Sam Harris' book "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Moral Values" is terrible in my opinion and it doesn't reflect well upon Dawkins that he gave it such a glowing endorsement.
I'm going to steal some words from myself that I've written about the book in the past. Sorry it's a bit wordy:
"I've read the introduction and first chapter of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape. The book, so far, is much better than the TED talk in the sense that I had no clue what he was on about in his talk. That's not to say the book is good, though.
The book argues that maximizing "the well-being of conscious creatures" must be the fundamental goal of morality. That is, actions that positively impact well-being are (by definition essentially) more moral than actions that negatively impact well-being. Harris argues that this is a valid starting point, because to not value well-being is nonsensical. I'm inclined to agree with this last point -- at a fundamental level, meeting value necessarily increases well-being in some sense. The glaring problem is that Harris does not make the jump from the fact that all people value well-being to the conclusion that people should value other people's (or animals) well-being, nor does he seem to acknowledge that a jump is there to be made.
Let me clarify that last point. Yes, we could say that well-being is necessarily valuable to individuals. But to each individual, the only thing that is fundamentally valuable is their own well-being. Since individuals can feel empathy, the well-being of others can certainly be valuable to us. But it cannot be said to be necessarily or fundamentally valuable to us. It is easy to think of situations in which the well-being of others either has no value to us or in which it has value, but that value is out-weighed by some other value.
The relevance of science, claims Sam Harris, is that it can help us figure out the impact on overall well-being that certain actions, decisions or practices have. This can help us to answer moral questions assuming that we accept Harris' definition of moral value. For example (this is my example, not Harris'), if we could demonstrate that homosexuality does not decrease human well-being, and that discrimination against homosexuals does decrease overall well-being, we could prove that homosexuality is not immoral and that intolerance of it is immoral.
The many counter-intuitive implications of utilitarianism are well-known. One of the most famous "moral dilemmas" is whether you should push one person in front of a train in order to save five people further down the track, where most people tend to say no. I think for most people, their sense of morality takes the utilitarian ideal into account, but certainly also takes non-utilitarian ideals into account as well.
Despite Sam Harris' sometimes embarrassing use of logic and incredulity toward any disagreement, I do agree with him that science seems to me to be undervalued when it comes to questions of how to improve society or whether to engage in certain practices. When faced with a question such as state health care policy or spanking our children people seem to gravitate toward ideological or intuitive reasons rather than scientifically tractable reasons that could be explored with evidence. However, there are certainly already plenty of scientists researching "well-being" or things relevant to it. Psychologists, sociologists, pharmacists, economists, policy researchers... Sam Harris is not (as far as I've gotten in the book) advocating anything be done that isn't already being done by science, he would merely have us re-define morality so that we could insert the label "moral" into the conclusions of some of these scientific studies.
Harris' book seems to argue for utilitarianism. Again, not that there is anything wrong with that, except that it is argued for poorly. Some quotes from the book:
"Once we see that a concern for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values, we will see that there must be a science of morality, whether or not we ever succeed in developing it: because the well-being of conscious creatures depends upon how the universe is, altogether. Given that changes in the physical universe and in our experience of it can be understood, science should increasingly enable us to answer specific moral questions. For instance, would it be better to spend our next billion dollars eradicating racism or malaria? Which is generally more harmful to our personal relationships, white lies or gossip? Such questions may seem impossible to get a hold of at this moment, but they may not stay that way forever. As we come to understand how human beings can best collaborate and thrive in this world, science can help us find a path leading away from the lowest depths of misery and toward the heights of happiness for the greatest number of people. Of course, there will be practical impediments to evaluating the consequences of certain actions, and different paths through life may be morally equivalent (i.e., there may be many peaks on the moral landscape), but I am arguing that there are no obstacles, in principle, to our speaking about moral truth."
"For instance, to say that we ought to treat children with kindness seems identical to saying that everyone will tend to be better off if we do."
"Do pigs suffer more than cows do when being led to slaughter? Would humanity suffer more or less, on balance, if the United States unilaterally gave up all its nuclear weapons? Questions like these are very difficult to answer. But this does not mean that they dont have answers."
"The fact that it could be difficult or impossible to know exactly how to maximize human well-being does not mean that there are no right or wrong ways to do thisnor does it mean that we cannot exclude certain answers as obviously bad."
I wonder if Harris and supporters will use this "maximizing well-being" (call it what you want, I call it utilitarianism) moral philosophy to change their lives in any difficult ways? Because from his book and TED talk it seemed he was mainly interested in going after easy targets that a secular audience would already agree with. The amount he talks about the Taliban... hell even the vast majority of Afghanis hated the Taliban when they were in power.
I respect Singer (even though I don't agree with him about everything), because he asked difficult moral questions, came up with some counter-intuitive answers and significantly changed his own behavior in accordance with his conclusions."