Ruse on The Moral Landscape

Philosopher Michael Ruse takes a sledgehammer to Sam Harris’s new book on morality:

I don’t know what Harris studied in his philosophy courses as an undergrad at Stanford, but they don’t seem to have penetrated very deeply. He denounces philosophers before him (including myself, I should admit) without really addressing the challenge their arguments pose to his claims.

I haven’t read the book (and likely won’t), but from the sounds of things, Harris takes a wild leap from saying that science can inform us about the conditions conducive to human well-being (which seems right to me) to saying that science can define well-being and provide something like a foundation for morality (which seems false). Even assuming something like a hedonistic conception of the good, you still need principles of distribution, justice, etc., and it’s really hard to see how “science” can give us answers to those questions. For instance, Jeremy Bentham’s principle that “each person is to count for one and no one for more than one” is not a “scientific” finding. And yet, without some such principle, how would you decide how “well-being” is to be distributed or fostered? Maybe Harris avoids these kinds of problems, but most of the reviews I’ve read suggest otherwise.

Ruse is also puzzled that Harris goes on a fifteen-page diatribe against Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, current head of the National Institutes of Health, and a practicing Christian:

Let me make clear why I find this all inappropriate to the point of being repellent. It is not because Harris mistakenly accuses Collins of being both a scientist and a Christian—Collins is without doubt both of these. It is not because Harris criticizes Collins for being a Christian or for thinking that science and religion can be harmonized. He has every right to do this, and, if truth be known, I am much closer to Harris than to Collins on the matter of the truth-status of Christianity. Also, even though I think that science and religion can be harmonized, I am not sure that Collins shows this successfully. My objection is that in a book on the foundations of ethics it is simply out of place to spend so much time on such a personal attack.

I myself am puzzled why the mild-mannered and more-or-less liberal Collins has become such a bogey for the new atheist crowd. Is it because he’s a living refutation of their claim, repeated with smug assurance, that no rational, right-thinking person can embrace both science and faith?

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