to imagine Harris' alternative in practice. What happens to pluralism in a society where certain belief systems can be declared objectively, scientifically wrong?
A glimpse at this prospect is offered by this controversial statement from The End of Faith:
Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people.According to this view, empirical fact (an "ordinary fact about the world") mandates killing people because of their beliefs. This is apparently one of the values that science bequeaths. The rule of law and principle of freedom of conscience would instantly wither under such a regime. Will science show us that we were wrong, after all, to value liberty and equal rights?
If there is really "no talking to some people," Harris would not have bothered to write "Letter to a Christian Nation." We don't actually know how susceptible to persuasion many fervent radicals are, or what forms of persuasion might be most effective. Persuasion is one of those things whose success can't be known ahead of time. It's hard work, thankless work. But we should be wary of any philosophical position that argues for abandoning it as moribund, in favor of a certainty in its futility.
Seeking an objective foundation for morality is an ancient pursuit, and one of the things we notice by studying the history of it is how often it provides a cover for one's own ideology. There is actually very little empirical science underlying Harris' presentation of the virulence of faith, and yet this appears to be one of his most deeply held views. In his debates on this question he has demonstrated very little openness to alternative explanations of the etiology of jihadism, even when put forth by those, like anthropologist Scott Atran, whose primary research is on terrorists and suicide bombers. Atran has catalogued numerous cases where Harris' views lean away from scientific data and toward folk wisdom (which is to say, stereotype) about jihadism, to the point of toppling over completely. And Harris is often quite open about the self-evidence of his convictions. After stating his belief, in an Edge "Reality Club" segment, that the response to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons was not contingent on anything but a Koranic injunction against depicting Muhammad1--neither racism, economic disparity, nor blowback--he writes:
If the Koran contained a verse which read, "By all means, depict the Prophet in caricature to the best of your abilities, for this pleaseth Allah", there wouldn't have been a cartoon controversy. Can I prove this counterfactual? Not quite. Do I really need to?When it's obvious, when we all know what "those people" are like, data and context be damned, then we are adopting the "moral peaks and valleys" of the mob. If that's Harris's idea of "well-being," then perhaps he is right after all to say that certain people might not know what that word means.
1Actually no such injunction appears in the Koran. The Hadith (sacred to Sunnis, much less so to Shiites) discourages the painting of all pictures of people or animals generally, but says nothing of depictions Muhammad particularly. The response of the Imams who toured Denmark was that the cartoons were offensive to Muslims, not that they broke a sacred injunction against depicting the prophet. So much for facts.