Science can answer moral questions

From Iron Chariots Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search
Photo of Sam Harris, 2010

Sam Harris presented his views of a scientific basis for morality at the TED talk conference titled Science can answer moral questions in Feb 2010. He proposes what might be called utilitarian scientific epicurianism based on moral realism. Harris's argument is a form of evidence based decision making and has been debated in medical ethics for some time.[1]



Harris points out we show greater concern for the well-being of primates than rocks or ants. He suggests this is due to their greater capacity for happiness and suffering. He claims all moral systems are a concern for life capable of conscious experience. Religious morality still contains this notion by its concept of the afterlife filled with happiness or suffering. He outlines a continuum of experience between suffering, such as life in a failed state, to happiness in a more stable, enlightened society, such as the developed world. Actions can be judged by their effect on human life on this continuum.

"Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures."

He speculates that the continuum or space of human experience has not been fully explored and may contain poorly understood areas, some might be known as "mystical experience". Different societal and experiential inputs change our brain and result in changes. The possibility of equally good but different societies is admitted by Harris. He cites corporal punishment in the US, being justified religiously, but may be judged based on educational outcomes.

Answering his critics that moral progress is undefined (resulting in moral scepticism or Loki's wager), Sam Harris uses the analogy of physical health still being meaningful while still being poorly defined and open to revision. He also compares morality to chess strategy: normally loosing the queen is disastrous, but sometimes it's brilliant play. In a similar way, there are bad social policies that are clearly wrong such as acid thrown in the face of woman who refuse to wear certain clothing. In a juxtaposition to Islamic women's clothing, he criticizes Western pornography based on a concern for women and children. Harris notes that Western civilization is not perfect and there are many more possible non-perfect societies than perfect ones.

While many academics are moral relativists, Harris agrees with the moral realism of theism. He criticised theist morals of their moral code having an imaginary basis.

"We need a universal conception of human values [...] How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere that there is no such thing as moral expertise? or moral talent? or moral genius?"


"The questions of science are not the questions of religion. Science does not attempt, nor is it capable of, addressing the mystery of existence, our moments of transcendence, the moral life, love, our search for meaning and our morality. Science, limited to what can be proved and disproved, is a morally neutral discipline. [...] As the real of fact rather than value, science is notoriously unable to generate a basis for moral behavior. Neither science nor reason calls on us to ove our neigh our as ourselves, to forgive our enemies, or to sacrifice for the weak, the infirm and the poor."

Chris Hedges[2]

Harris argues that all existing moral systems are based on concern for life capable of conscious experience. He uses this as the general basis for his moral continuum or space. However, this is possibly a hasty generalization and definitely an appeal to the majority. We might base morality on some other criteria and not on conscious experience.

He does not attempt to address the is-ought problem in the talk. He later addressed the issue by claiming he does not use reason and evidence exclusively but uses some value judgments as premises: [3]

"I have just assumed that well-being is a value, and this move is both unscientific and question-begging. [...] the same can be said about medicine, or science as a whole. As I point out in my book, science in based on values that must be presupposed [...] Our "oughts" are built right into the foundations. We need not apologize for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way."

From this, the argument reduces to a common sense argument to avoid "bad" things while evaluating choices based on evidence. This is also called evidence-based decision-making. This raises the question of what to do to people who do not agree with this moral standard.

The specific details of his moral continuum or space is established by various appeals to emotion (sympathy for Muslim women forced to wear the burka), appeal to consequences (we would be better off), arguing we are "mature" enough to know this information already (effectively begging the question) and appealing for us to think of the children.

How we can establish the range of human experiences, being the basis for our self-concern, is not established. By some standards, dolphins might be more "conscious" and therefore it might be more important to benefit dolphins than humans.

He criticized intellectuals for being moral relativists but did not establish that they are wrong. One does not need assurance of an absolute morality to criticize other cultures or to take controversial actions.

His analogy of physical fitness is incorrect since the vast majority of people can distinguish between a very health person and a dead body. However, ethical systems often disagree as to what constitutes maximally "good" and maximally "bad". The chess analogy is also incorrect because chess has an set outcome but morality has no absolute standards needed to "win" at ethical behavior (although it does suit his position on moral realism).

A practical objection, that also applies to utilitarianism, is that it is difficult to select and evaluate policy because different circumstances mean policies must be adapted and the resources to evaluate the effect of policies are not necessarily available.


  1. Maya J Goldenberg, Evidence-based ethics? On evidence-based practice and the "empirical turn" from normative bioethics, BMC Medical Ethics 2005, 6:11
  2. I Don't Believe in Atheists
  3. Sam Harris, A Response to Critics, Huff Post, 01/29/11 [1]

See also

External Links

Personal tools
wiki navigation