I just caught a video of a recent Sam Harris talk at TED. TED talks are usually pretty good--food for thought at least. His talk is titled Science Can Answer Moral Questions. Here's the link.
It's a disappointment because he's one of the so-called Four Horsemen and the talk was inane mush. It starts and I'm optimistic I might finally have some real answers. Already in the beginning he's all about how science can answer questions of good and evil. He's just shot his own horse--somehow good and evil already have definitions--which science has provided?
He then goes on to explain for 15 minutes how science answers moral questions. He roots it in that ensuring a conscious organism's wellness is good and that science is a tool that can be used to measure and maximize wellness, hence answering moral questions. He does make an interesting point by saying that the knowledge and judgment of an expert is more valuable and that we don't acknowledge that in issues of morality. However by the end he's explaining about how Muslims and moral relativists are wrong and he'll solve moral issues by scanning the brains of all those involved.
It's a fluff job. All science is, has ever been, and will be is a tool. Science informs us of what there seems to be and how those things are related and connected. In contrast, morality and virtues attempt to tell us things about the world that are unmeasurable and aren't self-evident like the why's, how's, and to what extent, what means, for whom, to whom, etc. as well as setting boundaries and guidelines in living life.
He's starting from the assumption that goodness is to be maximized and he's added a 'with science' so that means he'll be using brain scans and extensive studies to tell you what you want. The first part at least is just utilitarianism and it's not new.
I don't even know what this approach would be useful for. At one point he decries moral relativism and in another he talks about how there are many points of maximum 'goodness' that can be selected via many different ways. He also says that rigid absolutes are not sensible.
The scientific method, which attempts to form non-trivial laws that apply everywhere for all situations, doesn't fit in here. The direction he should be going in is philosophy. Philosophy is the reasoned out and non-religious attempt at finding morals and virtues and guidelines.
If there's one thing I've learned while reading philosophy in my free time, it is that there actually are no universals, science is as close as we can get to an approximation, and philosophy is just people coming up with a system they think is good for whatever reason and then trying to convince other people to adopt their views.