Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Just watched this great TED talk by Sam Harris. I found it very persuasive, what did you guys think?

Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

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Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. But Sam Harris argues that science can -- and should -- be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.

Has no one else watched this or is no one interested in discussing it? This is, for me, probably the most exciting idea I’ve come across, ever!

Admittedly though, I always hoped Asimov’s Psychohistory might become a reality one day. ;D

I have not watched the whole thing, sorry, and I can’t watch it because I have no internet access at home and the work computers keep bombing out in the middle of it! (very frustrating, because I would be very interested to hear what the guy has to say)
Right at the beginning, though, (before everything freezes up and I mess with our whole network) he says that “values are facts about the wellbeing of conscious beings” and comments that we feel no moral obligation to inanimate objects (such as rocks) My question is, firstly: how are we to measure ‘wellbeing’? Obviously physical wellbeing can be proven, medically (ie scientifically) but can we say the same about psychological wellbeing? Its a much less exact science I think? :-
Then I am curious about the definition of ‘conscious beings’ and how this science hopes to define that. Is a person who has no brain-function still considered a ‘conscious being’? I’m not sure, but I certainly feel a ‘moral obligation’ to ‘manage and protect’ inanimate objects to a certain extent (I work in environmental science and management, so protecting water, soil, vegetation, fauna, heritage, and other resources is kinda high on my list of priorities)
So, while science, I think, could potentially provide certain insights into moral questions, the concept has to be defined more clearly in order for me to buy it.
(Will try and watch the rest of the video over the weekend)

I… don’t really know what to say about this. It’s a cool idea and … buuutt…

He tries to pull science and moral values into one realm but, in my opinion, fails. He tries to use things like his own social “common sense” to justify why certain positions are certainly “morally absolute”. The fact is his Burka example quite clearly shows that he DOES NOT share this moral “common sense” with another culture and it’s merely a relative “sense” he’s talking about. His argument is kinda like: “It feels right to me, so it must be true, so it’s science!”.

Uhm, sorry, no Sam, it’s not.

Fortunately there is a transcript available on the site. In case you have difficulty accessing, I uploaded it as an attachment to this post.

Well you probably didn’t get that far, but I find the answer he later provides to your question quite satisfying:

Now, many of you might worry that the notion of well-being is truly undefined, and seemingly perpetually open to be reconstrued. And so then, how therefore can there be an objective notion of well-being? Well, consider by analogy, the concept of physical health. The concept of physical health is undefined, as we just heard from Michael Specter. It has changed over the years. When this statue was carved the average life expectancy was probably 30. It's now around 80 in the developed world. There may come a time when we meddle with our genomes in such a way that not being able to run a marathon at age 200, will be considered a profound disability. You know, people will send you donations when you're in that condition. (Laughter)

Then, as a conscious being, your well-being would be adversely affected were the environment not to be managed and protected. This would result in a detectable change in brain state which would have to be factored in.

Cool ;D

Where does he speak of absolutes? He instead describes a moral landscape where there are many peaks and valleys.

Slavery and all such forms of oppression are inherently unstable. However contrary to common sense this may be, it is a fact which history has taught us time and again.

That is rather an oversimplification. I don’t think you are doing his argument justice.

Where does he speak of absolutes? He instead describes a moral landscape where there are many peaks and valleys.

Roundabout way of saying morals are subjective, not scientific certainties.

Slavery and all such forms of oppression are inherently unstable. However contrary to common sense this may be, it is a fact which history has taught us time and again.

Ah but that’s not the issue here. He tries also to say that, in a common sense way, it’s not moral to punish your children via corporal means. Once again there are many cultures where it is totally O.K to do this, rewind his own culture by 50 years and they too were quite fond of it, and you could easily make an argument for it BEING GOOD for the child, thus not violating his (unproven, baseless other than in “common sense handwaving”) science of morals. The inherent problem here is, he’s calling it “science” when he means “his own opinion”. I know he’s TRYING not to make it seem that way but it’s exactly what he’s doing. Listen again to his argument … the terminating line to his reasoning (on corporal punishment) is almost an audible “duh!”. It’s great that the audience has a chuckle but he has NOT just performed a feat of science, he’s just tried to build a scientific argument on “well everyone knows THAT won’t work! rolling eyes”. Whether I think he’s right or not, is not the point. The point is, that ain’t science, no way Hose.

No it’s not. There are different ways of attaining a peak of well-being but there are many more ways not to. A three dimensional landscape is no less objective than a two dimensional graph. Also, just because something is not certain does not mean it isn’t scientific or should be immediately dismissed as subjective, even probabilistic predictions are useful.

I doubt arguments in favour of corporal punishment would be very convincing to many psychologists. There has been quite a lot of research and experimentation in this area.

I think Sam Harris deliberately used examples which would seem fairly intuitive to rational thinkers but which are opposed by those who make baseless appeals to authority. I suspect that there may be many more counter-intuitive examples which would take far longer to express convincingly. I’m looking forward to his new book.

Here is a robust response to all the critics of Sam’s TED talk:

Moral confusion in the name of “science”

This is my favourite part:

So what about people who think that morality has nothing to do with anyone’s wellbeing? I am saying that we need not worry about them—-just as we don’t worry about the people who think that their “physics” is synonymous with astrology, or sympathetic magic, or Vedanta. We are free to define “physics” any way we want. Some definitions will be useless, or worse. We are free to define “morality” any way we want. Some definitions will be useless, or worse—-and many are so bad that we can know, far in advance of any breakthrough in the sciences of mind, that they have no place in a serious conversation about human values.

I still think morality should be based on cause and effect. Morality is a social skill, not a religious duty, and IMO should be based on whether my actions/words will have a positive or negative effect on those around me. How much more can there be?

I think you have it exactly right. I’m worried about the effects of my actions on others and though I try to guess what those effects will be, I can’t always be sure. Wouldn’t it be great if one could take a course in morality?

Moral questions can be answered either rationally or irrationally. But not, I think, scientifically.

To act morally simply means to add to (or at least not detract) from the happiness of other individuals.

So in claiming that science can answer moral questions, I think that Sam Harris should have spent a bit more time explainig exactly how nett happiness is measureable. Frankly, I don’t see how this is possible for all affected parties. Many cases will be unmeasurably complex, and in making a decision about how to act in the most moral manner, we will be forced to fall back on the fluffy stuff like compassion and gut feel.

Perhaps a better title for his quite wonderful talk would have been “Rationality and morality”.


I don’t see any reason why compassion could not be measured. Nett happiness could also be estimated from the accumulated evidence of lots of simple experiments.

The way I see it, a science of morality would be a more formalised version of the heuristic method we already use to judge everyday interaction. If you do something and someone reacts badly, you categorise that behaviour as wrong. If they react well, good. By subjecting individuals to various stimuli and observing the reactions in their brain we can get an even clearer and more structured picture of the effects of our actions on others.

There’s a lot of time left before the sun turns into a red giant and wipes us all out, a lot of time to survive through. Much could happen, and we cannot foresee what.

We have evolved over much time too, and what we are and how we behave are largely products of the evolutionary processes that have allowed us to make it through time up to this point. To personify, Nature knows nothing of good and evil, right and wrong. Nature just is - what works at a time, survives and propagates while what doesn’t, doesn’t. Nature doesn’t give a shit for comfort and wellness except insofar as they might give an organism the ability to reproduce - if discomfort and pain assist in survival, they will be favoured.

So here we find ourselves - a species only 200,000 years old or so, but descended from far older organisms, inheriting much of what has allowed them to survive. And what have we got? We have got a species that sometimes shows altruism, cares for the sick and the aged, fights discomfort and suffering, yet sometimes causes pain, kills others, beats women, stomps gays, conducts deadly political purges, engages in genocide. What we are today, is a result of all of this. That is just a descriptive fact.

Then we have Sam. Sam presupposes and brooks no argument that “good” is the “well-being of conscious creatures” and the “flourishing” of homo sapiens. In itself, this is fraught with difficulties. There is a temporal aspect to “well-being” - many times in life hardship and pain at one time can lead to the ability to cope with future events without collapsing into a physical or psychological heap. There are issues of individual versus group - we are all familiar with the type of dilemmas put forward in “test-your-morality” type questionnaires.

So “well-being” becomes difficult to define. And “flourishing” has its own issues. Does that mean the explosion of the planet’s human population? Or the comfort and ease of those lucky enough to be able to afford suchlike? To what extent must we “flourish” at the expense of other “conscious creatures”?

Is this “well-being” what we need to survive ( remember, there is much time ahead of us )? Or is a bit of hardship and pain more likely to help? Is survival a greater good than short-term ( in cosmic terms ) well-being? Is Sam not just your typical sentimental American? It’s a tough world out there.

PS. Hurt my kitteh and I’ll kill your offspring. :wink:

Yes, that’s a shockingly common moral failing…

You did, the most important part of which took place under your parents’ tutelage for about the first seven years of your life. Now, if you so wish, you can register for a course in “Rational Ethics” at any reputable university under the auspices of the philosophy department. It won’t add any clarity, though – just the opposite, actually.

Exactly. :smiley:


True, but we can predict some of it and we are getting better at doing so.

This is quite evidently true.

I choose altruism! ;D

I think well-being is more than mere survival. Hardship and pain are inevitable but who could argue against an attempt to minimise suffering? Currently our largest predators are other humans. What’s depressing is that as a species we could actually learn a few moral lessons from some of our cousins.

I would never hurt your kitten! (wtf!!)

Clearly, I am not being clear. Which would be better ( imaginary stuff here )? -

  • a greater ability to survive, even though it comes at a cost of plenty pain and suffering, or

  • a nice long period of human and animal well-being, suffering minimised, but extinction after a time.

Rwenzori is aware of many individuals and groups upon whom he would be quite happy to inflict extended suffering. :wink:

Good! Your offspring are safe. For now. ;D

I doubt it is an either or situation but if I were to imagine it was then I would go for the second option.

Presumably you feel this way because they have negatively affected your or others’ well-being.

Nah, even non-existent theoretical offspring are never safe. :stuck_out_tongue:

I doubt it is an either or situation but if I were to imagine it was then I would go for the second option.

Could you state your opinion to a scientific fact?

Not really, it’s just a guess… But the only process I can imagine more painful than evolving toward morality would be evolving away from it. It might ultimately be an evolutionary dead end, but, like beating the prisoner’s dilemma, for the moral conspiracy to work you have to believe in it.