05/14/2010 07:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thoughts on Sam Harris' Morality Experiment

Elsewhere on this site, Sam Harris describes his plan to formulate a science-based morality. It is an intriguing enterprise, and I wish him well. A rigorous enquiry could shed light on questions such as what constitutes the common good and which behaviors ought to be encouraged or discouraged. It might give secularists something to hang their ethical hats on, providing an evidence-based critique of precepts that have come down to us from old religious codes and what once passed for common sense.

The enterprise also raises some questions of its own, which I think are worth contemplating.

Harris begins with the proposition that "human beings seek to maximize something we choose to call 'well-being.'" Fair enough. But the premise that follows is: "The amount of well-being in a single person is a function of what is happening in that person's brain, or at least in their body as a whole." Is it? Can we be sure of that? Harris continues, "That function can in principle be empirically measured." Can it? In principle, perhaps, but in reality?

I wonder if this isn't an example of seeing everything as nails because your only tool is a hammer. As a neuroscientist, does Harris assume that his discipline can develop a body of knowledge about "well-being" that is so complete that we could extrapolate a coherent system of ethics and morality from it? Is that a reasonable assumption? If he proceeds on that basis, what would be left out? While neuroscience has already accomplished awe-inspiring feats, the discipline is in its infancy, and every discovery seems to generate a new universe of unanswered questions. Can we assume that it will one day explain everything we need to know about the mind and emotions? Perhaps Harris's project will teach us as much about the limitations of science as it will about the shortcomings of religious codes.

Another question arises: if Harris succeeds in constructing a "science of morality," would it prove that the ethical traditions of religion are irrelevant? I'm not so sure. Neither Harris nor anyone else is a blank slate, completely detached from a few thousand years of Judeo-Christian culture. One could argue that the very way we frame a discussion of morality, the ethical questions we raise and hypotheses we introduce, are themselves products of that long history. Indeed, science itself has roots in the Protestant Reformation. As worthy as Harris' project is, it would not necessarily prove that a moral system can be constructed from experimental data alone. For that, one would have to assemble a group of human beings with no exposure to religion whatsoever and see what they come up with.

I'm reminded of my mother, who hated religion and never failed to call attention to the hypocrisy of the pious. She always claimed that no one needs religion to be ethical, and she was her own best proof: she was among the kindest, most fair-minded people I've known. But, when asked what her moral principles were, she would say, "It's simple: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Obviously, she did not reason her way to that maxim on her own. She died before I learned that the Golden Rule was first uttered by ancients whom we now think of as religious sages, and that it is found, with minor variations, in every religion on earth.

Which brings us to the last point. Wouldn't it be interesting if Harris' enterprise derives moral maxims that sound like the dos and don'ts of religions? Obviously, many religion-based tenets -- those related to sex, the draconian punishments, etc. -- will not make the cut, but they're pretty much dead already except among a fanatical minority. But other principles, not just from the West, but from Buddhist precepts and the Hindu yamas and niyamas -- don't steal, don't lie, be kind, help others, etc. -- are likely to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Already studies suggest that doing unto others leads to higher scores on health and happiness measures.

And there is this question: if Harris' project comes up with a coherent set of ethical principles, will it also derive a scientific system for making sure people adhere to them? It can be argued that the problem with religion is not its moral guidelines as such (they're periodically updated anyway), but its failure to get people to live up to them consistently. If Harris's project sheds light on that half of the moral equation, it would be a lasting contribution. Then future generations would have to beware of a religious Harrisism arising after he's gone.