Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Sam’s long-awaited TED video (23 minutes), on his idea that science can actually tell us what is moral, is just up here.  A book is coming out in a few months.  I haven’t yet seen this video, as I’m giving a talk in Texas in an hour, but for sure this is going to be really, really controversial.

h/t: Otter


  1. Posted March 22, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    A nice relational rubric for reducing interpersonal suffering and understanding the casuistry of disenfranchisement. This is the territory that Ernest Becker attempted to address in the 70s.

    Thanks for the link.

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    This talk seems quite reasonable to me. He ends it by saying:

    We can no more respect or tolerate vast differences in notions of human well being than we can respect or tolerate vast differences in the notions about how disease spreads
    or in the safety standards of buildings or airplanes.

    We simply must converge on the answers we give to the most important questions in human life and to
    do that we have to admit that these questions have answers.

    The difficulty, of course, will be converging on the answers.

    • Occam
      Posted March 22, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      This point was also made by Jacques Monod forty years ago, in strikingly similar terms.

  3. Rob
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    “The difficulty, of course, will be converging on the answers.”

    Not to mention how those alleged “answers” are to be enforced (for out own good, of course). The statement that “[w]e can no more respect or tolerate vast differences in notions of human well being” suggests that he thinks that freedom of thought and conscience isn’t terribly important.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted March 22, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      I think he is talking about actions, not thoughts. You can think about killing someone as much as you please, just don’t act on it.

      • skepoet
        Posted March 22, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

        If my reading of his arguments in the End of Faith are correct; Harris doesn’t see the distinction between thoughts and actions, except in requires to intention.

        • keith123
          Posted April 4, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

          I think you must mean that Sam Harris thinks that beliefs lead to actions. This is not the same as saying that thoughts are the same things as actions. That would be silly.

    • steve
      Posted March 22, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Given how carefully Sam Harris uses language it’s strange how often people project their own preconceptions on to what he says.

      He has taken a lot of flack over what he wrote on torture in “The End of Faith”. Then there was his talk on the use of the term atheist at AAI a few years ago and his use of terms like spiritual, transcendent and mystical.

      One common (and erroneous) criticism of atheism is that it is entirely negative but when someone like Sam Harris explores tough moral questions using reasoning based on empirical evidence a lot of knives sure come out.

      Perhaps this is just a reflection of the fact that these are taboo subjects and the initial reaction is to recoil in shock and refuse to explore the issue.

      I think if secular humanism is going to step into the breach and provide a framework for the “good life” then a lot more of what Sam Harris is doing will have to be done no mater how uncomfortable it makes people feel.

      • Posted March 24, 2010 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        Or maybe people just disagree with him on various things. No use tearing into the guy – he’s a valued ally. But we are cats, not herd animals. We’re going to have our own ideas.

      • Posted March 29, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

        It has nothing to do with his commentary being uncomfortable, it has everything to do with his being flat wrong. The notion that science can speak to universal moral truths, is no different than the claim that evolutionary psych tells us brown people are inferior to non-brown people. And it ultimately dives into the same territory.

        Science very likely can speak to why we have moral frames and likely will also speak the the myriad factors that go into how we develop our moral frames. But science cannot speak to something that does not exist and I am sorry, but there is only one universal moral truth; Excepting pathological sociopaths, we all have moral frames. Said moral frames are relative to time, space, culture and the individual.

        And to be crystal clear – accepting that morality is relative, does not = accepting other moral frames. Accepting that Sharia law is the foundation of billions of our fellow human’s moral frames, does not mean I cannot object to that or try to change it. It just means that I recognize that there are a lot of people who base their morality on dogma that I think is inherently repulsive and yes, immoral.

        There is no conceivable reason to assume that we need a system of dogma. For certain we need rules for a functional society – which we have. We call them laws. We don’t even need dogma to come up with those rules – we have a lot of very reasonable standards that most of us can agree are necessary for a functional society. That many of us may have moral positions that run close to those laws is irrelevant.

        Let me ask you this. Do you believe that murder is immoral? Do you believe that any purposeful taking of another human’s life is murder? If not, where is the line between rightful and wrongful death?

        How do we decide who’s line is the actual moral line that defines the moral truth?

        We don’t need to play these kinds of games to determine the laws by which we can govern our society. To enforce the important social standards, we have laws and hire people to enforce those laws (though that could use some help). For decisions about what is right and wrong beyond that – and even in that context, we each have our own moral frame. That which governs our behavior, when we could get away with a particular act is far more powerful, if we own it.

        • keith123
          Posted April 4, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

          “accepting that morality is relative, does not = accepting other moral frames.”

          Why doesn’t it? Surely if you object to, or try to change, Sharia Law, say, then are you objecting simply because it doesn’t tally with your own ethical framework or are you objecting because you think Sharia Law is in some way immoral?
          If you object because simply because a Muslim framework is different from yours, then you are being a cultural Chauvinist. And if you object because you think your western morals are somehow objectively better, then you don’t believe that morals are relative.

          • Notagod
            Posted April 4, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

            Torturing a girl to death because she was raped (and especially while nothing is done to the rapist) is absolutely wrong.

    • Posted March 22, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      @Rob: but figuring out if and how we impose our moral values on others or not would necessarily be part of what we need to find out: what sort of system works, and what doesn’t?

      • Posted March 29, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

        We have a great deal of evidence that ready made moral frames – such as those provided by religion do not work. We also know that imperfect as it may be, laws work better than dogma. And I think we can all reasonably work out laws without a foundation in dogma.

        I also think that when we own our moral frame – when we have invested ourselves into what we truly believe is right and wrong, we have a far more powerful governor for our behaviors than any canned moral frame could ever be.

  4. Posted March 22, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    He raises some interesting points. I’m not convinced that morality is ever going to be totally objective, but he at least has some good arguments against the sort of post-modernist, ultra-relativist morality where any moral system is as good as any other.

    To me, the most important point in the talk is the realization that morality should be about people, not about the rules themselves.

  5. Posted March 22, 2010 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    He was /so close/ to nailing it. But, he blurred two questions together.

    With science, there are two questions:
    “Do we care about making useful predictions about the world?”
    “What theories are best at making that happen?”

    With morality, the questions would be:
    “Do we want to build a society were people are safe, healthy, and able to pursue self-actualization?”
    “What policies best accomplish that?”

    In both cases, the second question is entirely empirical. Agreement about the first question is necessary if a conversation is going to happen.

    Someone can design policies around some other goal. It’s logically consistent. But, since I don’t care about their goal I have no reason to care what they have to say.

    • Dan Warren
      Posted March 23, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      I think this comment hits the nail on the head. It’s one thing to say “given a universally accepted definition of what is and is not an optimally functional society, we can make scientific statements about the policies that approach that goal”, and another thing entirely to say “this is a working definition of an optimally functional society that everybody (or a large majority) can accept”. The first is straightforward and fairly obvious, while the latter is incredibly problematic. I haven’t read Harris’ book, so I don’t know if he goes into more detail about this problem, but based only on this TED talk I just feel like he’s just replaced one unanswerable question with another.

    • pbrl
      Posted March 23, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      I think the point Harris makes, and it’s one i buy, is that fundamentally all human morality strives towards making people happy/contented.

      All of it. Period.

      There is simply no need to actually analyze *whether* we want to be happy. It’s a fact of nature that we do, just as its a fact of nature that we want to eat. It’s built into our brains.

      The difficulty is that the locus of happiness is often hard to find. For someone like Bentham, it’s very straightforward; whatever makes you happy in the now is the most moral thing. But for other people you need to dig deeper. So when a religious person seemingly puts himself through hell, we have to realize that he does so in order to achieve happiness *in the afterlife*. It’s all about coming around to a state of happiness, even if you believe that happiness to be in the afterlife.

      And the idea is that once we all recognize this basic fact, that morality simply is the quest for human happiness, we can then use science to figure out what happiness means and how we get there.

      • Posted March 23, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

        But different moral systems disagree about whether to make other people happy. Some systems claim that members of my tribe have more right to happiness than the next tribe over, for example.

        So you could rephrase the first question to “Which people do we most want to make safe, healthy, and able to pursue self-actualization?”

        • Posted March 24, 2010 at 6:39 am | Permalink

          And some systems say that what matters is glory, works of towering genius, blah, blah. If mass unhappiness is needed for these things, then we should accept mass happiness. The happiness of the herd is irrelevant.

          I might not like such a system, but it can be internally consistent. I don’t see how someone with such a Nietzschean perspective is making any mistake about the world. Now, if you adopt that perspective, science might still give you information that will help you achieve your goal. It can maybe tell you subsidiary goals to pursue to maximise your prospect of success. But it can’t adjudicate between mutually inconsistent ultimate goals.

          Fortunately, very few of us are likely to be diehards about taking the Nietzschean perspective. Most of us place a high value on … well, not necessarily on the happiness of others but certainly on amelioration of others’ actual suffering.

      • Posted March 29, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        I really am not trying to be particularly rude here – especially as it seems I am one of the very few people who doesn’t buy this universal moral truth claptrap, but your last paragraph reads like something that me and my old hippie Christian friends would have come up with while we were on acid. I am so very serious – that could have totally come out of a KumBaYah acid experience, something that I had all too much experience with about ten years ago.

        What happiness is? Maybe – we can probably pin down rather nicely what it looks like neurologically – though we have to define happiness first. But what happiness means? What the hell does that question mean? Might as well ask what sadness means – what anger means – what warm fuzzies mean.

  6. souper genyus
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    The idea that science can inform morality is by far not a new idea, but Harris does a good job at explaining the ideas. I still think that an initial, subjective judgement to be moral needs to be made, but after that I definitely think there are objective truths to be had. As Harris said, conscious beings have certain states that they prefer and certain states that they do not. It seems logical that in order to be moral we should act in a manner that aims at respecting those preferences.

    • Posted March 29, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

      How would we go about figuring out what those truths are? If they exist, who actually gets to decide that XXXXXX is an absolute moral truth?

      Even better and certainly easier than those two questions; What does a falsifiable hypothesis about universal moral truth look like?

  7. KP
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    My favorite bit: “Does the Taliban have an opinion on Physics worth considering? No. How is their ignorance any less obvious when it comes to the human condition?”

    • Mike from Ottawa
      Posted March 24, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Well, the Taliban aren’t, as a rule, physicists, but they are, as a rule, humans. While their ignorance of physics may be obivous (with the exception perhaps of the odd Talibanish Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist), it isn’t so obvious that the state of the Taliban’s knowledge of ‘the’ human condition means we can simply ignore their views.

      Harris’ comment also includes a problem he doesn’t seem to tackle: is “the human condition” a single universal that applies to all people, peoples, times and places? Yes, there are commonalities, but isn’t variation the very life’s blood of biology and evolution?

    • Ajita
      Posted April 7, 2010 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      Its a non sequitur. Completely illogical.

  8. Mark Arnold
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    An excellent video and speach. I don’t know that it was “controversial.” Mr Harris made some profound points. After all, the scientific method is the most powerful truth finding tool humanity has devised. Why shouldn’t we use it to answer moral, ethical, political and cultural questions?
    Richard Dawkins made a similar point in TGD. Why should science and scientists scede these questions to the religious?

  9. Thomas
    Posted March 23, 2010 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    I completely agree with Sam.
    Moral science (or natural morality) is about: (1) observing the human condition, and (2) observing the consequences of our actions and ideas. From this we can arrive at clear conclusions about whether certain behaviours or ideas are right or wrong, based on the impact they will have and whether that impact will conflict with human wellbeing.

    To use one example Sam mentioned in his talk: would it be moral or immoral to add cholera to the water supply? We can answer this:

    If it is a fact that humans want to avoid suffering, and if it is a fact that adding cholera to the water supply would increase suffering, then it would be a fact to say that adding cholera to the water supply would be ethically wrong.

    The philosopher/historian Richard Carrier has a great talk on exactly this issue. He outlines in some detail how we go about doing this:

    • Frank
      Posted March 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      And if I added cholera to the Nazis’ water supply?

      • Thomas
        Posted March 23, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        Would the Nazis have had their own water supply? If yes, then if adding cholera to the Nazis water supply caused less suffering than allowing the Nazis to continue to do what they do, then adding cholera to the Nazis water supply would be te better thing to do. Under these circumstances, adding cholera to the water supply of the Nazis would not cause more suffering but would rather decrease suffering.

        • Ajita
          Posted April 7, 2010 at 3:22 am | Permalink

          What would a Nazi say?

  10. Janet Holmes
    Posted March 23, 2010 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    The problem comes with your definition of morality. If it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number then the scientific approach is likely to achieve a reasonable consensus. But if you define morality as ‘what’s written in my sacred ancient text’, or if the goal of morality is getting into heaven then then consensus is totally out of reach and happiness has nothing to do with it.
    Religions are rarely about self actualization and mostly about power.

    • pbrl
      Posted March 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      To repost a portion from above, I think the point Harris makes, and it’s one i buy, is that fundamentally all human morality strives towards making people happy/contented.

      All of it. Period.

      There is simply no need to actually analyze *whether* we want to be happy. It’s a fact of nature that we do, just as its a fact of nature that we want to eat. It’s built into our brains. We need to accept this in order to move forward.

      • Notagod
        Posted March 24, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        You need to qualify your happiness statement. “All of it. Period.” is too broad.

        To use an example that involves two different species but, the structure of the example could also be applied in the case of one species and in different contexts. Suppose that someone owns a tract of land that is crucial to the survival of an animal species. The land owner wants to develop a recreational resort which will lead to the species extinction (not that the land owner wants that). If the land is developed the species is far less than happy, if the land is not developed the land owner is not happy. The choice to develop or not is an application of morality which is going to result in some unhappiness.

    • Thomas
      Posted March 23, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Well in this context, the definition of morality would not be a personal choice, indeed, as Richard Carrier explains in the talk I linked to, moral behaviour would, by definition, be the behaviour which achieves what we want more than anything else.
      There is necessarily something that we want more than anything else and we can empirically find out, via biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc what this is. Many, including me, would say that it is to achieve happiness and avoid suffering (and much of the evidence already points to this). If the religious person wants heaven then we can ask: what exactly is it about heaven that they want, and what exactly is it about hell that they don’t want?
      It seems rather clear to me that the idea of heaven would, to the religious person, be the ultimate happiness, just as the idea of hell would be the ultimate form of suffering. This would seem to be a confirmation of the idea of happiness being our greatest desire. I would contend that heaven and hell were invented to be the ultimate persuasion. Happiness is our greatest desire, so tell people that if they do X then they will get the ultimate happiness (heaven) whereas if they don’t do X or if they do Y then they will get the ultimate suffering (hell).

      I think most people would agree that when you get to the bottom line, morality really is about happiness. I think a lot of religious people would agree too, should they accept what I said above about heaven and happiness.

      It would be too difficult for the theist to proclaim that morality is ‘what my sacred book says’ in the face of a empirically demonstrable moral system. Just as nobody really takes the creationists seriously, I think in the future nobody will take the religious moralists seriously either.

      I agree with your last line… religions are just projections of the believer; they project their own desires, beliefs and prejudices onto a supreme authority.

      • Mike from Ottawa
        Posted March 24, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        “I think most people would agree that when you get to the bottom line, morality really is about happiness.”

        Except you haven’t really clarified anything. The issue of what is happiness is no more tractible than that of what is moral. Your own example of heaven as happiness for some shows that you’ve made no progress because for those religous folk for whom heaven is happienss, morality is what gets you to heaven.

      • Posted March 29, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

        No, I would not agree with anyone who claimed that morality is about happiness. Morality is what we use to govern our behavior in the absence of outside enforcement of social rules and laws.

        And I would ask you; What does a falsifiable hypothesis about an empirical moral truth look like? (Mike from Ottowa covered the other obvious one)

  11. Tyro
    Posted March 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I found the question about people voluntarily wearing burquas to be interesting, but found Harris dropped the ball on the answer. The issue is NOT about whether women voluntarily choose to wear a burqua but whether those women who chose to not wear one should be compelled to through force. It’s the same issue with different “cultural” values, they always seem to boil down to one group (generally powerful men) forcing another group (generally women) to behave in ways that they (men) dictate. If a woman wishes to marry young, fine, but what happens when she does not? In the first case there’s no difference between our “Western” culture and the repressive Islamic cultures; in the latter case there is and I find it hard to believe that there is nothing that we can say about whether people should be forcibly married against their will, that this is a perfectly good part of a culture which we should respect.

    And good on Harris for talking out.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Well, I say on this as I noted the other day here – if science really is converging on the observation that people do moral choices regardless of societal constructs (for example, religion vs non-religion) – we have to consider that there may be no useful algorithm describing morality or method achieving socially better morality. (For useful measures of “better”.) Evolution tend to arrive at interlocking complex systems, and it is then likely morality turns out the same.

    In that case morally useful systems are likely solely those who frame and educate moral issues. (I.e. legal and educational systems.) Other systems would act to confuse rather than illuminate and/or control.

  13. Philip
    Posted March 24, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Harris says that “values reduce to facts about the well-being of certain conscious creatures.” The problem with this Aristotelian ethics is that there is no modern scientific theory that tells us what human well-being or flourishing amounts to. As Fodor points out in his debate with Sober, scientists, like anyone else, can have opinions about something–in this case about a normative issue–but the opinions might draw on philosophical speculations instead of being grounded purely in a scientific theory (a theory that justifies statements with data and tested hypotheses).

    It’s one thing to say that people seek well-being, another to say what makes people well. Indeed, saying that people seek to be well is a mere tautology, assuming “well-being” means the satisfying of desires and “people” means, in part, creatures who have desires they try to satisfy. The hard part is finding out which desires contribute to making people well.

    We know that sprinkling water on plants makes them grow, and if we assume that everything has a function, we can say that growing is good for plants. Aristotle had that sort of teleological view of things, and so he argued that our function is to use our rationality to figure out how to live in society. Even assuming this is our function, there is no modern, purely scientific theory that justifies the teleological, normative claim about what is good for us.

    Darwinian biology justifies talk of adaptations, but this talk isn’t normative: adaptations are just traits that actually develop, indicating a fit between some genes and some environment. Modern biology doesn’t imply that the use of rationality is our function or that being rational is good for us, making us flourish in a normative sense.

    If “flourish” means just to grow, what makes us flourish would be an empirical, non-normative issue. Whatever contributes to sexual reproduction and the raising of children would make us flourish in this sense. But there is no scientific theory that says the growth of the human species is *good*, that growing makes us *well*. These are normative claims, and Harris doesn’t show how any science, such as neuroscience, is going to make them.

    • Notagod
      Posted March 27, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      But your comment is just a bunch of gobbledygook. I don’t see how that form of thought could have any good value at all, regardless of the value of Harris’s idea.

      Certainly when you equate flourish and growth (obviously intending an increase in quantity) you’ve made a grave error. Which is not your only mistake.

      • Philip
        Posted March 27, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

        What “form of thought” are you talking about, that you say has no value? The form of thought according to which values are different from facts?

        I equate flourishing with growth for the sake of argument, trying to help a defender of Harris’s thesis by giving a possible way in which values might be just facts, since growth can be objectively measured. You say I make a “grave error” here, apparently unaware of one of the definitions of “flourish” (not to mention the definitions of “grave”). See, for example, the fourth sense of “flourish” at (from Random House): “to grow luxuriantly, or thrive in growth, as a plant.”

      • Posted March 29, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        I find it ironic that the only meaningful statement you make is to claim Philip’s comment is gobbledygook.

        • Philip
          Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

          And if my comment were gobbledygook, how could it also be clear enough for someone to tell I made a “grave error”? Notagod’s response is self-contradictory.

  14. Posted April 8, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Sam Harris says that science can determine what is right. In a sense, that is true. Scientific thinking can arrive at the Golden Rule (google my name and Moral Truth Litmus). Science can study the “moral center” in the brain, can try to figure out which genes work together to build a being who experiences empathy, can tell you which chemicals make a person more likely to feel prosocial feelings and carry out prosocial behavior. But in order to call the Golden Rule, or any other standard, “objective moral truth,” (without committing the fallacy of reification) science must be able to point to the real, fulfilled ought which that alleged true standard describes. Science must show us the being who is and does what we should all be and do—that for which we all hunger. Sam Harris denies such a being exists, committing the fallacy of reification in claiming objective moral truth.

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