On Science Answering Moral Questions

Sam Harris’s 2010 TED Talk about science and morality was laid out in a more formal style by Kuba at the Knowledge Guild.

I found the post because it was reblogged on My Atheist Life with an accompanying question: can you see a reason to disagree with this post?

I haven’t read Harris’s The Moral Landscape, where he gives more detail on this topic. Recognizing that the argument laid out is imprecise (e.g., taken from speech not book, is someone else conveying Harris’s words), I figure I’ll try and find reasons to disagree. I don’t think of this as a thorough critique; I’m doing it for the exercise.


First, I want to start with quibbles. These are issues I have that may simply come down to a choice of phrasing.

2.4 There is no version of human morality and human values that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.

This is obviously false. Divine Command Theories are human moralities that are not reducible to a concern about conscious experience. Deontological ethics, likewise, cannot be so reduced due to their focus on laws or duties. The list may go on.

However, we can take a more charitable reading of this line to be something like: I believe that.. [2.4] …that have not been shown inadequate. Obviously, people who champion those systems will disagree. Also, this is a weaker claim, but it gets the same point across.

10.4.C How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these [morally relevant] subjects worth considering?

Descriptively speaking, every culture does have a point of view on moral concerns, and there is a good amount of disagreement on many morally relevant subjects. Harris concedes that we do not already know all moral truths; hence, his desire for a moral science. Even if we know many of the points-of-view will prove false, they are worth considering for the insight to know how to structure our moral-science explorations. This is punctuated by the fact that Harris has to use silly rhetoric to try and justify this point. Yes, looking to the Taliban regarding physics is silly. However, the Taliban are very clearly relevant to morality. We may not think their policies will be morally good, but considering them can help refine the kinds of moral-science questions we ask and test. Of course, with a bit of eye-squinting, I think we can read Harris’s point charitably and assume this sort of caveat was intended.

A Non-Substantive Disagreement

I call this a non-substantive disagreement because it doesn’t engage the main substance of his argument. In his desire to elevate expert voices, Harris may have given a case for excluding his own. We can do this by rephrasing section 10.3:

10.3.A If you ask the smartest moral philosophers around who is the smartest moral philosopher around, G.E.M Anscombe or Sam Harris, probably half of them will say G.E.M Anscombe. The other half will tell you they don’t like the question.

10.3.B So, what would happen if I [Harris] showed up at a morality conference and said,”Deontology is bogus. It doesn’t resonate with me. It’s not how I chose to view the universe at a small scale. I’m not a fan.” Well, nothing would happen because I’m not a moral philosopher; I don’t understand moral philosophy. I wouldn’t want to belong to any moral theory club that would have me as a member.

10.3.C Whenever we are talking about facts certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it is to have a domain of expertise. That is what it is for knowledge to count.

The consensus among moral philosophers is that the ‘fact-value distinction‘ cannot be bridged*. Harris is not a dedicated professional moral philosopher. Since Harris’s argument hinges upon denying the crux of the fact-value distinction, his argument may be akin to going to a physics convention and denying string theory. As such, we may be able to consign Harris’s opinion to the ‘must be excluded’ bin.

One may reply that Harris’s string theory example uses justifications like “doesn’t resonate with me” and “not how I chose to view the universe” and “not a fan.” These are very different than the structured and reasoned argument Harris has provided. I am happy to concede this point and fully agree. However, Harris’s conclusion in 10.3.C is not that there are types of reasoning we should exclude. He concludes there are opinions we should exclude; specifically, opinions that lack in the domain of expertise. Per this conclusion, if we judge Harris to lack in the domain of expertise, we can safely exclude him.

 A Substantive Disagreement

Finally, I will provide a substantive disagreement. This critique boils down to how Harris tries to bridge the fact-value distinction.

Harris does this by defining a value as a factual claim:

2.1 Values are a certain kind of fact about the well-being of conscious creatures

3.2 There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish, whether or not we understand these truths.
3.3 Morality relates to these truths.
3.4 So, in talking about values we are talking about facts.

4.3.B Values can be reduced to facts about the conscious experience of conscious beings.

Harris is suggesting that moral values are those values that relate to changes in human well-being, which is reducible to the conscious experience of human beings. The ‘good’ is that which increases human well-being and the ‘bad’ is that which decreases human well-being.

Where this attempt to bridge the fact-value distinction runs into problems, morally, is its inability to rule out morally-inconvenient facts about human well-being. Let’s take Harris’s example from section 10:

10.1.B Ted Bundy was very fond of abducting and raping and torturing and killing young women.

We could do a study of how rape impacts people, and the study may well find that it has a positive correlation with well-being for the rapist and a negative correlation with well-being for the person who is raped. As such, the scientific findings would support committing rape as a method of increasing human well-being, making it a human value and a moral value, objectively. This suggests something has gone wrong.

We may want to say that the harm to others overrides the increased well-being of the rapist. However, Harris’s system doesn’t give a means for doing this. What can we discover, scientifically, that says we should forbid a gain in well-being from rape if that which is morally valuable is that which increases well-being? If our scientific inquiry cannot provide an answer, either we bite the bullet and accept rape (so long as it increases the well-being of the rapist) as a moral value, or we abandon Harris’s approach.

We may want to appeal to our moral intuitions, but this would abandon Harris’s argument. We can’t say rape is obviously immoral because our empirical data shows otherwise. We may want to exclude individuals like Ted Bundy; however, this contradicts Harris’s point in sections 8 and 9. We may want to appeal to a comparison. For example, if the harm to the victim is greater than the benefit to the perpetrator, we may be able to deem the act immoral on consequentialist grounds. Of course this could prove problematic. If the harm was ever not greater than the benefit, we’d have to deem such a situation moral.

However, even if we were to concede that the harm will always be greater than the benefit as regards rape, appealing to the consequences may produce other strange situations. For example, consider tennis matches. If losing tennis matches proved more harmful than winning them proved beneficial, winning a tennis match would be an immoral act. Again, we can bite the bullet and say winning tennis matches is immoral. However, it seems we’re biting some bitter bullets. Instead, we may want to acknowledge that the fact that something increases human well-being does not make that thing morally good.

Final Thoughts

Again, I haven’t read Sam Harris’s book, so some of this may be directly addressed, or his argument may be worded differently. Specifically, Harris needs to show how we can address morally-inconvenient facts about human well-being without expanding his definition of moral values. An answer may exist; I just don’t see what it is. As such, I’m more inclined to disagree than admit that Ted Bundy’s actions may have been morally good.



Other thoughts:

*I’ll back up this claim with this quote from the linked Wikipedia page: “Virtually all modern philosophers affirm some sort of fact-value distinction, insofar as they distinguish between science and “valued” disciplines such as ethics, aesthetics, or the fine arts.” Take the claim with the requisite amount of salt.



One comment

  1. Why is life full of ups and downs? · May 15, 2014

    One example Harris repeatedly gives is the comparison of well-being to one’s health. Just like health is an important concept and there is a science behind it, eventually there will be a science of well-being.

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