Science Can Answer Moral Questions


The following logic scheme is based on the TED lecture “Science can answer moral questions” by Dr. Sam Harris, dated March 2010.

1.1.A. Assumption:
Questions of morality cannot be answered by science.
1.1.B. Assumption:
Science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value.
1.1.C. Assumption:
Facts and values seem to belong to different spheres.
1.2. Fact:
Science deals with facts – reality which is objectively verifiable.
1.3. Presumptive Conclusion:
Science therefore cannot discuss values.
1.4. Hypothesis:
This is quite clearly untrue.

2.1. Assumption:
Values are a certain kind of fact about the well-being of conscious creatures.
2.2.A. Fact:
We do not feel ethical obligations toward rocks because we do not think they can suffer.
2.2.B. Fact:
We are more concerned with about our fellow primates than we are about insects because we think they are exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering.
2.3. Fact:
This is something that we could be right or wrong about.
2.4. Conclusion:
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.

3.1.A. Fact:
It is possible to imagine a human existence in which everything is as bad as it can get.
3.1.B. Fact:
It is possible to imagine the opposite.
3.1.C. Fact:
We know there is a continuum of such facts and that there are right and wrong answers to how to move in this space.
3.2. Fact:
There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish, whether or not we understand these truths.
3.3. Fact:
Morality relates to these truths.
3.4. Conclusion:
So, in talking about values we are talking about facts.

4.1. Fact:
If we’re going to talk about human well-being we are, of necessity, talking about the human brain.
4.2. Fact:
If culture changes us, as indeed it does, it changes us by changing our brains.
4.3.A. Conclusion:
And so therefore whatever cultural variation there is in how human beings flourish can, at least in principle, be understood in the context of a maturing science of the mind – neuroscience, psychology, etc.
4.3.B. Conclusion:
Values can be reduced to facts about the conscious experience of conscious beings.

5.1.A. Assumption:
Science is not guaranteed to map all values.
5.1.B. Assumption:
Nor will we have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question.
5.2. Fact:
But if questions affect human well-being then they do have answers, whether or not we can find them.
5.3. Conclusion:
And just admitting this – just admitting that there are right and wrong answers to the question of how humans flourish – will change the way we talk about morality, and will change our expectations of human cooperation in the future.

6. Question:
Is there any doubt that any question about human well-being has an answer, and that it matters?

7.1.A. E.g., Fact:
The notion of well-being is truly undefined, and seemingly perpetually open to be re-construed.
7.1.B. E.g., Question:
And so, how therefore can there be an objective notion of well-being?
7.2.A. E.g., Fact:
Notice that the fact that the concept of health is open, genuinely open for revision, does not make it vacuous.
7.2.B. E.g., Question:
Now, why wouldn’t this undermine an objective morality?

8.A. E.g., Fact:
There is not one right food to eat.
8.B. E.g., Fact:
There is a distinction between food and poison.
8.C. E.g., Conclusion:
The fact that there are many right answers to the question, “What is food?” does not tempt us to say that there are no truths to be known about human nutrition.

9.A. E.g., Fact:
Now, if you’re going to play good chess, a principle like, “Don’t lose your Queen,” is very good to follow.
9.B. E.g., Fact:
However, there are moments when losing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do. There are moments when it is the only good thing you can do.
9.C. E.g., Conclusion:
And yet, chess is a domain of perfect objectivity. The fact that there are exceptions here does not change that at all.

10.1.A. E.g., Fact:
The Dalai Lama gets up every morning meditating on compassion, and he thinks that helping other human beings is an integral component of human happiness.
10.1.B. E.g., Fact:
Ted Bundy was very fond of abducting and raping and torturing and killing young women.
10.1.C. E.g., Conclusion:
So, we appear to have a genuine difference of opinion about how to profitably use one’s time.
10.2.A. Fact:
Most Western intellectuals look at this situation and say, “Well, there’s nothing for the Dalai Lama to be really right about, or for Ted Bundy to be really wrong about that admits of a real argument that potentially falls within the purview of science.”
10.2.B. Conclusion:
Notice that we don’t do this in science.
10.3.A. E.g., Assumption:
If you ask the smartest physicists around who is the smartest physicist around, Ed Witten or myself, probably half of them will say Ed Witten. The other half will tell you they don’t like the question.
10.3.B. E.g., Fact:
So, what would happen if I showed up at a physics conference and said,”String theory 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 physicist; I don’t understand string theory. I wouldn’t want to belong to any string theory club that would have me as a member.
10.3.C. Conclusion:
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.
10.4.A. Question:
How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise, or moral talent, or moral genius even?
10.4.B. Question:
How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count?
10.4.C. Question:
How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering?
10.5.A. Question:
Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering?
10.5.B. Question:
How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being?

11.1. Fact:
It is possible for individuals, and even for whole cultures, to care about the wrong things, which is to say that it’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that reliably lead to needless human suffering.
11.2.A. Fact:
We live in a world filled with destructive technology, and this technology cannot be uninvented.
11.2.B. Fact:
It will always be easier to break things than to fix them.
11.3.A. Conclusion:
It seems to me, therefore, patently obvious that we can no more respect and 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 and airplanes.
11.4.B. Conclusion:
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.

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18 thoughts on “Science Can Answer Moral Questions

  1. Well, you’d be surprised how many people disagree with the patently obvious, or even the factual come to that.

  2. The only point at which morality would not be subject to science would be where values are imagined rather than based in reality. How often does this happen? Any time you talk about religion or intangible things such as an immortal soul or holy presence. Not surprisingly, experts in religion or spirituality are also considered to be the experts in morality, even when what they stand for is absurd.

    Until you can convince people to give up their imaginary values, morality will incorporate this silly twaddle. Unfortunately, the argument can easily be made that Harris is defining religion out of morality, rather than pointing out its absurdity for being included.

  3. That is why everything that is not grounded in reality should not be used to formulate policy – unfortunately for some, that often includes religious convictions.

  4. Well that’s the secular ideal, but policy is different from morality. If objective morality is a collection of subjective morals, then as long as these beliefs persist in individuals, they will contribute to the objective discussion.

  5. I love this post, personally, I would not be offended if you chopped this into 5 or more posts and let us discuss each independently. You put forth so much info and good argument that I think there is a lot to discuss here, and one long post takes away from that.

    That said, I personally like section 5.1+. That is where science begins to question metaphysics. Who is to say that an ‘ought’ cannot be an ‘is’. I know David Hume said it, but does that really mean its true.

    Maybe we just don’t know yet if the two are connected, and we OUGHT to build our ideas on precedent which states that at times our ideas where completely wrong.

    Maybe morality can be figured. If so, we are materialist. If not, we have a spirit beyond the natural world.

    We live in the interim. The past has expressed its voice, the present is undecided, and the future holds the conclusion.

    We are just players, pawns, in the game. I hope for all that we live well along the way, but to think this will be settled in our time, well that’s just silly.

    The truth is universal. Our understanding is feeble. We do the best we can, but I believe we use our abilities to seek truth. All bad reasoning will fall away, and someday, not in our time, humanity will be a collective family as our genes prove us to be.

  6. Thank you for your kind words Steven!
    “[…] I would not be offended if you chopped this into 5 or more posts and let us discuss each independently. You put forth so much info and good argument that I think there is a lot to discuss here, and one long post takes away from that. ”
    – Thanks for the advice, I will look at some follow-ups for this post.

  7. Pingback: On Science Answering Moral Questions | The Caveat Lector

  8. Can science tell if euthanasia is moral? Please, suggest a scientific test to prove one way or the other. Can death constitute a “better well-being” than life in suffering?

    Death is the ultimate way to end suffering. I can show with numbers and facts how healthy and rich will become a society that kills the sick. How can you convince me that this is wrong if the numbers will clearly show the decrease in diseases and cost of healthcare, increased percent of happy people, the increase of GDP per capita, etc.? I can also use the evolution theory to improve human genes using selection — breed people resistant to diseases and with greater mental and physical abilities. All this has been done, by the way. Check Action T4 and Eugenics.

    Science can help humans achieve a certain state of “well-being”. It can even help people to define what “well-being” is depending on the human purposes. But science cannot provide a purpose or a definition of “well-being”.

  9. ‘Can science tell if euthanasia is moral? Please, suggest a scientific test to prove one way or the other. Can death constitute a “better well-being” than life in suffering?’

    Would a state of not being aware of anything constitute a state of more well-being than the state of constant pain as a result of a terminal illness that will last for another, say, six months? In other words, would a state of unawares of everything (I will abstain from saying “peace”) be preferable to a state of excruciating pain?

    ‘I can show with numbers and facts how healthy and rich will become a society that kills the sick.’

    And I can rebut and hold that a society that – as you say – “kills the sick” as opposed to “respects the wishes of the terminally ill” (like it would with all human beings) would not occupy a sphere high up on the moral landscape, so to speak. This statement completely disregards the facts that can be known about human well-being and this ridiculous suggestion is, therefore, not part of my argument and completely beside the point.

  10. Would a state of not being aware of anything constitute a state of more well-being than the state of constant pain as a result of a terminal illness that will last for another, say, six months?

    You have to substitute the word death with state of not being aware of anything to make your point. It’s not the same, you know. Death can hardly be called “well-being”.

    And I can rebut and hold that a society that – as you say – “kills the sick” as opposed to “respects the wishes of the terminally ill” (like it would with all human beings) would not occupy a sphere high up on the moral landscape, so to speak.

    Although I do not have the actual numbers, but I can see how to get them. I can get the data how much it costs to care for all terminally ill cancer patients, compare it to the cost of the drug to kill them, then I would calculate how many schools could be built for the saved money, how many miles of roads built, how much more we could pay in social security benefits to healthy elders, etc. The argument will be driven by numbers. Whereas, the “moral landscape” argument is fuzzy. You have nothing but emotion to prove your point. Even Harris himself has nothing but emotion to prove his point. In this video he reflects on a father killing his raped daughter to avoid the “public disgrace”. He has NO scientific data to prove that this is wrong. He only reflects on this and sheds a tear and then claims that we somehow “know” that this is wrong. Yes, we do. We feel it. But it’s not a scientific knowledge.

    This “well-being” concept is unscientific. The definition is beyond science. There is no scientific test that will clearly tell “this is well-being” and “this is not well-being”. Even regarding things that lead to death (see the euthanasia example). You say, we can tell the difference between food and poison. Is fast food from McDonalds food or poison? Can it damage your health? Can you die from it? It’s not as clear as you try to make it. There is no science to answer these questions. Moreover, sometimes science provides data which is contrary to what is considered “good”.

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