For Harris, values are facts, and as such they are amenable to scientific inquiry. I think he is spectacularly wrong. Let me first begin by making clear that there is much about which Harris and I agree. We are both moral realists, i. Lastly, as an obvious corollary of our moral realism, both Harris and I think that moral relativism is a silly notion, and that it is in fact downright pernicious in its effects on individuals and society.
Here is where the two of us disagree: I do not think that science amounts to the sum total of rational inquiry a position often referred to as scientism , which he seems to assume. I do think that science should inform the specifics of our ethical discussions, and hence is in an important sense pertinent to ethics, but I maintain that ethical questions are inherently philosophical in nature, not scientific.
Ignoring this distinction, I think, does a disservice to both science and philosophy. Finally, as a corollary of my rejection of scientism above, I do think that there are significant differences between science and philosophy, even though of course the demarcation line between the two is far from being sharp. Before I get to the meat, let me point out that I think Harris undermines his own project in two endnotes tucked in at the back of his book. One can reasonably smell a bait and switch here. The whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is dismissed because Sam Harris finds it boring?
Is that a fact or a value judgment, I wonder? Harris wants to deliver moral decision making to science because he wants to defeat the evil if oddly paired twins of religious fanaticism and moral relativism. Despite the fact that I think he grossly overestimates the pervasiveness of the latter, we are together on this. Except of course that the best arguments against both positions are philosophical, not scientific. The most convincing reason why gods cannot possibly have anything to do with morality was presented 24 centuries ago by Plato, in his Euthyphro dialogue which goes, predictably, entirely unmentioned in The Moral Landscape.
It cannot be both. Moral relativism too has been the focus of sustained and devastating attack in philosophy, for instance by thinkers such as Peter Singer and Simon Blackburn, and this is thanks to the large metaethical literature that Harris finds so increases the degree of boredom in the universe. First of all, the second statement does not at all follow from the first.
But we do not use science, or any kind of empirical evidence at all, to arrive at agreement about such facts. Consider abortion. If we agree, for the sake of argument, that abortion is morally permissible before the fetus can feel any pain, then it is a matter for science to give us the best empirical estimate of when approximately that happens during human development.
But notice that science cannot make us agree on whether that particular criterion pain is moral or not. We need to argue for it in some other way. A friend of mine — who incidentally is usually very skeptical of philosophical arguments — has recently told me of a conversation she often has about vegetarianism, a conversation that is both a perfect example of applied ethical philosophy and a good illustration of why Harris is off the mark with his project.
When one of her acquaintances questions the moral grounds of her vegetarian commitment, she replies by asking whether that person endorses bestiality. Now he has a limited number of options available: become a vegetarian, grudgingly agree that bestiality is morally defensible, or look for another argument that distinguishes bestiality from meat eating.
Notice that in all of this, no science of human emotions or animal husbandry was required, besides a basic knowledge of what kinds of things animals are. Harris, I suspect, would not be content with this. He wants science — and particularly neuroscience which just happens to be his own specialty — to help us out of our moral quandaries.
But the reader will wait in vain throughout the book to find a single example of new moral insights that science provides us. Harris tells us that genital mutilation of young girls is wrong. At several points in the book Harris seems to think that neurobiology will be so important for ethics that we will be able to tell whether people are happy by scanning them and make sure their pleasure centers are activated.
Besides the obvious point that if what we want to do is stimulate our brains so that we feel perennially happy, all we need are appropriate drugs to be injected into our veins while we sit in a pod in perfectly imbecilic contentment, these are all excellent observations that show that science cannot answer moral questions. As Harris points out, for instance, research shows that people become less happy when they have children. What does this fact about human behavior have to do with ethical decisions concerning whether and when to have children? This ignorance is not bliss, and it is the high price the reader pays for the crucial evasive maneuvers that Harris sneaks into the footnotes I mentioned at the beginning.
Shermer applies the latest findings of science to offer an original model of the bio-cultural evolution of morality and a new theory of provisional ethics that challenges the reader to confront these timeless issues from a new perspective. He calls for a national debate on the origins of morality, the basis of moral principles, and the need for a more universal and tolerant ethic; an ethic that will insure the well-being and survival of all members of the species, and of all species. READ more and order the book. Drawing upon the disciplines of the sciences, philosophy, and ethics, Kurtz also offers concrete recommendations for the development of the humanism of the future.
Tickets were in such high demand that I had to go as a member of the press, writing for Scientific American, Skeptic, eSkeptic, and Skeptic.
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Sign me up! Please support the work of the Skeptics Society. Make the world a more rational place and help us defend the role of science in society. Harriet Hall M. Is there any doubt that this question has an answer? Is there any doubt that it matters that we get it right? In fact, all the research indicates that corporal punishment is a disastrous practice, leading to more violence and social pathology—and, perversely, to greater support for corporal punishment.
But the deeper point is that there simply must be answers to questions of this kind, whether we know them or not. And these are not areas where we can afford to simply respect the traditions of others and agree to disagree. Why will science increasingly decide such questions?
Because the discrepant answers people give to them—along with the consequences that follow in terms of human relationships, states of mind, acts of violence, entanglements with the law, etc. I hope to show that when talking about values, we are actually talking about an interdependent world of facts. There are facts to be understood about how thoughts and intentions arise in the human brain; there are facts to be learned about how these mental states translate into behavior; there are further facts to be known about how these behaviors influence the world and the experience of other conscious beings.
We will see that facts of this sort exhaust what we can reasonably mean by terms like good and evil. Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, we will see that there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality. Indeed, I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science. Since the publication of my first book, The End of Faith , I have had a privileged view of the culture wars —both in the United States, between secular liberals and Christian conservatives, and in Europe, between largely irreligious societies and their growing Muslim populations.
Having received tens of thousands of letters and emails from people at every point on the continuum between faith and doubt, I can say with some confidence that a shared belief in the limitations of reason lies at the bottom of these cultural divides. Both sides believe that reason is powerless to answer the most important questions in human life.
And how a person perceives the gulf between facts and values seems to influence his views on almost every issue of social importance—from the fighting of wars to the education of children. This rupture in our thinking has different consequences at each end of the political spectrum: religious conservatives tend to believe that there are right answers to questions of meaning and morality, but only because the God of Abraham deems it so. Scriptural literalism, intolerance of diversity, mistrust of science, disregard for the real causes of human and animal suffering—too often, this is how the division between facts and values expresses itself on the religious right.
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Secular liberals, on the other hand, tend to imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist. Multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance —these are the familiar consequences of separating facts and values on the left. It should concern us that these two orientations are not equally empowering. Increasingly, secular democracies are left supine before the unreasoning zeal of old-time religion. The juxtaposition of conservative dogmatism and liberal doubt accounts for the decade that has been lost in the United States to a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research; it explains the years of political distraction we have suffered, and will continue to suffer, over issues like abortion and gay marriage; it lies at the bottom of current efforts to pass antiblasphemy laws at the United Nations which would make it illegal for the citizens of member states to criticize religion ; it has hobbled the West in its generational war against radical Islam; and it may yet refashion the societies of Europe into a new Caliphate.
The scientific community is predominantly secular and liberal—and the concessions that scientists have made to religious dogmatism have been breathtaking. As we will see, the problem reaches as high as the National Academies of Science and the National Institutes of Health. Even the journal Nature , the most influential scientific publication on earth, has been unable to reliably police the boundary between reasoned discourse and pious fiction.
I hope to persuade you that this is not only untrue, it could not possibly be true. Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures—and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain. Rational, open-ended, honest inquiry has always been the true source of insight into such processes. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident. It has made science appear divorced, in principle, from the most important questions of human life.
From the point of view of popular culture, science often seems like little more than a hatchery for technology. While most educated people will concede that the scientific method has delivered centuries of fresh embarrassment to religion on matters of fact, it is now an article of almost unquestioned certainty, both inside and outside scientific circles, that science has nothing to say about what constitutes a good life. Religious thinkers in all faiths, and on both ends of the political spectrum, are united on precisely this point; the defense one most often hears for belief in God is not that there is compelling evidence for His existence, but that faith in Him is the only reliable source of meaning and moral guidance.
Mutually incompatible religious traditions now take refuge behind the same non sequitur. How we respond to the resulting collision of worldviews will influence the progress of science, of course, but it may also determine whether we succeed in building a global civilization based on shared values. The question of how human beings should live in the twenty-first century has many competing answers—and most of them are surely wrong.
Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals. A science of human flourishing may seem a long way off, but to achieve it, we must first acknowledge that the intellectual terrain actually exists. Throughout this book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call the moral landscape —a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.
Different ways of thinking and behaving—different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery.
Nor would it make the difference between being on a peak and being stuck deep in a valley any less clear or consequential. To see that multiple answers to moral questions need not pose a problem for us, consider how we currently think about food: no one would argue that there must be one right food to eat.
And yet there is still an objective difference between healthy food and poison. There are exceptions—some people will die if they eat peanuts, for instance—but we can account for these within the context of a rational discussion about chemistry, biology, and human health. Movement across the moral landscape can be analyzed on many levels—ranging from biochemistry to economics—but where human beings are concerned, change will necessarily depend upon states and capacities of the human brain.
Human experience shows every sign of being determined by, and realized in, states of the human brain. Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions.
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If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie—and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned. But the existence of moral truth—that is, the connection between how we think and behave and our well-being—does not require that we define morality in terms of unvarying moral precepts. Morality could be a lot like chess: there are surely principles that generally apply, but they might admit of important exceptions. But it admits of exceptions: sometimes sacrificing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do; occasionally, it is the only thing you can do.
It remains a fact, however, that from any position in a game of chess there will be a range of objectively good moves and objectively bad ones.
If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being—if kindness, for instance, is generally more conducive to happiness than cruelty is—then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning. While it is too early to say that we have a full understanding of how human beings flourish, a piecemeal account is emerging.
We know, of course, that emotional neglect and abuse are not good for us, psychologically or socially. We also know that the effects of early childhood experience must be realized in the brain. When asking why early childhood neglect is harmful to our psychological and social development, it seems reasonable to think that it might result from a disturbance in this same system. While it would be unethical to deprive young children of normal care for the purposes of experiment, society inadvertently performs such experiments every day.
To study the effects of emotional deprivation in early childhood, one group of researchers measured the blood concentrations of oxytocin and vasopressin in two populations: children raised in traditional homes and children who spent their first years in an orphanage. They also tend to have social and emotional difficulties later in life.
As predicted, these children failed to show a normal surge of oxytocin and vasopressin in response to physical contact with their adoptive mothers. The relevant neuroscience is in its infancy, but we know that our emotions, social interactions, and moral intuitions mutually influence one another. We grow attuned to our fellow human beings through these systems, creating culture in the process. Culture becomes a mechanism for further social, emotional, and moral development.
There is simply no doubt that the human brain is the nexus of these influences. Cultural norms influence our thinking and behavior by altering the structure and function of our brains. Do you feel that sons are more desirable than daughters? Is obedience to parental authority more important than honest inquiry? Would you cease to love your child if you learned that he or she was gay?
The ways parents view such questions, and the subsequent effects in the lives of their children, must translate into facts about their brains.
My goal is to convince you that human knowledge and human values can no longer be kept apart. The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled.
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And science and religion—being antithetical ways of thinking about the same reality—will never come to terms. As with all matters of fact, differences of opinion on moral questions merely reveal the incompleteness of our knowledge; they do not oblige us to respect a diversity of views indefinitely. The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is facts can tell us how we ought to behave morality.
Moore declared that any attempt to locate moral truths in the natural world was to commit a naturalistic fallacy. If, for instance, we were to say that goodness is synonymous with whatever gives people pleasure, it would still be possible to worry whether a specific instance of pleasure is actually good. And while I think this verbal trap is easily avoided when we focus on human well-being, most scientists and public intellectuals appear to have fallen into it.
While psychologists and neuroscientists now routinely study human happiness, positive emotions, and moral reasoning, they rarely draw conclusions about how human beings ought to think or behave in light of their findings. In fact, it seems to be generally considered intellectually disreputable, even vaguely authoritarian, for a scientist to suggest that his or her work offers some guidance about how people should live. The philosopher and psychologist Jerry Fodor crystallizes the view:.
While it is rarely stated this clearly, this faith in the intrinsic limits of reason is now the received opinion in intellectual circles. Despite the reticence of most scientists on the subject of good and evil, the scientific study of morality and human happiness is well underway. This research is bound to bring science into conflict with religious orthodoxy and popular opinion—just as our growing understanding of evolution has—because the divide between facts and values is illusory in at least three senses: 1 whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures—which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value—must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large; 2 the very idea of objective knowledge i.
I will discuss each of these points in greater detail below. Both in terms of what there is to know about the world and the brain mechanisms that allow us to know it, we will see that a clear boundary between facts and values simply does not exist. Many readers might wonder how can we base our values on something as difficult to define as well-being?
It seems to me, however, that the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition, and yet it is indispensable. Today, a person can consider himself physically healthy if he is free of detectable disease, able to exercise, and destined to live into his eighties without suffering obvious decrepitude. But this standard may change. There may come a time when not being able to run a marathon at age five hundred will be considered a profound disability.
Such a radical transformation of our view of human health would not suggest that current notions of health and sickness are arbitrary, merely subjective, or culturally constructed. Indeed, the difference between a healthy person and a dead one is about as clear and consequential a distinction as we ever make in science. The differences between the heights of human fulfillment and the depths of human misery are no less clear, even if new frontiers await us in both directions.
While I agree with Moore that it is reasonable to wonder whether maximizing pleasure in any given instance is good, it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is good. It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is good, is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being. This question is perfectly coherent; it surely has an answer whether or not we are in a position to answer it ; and yet, it keeps notions of goodness anchored to the experience of sentient beings.
Defining goodness in this way does not resolve all questions of value; it merely directs our attention to what values actually are—the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being, as well as that of other conscious minds.
Toward a Science of Morality | Sam Harris
While this leaves the question of what constitutes well-being genuinely open, there is every reason to think that this question has a finite range of answers. Given that change in the well-being of conscious creatures is bound to be a product of natural laws, we must expect that this space of possibilities—the moral landscape—will increasingly be illuminated by science.
It is important to emphasize that a scientific account of human values—i. Most of what constitutes human well-being at this moment escapes any narrow Darwinian calculus. While the possibilities of human experience must be realized in the brains that evolution has built for us, our brains were not designed with a view to our ultimate fulfillment. Evolution could never have foreseen the wisdom or necessity of creating stable democracies, mitigating climate change, saving other species from extinction, containing the spread of nuclear weapons, or of doing much else that is now crucial to our happiness in this century.
But our minds do not merely conform to the logic of natural selection. In fact, anyone who wears eyeglasses or uses sunscreen has confessed his disinclination to live the life that his genes have made for him.