Can Science Define Morality? Sam Harris Thinks So

by David Klinghoffer

A reader sends along a TED talk by atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris, offering the case that science can tell us right from wrong, implicitly making religious traditions superfluous at best. The reader asks for a reaction — given the caveat, as he puts it, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” True. Harris is far from the first to articulately argue for this scientistic view.

The talk was recorded in 2010 but I’m not aware that he has reversed his position. My reaction? Harris is extremely articulate, charismatic in a way, speaking without a script (the TED style) in perfect sentences, perfect paragraphs. Beyond this, for all the guy’s smarts, there’s something stunted about his presentation:

He begins:

I’m going to speak today about the relationship between science and human values. Now, it’s generally understood that questions of morality — questions of good and evil and right and wrong — are questions about which science officially has no opinion. It’s thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value. And, consequently, most people — I think most people probably here — think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life: questions like, “What is worth living for?” “What is worth dying for?” “What constitutes a good life?”

So, I’m going to argue that this is an illusion — that the separation between science and human values is an illusion — and actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history. Now, it’s often said that science cannot give us a foundation for morality and human values, because science deals with facts, and facts and values seem to belong to different spheres. It’s often thought that there’s no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. But I think this is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.

His point is simple. Morality is about empathy, caring for other people’s and our own feelings, maximizing happiness and minimizing pain. Neuroimaging increasingly has the power to say what makes us happy, what makes us flourish as human beings. Therefore all that’s needed is to map flourishing against behavior. He doesn’t deny that’s a complex task and perhaps beyond current technology. However, the patterns of behavior that, if implemented, would lead to the most generalized happiness, are what’s moral.

There are several things left out here. First, under Harris’s picture of reality, I’m not sure what it is that creates the “ought.” If I can maximize my “flourishing” at your expense, please tell me why I should not do so, if there’s no standard of what’s right that transcends you and me? Clearly, that’s a matter beyond science’s reach…


Can Science Define Morality? Sam Harris Thinks So – Evolution News & Views