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Moral confusion in the name of “science”

By Sam Harris
Posted: March 29, 2010.


Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at the 2010 TED conference for exactly 18 minutes. The short format of these talks is a brilliant innovation and surely the reason for their potent half-life on the Internet. However, 18 minutes is not a lot of time in which to present a detailed argument. My intent was to begin a conversation about how we can understand morality in universal, scientific terms. Many people who loved my talk, misunderstood what I was saying, and loved it for the wrong reasons; and many of my critics were right to think that I had said something extremely controversial. I was not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind’s dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind. As the response to my TED talk indicates, it is taboo for a scientist to think such things, much less say them public.

Most educated, secular people (and this includes most scientists, academics, and journalists) seem to believe that there is no such thing as moral truth—only moral preference, moral opinion, and emotional reactions that we mistake for genuine knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. While I make the case for a universal conception of morality in much greater depth in my forthcoming book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values , I’d like to address the most common criticisms I’ve received thus far in response to my remarks at TED.

Some of my critics got off the train before it even left the station, by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms. Many think that science is synonymous with mathematical modeling, or with immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn. There are many tools one must get in hand to think scientifically—ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc.—and many come long before one starts worrying about mathematical models or specific data.

There is also much confusion about what it means to speak with scientific “objectivity.” As the philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective.” The first relates to how we know (i.e. epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e. ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively,” we mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counter-arguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, etc. There is no impediment to our doing this with regard to subjective (i.e. first-person) facts. It is, for instance, true to say that I am experiencing tinnitus (ringing in my ears) at this moment. This is a subjective fact about me. I am not lying about it. I have been to an otologist and had the associated hearing loss in the upper frequencies in my right ear confirmed. There is simply no question that I can speak about my tinnitus in the spirit of scientific objectivity. And, no doubt, this experience must have some objective (third-person) correlates, like damage to my cochlea.  Many people seem to think that because moral facts relate entirely to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e. biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue.

Many of my critics also fail to distinguish between there being no answers in practice and no answers in principle to certain questions about the nature of reality. Only the latter questions are “unscientific,” and there are countless facts to be known in principle that we will never know in practice. Exactly how many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth at this instant? What is their combined weight in grams? We cannot possibly answer such questions, but they have simple, numerical answers. Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? For instance, how seriously should we take the claim that there are exactly 23,000 birds in flight at this moment, and, as they are all hummingbirds weighing exactly 2 grams, their total weight is 46,000 grams? It should be obvious that this is a ridiculous assertion. We can, therefore, decisively reject answers to questions that we cannot possibly answer in practice. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do. And yet, many scientists will say that moral truths do not exist, simply because certain facts about human experience cannot be readily known, or may never be known. As I hope to show, this blind spot has created tremendous confusion about the relationship between human knowledge and human values.

When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal wellbeing that we can, in principle, know—simply because wellbeing (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.

And here is where the real controversy begins: for many people strongly objected to my claim that values (and hence morality) relate to facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. My critics seem to think that consciousness and its states hold no special place where values are concerned, or that any state of consciousness stands the same chance of being valued as any other. While maximizing the wellbeing of conscious creatures may be what I value, other people are perfectly free to define their values differently, and there will be no rational or scientific basis to argue with them. Thus, by starting my talk with the assertion that values depend upon actual or potential changes in consciousness, and that some changes are better than others, I merely assumed what I set out to prove. This is what philosophers call “begging the question.” I am, therefore, an idiot. And given that my notion of objective values must be a mere product of my own personal and cultural biases, and these led me to disparage traditional religious values from the stage at TED, I am also a bigot. While these charges are often leveled separately, they are actually connected.

I’ve now had these basic objections hurled at me a thousand different ways—from YouTube comments that end by calling me “a Mossad agent” to scarcely more serious efforts by scientists like Sean Carroll which attempt to debunk my reasoning as circular or otherwise based on unwarranted assumptions. Many of my critics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time.  Indeed, Carroll appears to think that Hume’s lazy analysis of facts and values is so compelling that he elevates it to the status of mathematical truth: 

Attempts to derive ought from is [values from facts] are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake.

This is an amazingly wrongheaded response coming from a very smart scientist. I wonder how Carroll would react if I breezily dismissed his physics with a reference to something Robert Oppenheimer once wrote, on the assumption that it was now an unmovable object around which all future human thought must flow. Happily, that’s not how physics works. But neither is it how philosophy works. Frankly, it’s not how anything that works, works.

Carroll appears to be confused about the foundations of human knowledge. For instance, he clearly misunderstands the relationship between scientific truth and scientific consensus. He imagines that scientific consensus signifies the existence of scientific truth (while scientific controversy just means that there is more work to be done). And yet, he takes moral controversy to mean that there is no such thing as moral truth (while moral consensus just means that people are deeply conditioned for certain preferences). This is a double standard that I pointed out in my talk, and it clearly rigs the game against moral truth. The deeper issue, however, is that truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: It is, after all, quite possible for everyone to be wrong, or for one lone person to be right. Consensus is surely a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.

Strangely, Carroll also imagines that there is greater consensus about scientific truth than about moral truth.  Taking humanity as a whole, I am quite certain that he is mistaken about this. There is no question that there is a greater consensus that cruelty is generally wrong (a common moral intuition) than that the passage of time varies with velocity (special relativity) or that humans and lobsters share an ancestor (evolution). Needless to say, I’m not inclined to make too much of this consensus, but it is worth noting that scientists like Carroll imagine far more moral diversity than actually exists. While certain people believe some very weird things about morality, principles like the Golden Rule are very well subscribed. If we wanted to ground the epistemology of science on democratic principles, as Carroll suggests we might, the science of morality would have an impressive head start over the science of physics. [1]

The real problem, however, is that critics like Carroll think that there is no deep intellectual or moral issue here to worry about. Carroll encourages us to just admit that a universal conception of human values is a pipe dream. Thereafter, those of us who want to make life on earth better, or at least not worse, can happily collaborate, knowing all the while that we are seeking to further our merely provincial, culturally constructed notions of moral goodness. Once we have our values in hand, and cease to worry about their relationship to the Truth, science can help us get what we want out of life. 

There are many things wrong with this approach. The deepest problem is that it strikes me as patently mistaken about the nature of reality and about what we can reasonably mean by words like “good,” “bad,” “right,” and “wrong.” In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here’s the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—again, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe.

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already far too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.

Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that wellbeing is what we can intelligibly value—and “morality” (whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be) really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the wellbeing of conscious creatures. And, as I pointed out at TED, all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about wellbeing anyway: They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell). And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of wellbeing in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I’ve read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit). The doubts that immediately erupt on this point seem to invariably depend on extremely unimaginative ideas about what the term “wellbeing” could mean, altogether, or on mistaken beliefs about what science is.

Those who assumed that any emphasis on human “wellbeing” would lead us to enslave half of humanity, or harvest the organs of the bottom ten percent, or nuke the developing world, or nurture our children a continuous drip of heroin are, it seems to me, not really thinking about these issues seriously. It seems rather obvious that fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality have rather a lot to do with our creating a thriving global civilization—and, therefore, with the greater wellbeing of humanity. And, as I emphasized in my talk, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive—many peaks on the moral landscape—so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science. As I said in my talk, the concept of “wellbeing,” like the concept of “health,” is truly open for revision and discovery. Just how happy is it possible for us to be, personally and collectively? What are the conditions—ranging from changes in the genome to changes in economic systems—that will produce such happiness? We simply do not know.

But the deeper objection raised by scientists like Carroll is that the link I have drawn between values and wellbeing seems arbitrary, or otherwise in need of justification. What if certain people insist that their “values” or “morality” have nothing to do with wellbeing? What if a man like Jefferey Dahmer says, “The only peaks on the moral landscape that interest me are ones where I get to murder young men and have sex with their corpses.” This possibility—the prospect of radically different moral preferences—seems to be at the heart of many people’s concerns. In response to one of his readers, Carroll writes:

[W]e have to distinguish between choosing a goal and choosing the best way to get there. But when we do science we all basically agree on what the goals are — we want to find a concise, powerful explanation of the empirical facts we observe. Sure, someone can choose to disagree with those goals — but then they’re not doing science, they’re doing philosophy of science. Which is interesting in its own right, but not the same thing.

When it comes to morality, there is nowhere near the unanimity of goals that there is in science. That’s not a minor quibble, that’s the crucial difference! If we all agreed on the goals, we would indeed expend our intellectual effort on the well-grounded program of figuring out how best to achieve those goals. That would be great, but it’s not the world in which we live.

Again, we encounter this confusion about the significance of consensus. But we should also remember that there are trained “scientists” who are Biblical Creationists, and their scientific thinking is purposed not toward a dispassionate study of the universe, but toward interpreting the data of science to fit the Biblical account of creation. Such people claim to be doing “science,” of course—but real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term. Similarly, there are people who claim to be highly concerned about “morality” and “human values,” but when we see that they are more concerned about condom use than they are about child rape (e.g. the Catholic Church), we should feel free to say that they are misusing the term “morality,” or that their values are distorted. As I asked at TED, how have we convinced ourselves that on the subject of morality, all views must count equally?

Everyone has an intuitive “physics,” but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter), and only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. Everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective wellbeing) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing. Yes, we must have a goal to define what counts as “right” or “wrong” in a given domain, but this criterion is equally true in both domains.

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.

One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what? Science and rationality generally are based on intuitions and concepts that cannot be reduced or justified. Just try defining “causation” in non-circular terms. If you manage it, I really want hear from you . Or try to justify transitivity in logic: if A = B and B = C, then A = C. A skeptic could say that this is nothing more than an assumption that we’ve built into the definition of “equality.” Others will be free to define “equality” differently. Yes, they will. And we will be free to call them “imbeciles.” Seen in this light, moral relativism should be no more tempting than physical, biological, mathematical, or logical relativism. There are better and worse ways to define our terms; there are more and less coherent ways to think about reality; and there are—is there any doubt about this?—many ways to seek fulfillment in this life and not find it.

On a related point, the philosopher Russell Blackford wrote, “I’ve never yet seen an argument that shows that psychopaths are necessarily mistaken about some fact about the world. Moreover, I don’t see how the argument could run…” Well, here it is in brief: We already know that psychopaths have brain damage that prevents them from having certain deeply satisfying experiences (like empathy) which seem good for people both personally and collectively (in that they tend to increase wellbeing on both counts). Psychopaths, therefore, don’t know what they are missing (but we do). The position of a psychopath also cannot be generalized; it is not, therefore, an alternative view of how human beings should live (this is one point Kant got right: even a psychopath couldn’t want to live in a world filled with psychopaths). We should also realize that the psychopath we are envisioning is a straw man: Watch interviews with real psychopaths, and you will find that they do not tend to claim to be in possession of an alternative morality or to be living deeply fulfilling lives. These people are generally ruled by compulsions that they don’t understand and cannot resist. It is absolutely clear that, whatever they might believe about what they are doing, psychopaths are seeking some form of wellbeing (excitement, ecstasy, feelings of power, etc.), but because of their neurological deficits, they are doing a very bad job of it. We can say that a psychopath like Ted Bundy takes satisfaction in the wrong things, because living a life purposed toward raping and killing women does not allow for deeper and more generalizable forms of human flourishing. Compare Bundy’s deficits to those of a delusional physicist who finds meaningful patterns and mathematical significance in the wrong places (John Nash might have been a good example, while suffering the positive symptoms of his schizophrenia). His “Eureka!” detectors are poorly coupled to reality; he sees meaningful patterns where most people would not—and these patterns will be a very poor guide to the proper goals of physics (i.e. understanding the physical world). Is there any doubt that Ted Bundy’s “Yes! I love this!” detectors were poorly coupled to the possibilities of finding deep fulfillment in this life, or that his overriding obsession with raping and killing young women was a poor guide to the proper goals of morality (i.e. living a fulfilling life with others)?

And while people like Bundy may want some very weird things out of life, no one wants utter, interminable misery. And if someone claims to want this, we are free to treat them like someone who claims to believe that 2 + 2 = 5 or that all events are self-caused. On the subject of morality, as on every other subject, some people are not worth listening to.

The moment we admit that consciousness is the context in which any discussion of values makes sense, we must admit that there are facts to be known about how the experience of conscious creatures can change—and these facts can be studied, in principle, with the tools of science. Do pigs suffer more than cows do when being led to slaughter? Would humanity suffer more or less, on balance, if the U.S. unilaterally gave up all its nuclear weapons? Questions like these are very difficult to answer. But this does not mean that they don’t have answers. Carroll writes:

But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.

Again, we see the confusion between no answers in practice and no answers in principle. The fact that it could be difficult or impossible to know exactly how to maximize human wellbeing, does not mean that there are no right or wrong ways to do this—nor does it mean that we cannot exclude certain answers as obviously bad. The fact that it might be difficult to decide exactly how to balance individual rights against collective good, or that there might be a thousand equivalent ways of doing this, does not mean that we must hesitate to condemn the morality of the Taliban, or the Nazis, or the Ku Klux Klan—not just personally, but from the point of view of science. As I said at TED, the moment we admit that there is anything to know about human wellbeing, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures might not know it.

It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.

And the philosophical skepticism that brought us the division between facts and values can be used in many other ways that smart people like Carroll would never countenance. In fact, I could use another of Hume’s arguments, the case against induction, to torpedo Carroll’s entire field, or science generally. The scientific assumption that the future will lawfully relate to the past is just that—an assumption. Other people are free to assume that it won’t. In fact, I’m free to assume that the apparent laws of nature will expire on the first Tuesday of the year 3459. Is this assumption just as good as any other? If so, we can say goodbye to physics.

There are also very practical, moral concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything—the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride-burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see what an abject failure of compassion their intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference amounts to. While much of this debate must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are women and girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the crime of getting raped. Look into their eyes, and tell me that what has been done to them is the product of an alternative moral code every bit as authentic and philosophically justifiable as your own. And if you actually believe this, I would like to publish your views on my website.

The amazing thing is that some people won’t even blink before plunging into this intellectual and moral crevasse—and most of these enlightened souls are highly educated. I once spoke at an academic conference on themes similar to those I discussed at TED—my basic claim being that once we have a more complete understanding of human wellbeing, ranging from its underlying neurophysiology to the political systems and economic policies that best safeguard it, we will be able to make strong claims about which cultural practices are good for humanity and which aren’t. I then made what I thought would be a quite incontestable assertion: we already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing wellbeing than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing.

As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy (after all, “Who decides what is a successful life?”) At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. She holds a degree in genetics from Dartmouth, a masters in biology from Harvard, and a law degree, another masters, and a Ph.D. in the philosophy of biology from Duke. This scholar is now a recognized authority on the intersection between criminal law, genetics, neuroscience and philosophy. Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim: 

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?

Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing wellbeing—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.

She: But that’s only your opinion.

Me: Okay… Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human wellbeing?

She: It would depend on why they were doing it.

Me (slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head): Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, “Every third must walk in darkness.”

She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

Such opinions are not uncommon in the Ivory Tower. I was talking to a woman (it’s hard not to feel that her gender makes her views all the more disconcerting) who had just delivered an entirely lucid lecture on the moral implications of neuroscience for the law. She was concerned that our intelligence services might one day use neuroimaging technology for the purposes of lie detection, which she considered a likely violation of cognitive liberty. She was especially exercised over rumors that our government might have exposed captured terrorists to aerosols containing the hormone oxytocin in an effort to make them more cooperative. Though she did not say it, I suspect that she would even have opposed subjecting these prisoners to the smell of freshly baked bread, which has been shown to have a similar effect. While listening to her talk, as yet unaware of her liberal views on compulsory veiling and ritual enucleation, I thought her slightly over-cautious, but a basically sane and eloquent authority on the premature use of neuroscience in our courts. I confess that once we did speak, and I peered into the terrible gulf that separated us on these issues, I found that I could not utter another word to her. In fact, our conversation ended with my blindly enacting two, neurological clichés: my jaw quite literally dropped open, and I spun on my heels before walking away.

Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism. This is, I think, the only charitable thing to be said about it. Needless to say, it was not my purpose at TED to defend the idiosyncrasies of the West as any more enlightened, in principle, than those of any other culture. Rather, I was arguing that the most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, just as most other facts do. And if there are facts which are truly a matter of cultural construction—if, for instance, learning a specific language or tattooing your face fundamentally alters the possibilities of human experience—well, then these facts also arise from (neurophysiological) processes that transcend culture.

I must say, the vehemence and condescension with which the is/ought objection has been thrown in my face astounds me. And it confirms my sense that this bit of bad philosophy has done tremendous harm to the thinking of smart (and not so smart) people. The categorical distinction between facts and values helped open a sinkhole beneath liberalism long ago—leading to moral relativism and to masochistic depths of political correctness. Think of the champions of “tolerance” who reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing security concerns, or the Danish cartoonists for their “controversy,” and you will understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values. Among conservatives in the West, the same skepticism about the power of reason leads, more often than not, directly to the feet of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Universe. Indeed, the most common defense one now hears for religious faith is not that there is compelling evidence for God’s existence, but that a belief in Him is the only basis for a universal conception of human values. And it is decidedly unhelpful that the moral relativism of liberals so often seems to prove the conservative case.

Of course, there is more to be said on the relationship between facts and values—more details to consider and objections to counter—and I will do my best to tackle these issues in my forthcoming book. As always, if you feel that you have found flaws in my argument, I sincerely encourage you to point them out to me, and to everyone else, in the comment thread following this article.

 

  • Perhaps Carroll will want to say that scientists agree about science more than ordinary people agree about morality (I’m not even sure this is true). But this is an empty claim, for at least two reasons: 1) it is circular, because anyone who insufficiently agrees with the principles of science as Carroll knows them, won’t count as a scientist in his book (so the definition of “scientist” is question begging). 2) Scientists are an elite group, by definition. “Moral experts” would also constitute an elite group, and the existence of such experts is completely in line with my argument.

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    Comments (473)

    1. mike elsbury

    Fucking Awesome

    posted on March 29, 2010
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    2. warrenwormhole

    Glad to hear this clarification, Sam.  Your TED talk generated some excellent discussion and brought out some good criticism as well as generating some solid questions.  I look forward to your book with great enthusiasm.  “The End of Faith” remains the only book I have ever read where, upon turning the last page, I flipped to page one and began again!  Keep up the good work as I will.

    posted on March 29, 2010
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    3. Gregor Macdonald

    During the 20th Century, it became increasingly common to transmit non-ethnocentricity as a broad intellectual value, in university. The source of this is pretty understandable, as early 20th C social anthropology did important work in discovering that “we don’t understand other cultures.” There are ties to this problem of knowing “the other” in both psychology and of course your area—philosophy. (Epistemology). In short, it was very important work that 20th C social anthropology accomplished.

    But that was then, and this is now.

    Sam, for you to make further headway in your framing of values and science, you are going to have to confront artfully several generation of western, educated people who have been given a strong framework in the importance of “not judging” others, and especially other cultures. I think your project is worth pursuing, but just be aware that the intellectual barriers you are up against are perhaps just as intractable among those of us in the secular, educated class.

    It’s at times like these that sharp quips from folks like Oscar Wilde about being “over-educated” can be helpful. I wish you all the best. Great TED talk!

    Gregor

    posted on March 29, 2010
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    4. Darryl Wright

    Word.

    posted on March 29, 2010
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    5. Chris Williamson

    I think much of the knee-jerk negative reaction many seem to be having regarding the concept of universal truth and morality, is that nobody likes to be told what is ‘good for them’. They feel it impinges on their freedom and self-determination. Some would even argue that it flies in the face of human nature - we have an innate rebelliousness that for many defines what it is to be human. Even if we were able to agree on standards of right and wrong, and were somehow ‘miraculously’ able to create an ideal, equitable world where everyone was provided equal rights and opportunities, there would always be those who would not be happy with this. They would want more. In fact, they would be very willing to compromise others’  well-being in order to secure their own excess. So, enforcement would be a real problem. Any argument for the greater good would be in many cases superseded by individuals’ personal interests. Reading this over, these comments do come across as very basic, common-sense refutations, but I think it’s important to address the fundamentals of human nature before ever being able to successfully address any aspirations toward higher altruism.

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    Fantastic TED talk and a thoroughly lucid rebuttal of your critics. I had heard that you had returned to the academic quiet life. Delighted that you haven’t and very much looking forward to your new book. Thank you.

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    7. Clifford Meece

    Nice job countering your opponents, but I still think you’ve chosen the weakest arguments to attack. 

    What seems more difficult, to me, is how are we to determine local maxima/minima in this moral landscape?  How do we approach policies that may represent a descent into a ‘valley’ if they promise an ascent to a ‘high peak’?

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    I’m glad I watched the Google talk, because Sam had more time to explain his ideas. Maybe it would have headed off some of these criticisms at the pass.

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    9. Tom J. Lawson

    I’d still like to see something about homosexuality as being originally immoral (or merely frowned upon?) by small tribal villages that needed everyone contributing offspring. I can’t see small villages keeping homosexuals around, even if the huts were better adorned.
    We know it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon in other species, and could be a mutational archive left by evolution from species that could spontaneously switch sex or breed asexually. But it doesn’t go against nature, it IS nature. Homosexuality is no more immoral than an infertile man or woman.
    It just appears that being gay should be immoral because they seem to be much happier with their predicament than childless couples.
    Eventually, through evil, immoral eugenics, gays will be able to conceive using both sets of DNA rather than choosing donors for the other half. I’m guessing THAT would be deemed immoral by the church, but in vitro for heterosexuals will still be okay.
    I have a sneaking suspicion that as science and SAM move into the realm of the moral landscape, eugenics will have to be dealt with as a morality issue, so science had better have a good idea on where it stands on the issue…

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    Thank you Sam for another artful contribution to rational thinking!  Clearly many well-meaning people are still learning to view the world from outside the forest….

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    11. Foster Beigler

    Thanks Sam!  All the best.  Foster Beigler

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    12. Harvey Ardman

    I believe that every human being is born with the hardwired instinct to improve or at least protect his well-being and the well-being of others of his species (focusing first on relatives and last on people he’ll never know).

    What I’m saying is that Golden Rule is hardwired into all of us. Like many an instinct, however, it can be weakened by circumstances and events, and by inconsistent and chance reinforcement. It is out of these things that religion has evolved, and superstition has taken root—for instance, the superstitious prohibition against walking under ladders, or why a baseball player uses his bat to cross home plate before receiving the first pitch.

    It is upon this instinct—to protect and improve human wellbeing—that our sense of justice and fairness is based. It is why we are saddened by a distant earthquake, fatal to many.

    Why is this instinct built in? Because it is needed for the survival of the species. Without this instinct, we would kill off each other in short order. With it, we build societies and civilizations. We fight for freedoms.

    As human beings, it seems to me, obedience to this instinct requires that we preach it, practice it and do everything else we can to stop extraneous factors from undermining it.

    Religion, disbelieving that this instinct is part of human nature and insisting that God is the source morality, builds elaborate castles in the air, based on nothing more than the pinprick of assumption. It attempts to sit on top of our humane instincts and guide them and limit them, according to extraneous events and assumptions.

    Psychopaths, sociopaths and perhaps the severely autistic, may lack the instinct I’m talking about, or have it in a much weakened version. This is the missing piece that allows them to ignore the wellbeing of others.

    Just as we have apparently discovered the specific genetic constructions responsible for say, shyness or anger, I think we may someday find the physical location of our desire for wellbeing and for the wellbeing of others. And by the way, this is one of the reasons we fantasize about evil robots—because they would be missing any built in instinct like this.

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    I was a fan of the TED talk, so I read with concern about the people who liked it but missed something fundamental. After carefully reading this article, I’ve been reassured that I understand and agree with the broad strokes of Sam’s arguments. I really wish I could find something that I disagreed with enough to leave an argument.

    I’ve been a moral realist—moral facts are indeed facts—for years.  I’ve also found my position in this regard to be my most significant point of contention with my fellow atheists.

    I think this is a conversation worth having, and I’m looking forward to how this plays out.

    —Conversational Atheist

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    14. Tibor Machan

    VIrtually perfect.  As a ethical naturalist, in the Aristotelian tradition, I found your line of argument very promising.  Problem is, you may be the lone wolf (compared to Dennett, Dawkins, et al) when it comes to this issue. I am not sure where you stand on human agency but they tend to dismiss it as spooky.  Yet without some faculty of bona fide choice, morality is dead.

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    I thoroughly enjoyed your talk at TED, Sam, and I’m quite surprised at some of the remarks and criticisms you’ve had shoveled on you. Your point couldn’t have been more clearly stated nor more compelling.
    It seems a little silly that you have to go to the lengths of explanation that you have in this article to defend an idea that should be fairly self-evident.

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    16. Karl Peterson

    Well said. You’ve created a foundation for a whole new field and your book hasn’t even been published. Keep the conversation going!

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    17. Matthew Putman

    I enjoyed your talk and the rebuttal, but somehow feel that you are expecting scientists to abandon the humility that you yourself had in the ABC debate with Chopra. In that you were very scientific in saying that Chopra, and yourself should not make claims about such topics as Quantum Mechanics without clarification, as it is a discipline that neither of you are experts in. As a scientist this is normal. We nearly always apologize before speaking about a specialty that we dont practice. This doesn’t mean that we dont do it.  I write blogs about all kinds of things I am not an expert in. They are just my ideas, not my scientific theories. The worry is once science itself has the wider description you mention, the more it becomes arguable in philosophical, rather than theoretical and experimental terms.

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    18. AntonioSaucedo

    “Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism.” And don’t forget Western machismo. 

    Yes, according to many, moral imperialism is the real sickness. Even the guy at the end of your talk mentioned it. 

    Brilliant as usual, Sam.  I can’t wait to read your new book.

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    19. James Kimbell

    It’s probably just a matter of presentation, but I wonder why Sam avoids the word “utility.”

    Maybe he’s trying to solidly hook “wellbeing” onto the real activity of real neurons, instead of something more wishy washy. This is good, and it sidesteps all the bad, narrow conceptions people have of utilitarianism.

    But it’s also ignoring a field that’s out there, a field that’s been looking at these questions for a while. We don’t have to start completely over with our newfound focus on wellbeing: we can see what Bentham, Singer, or whoever else has said on the topic.

    It’s a lock that Sam mentions this in the book, though, so I guess I’ll just wait.

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    Sam, I appreciate you for being out there to challenge the religionists.  But based on this article, you are still a mystic who advocates altruism.  copy/paste from this article linked below -

    “Why do these alleged men of reason join men of faith in appealing to mysticism as a basis for morality? The reason is simple: The morality they seek to defend, altruism, cannot be grounded in reason or reality. There are no facts that give rise to the principle that a person should sacrifice himself for the sake of others. Those who maintain that being moral consists in being altruistic have no alternative but to base that belief on some form of mysticism—whether “innate ideas,” or “intuition,” or a “mysterious consensus,” or religious faith. The New Atheists may have omitted God from their ethics, but their ethics remains essentially the same as that of the religions they condemn: a mystical call to self-sacrifice.

    In today’s predominantly religious world, it takes some measure of courage to criticize faith and challenge the existence of God—and Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins deserve some measure of credit for doing so. But it takes greater courage to challenge the even more widespread belief that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others. If the New Atheists are serious about convincing people to abandon religion and adopt a rational secular worldview, then they must find the courage to follow reason wherever it leads—even if it leads them, as it will, to challenge the validity of altruism.

    Fortunately for those who do have the courage to follow reason and challenge the validity of altruism, Ayn Rand has already discovered, demonstrated, and codified a morality based on and derived from the demonstrable requirements of human life, happiness, and coexistence: rational egoism. By first asking the question “Why does man need morality?” she proceeded to discover that man, as a being who must make choices, needs morality as a guide to life-promoting action. She discovered that man’s life is the standard of moral value—which means that actions that advance man’s life are moral and that those that retard or destroy man’s life are immoral.

    Unlike religion and secular altruism, rational egoism neither entails nor permits any claim on the lives of other men. It holds that each man should act in his own best interest and that each man is the proper beneficiary of his own thought and action. And because egoism recognizes that it is right for a man to think and act in his self-interest, it also recognizes that it is wrong for others to violate this right through physical force or fraud. Rational egoism not only serves to guide an individual’s actions; it also serves as the foundation for a rights-respecting, civilized society.

    It is beyond the purpose of this article to elaborate the ethics of rational egoism. But those who see the glaring need for a rational (i.e., non-mystical), life-serving (i.e., non-sacrificial) morality—a morality for living and achieving happiness on Earth—will find it elaborated in the works of Ayn Rand.

    http://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2008-fall/mystical-ethics-new-atheists.asp

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    Loved Sam’s talk on morality! One response I read had as its premise that Sam’s points were invalid because there’s no reason to assume we have any moral obligation at all to care about the suffering of others. It’s hard to believe I’m of the same species as some of the other humans on this planet. The reality, it seems to me, is that most people in fact don’t view morality in terms of the suffering of others (“others” being the key word there). Either they view morality as actions that need to be taken because those actions were instructed by God, or because their sphere of morality includes only themselves or their own family. In the latter case, it’s still about wellbeing, their own wellbeing at least. It’s just that some people’s morality might encompass a larger population than the morality of others. And I think Sam has effectively argued that even in the case of people who believe in God, it’s still about wellbeing, only it’s about wellbeing after death rather than in this lifetime.

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    Sam speaks truth; honestly. I feel each word as a jolt of clarity, as if I were a Zen student being struck with a branch.

    Respect.

    \d

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    OMG! Sam Harris is the antichrist. Trying to unify us under one global science based code of conduct from the devil. LOL

    Just kidding. Loved the TED talk. Your rebuttal to Sean dominates easily. Keep up the good work.

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    As a philosophy student I am fed up with ethical relativism in my professors (the non-philosophers).
    I too have had those jaw-dropping conversations when a smart well-intentioned PhD stakes out ludicrous stances on moral issues all in the name of relativism. 

    One time my anthropology professor went so far as to say The Law of Identity was off the table in our discussion of ethics (it’s too cultured).

    Thank you Sam for confronting this madness with full force.  There are many others in the academic community who share your indignation.

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    25. M. Barker

    I argue very often with religious people that moral values are not objective, and that moral values can and do change by time and culture. This is, of course, the case, but it seems beyond unreasonable for anyone to say that even as our knowledge progresses through science, that there will never come a time when morals could not become as objective as anything else we consider so. 

    The incident with the Ph.D. in philosophy kind of sums up the whole thing doesn’t it? This kind of thinking is ubiquitous, especially among the highly educated. If there is one thing the educational systems in western countries seem to do better than anything else, it is to instill a blind faith in multiculturalism that rivals anything you could ever find in a theist.  It also proves that getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, can pretty much ruin a person wink. Critical thought should not take a back seat to any belief.

    Keep up the excellent work Sam!!!!

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    26. Darren Pye

    Sam,

    I hate to say it, but the problem remains.  The reason is because the problem isn’t a real problem at all.  Your detractors are asking for something that can’t be given but are unaware that it doesn’t need to be. 

    “Why ought we desire human flourishing?”

    While you, I and virtually anyone that raises that question will in fact want human flourishing, the question still remains.  The question is begging for a transcendent objective answer that doesn’t exist.—the only real answer is “because we do!” 

    This is the land mine that keeps exploding under the feet of your detractors (and I fear it still will be even after your points above).  They simple don’t think that this is a case where we should take an axiomatic stand.  As you pointed out, this is hypocritical, especially of scientists, as they are bound by axioms for everything they do - we all are at some level.

    Hume pointed out the problem, and it is a real problem but ONLY for philosophy, not for living in reality.  In the real world, where we all live, for practical reasons it’s clear that what we all want as a whole is more important then what anyone wants as an individual.  Clearly what the majority wants is to ensure human flourishing - that’s not an axiom BUT IT DOESN’T NEED TO BE.  What’s more, in some senses it’s even stronger - it’s a truth of our species in terms of both desire and practicality for survival.


    I think you were saying that as well, but I don’t think it’s something that can be said any clearer then this:


    Those who want an answer to “what ought we do?” need to face the reality that what we ought to do is “what we want to do as a whole; ensure human flourishing”.

    Cheers

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    27. Jean Kazez

    The title of your talk (at least the You Tube version) is “Science can answer moral questions.”  In your comments here, you soften it (by a lot) to—“science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want.”  If your view is the former, that’s problematic, as I argued here—

    http://kazez.blogspot.com/2010/03/sam-harris-on-morality.html

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    Give ‘em hell, Harris. This is IMPORTANT.

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    Science is the search for truth. Any dissenters to that? Sam has isolated the search for moral truth based on the common human experience. If we all agree on what constitutes happiness and suffering, then if we want to promote happiness and alleviate suffering, there is a scientific (truth-focused) basis on which to proceed. The only thing we have to sort out is a broad definition of happiness and suffering which everyone can agree on. Sam addressed that question perfectly in his TED talk - with respect to humans. My problem with this approach is that it is currently too narrow. It does not address the well-being of the biosphere on which human beings depend, and without which we could not exist. Maybe Sam’s foray is the first move in a scientific investigation which could result in a reversal of the current attitude - the attitude of the monotheistic religions -  that human well-being is our only proper concern.

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    30. Darren Pye

    @kmeisenbach,

    There is no mysticism involved in what Sam is proposing.  It’s something much more tangible - democracy.  Humans want themselves and others to flourish (in general).  That’s it.  This is for good reason, our evolution required it and now our brains encapsulate it (neurologically).

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    31. Daniel Schealler

    Good response, Sam. Looking forward to the book.

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    Agree 100 % with Kazez and other commentors here

    You first say:

    I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want

    You then say:

    my basic claim being that once we have a more complete understanding of human wellbeing, ranging from its underlying neurophysiology to the political systems and economic policies that best safeguard it, we will be able to make strong claims about which cultural practices are good for humanity and which aren’t.

    Which is it?

    The first claim is very controversial (read one way - there is a less interesting way of reading it on which it might be true).

    The second claim is banal and uncontroversial.

    You haven’t addressed the objections from the experience machine/organ donation cases either.

    The objection here wasn’t that we’re going to end up subscribing to putting people in the EM, or the organ lottery. The worry was that you don’t have the resources to explain *why* we’re not going to go there, merely from your notion of well-being, and scientific investigation.

    You’d need to say more about well-being here to move forward.

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    Big fan of your work Sam! I especially enjoyed your response in respect to consensus and truth.  One aspect that gave me pause, and forgive me as I have only a couple minutes to ponder your numerous assertions, is the role of symbolism in human consciousness and the corresponding states of mind.  I hope I’m not jumping on the same bandwagon of confusion and ignorance when I say that all behaviors and possessions have a high degree of symbolism associated with them.  These symbols can and very often do vary in relation to the same behavior or material.  This being the case, a single action has the potential to have a very positive or very negative effect on a human’s mental wellbeing and this potential is in the context of the individual’s belief system and culture.  I’ll try to give an example to illustrate my point: the native who pierces nearly every body part of his body with sharp painted sticks - to a typical American this would be extremely painful and cause a certain degree of social isolation and/or explicit social sanctions.  In this individual’s culture however, this act (however initially painful) may establish him or her as a person of importance within the tribe, and lead to a sense of high esteem (and therefore happiness).  Scientifically the individual just damaged much of his integument system and potentially some of his motor/respiratory capabilities; however in the context of his culture these physical distortions may afford him great status, fellowship, and personal happiness.  Basically I’m wondering how symbolism and its connection with states of happiness fits in to this picture.  I hope I’m not missing a big point because I feel I may be.  All the best

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    A brilliantly persuasive response to your critics. But they won’t be convinced until you spell out exactly why “you can’t derive an ought from an is” is bad, lazy philosophy.

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    Did you ask the ethics expert/moral relativist on what grounds she founded her concerns about cognitive liberty?  Why it was worth caring about?  I wonder what she’d say.

    I can understand how people would be affraid of a secular move towards developing a “moral elite”  grounded in science.  It proably brings to mind eugenics and other moral disasters that were justified through “scientism.”  It’s not hard to imagine demagogues taking this idea and running with it in disasterously wrong directions.  Many still consider metaphysical naturalists to be “scientisitic” and associate us with this type of thing.

    It’s also potentially less comforting than regligion, because science findings are provisional, and people don’t want to have to adjust their moral beliefs habitually as a result of the latest finding. Much like with your health analogy—there’s a fatigue factor with keeping up.

    Our personal moral intuitions and the assertion of relativism ostensibly offer us freedom from blinding ideology and totalitarianism.  The cost is tolerance for societies that are scripturally bound to pluck out childrens’  eyeballs.

    I, myself, feel far from being a “moral genius.”  Like with quantum physics or deep cosmology, there comes a point where I feel I’d have to devote a whole new lifetime to studying much different material than what I have to date, just to be passingly confident in there area.  And unlike those fields, it would seem we’re much further behind in studying the moral landscape.

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    Still one could argue that the Taliban uses a moral system based on wellbeing. Is it not valid to say that they act by these morals if they assume - for whatever reason - that a woman wearing a cloth bag will enter a long and happy afterlife? Or that a society that allows women to dress up the way they like, will be eradicated by some supernatural dictator? Sure, science can and probably should tell them that there assumptions of reality are false, but as long as they believe otherwise, isn’t their behaviour exactly what you would expect if they acted according to the moral system you describe?

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    37. Nicholas Searcy

    Sam is ON FIRE. Pre-ordered the forthcoming book. I’ll have to digest all this before I’ll have anything useful to say.

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    38. theGwinner

    If I understand this argument correctly, this is Sam Harris’ “The Selfish Gene” idea.  Prof. Dawkins put evolution on the level of the gene.  Now we see Sam Harris putting ‘wellbeing” on the level of our consciousness.

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    I hope there is something i can do to help your research and help establish morality as a scientific field. It is so obviously the key to global flourishing

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    Yeah!

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    41. Secular Response

    Clifford Meece makes a good point I pondered myself last night after listening to the Google Talk, namely ‘What if some of our journey to the peaks necessitates a brief dip into a valley? I don’t know if this is even a reasonable question, but I don’t doubt many will feel the ends justify the means, as we have always been very, very good at ‘rationalization.’

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    Sam, can you comment about Kohlberg’s theory of moral development? As you’re probably aware, his was an early attempt to apply science to the subject of morality. Can his moral development scale, or something like it, be used effectively to at least benchmark a given society’s development?

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    43. Ethical Ape

    I think your argument that all moral systems are ultimately ‘parasitic’ upon well-being (at some level) is unanswerable; like turtles, it’s well-being all the way down.
    I look forward to your new book.

    Thank you, Sam.

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    44. Scott Clifton

    Sam,

    If you haven’t set out to address this in your forthcoming book already, I think it will be important for you to demonstrate that the is/ought problem would *not* be solved by positing the existence of a personal god. I think this is undoubtedly the top criticism you’ll be receiving from religious apologists, many of whom have already begun to use your TED presentation as if, unbeknownst to you, it were a point for theism. 

    The argument seems to be that the kind of moral “oughts” you describe are inescapably conditional; that they are contingent upon certain goals or desired outcomes, without which they do not exist. (You may be tempted to reply, “No shit,” as this is the point you’ve been making all-along, especially with respect to well-being.) This, they will argue, doesn’t address “REAL objective moral values,” which exist without condition:

    “Stealing is wrong, period, end-of-story, independently of anyone’s conscious thoughts. This is a fact about the universe whether or not we know it. Positing God is the only way to account for this moral fact.”

    I’d love to see you (more explicitly) make these two points:

    1) Such unconditional moral facts are a myth, and (more importantly:)
    2) They are a myth, EVEN IF theism were true.

    The belief that there is a Creator who brought us into existence and provided us with rules to follow regarding our conduct toward Itself and each other (and that these rules are derivative of His nature and character, which happens to be one of love, honesty, justice, etc…) still only describe what *is* the case, not what *ought* be the case. Nothing about a god’s nature, qualities or existence changes this. To say that God is all-powerful, or has infinite knowledge, or is not composed of anything physical or material, or exists outside of time and space, or is loving or compassionate ...still does nothing to explain why the statement, “God says to do X” means “We ought to do X”, without making appeals to desired outcomes and conditions:

    “I ought to follow God’s commands IF I want to be in Heaven”
    “I ought to follow God’s commands IF I want to please my Creator”
    “I ought to follow God’s commands IF I want to be like Jesus”
    ...And so on.

    And this perfectly paves the way for your point about well-being as a foundation even for the religious.

    Thanks!

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    I have never been convinced that there is some objective morality but I don’t think Sam thinks there is either.

    The minimum concept of morality seems to be “the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason -that is , to do what there are the best reasons for doing- while giving equal weight to the interest of each individual affected by one’s decision.” (Rachels, The elements of Moral Philosophy v6, pg 13) I think what Sam argues is well along these lines and it may be beneficial to lay it out as such. Just a thought. 

    Looking forward to the book.

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    Many thanks Sam.  Your work is essential at a time when religious notions of right and wrong are threatening human survival.
    Monotheism speaks in harsh black/white, right/wrong absolutes, so we are in the habit of looking for absolutes, hard rules.
    In your talk you very thoughtfully stressed the development, the evolution of notions of morality.  Your comparison with life expectancy was spot on.
    People who are objecting to your ideas may through habit interpret them as being more absolute than they are, this being both what they naturally expect, but also fear.
    Freedom is also a beneficial human condition and I think will natural be a very great part of what can be show to be a scientifically morally imperative for human fulfillment.
    I hope in the future you will stress the non absolutist nature of scientific morality and its liberating qualities.  Best wishes to you.  johndann

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    47. Randy Pelton

    Thank you Sam for such an eloquent and solid argument. I have long thought that science can and will shed light on moral truths. I passionately disagree with those who think that morality will forever remain solely in the domain of philosophy. I find moral relativism repugnant.  I have long been a fan and thank you for being on the front lines in the struggle against the dark side of religion, pseudoscience and all forms of irrational thought.

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    48. Scotty Zilinsky

    A simple place to start might be this.  The Ten Commandments that we’re told originated with the Hebrew tribe of Moses could not possibly be the origin of morals.  Quite simply, no tribe, large or small, could possibly have flourished and survived to reproduce if rules about not killing, stealing from, lying to each other had not been understood with no need to encode them in some holy book.

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    I still have no idea exactly what Sams point is.  And all these favorable comments left so far are even more baffling.  I’m guessing that if you took every positive comment poster here, and questioned them alone, their moral judgments would eventually diverge on separate tangents, no matter how much science they were allowed to reference.

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    So to apply the logic (just to make sure I’m understanding):

    If we found that people had a lot more full life (higher well being) if they eat fatty-sugar filled foods, but lived 12 years longer if they didn’t, then science is able to point to a moral truth that obesity is better?

    If we found that we all as a society enjoy watching gladiator battles; we could say there was an overall increase in well being by having a few fight for the enjoyment of all.

    If we found that celibacy until marriage was in fact, far better for humans (incorporating the risk of STD’s, unwanted pregnancy, pain caused to aborted children) etc. could we make a moral determination that prostitutes/wanton women are bad.

    I ask these not to be glib, these are all questions that have been asked previously in history, with moral judgments attached to them.  All have been approved of by some societies and rejected by others.

    You’re hypothesizing that there are hard numbers to conclude the value of each of these arguments, and that we could have a final determination of the morality of each?

    That would be awesome if we could; and yet I think getting people to accept the answer would be far more difficult than the math involved (not that it doesn’t make it worth the doing).

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    51. Baldur Freyr

    Finally someone articulate to counter this moral/cultural relativism that seems to reign supreme in the modern world. Yes there are right and wrong answers to moral questions and yes science can guide us to the best answers to those,  the wrong as well as the right ones. More strong voices like Sam´s are needed, now more than ever.
    It´s critical that science is recognized as the best way yet to determine what is best for our species and the world as a whole, it is truly the language of the universe. We just recently learned it,.. we now need to become fluent.

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    When Hume reasoned that you can’t get an “ought” from an “is” he only knew what went in the “is” category of his day.  Today we are looking for a third-person description of fist-person subjectivity, on the road to which is the “is” about the workings of our brains while processing what has been called “the knowledge of good and evil.”  I submit that that is an “is” that directly relates to an “ought.”

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    Play it again, Sam.

    Elegant, wise and reasonable as always.

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    54. Robert Haines

    That was a brilliant clarification of your position, Dr. Harris. I’ve read it twice, and I’ll no doubt read it again.

    I wonder if much of the underlying objection to what you said at TED is due to people who have a passing understanding of Hume (but believe, for some reason, that the is/ought gap is sacrosanct and that no further inquiry can have been made since him), and the notion that science, philosophy and “life” must be mutually-exclusive magisteria. It’s easier to find examples of science and ideology producing undesirable offspring (Josef Mengele) than it is to try to blaze a new trail, or even allow others to try. Indeed, just saying that you’re *looking* for a new trail can get you burned at the stake. It makes me wonder how deep some scientist’s commitment is to the expansion of understanding, rather than just protecting their turf.

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    Your TED talk is excellent. I have distributed links to it to my best friends.
    Religion cannot be a basis for universal morality because there are too many of rhem.As you say
    we must look for a new basis of huamn morality based on our experience, science and most of all human common sense. Reigion has not deliverd any good solutions. Inthe last three thousand years we have experienced relentless slaughter , and bad moral behavior.Enough is enough. Now is the time to startbuilding from scratch and putting religion to a big dust bin where it belongs.Many religions have died
    ,Let us hope that the Abraham trio will also disappear soon. I would be gald to bring a nail to the coffin.

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    Sorry you had to defend yourself, Sam. Some of the arguments/criticisms warrant further discussion and the short time of your talk actually spurred further discussion, which can’t be all bad.  What irks me, however - and this happens time and again when discussing anything moral or philosophical, is that people go to the extreme example to make their argument.  I think it should be understood by anyone with a modicum of intelligence that when discussing these subject matters, we are not including the outliers. There will always be an extreme that is marketedly different than what applies to the majority.  People who use the extreme in their argument, to me, are almost immediately disqualifying themselves from the discussion by showing that they just want to disagree, not have a discussion.

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    57. George Picoulas

    Even some of my highly educated friends have a problem identifying the sources of morality. They’re not exactly religious but they take a religious attitude towards morality.

    I believe it comes down to what we know and how we can attain knowledge. It’s through rational thinking and the scientific way.

    I greatly appreciate Sam’s contributions to intelligent discussion.

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    Just to state my views at the outset, I am a moral nihilist.
    There are two different claims which you are straddling. 
    1. We can prove scientifically which ethical theories are the right ones. That is, science can prove whether utilitarianism, deontology or virtue ethics accurately describe what is good. This seems to be false to me. I cannot imagine how you can detect goodness. One CAN detect certain things which we BELIEVE TO BE good or bad. We can detect certain neurological correlates of suffering. We can approximate when someone has died. This is not the same as detecting the goodness or badness of those things.

    2. The second claim which I think is closer to your views is what I just mentioned: we are growing increasingly capable of scientifically detecting the things which you believe are objectively good or bad. We will know more and more about which societies promote happiness as science progresses. So, since you believe that morality is objective, just discovering which circumstances lead to happiness, flourishing, or well being is the same as discovering which circumstances are the most moral. I hope that in future talks, these claims are more clearly distinguished.

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    Thank you for another installment in this important dialog. Your points are clear and true again as they were in your talk at T.E.D.

    I have long though that the devout moral relativist, who might espouse a neutral stance on issues such as blinding infants and disfiguring women, is stepping off the same precipice as other devout people who answer arguments with statements like “because God made it that way.” There is a certain intellectual dishonesty—or perhaps cowardice—in the refusal to take a position.

    As you so eloquently illustrate, there are obvious better/worse scenarios, and we certainly can make progress toward understanding what makes helpful, as apposed to harmful morality, even if the progress is asymptotic.

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    60. George Matthews

    Kudos for bringing up this entire argument. How else are you going to get ‘moral relativists’ to start looking at their tolerance of heinous cultural and religious practices? I agree that a lot of the ‘relativism’ tradition stems from some of the early 20th century work in the social sciences. not to mention all those classes with questions like..‘Is it ever ok to steal a loaf of bread?’....and I am quite sure that many of us who read M Mead among others…were like jeez….isn’t she going to condemn that practice or what? I am not sure it is ever ok to tolerate a cruel practice, no matter what tradition your upholding or what belief your remaining loyal to .

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    Thank you Sam,

    I enjoyed the TED talk almost as much as your Last Debate session involving Depak…  Funny, in that particular debate,  as an “Out-sider” looking in, I could see and feel all of you moving in the “same-direction” (until the woo-woo statements were taken emotionally as “Offensive” by Depak)  you were just all on weird, convoluted, quasi-parrallel, multi-dimensional tracks. 

    Even though the question was posed “Does GOD have a future…” It seemed as though (at least from the limited perspectives of the panel members) that GOD’s Future has already diminished!  It was pretty clear that the anthropomorphic description of “Our Father in Heaven”  has already,  fundamentally changed.  This in itself is promising as to how far “thinking” and the acceptance of multi-cultural influence has come.

    As I was watching, It appeared as if you all were in silent concensus that the “last generations” accepted concept of the “GOD description” has moved toward some kind of quantum etheric, interconnected, collective consciousness rather than some mysoginistic, grouchy, Old Fart that slings lightening bolts, smiting people at whim.

    Even if GOD did exist… How arrogant of us puny mortals to assume that WE could fully grasp and explain such a vast universal creator!  We can’t even really explain a tiny atom and how it connects with the rest of life as we know it!

    IIf anyone says they KNOW GOD…they are LYING!  ( Kill the Budda!)

    I’ve always loved the story about the 4 Blind men each touching a separate part of an Elephant and telling the others what the whole, entire creature was by the tiny isolated part they were holding in one hand. 

    IF God exists…

    AND there can ONLY be room for 1 ultimate creator,

    THEN all “Different” religions ARE touching the same creature, but they can only describe it from their minute, perspectives.

    I believe you are finding a “common-gound” from which to relate and communicate with religious fundamentalists, thus leading to the foot-in-the-door to open minds for the communication of new thoughts. 

    That’s a tough row to hoe there Sam, and I know your going to suffer a lot of slings and arrows, but you’ve got a lot of “Back-up” out here to “bounce” your wonderful and well articulated ideas off of.

    Do I think GOD has a future?

    I believe in, and WANT to live by the “VALUES” that I believe a loving, omnipotent creator would convey. 

    Therefore G.O.D.  for me is only an acronym… 

    GOOD ORDERLY DIRECTION. 

    Love, Peace, Ethics,  Consideration etc…  are the “virtuous” values leading toward G.O.D while “vices” (like greed lust, averice, etc.) are the unvalued motivations and actions that lead in some other, unknown direction. 

    Do I think GOD has a future? 

    Sure. I think teaching our children the most important values toward a “Good .Orderly .Direction.”  keeps the concept of honoring our creator, (in the chance they ARE out there…)
    Alive.

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    62. frankania

    Sam, You should have answered the Dartmouth Geneticist:  “No, I can’t say they were ‘wrong’ , but I COULD say they were not maximizing the group’s or the individual’s wellbeing.”

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    Thanks, Sam.  I appreciate your willingness (and ability) to defend your stance.  It’s interesting to see some people take your idea to be a sort of science-based religion… similar to how the argument is often made that atheism is a type of religion.  It seems there are those who just feel the need to label anything values-based as religious.

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    64. Eric Wallace

    Sam,
    Absolutely brilliant. I have argued for years that human values, at the core should be about the wellness of all. Yet people will say “Who says so?” Humans are pleasure seekers and basically want to “feel” good. What that “feel” good is is open for interpretation.
    Can’t wait for your book.

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    One point that I haven’t seen Sam mention, but which I think is central to his argument, is that we are basically goal-seeking machines, built to achieve things like happiness, comfort, love, etc.  When we talk about things being right or wrong (in the moral sense), we are really just describing our relation to these goals.  In this light, saying that we should be maximizing well-being is circular, since one could define well-being as that which we try to maximize.  Of course, there are gray areas when people goals are in conflict.  But I think it’s fair to say that any reasonable morality will coincide, in some kind of “averaged over all people” sense, with what we want to do when give the choice.

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    Very interesting talk, especially in 18 minutes. I wish you success with this thought provoking dissertation.
    There is an interesting laboratory to consider some of this work in the arena of medical ethics. The balance between the laudable goal of cultural tolerance and preservation of autonomy is sometimes weighed against the perils of moral relativism. Your assertion of the very existence of a “true” or “best” moral code places these ethical dilemmas in a different light, and more importantly suggests the possibility that there is a rational science that can be applied to solving them.

    Consider the following example (an occurrence that is unfortunately common enough to have been reproduced in various forms at medical ethics conferences):

    A pre-verbal child suffers severe sepsis and after a long ICU stay is nursed to survival, but after days of marginal perfusion her hands and feet are black and gangrenous. Without immediate amputation the gangrene will march up the extremities, cause loss of more limb and potentially loss of life. The parents refuse surgery citing cultural reasons for their refusal: a girl in their country of origin without limbs is considered worthless and would be left to die at birth.

    This sort of case has sparked a tremendous debate outlining the conflict between the duty of the state to protect the child (forcing surgery) and the inherent right of the parents to be self-determinant, and make medical decisions for their child.

    There is no neutral ground in such a scenario: a decision has to be made, and their is a casualty with either choice- Force the surgery and the parental autonomy is violated. Embrace moral relativism and the child suffers further loss of limb and/or life.

    The “science” of medical ethics has wrestled with the need for a secularly defined set of values. There is precedent there for a logical construct built on a set of basic ethical principles which would be agreed upon by most reasonable people. These are the axioms of the field: a foundation for logic and proof that does not require and cannot be proven:
    truth telling
    autonomy
    beneficence
    non-maleficence
    etc.

    I think this fairly well-developed field would make an interesting study in comparison with your scientifically derived moral code. What axioms will form the base of your construct? It would also be interesting to compare and contrast the nature of these scientifically derived axioms with the axioms of faith.

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    Mr. Harris, Thank you so much for your work! Your views are not only compelling, they are the most important perspective for science and human understanding and happiness that I have seen.

    Scientific morally-relative liberalism is definitely impoverished. Religious folks really do have something in their sense or morality and community that atheists and other secularists tend to lack. The fact that there is no god or other supernatural entity from which the religious folks get these things doesn’t make them less real. The poverty of the typical atheist argument (the “good without god” folks) is that it appears relativistic. The religious retort of “where do you get your morality, then?!?” is not something to be dismissed casually.

    Wherever morality and ethics comes from in terms of evolution, it is clear that social reinforcement and education are necessary to support and promote ethical behavior and moral societies. Modern psychology shows this clearly in controlled studies.

    With religion and tradition, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The dirty bathwater we no longer need is the superstitions, the blind faith, the ethnocentrism. The baby we must foster and help to mature is the focus on morality and ethics, the sense of community, and the respect for profound spiritual experience. If secularists can become passionate about these things we will take a lot of wind away from the sails of the religious apologists who want to dismiss secularism.

    Please keep up your wonderful work!

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    Sam, you make your position much clearer in the Q&A at the googletalk than you could possibly manage in the 18 mins TED presentation and further clarify here, but you seem to still miss a couple of points:

    You may have dealt with the ‘ivory tower’ folks and their views of moral relativism, but I have my own moral views and consider them better than anyone else’s (subject to improvement by decent argument) and would happily condemn all the practices we both abhor in certain religions/cultures, but it is still all relative.

    I would show all sorts of data that prove, on several metrics, their system of morality is worse than ours.  They would then show the one metric we already disagree about (god’s law) to show their system is morally better.  And, as much as I would like it not to be the case, this is the key difference between the moral positions.

    The scary part of your reasoning is that if we discovered that ill-educated kids believing in eternal happiness from a loving god produced a larger well-being for society than scientific evidence and a naturalistic worldview, you would, apparently, support it!

    I may be taking the metaphor too far, but if we’re on a moral landscape and we decide to change peaks, do we suffer a temporary decrease in well-being as we traverse to the next peak?  Surely this would have to be considered before deciding if the journey was worthwhile…

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    69. Christopher Johnson

    Just a question. If a moral decision can be justified by logic, is it still a moral decision? Doesn’t it then simply become the only correct decision? Or is 2 + 2 = 4 a moral statement?

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    70. Luciano Dondero

    Thank you, Sam! I’ve read “The end of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian nation” with great pleasure, and I look forward to your new book.
    I’m so dismayed that in Italy there is not the kind of debate that takes place in the Anglosaxon world: we would really need to break out of the mould of the oppression that the Vatican brings upon us.
    I wonder if you have any thought about this.

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    71. Andreas Maerki

    Well, first of all, its a very interesting article, i am looking forward to read the new book.

    I would like to talk a bit about objectivism. I red two books of Ayn Rand, and i think she had a lot of good ideas. I can recommend them swell. Ok, altruism. Rand explained beautifully why a system based on a altruistic ideal will never work. But i think altruism between individuals, is something that we experience every day in our lives. When you hold a door open for someone, you are doing something altruistic, in a strict sense. And Rand is always strict. You have no direct benefit from that. You can only hope that someone will do the same for you next time. This kind of altruism you will find in every society. Also almost everyone agrees to pay taxes, even when the neighbor pays less, because he earns less. And he still has the right to use the whole infrastructure provided by tax money. I think most peoples will agree that this kind of altruism is not evil, as long as the neighbor is not earning less, because he is lazy. I would say a society whiteout at least a certain amount of altruistic behavior of its individuals can not even exist. It is a preset condition. We only run in to troubles when dealing with forced altruism. Or when we start to think, like it is fashion in a lot of religions, that altruistic behavior is by definition better then rational self interest. These ideas we have to challenge!
    It also seams that evolution kind of preprogrammed us to act altruistic. Rand based her Philosophy on reality. This is the highest directive. When new facts come in, we have to adjust. As you said, we have to follow reason wherever it leads.
    So altruism proved to be a good survival technique. Here you can turn it around again. When it helps to survive, altruism is after all not that altruistic at all. Its much more long term selfishness, and therefore not necessarily sacrificial.

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    72. Steve Cooper

    Sam, have you ever debated to value of reason with John Ralston-Saul? As you’d know, his attitudes toward reason as a human quality are very complex and interesting.

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    73. crazyivan498

    Sam and commenters.

    Have any of you read Ayn Rand?  These questions of morality are discussed at length in her works and other authors in the objectivist circle.  Existence exists.  A is A.  Man is Man.  Knowledge is the law of non-contradiction.  The ends NEVER justify the means.

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    I think a scientific approach to morality is a fine pursuit, however difficult in practice it may be.

    I am viscerally opposed, however, to labelling the thoughtlessness of complete moral relativism as “liberal”.  It’s certainly true that the vast majority of people advocating that wretched concept are politically liberal, but the view itself is not.

    As an analogy, consider the case of someone like Francis Collins, who is a trained scientist.  His assertion, that a waterfall frozen into three parts is a divine sign that the Trinity is real, is not a scientific claim.  Likewise, the claim that blinding every third child is not necessarily wrong is not a liberal claim, however liberal the advocate may be on other issues.

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    Brilliant and simply put, as always.

    Trying to play devil’s advocate, here… I think the fact that morality necessarily relates to the wellbeing of conscious persons should be uncontroversial. The subjectivity arises when asking what is meant by “wellbeing” (or “happiness”), and how you measure this.

    (The first day of my first philosophy class, the first thing we were asked to do was to form small groups and to “define happiness.” We all thought this incredibly stupid initially—but once you start trying to do it, it’s REALLY difficult…)

    Of course everyone wants to be happy, or to increase their wellbeing. But that doesn’t get us very far…

    As you say, even when people do evil things they are doing them to “increase their wellbeing,” we might say—and/or what they perceive to be the ultimate wellbeing for society. Every major revolutionary movement thinks this way. Do we measure overall wellbeing now, or in the future? For ourselves, our families, our communities, our countries, or for everyone in the whole world? We might actually have to suffer and make others suffer temporarily in order to increase the wellbeing for everyone in the long term—the old “ends justify the means” argument, while considered immoral on it’s face, could reasonably be viewed as simply a form of delayed gratification (writ large) and even selfless personal sacrifice. (These are not my views, I’m simply throwing this out there because I think your views on ethics are a variant of Utilitarianism, which seems sound on the surface but still leaves us with many difficult questions….)

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    (Personally, I think a combination of Utilitarianism, Kant’s ideas of an action being ethical if you’re willing to see it universalized into an axiom, and Rawls’ theory of justice, are a pretty solid basis for an ethical system. And, hell, any of them on its own is better than any religion as a basis, so…)

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    I find your argument unconvincing.  You say:

    “It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.”

    You claim that “we” decide what is coherent argument, what constitutes empirical evidence, etc.  I think this is not correct.  Good arguments and good evidence enable us build better swords and plowshares; bad arguments and bad evidence do not.  Thus, we will know who was right about his arguments and evidence by seeing whose ideas led to technological progress in the real world.  It matters not whether the consensus of the contemporary scientific community had been with him or against him.

    However, unlike science and technology, morality does not have such an objective standard to be tested against.

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    Troodon, you make a great point.

    Sam Harris says ‘we’ decide what is good science and good morality, he is, at best, half right.  When people don’t think time slows down when you travel fast, or that we are not related to lobsters, or that the universe is 6,000 years old we do not judge that based on what ‘we’ think, it is based on science.

    ‘We’ don’t get to decide reality, science defines reality the best way currently possible and we get to believe or disbelieve.

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    “Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what? Science and rationality generally are based on intuitions and concepts that cannot be reduced or justified.”

    But Sam, this analogy fails to appreciate the significance of the fact that science has values built into it. As Einstein put it, “Knowledge of truth as such is wonderful, but it is so little capable of acting as a guide that it cannot prove even the justification and the value of the aspiration towards that very knowledge of truth.” Those axioms in science function (as means) towards our ends. They are not at all analogous, then, to ends in themselves.

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    80. Christopher S Johnson

    “Science and rationality generally are based on intuitions and concepts that cannot be reduced or justified”.
    Exactly, and that is precisely where the moral choice lies, not upstream in the conclusions that are eventually extrapolated from these concepts. That is all mere logic. Sometimes correct, sometimes mistaken, but certainly not ‘moral’.

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    Absolutely fantastic!  Give us more!  I cannot wait for the publication of your book, as I always find what you have to say compelling and wise.  You are treading on people’s sacred cows, so the push-back is not a surprise.  Morality is the realm of the religious, remember?  What can anyone else possibly have to say?  Well, as you rightly point out, a lot.  Thank you for persevering; you are making a difference in the lives of average people—like me.  I am (we are) the richer for it.

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    Sam this is really complicated. How do you propose to do the science?  Where do you begin?

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    83. Antonio Cafoncelli

    Sam, I do agree mostly with your comments of Morality based on wellbeing concept; I do agree as neuroscience keeps evolving , we are mapping more centers and neurons with “empathy cells”,and areas that fire on fMRI when something is seeing another person being stabbed or lesioned. This neurofisicochemical responses will ground more the concept of brain generating consciouness and the Mind. Will put to rest the Cartesian duality and the Creationist dream. The only thing that I will like from you, is to adress publicly the massacres commited by the Israeli IDF with the civilian Palestinians in Gaza during the heinous and immoral invasion and bombing Israel perpetrated to Gaza at the end of 2008. Please for intellectual honesty do not be bias with Moslems only. You need to point out clearly that all the three Monotheistic Religions are nauseabund and are a disgrace for humanity

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    84. Christy Brown

    I am an atheist and not a moral/cultural relativist, and I agree that a consensus view can be morally wrong, but I believe Sam Harris needs to focus on moral values in his own society before attacking those in other cultures.  It is really difficult to discuss the morality of requiring women to wear burquas from an objective point of view unless one understands the constraints of that society.  Perhaps it is more evil for western societies to exploit resources in poor countries, keeping them poor, than for women in a poor country to have to wear a burqua.  Both may be wrong, but in terms of well being, having enough food to eat and medical care may be higher priorities than clothing choice.  Religion can impose arbitrary and painful restrictions on people, but secular freedom from religion can create a moral vacuum with no values, which can also be painful.  The problem may be that the west doesn’t offer a compelling alternative to some people in religious cultures precisely because while economically and materially vibrant, it seems morally empty or at least confused.

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    You give me hope. Thank you.

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    As Mike said, “fucking awesome!”

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    I had stated previously that all human behaviors must be interpreted in a certain cultural/societal context.  I think this is obviously true and anyone can think of 100 examples where one behavior means something drastically different and is interpreted in a discordant manner in various locals across the globe (take the thumbs up symbol for example).  This being the case, behaviors are intrinsically coupled with the cultural context.  Now I believe the starting point that we can scientifically determine if behaviors and systems are conducive to well-being.  This could be measured (and I admit a great ignorance on this matter) by testing levels of dopamine or oxytocin in the brain, or by measuring the absence of nociceptor activity etc.  However I would contend that the conscious perception and the resulting states of neurological happiness are dependent on the cultural context.  A certain behavior (however benign or malicious it may be physically) is completely subject to the individual’s social context in terms of its ability to elicit a positive influence on a marker of well-being (perhaps release of dopamine).  The reason this matters is that the same set of behaviors or same economic system may have drastically different results in terms of individuals’ brain chemistry responses when contextualized in a variety of cultures.  This means that one can not divorce behaviors and their resultant effects on well-being from its contextual foundation.  This seems to me that any scientific examination of behaviors and social systems must assume or require a ubiquitous culture to a certain extent to maintain an underlying context.  I am certainly open to the possibility that cultures can be examined scientifically in terms of their abilities to establish well-being.  I am just weary that one might attempt to separate the behavior from its context when we have such a multitude of cultures across the globe.

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    88. Robert Haines

    Thanny wrote “(Francis Collins’) assertion, that a waterfall frozen into three parts is a divine sign that the Trinity is real, is not a scientific claim.”

    Well, actually it *is* a scientific claim. And science can and does prove it to be false.

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    89. Jonathan Dursi

    “Moral experts” would also constitute an elite group, and the existence of such experts is completely in line with my argument.

    So what happens if—in some completely hypothetical universe, which would never happen here —there are people who have spent their entire lives in training to be moral experts,  and they *disagree*?  What if one group of moral experts thinks that behaviour [X] is unconsionable, and the other thinks it in fact should be positively encouraged?  How do we adjudicate between them?  What experiment do we do, what calculation do we do, to what impartial third party do we go?  What if that impartial third party has yet a third answer?

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    Nita Farahany may have to walk a finer line than you do when it comes to criticizing religiously motivated behavior…
    Your mistake is to assume you’re having a genuine conversation with these people. While you’re speaking your mind and putting thought into this issue, they’re being careful to distance themselves from you and your constant attempts at treading on religion’s magisterium.

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    91. F. Lengyel

    Philosophical criticism of the fact/value dichotomy has appeared before; for example, Hilary Putnam has argued that the fact/value dichotomy can lead to dangerous consequences. The economist Partha Dasgupta cited Putnam in his own approach to social welfare. But the attempt to reduce values to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—a domain amenable to empirical investigation—seems new. On the subject of exceptions to moral rules, Bernard Gert provides a two-step procedure for justifying the violation of moral rules in “Morality: Its Nature and Justification.” Gert attempts to provide an account of the common morality that people actually use, though critics have pointed out that Gert does not cite empirical investigations on moral judgments. A more concise introduction to Gert’s thinking is, “Morality: Deciding What To Do.” Gert’s terminology is often useful; for example, he says that a religious fanatic is someone who violates a moral rule to follow a religious command.

    Gert wrote that philosophy could define morality, but it could not deepen compassion toward the most deprived persons in society—only art, literature and religion had this capacity. I used to agree, until I was reminded by Sam Harris that religious fanaticism has overwhelmed its pursuit of moral ideals.

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    92. Robert Haines

    Christy Brown wrote “I believe Sam Harris needs to focus on moral values in his own society before attacking those in other cultures.”

    Do we really have the luxury of waiting for all of the West’s problems to be solved before moving on to those in the Near East? Regardless of your answer, I don’t think that Dr. Harris is trying to impose a different judgment-set upon the Middle East than upon the West; there are just more dramatic examples to be found there (cf. the link to the site with women who have had acid thrown in their faces).

    “It is really difficult to discuss the morality of requiring women to wear burquas from an objective point of view unless one understands the constraints of that society.”

    Would you say that any two different cultures are automatically presumed to be equally valid simply because each participant is subjective? Can scientific tools really offer nothing to reduce such subjectivity?

    It seems to me that part of what Dr. Harris is proposing is not focusing upon the burqa per se, but the subjugation or exploitation of the weaker or of minorities; compulsory burqa-wearing is just a particularly dramatic example. Whatever we can do to improve the lot of women in the M.E. will have a correspondent improvement here, and vice-versa.

    If residents of the M.E. advocated for changing American productions of greenhouse gasses, should they be told that they should not, since they may not “understand the constraints of our society”?

    “The problem may be that the west doesn’t offer a compelling alternative to some people in religious cultures precisely because while economically and materially vibrant, it seems morally empty or at least confused.”

    Couldn’t it be said that, just as every religion views other religions as being false, *every other culture* “seems morally empty or at least confused” to *every other culture*? The Japanese value societal harmony much more highly than do we. They find our “cult of the individual” to be morally empty or at least confused. Does that make them wrong about America, or can’t their criticism about *one aspect* of American culture have validity, while not necessarily claiming that our culture, as a whole, is inferior to theirs?

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    Mr. Harris, I am really quite impressed, but there is something I feel you might wish to address as a correlate to the idea of well being as a (nearly) universal facet of morality, and that is the idea of consent.

    That is to say, a plain axiom for morality might be this: any act performed upon a party with their express consent is a moral act.  This would include any act which otherwise would appear from the outside as counter-productive to the well being of an individual.

    It might be important to explore this topic a little further. What level of consent would be necessary to consider an act moral and consensual?  Is merely raising no objection a form of consent? At what point does the third-party objective offered to the individual override the need for consent?

    I think you’re doing a terrific thing, sir, and thank you for making this controversial argument.  I look forward to more on the subject from you.

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    She holds a degree in genetics from Dartmouth, a masters in biology from Harvard, and a law degree, another masters, and a Ph.D. in the philosophy of biology from Duke.

    The problem is that she obviously has too many academic credentials.  This is itself a red flag toward willingness to gulp down everything an institution has to offer.  Unfortunately it has little bearing on reasonability.

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    95. randyleepublic

    Have a look at a Government/Economic system called Social Credit if you are interested in what Sam said about the possiblity that different economic systems might produce differing levels of general wellbeing.  Social Credit was created in 1924 by Clifford Hugh Douglas, and has been very effectively suppressed ever since.  The masters of the Fractional Reserve Banking Conspiracy understand very well that Social Credit is the one idea that could destroy their mastery of the world. 

    Make no mistake: nearly the entire population of Earth is held in the yoke of defacto slavery by this system.  Ask yourself: why does nearly every country on earth have exactly the same monetary system - a privately held central bank.  Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) said it best, “I care not what puppet is placed upon the throne of England to rule the Empire on which the sun never sets. The man who controls Britain’s money supply controls the British Empire…” 

    Who controls the world’s banks?  Nobody who knows is telling, but the beauty of Social Credit is that it really does not matter.  All we need do is implement a system with, among other mechanisms, one rule for banks: No fractional reserve banking at all is ever to be permitted.  Bada bing.  We’ve just popped a cap in the head of the conspiracy. 

    Once fractional reserve banking is eliminated, there is no need to further regulate.  As long as the banks are not allowed to do *that*, they can do whatever else they want.  If they are allowed to do *that*, you can regulate and regulate; fill a whole library with regulations: it won’t do any good!!  It’s really that simple and that easy.  All we have to do is make up our minds to do so

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    Thank you, I’ve really enjoyed your talks and the public debate they’ve created.

    Can’t wait to get my hands on the upcoming book.

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    The introduction and substitution of a new concept, “science morality” for the traditional concept, “god morality”, will appeal to a growing segment of the population. The other segment, also growing, will vehemently disagree. The god morality group is dominant by perhaps 5 billion people at the moment.

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    98. SuperHappyJen

    Yes!!!  Thank you for this.  Loved your talk.

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    Oh dear, Sam. Please rethink this. This is embarrassing. You’re seriously missing the point. I’d be happy to talk to you about this, if you’d like, but I’m sure you could command the aid of plenty of qualified moral philosophers or metaethicists. But the point I want, need, to get across to you is that, while there are some things in your talk that were valuable, and need to be said in the clearest way possible (such as that maxims like “spare the rod, spoil the child” are testable predictive statements), the heart of it is fundamentally misguided, because of rather serious and elementary errors with the stuff of moral philosophy. It’s embarrassing and rather worrying that you’re being allowed to make these by your publisher. It’s far more worrying that you’re getting as indignant as you are under criticism, misunderstanding same criticism, and mounting rhetorical defenses of your errors that are as founded in ignorance and rhetorical handwaving as the original talk. The most worrying thing, though, is that you have an awfully big platform, and there are many people who just trust what you say on authority, so you are probably doing irreparable damage to the public understanding of moral philosophy with this.

    Look:

    >>My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions<<

    That’s not a novel claim. It’s a claim advanced by moral naturalists prior to Moore’s Principia, and by various strains of cognitivist since. It should be understood that if this IS your claim, then you really ought to defend it against the standard objections against moral realism. You currently seem to be absolving yourself of that responsibility by representing yourself as making a completely novel, rebellious claim, against an irrelevant consensus of grey old academic philosophers.

    >>As the response to my TED talk indicates, it is taboo for a scientist to think such things, much less say them public.<<

    That isn’t what it indicates at all. It isn’t taboo in the slightest sense to be a moral naturalist, if you have rather good arguments for holding that position. You don’t seem to though, Sam. The best argument you gave was, to paraphrase, “it seems to me that the fact/value distinction is obviously false.” You then went on to demonstrate that you completely misunderstand what a value is supposed to be, by claiming that a value is simply a fact about a course of action that produces desirable consequences. This might lend us some understanding as to why you think the F/V distinction is obviously false. Unfortunately, things seeming obvious to you don’t really stand as rationally compelling reasons to assent to a claim. You’ve got to do better than that.

    >>And here is where the real controversy begins: for many people strongly objected to my claim that values (and hence morality) relate to facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures.<<

    Yes. This is the big one. You don’t even stipulate that you’re adopting some unspecified and arbitrary sort of consequentialist moral naturalism in your talk. You could at least have done that. But you made it look like you weren’t taking a position in moral philosophy at all, but were instead discovering some hitherto uncharted factual bedrock of moral talk. To be honest, I think you should admit that that was intellectually dishonest, because in representing yourself as doing so, you exaggerated the novelty of your claims.

    >>My critics seem to think that consciousness and its states hold no special place where values are concerned, or that any state of consciousness stands the same chance of being valued as any other. <<

    No. It is obvious that consciousness is going to play a huge role here, Sam. Human beings evaluate. Judgments of value are going to happen in the brain. This is all happily accepted by any naturalist. The problem is that facts ABOUT value judgments aren’t values themselves. Neither are facts about values, for that matter. Please see this. Please.

    >> Thus, by starting my talk with the assertion that values depend upon actual or potential changes in consciousness, and that some changes are better than others, I merely assumed what I set out to prove. This is what philosophers call “begging the question.” I am, therefore, an idiot.<<

    No. What you did was assume a (not unusual) position that philosophers are accustomed to having to justify with good responses to standard objections, and with good reason. (because otherwise, everyone could just think what they liked. why am I explaining this to you, of all people?) It doesn’t make you an idiot, either. It does make you ignorant of something you really shouldn’t be ignorant of, though.

    >>Many of my critics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time.<<

    FFS. It’s not a pious citation. It’s a plaintive request that you go back and read it again, because you’ve absolutely missed the point of it. We’re not citing it to prove anything. It’s not an axiom. It’s a fundamental recognition, visible in any clear reasoning about ethics. Please, for God’s sake, read this article, from the philosophical encyclopedia published by your alma mater: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaethics/ . If you have read it, read it again.

    >> Carroll encourages us to just admit that a universal conception of human values is a pipe dream. Thereafter, those of us who want to make life on earth better, or at least not worse, can happily collaborate, knowing all the while that we are seeking to further our merely provincial, culturally constructed notions of moral goodness. Once we have our values in hand, and cease to worry about their relationship to the Truth, science can help us get what we want out of life.

    There are many things wrong with this approach. The deepest problem is that it strikes me as patently mistaken about the nature of reality and about what we can reasonably mean by words like “good,” “bad,” “right,” and “wrong.” In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here’s the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—again, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe.<<

    The claim is not that value has nothing to do with the experience of conscious beings. Most noncognitivists would probably agree with you that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. That’s because they’d claim that value claims are claims that don’t aspire to truth or falsity, that can’t be true or false, but are instead attitudinal. You’re strawmanning by imagining that your critics accept your false dichotomy between moral realism or some weird transvaluationism.

    >>As I asked at TED, how have we convinced ourselves that on the subject of morality, all views must count equally?<<
    Because to do otherwise would be to ignore the evaluative judgment of which all of us is capable, and thereby elide the issue of value altogether, allowing us to confusedly take something else as “value” and happily wander off on an irrelevant tangent.

    >>Everyone has an intuitive “physics,” but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter), and only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. Everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective wellbeing) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing. <<

    Sam, this is thunderously stupid. Individual folk physics can be right or wrong with reference to facts about the world. Individual folk morality cannot be wrong with reference only to “the goal of maximizing personal and collective wellbeing,” because that decomposes into facts about majoritarian consensus among individual folk moralities. Factual claims in physics don’t work like that. It’s alright to make statistical claims that cleave to broad generalities, to which there are exceptions. But here we have a case where statements deriving from evaluative judgments are claimed to be right or wrong with reference to broad regularities in evaluative judgments. Surely you can see that that doesn’t give you facts at all, except facts ABOUT broad regularities in evaluative judgments? It doesn’t tell you which judgments are CORRECT ones, unless you CHOOSE to define correctness as being correlative with those broad regularities. But that’s an arbitrary choice, except that it just seems agreeable to us. It doesn’t justify your claim that what we’re dealing with here is something factual, in the same way ‘is’ statements aspire to be factual.

    >>>“Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions.<<<

    They are not stupid questions, Sam. You’re just missing the point of them. It is obvious that these things should matter. But //why// should they matter? If you can get the distinction between the two senses of asking this question, the one looking for instruction, the other striving for a glimpse of the normative principle which makes these things matter to us, then you’ll understand that this isn’t a stupid question, but a question that brings us to the heart of metaethical philosophy.

    >>It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.<<

    Oh, really, just stop, Sam. A torrent of rhetorical questions really don’t do you any justice here. You’re claiming that there can be as uncontroversial, universal a fact of the matter about what constitutes a succesful life as there can be about basic principles of valid inference. (are you really claiming that?) You claim that this is setting the epistemological bar higher for morality than any other domain. Well, that ought not to come as a surprise, since many views, such as noncognitivist views, don’t think epistemology pertains to moral claims, since they are not contentful but attitudinal, and therefore cannot be true or false. So there is no epistemological bar. Why can’t you admit that this field is more complex than you’re letting on?

    You should also notice that this doesn’t really play into your hands. If >we< decide what a successful life is, (by some consensual process) then the fact with which value judgments correspond is a fact about intersubjective consensi. But the intersubjective agreement when it occurs in the sciences is intersubjective agreement about whether our judgments correspond with some judgment-independent state of affairs.

    >>There are also very practical, moral concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything—the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride-burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see what an abject failure of compassion their intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference amounts to. <<

    Oh, well done, Harris. You’ve managed to straw-man anyone who ‘fancied’ (I love how you say ‘fancied,’ rather than assent, after careful consideration, to the necessity of’) the is/ought distinction with the stereotype of the tolerance-wielding, wishy washy postmodernist. This is really the lowest of rhetorical trickery. Firstly, it’s a vicious untruth, since most of the people (moral philosophers) who are familiar with the intractable problems in metaethics also have rather robust views in practical ethics, and have very discerning ideas about what is right and what is not, and are willing to say so. Secondly, it doesn’t even matter, because even if everyone who ‘fancied’ the is/ought distinction held despicable first-order ethical views, or had no moral conviction at all about things most people agree are awful, that wouldn’t make the ‘is/ought’ distinction unjustified. The only thing that makes that unjustified is whether it is. By principles of reason. I think you should be ashamed of yourself for this sort of rhetorical hand waving.

    I’m going to ignore your polemical stuff. It doesn’t really present much in the way of argument anyway.

    >>I must say, the vehemence and condescension with which the is/ought objection has been thrown in my face astounds me. And it confirms my sense that this bit of bad philosophy has done tremendous harm to the thinking of smart (and not so smart) people. <<
    Couldn’t the fact that a great number of rather intelligent people are reacting with ridicule to something you’ve said which lies outside the sphere of your particular expertise indicate that you are //wrong// about it? It’s not that you //must// be wrong. But doesn’t it give you pause that you’re getting this much disagreement from people who know about this stuff? Are you really concluding that this ‘bad philosophy’ has done harm to the thinking of a lot of smart people on the basis that your own conclusions about it are indubitable? Does that exemplify virtuous rational inquiry?

    >> Indeed, the most common defense one now hears for religious faith is not that there is compelling evidence for God’s existence, but that a belief in Him is the only basis for a universal conception of human values. And it is decidedly unhelpful that the moral relativism of liberals so often seems to prove the conservative case.<<

    Sam, we shouldn’t want a universal conception of human values. That would be a serious inconvience for those of us who believe that these things lie within the provenance of democratic consensus. It is simply an unsophisticated appreciation of what’s going on here that has you dismiss this as ‘the moral relativism of liberals.’ It’s a sophisticated humanist conception of the undecidability of universal moral imperatives that has us resort to fair and equitable second order principles for dealing with moral disagreements in a generalizable way. Democratic society is driven by the engine of normative disagreement. We don’t have to be moral relativists to realize that.

    Personally, I think a negative act utilitarianism is probably the right way to go. I therefore commend your first-order moral theoretic commitments. I also think the findings of scientific inquiry are of utmost relevance to someone who thinks that the compelling moral imperative for our time is to minimize suffering (as would just about any negative utilitarian you care to ask.) But none of my agreement with your first-order commitments allow me to assent to your egregious leap over important points of second order ethics. It’s not stupid philosophy. It can be done at the same time as doing first order ethics. And you’ve rather confused yourself by ignoring it. (I have to assume you’ve ignored much of it. The alternative is that you read it, but somehow managed to miss the point, and you’re not that stupid.)

    I worry that you’re doing damage with this crusade of yours, mostly out of your ignorance. Please, lose the holier-than-thou, one-man-against-philosophy attitude, and leave the rhetorical stuff aside, and let’s see if, besides what you’ve already said, you have a point.

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    100. Michael Dowd

    Fabulous, Sam!  Truly, kick ass!!!  You are a gift to our species and our planet.  Can’t wait to read your new book!

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