Sam Harris thinks it can: “There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish whether or not we understand these truths. And morality relates to these truths. So in talking about values, we are talking about facts.”
Harris offers a powerful argument against the accusation that atheism necessarily leads to moral relativism. It’s interesting to see that he goes further than I might have, in polite conversation, in insisting that there are absolute moral values to be found. But unlike religious fundamentalists who insist the same thing, he suggests that such moral values are not based on a rigid faith divorced from evidence but rather on a scientific attitude that can recognize and evaluate how our actions and ideas cause suffering or happiness.
This, I think, dismantles the specious argument that science is merely a belief system on the same level as religion, and that “faith” in science is no better than religious belief. It’s not a question of having beliefs (which scientifically inclined people certainly do), but of what one’s beliefs are based upon. Some grounds for belief are simply better than others: more connected to reality, better able to accurately assess causes and consequences.
Harris, in other words, is arguing against the fashionable notion of indiscriminate tolerance. We should admit, he says, that there are right and wrong answers to the questions of human flourishing — educating women is clearly a moral good, and “honor killings” clearly aren’t — and that it’s possible for individuals and even entire cultures to “care about the wrong things.”
It’s worth noting that he balances this out by saying that there’s no single and inflexible standard of morality either, any more than there’s a single “right” food to eat; nevertheless, there’s a clear distinction between food and poison, and a similarly clear distinction between ideas that lead to collective happiness and ideas that lead to widespread suffering.
A scientific approach to morality wouldn’t necessarily lead to one universally accepted moral code; Harris’s idea of a “moral landscape” suggests that there are different ways to achieve the “peaks” of moral virtue. And I’m inclined to agree, tentatively, with Marc Hauser’s hypothesis that people have an instinctive “moral grammar” that is universal, but is nevertheless given shape and variation by the different cultures we grow up in. There is — again — a sense that we do not need to insist on either a single, inflexible code or an “it’s all good” relativity; we can, rather, strive for balance — and unhesitatingly call out moral systems, such as those of fundamentalists of all stripes, that throw this balance out of whack.
In his essay “The Relativity of Wrong,” Isaac Asimov explains that we may never discover the absolute “truth” about anything in science, but we nevertheless arrive at closer and closer approximations of it: the Earth is not actually a perfect sphere, but it’s closer to the truth than the notion that it’s flat. In the same way, in the moral arena, we can bravely examine which factors lead to healthier societies and which factors lead to their decline. We don’t have to arrogantly claim knowledge of an absolute moral truth; but in a broad spectrum of gray, we shouldn’t be afraid to recognize that some ideas point more toward the light, and others toward the dark.
In a nutshell: some answers to moral questions are better than others.
One other thought: It would appear, at first glance, that Harris’s insistence on an objective “science of morality” conflicts with Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “poetic atheism,” with its wholehearted embrace of “a positive relationship with the irrational” and its equanimity toward the notion that “existence is too weird to fit in any purely rational box.” But perhaps the conflict is illusory. Harris isn’t uncomfortable with mystery; he admits plainly that science may not be able to answer every moral question. But like a good scientist, he believes mysteries aren’t merely there to be admired and left alone, but to be explored. I suspect that Hecht would agree.