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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)

    201. Mike Brotherton

    Keith, I think you’ve hit on an important issue, and I’m not sure human morality is both universally applicable and internally consistent.

    I’m thinking of the experiments that indicate a willingness of humans to do something with the push of a button or in the abstract (little or no moral compunctions) that they would not do in person (e.g., act as state executioner).

    If the act and final outcome is the same, why do people assign a different morality to it in the two cases?  That’s not internally consistent.  The act is not reducible to the abstract.  How you do it matters to our sense of morality as much as the act itself.  That’s human, and I’m not sure it makes any absolute sense.  Not to me in the abstract.

    Makes me suspect any system Sam can develop, if based on actual human morality, is going to look ugly to us rational folks.  Our heads and hearts will be in conflict over it.

    posted on March 30, 2010
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    Sam -
    It appears that you want to reject the relativism of `Burkas are neither right nor wrong in principle’ by using some sort of pseudo-scientific criteria that can be maximised or minimised.

    Well, firstly, you are free to reject this using any criteria (`scientific’ or not) you please.

    Of course people will usually attempt to apply some sort of criteria to make decisions on ethical matters, and you want something `universal’. But this whole `brainstates’, consciousness etc stuff is nonsense.

    Even if we could in practice identify a large catalog of `desirable states’ that holds up outside the lab, we would further need to chose criteria for assigning values to these states (is joy better than content or satisfied), and then maximise not just a static problem but one over time - do we want the `best’ for now, 10 years, t-> infinity etc?

    This is just not the right level to look at things, and if you would say that `of course I wouldn’t try to be so reductionistic’, then what does this whole brainstates/consciousness stuff add to political science/philosophy, practical ethics etc.

    Disciplines already exist addressing exactly the kinds of well-being questions you are concerned with, but at the appropriate level of abstraction. This level must take into account the pragmatic difficulties of ethical life.

    I think you are trying to use `objective observables’ (which are already available in these disciplines) to argue for `objective criteria’, which in practice are subjective and more complicated than simply `maximise this observable’. This is the is/ought distinction, no?

    posted on March 30, 2010
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    203. Keith Hamburger

    Mike,

    I believe that you need to draw a distinction between a valid moral theory and the application and general acceptance of that.  Claiming that Western though has made great progress in identifying and developing a good moral theory, the concepts of individual rights, and justifying what people do who don’t act in accordance with that theory are two very different things.

    Slavery, colonization, war, murder and worse are in direct oppostion to the morality proposed by Locke, Jefferson and others who have developed individual rights theories.  The fact that their morality isn’t followed, often even by themselves, doesn’t invalidate the principles.

    posted on March 30, 2010
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    Great article. But not all women are ‘forced’ to wear burkas - many choose to do so (and many who choose to do so are intelligent enough to take into consideration arguments about ‘patriarchal historical tradition’ / brainwashing etc). So I’m not sure the burka thing runs parallel to the child-eyeball scenario (because the former isn’t NECESSARILY a moral question, whereas the latter definitely is). An eyeball-less child in a burka would be the worst though. The very worst indeed.

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    205. George Shollenberger

    Response to ‘Mike’, at comment 185,,

    Mike says, “MIT neuroscientists have shown they can influence people’s moral judgments by disrupting a specific brain region—a finding that helps reveal how the brain constructs morality.

    Sounds like science to me.’”

    MIT has not foumd anything equivalent to a moral law.  Judgements are not equivalent to moral laws.  So MIT has only found a pseudosciense..

    Your atheism and mateialism are showing.

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    206. Richard Martin

    Sam: Best sentence,“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.”
    As usual, you are ahead of the game. You have chosen your morality battleground well,  and are poised to defeat (intellectually) both the forces of religion and the forces of liberal moral relativism. Change will not be quick or easy - it will take decades. But your book will be the opening salvo, and there will be millions of us ready to embrace and support the view of morality you have outlined.

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    207. George Shollenberger

    Response to ‘Mike’, at comment 185,,

    Mike says, “MIT neuroscientists have shown they can influence people’s moral judgments by disrupting a specific brain region—a finding that helps reveal how the brain constructs morality.

    Sounds like science to me.”

    MIT has not foumd anything equivalent to a moral law because such judgments are not moral laws, which come only from God.. 

    Your atheism and mateialism are showing.

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    Fionn @101:

    I’m not knowledgeable enough about the nuances of moral philosophy to fully weigh your argument, so I ask this question out of genuine curiosity.

    You write: “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.”

    It seems to me that you DO agree with Dr. Harris that on matters of practical ethics there are valid justifications for making judgments about right and wrong (even if you disagree on what those justifications are). If I may ask, what are YOUR reasons for defining right and wrong in the real world, if you don’t agree with how Dr. Harris arrives at his own conclusions? Could you make it clear with an example—say, your opinion about burqas or female circumcision? How do you feel about these, and why would you say your opinion is justified?

    I don’t know if you’re still reading this thread, but if you are, thanks for your time.

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    209. Allen Johnson

    Too many words.  Too left-brained.  (You should have prefaced with: (Please excuse the length of this article, I didn’t have time to write a short one!)

    Get a few key insights and then boil ‘em down to a few sentences for a better word-to-meaning ratio.

    Allen Johnson, Jr.

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    210. Dr. Richard Carrier

    I want to give you a tremendous vote of thanks for finally making this argument and giving it the press and attention it deserives. Scientists should have been doing this decades ago.

    You are entirely correct. In fact, I’ve been making these same arguments in print since 2005. If you are unfamiliar with my work, please contact me and I’ll send you a copy of my book Sense and Goodness without God, gratis. I recommend it not merely because you will find a good quantity of supporting arguments and literature cited in it, which you can make good use of, but most particularly because it includes a stone cold proof that even Kant agreed with you (with direct quotes), and a conclusive proof that Hume’s claim of an is/ought dichotomy is not only fallacious, but even scientists like Carroll covertly reject it routinely, even as they affirm it verbally.

    I’m looking forward to reading and promoting your book on this topic. Do let me know when it is published!

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    Sam, it was a lot of work digesting and assimilating this intellectual conversation. From your @google talk, to the back and forth between you and your critics, to the deep research I’ve done on the history of the question. I am very much enriched from the process, and I have to say that you and I agree on every single point.

    From now on, I will have a better understanding of how scientific thinkers argue and reason moral and ethical questions. I think that you have to be willing to lay down your judgement and human “dignity” to step into the light of pure reason and science, something few are willing to do, as evidenced by the low-level, irrational based responses we’ve witnessed.

    It takes hard work and patience to reason with your critics, and you’ve done a fine job. I don’t have patience for fools, which is evidence by the following….

    @Allen Johnson
    I’m sure Sam is aware of the length of his article and wouldn’t have published it if he thought he could do better in less space. Sometimes you have to ask yourself “Am I a know it all, full of **** annoyance to the community or am I engaging in intellectual debate?

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    No one attacks the simple fact that Mr. Harris is not a scientist or that he has a terrible understanding of science as a discipline.  Why would we listen to someone who claims to bring about a new moral truth based on something he or she knows nothing about?  The author brings up Creationist scientists, but discounts them as scientists because they disagrees with his atheism.  Even kindergartners understand that science is hypothesis driven.  Creationists have a hypothesis different from evolutionists which does not diminish the fact that they are doing science.  If we actually look at the arguments some scientists have created to argue against the tenet of intelligent design (that some of the proteins of the flagella form something) is cursory at best.  The argument of Harris, that consensus does not define science, actually makes the intelligent design argument far more credible than he will admit.  This does not mean that creationists scientists are practicing good science, just like scientists who claim they discovered the AIDs virus (when they actually stole it from a lab in France and hid the fact with terrible records) are practicing good science.  I think Mr. Harris’s proposal is rather dangerous because it will lead to the same corruption in the scientific community that is growing exponentially.  Look at climate change studies.  Do we really want that kind of work at the basis of our moral truths?  For all of his proposals to arise from a silly fMRI study is preposterous and terrible science.

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    Sam Harris is attempting something magnificent.
    He is asking science to help bring about an agreed upon set of common moral values with which we all might share the opportunity for life in our common earth sky and water.

    The disciplines of philosophy psychiatry religion politics and others have all made gestures towards science for help. Its time for to try it on the moral sphere. It does sound hard, so what, do it hard.

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    Moral judgement is just another brain process: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125304448&ps=rs

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    215. Derek Metzer

    Refering to Comment 10.  About homosexuality!  Sure its happens rarely in animal life and was frowned upon throughout hiistory before the bible.  What we have here is the Failure of our country founded on God.  The media and our poor moral standards have make this country an unhappy place. Widespread Homosexaulty s the cause of what we are expossed to in life on TV and Internet. So we live about 60 years (sometimes longer if we care for our bodys) and then nothing we are done.  What is our Purpose on this world?  Think about it why you are alive?  God created us and he loves you and me.  There is a better way.  I hope everyone out there can understand what it is to love and to follow God.

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    I cannot get a hold of the article so I cannot comment on the science now.  But of course the brain is involved with deciding things just like your thumb is involved with grasping things.  Notice how this publication had a designated editor, meaning it did not undergo proper peer review (typical of PNAS because it is a special club).  This is like punching someone in the head could lead to bad judgement or the fact that alcohol reduces judgement.  This study is nothing special.  It’s the interpretation of NPR that is dangerous.  This does not diminish the fact that a soul exists or somehow explains that morality is a natural evolution of the human mind.  I could get a concussion and have trouble adding 2 + 2, does that mean 4 is not a natural occurrence outside the mind?  No!

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    Speaking of homosexuality Based on the moral truth through science, homosexuality is just as big an abomination.  They are not furthering the human race through evolution and therefore should be exterminated.  They are just taking up space and resources that should be left to properly procreating people.  Heck, the people who cannot have babies should die.  The Duggers are, perhaps, the best example of what all of us should strive for in a future science based moral world.

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    Another way to address Carroll’s critic involves the strong alternation in his choices. The lanscape with many peaks is a way to restructure the concept: there are many possible choices within the field, but the field has limits. As much as Sam bemoans relativism, I think you can call his stance relativism with limits. It isn’t an all or nothing choice, but a position placed on a spectrum that accounts for universals and personal values.

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    219. Robert Haines

    “Bill” wrote “No one attacks the simple fact that Mr. Harris is not a scientist or that he has a terrible understanding of science as a discipline.  Why would we listen to someone who claims to bring about a new moral truth based on something he or she knows nothing about?”

    Bill, obviously it’s news to you, but Sam Harris IS a scientist. He has a PhD in neuroscience, and he’s involved in a number of scientific studies using fMRI to study how the brain constructs beliefs.

    That’s the most basic sort of discovery (requiring a few seconds on Wikipedia or Google) that one might well have expected you to perform before spouting your opinion here.

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    220. Richard Harman

    This discussion is seminal thinking at its best.

    To simply, if what we like is “good”, and what we don’t like is “bad”, these are our Morality but not the end of Morality.

    Other people, including both Scientists and Religionists (Relatives and Lovers), can influence us to like or not like something. 

    Scientists can influence us, as usual, by opening our eyes to the observable consequences of our likes and dislikes.  When comprehended, this realization of the consequences may invite us, or force us, to change what we like and what we don’t like.

    May every living thing prosper and be well.

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    Harris:

    “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.”

    Or in other words “us middle class liberal rationalist” do.

    Harris is peddling an intelligent design argument in disguise. Values are not facts, any more so than your preference for hamburgers over spaghetti is a fact (beyond the fact thats it’s a statement of your preference).

    Conservatives place a high value on autonomy, liberals places a high value on tolerance, and pluralism. Some communities place a high value on respect, and reputation. Nietzsche was repulsed by the valuing of pity, and humility, and self-sacrifice, while the writers of the New Testament placed high value on all these concepts. Homeric societies held differing virtues, than those of community of liberal mind celebrities.

    Anyone can use science to inform their particular values, but not to determine their values.

    Values are an aesthetic, they differ for the same reason some people like country, and others prefer gangster rap.

    What Harris seems to be arguing for is an objective aesthetic, a world inherently sown with a particular order of virtues, that men through reason can realize, so we can become this ‘we’.

    He should seriously consider joining the discovery institute.

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    222. Gabe Czobel

    It’s amusing to note how the examination of morality sends everyone scrambling about in all directions in a panic. Science is OK as long as we’re not under the microscope; then all hell breaks loose. We’re really thin-skinned that way.

    I view the kerfuffle between Sam Harris and Sean Carroll as being over a mismatch in their construal of the terms science and morality. That’s easy enough to do since single words, especially category words, can carry such broad meaning. If we look at the details implied by Harris and then by Carroll, it may turn out there is less disagreement than appears on the surface.

    My reading of Sam’s talk at TED, given that he is a neuroscientist and explicitly mentions the role of the brain with respect to morality, is that he envisions the application of scientific methods to the investigation of morality as a feature of our brain function. That there are some objective truths to be found here, at least in principle, seems non-controversial. Thus, morality, that is, how we sense values, could be correlated to brain activity. This does not assume in any way that these values have some objective life of their own apart from being related to the brain. It would also be a scientific matter to determine the statistical distribution among populations of the intensity of various moral viewpoints. One does not need to draw inferences of objective value imbedded in nature, from this data alone, but it would inform considerations of what is normal to humans, by and large, depending on the shape of the curves. At least having this data and attaining it by strict scientific methods would be far superior to the speculations and bald assertions that now pertain.

    The real difficult part—maybe unattainable—is to examine how such data could be used to model human “well-being” at a personal and societal level. If this could be done with some degree of precision and certainty, then we could claim some form of objectivity to values, but only in reference to this standard of “well-being” and not some absolute, universal for all time objectivity. I think Sam claims no more objectivity than this limited one and admits that,

    “... I’m not saying that science is guaranteed to map this space, or that we will have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question.”

    But at least empirical methods soberly applied would have a far greater chance of practical success than armchair philosophical methods. And perhaps it may be found that “well-being” is not the best goal and may form only part of a more complex goal. Without a methodical empirical examination, we may never know.

    Are there risks here? Of course. The course of scientific inquiry is often littered with wrong turns or knowledge abused. Relying on ignorance and speculation though is still worse in the long run even if, at the end, we discover that it is simply too complex, beyond our capacity, to model human “well-being” at anything beyond a trivial level. At least we could say we took a kick at the can.

    I don’t feel Sean Carroll needs to be too concerned about such claims of objectivity of values as I think Sam is proposing. I agree entirely with Sean if he is saying that there are no absolute, universal values intrinsic to nature in general. Such a concept makes no sense in a naturalistic universe devoid of purpose. But a more limited objectivity related strictly to the sphere of the features of human nature, understood in a nomological sense, is at least possible in principle.

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    223. justaperson

    Perhaps Fionn will write his or her own book, and then people will be able to dissect his or her arguments with equal enthusiasm.

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    224. ckolenchuk

    Fionn,

    “What Sam’s doing, although motivated by sound concerns, seems to share with theism an unnecessary craving for objective foundations for moral talk. I whimsically regard this as “theist” type talk.”

    I may just be a second year philosophy major, but I think it’s a mistake to refer to the craving for objective foundations for moral talk as somehow ‘unnecessary’.

    Isn’t clear moral talk about how we should treat others pretty much the core quality of liberal political philosophy?

    Also, on a personal note, Its not a mistake to passionately search for truth about what life and morality is (or even just objective ways to talk about it)

    It is a mistake to believe simply wanting objective morality will make it so. But clearly Harris position has more complicated things to consider (like neuroscience).

    In general I don’t see a single good reason why there can’t be general facts about human well being (determined by Harris-type method) and so too general facts about how we should treat each other. Why is this conception of objective morality so far-fetched?

    Far from being unnecessary I feel like Harris just cut though 95% of the bull-shit I read in epistemology 240.

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    The fundamental problem with Harris’s argument is that despite his rejection of the claim that morality is, and can only ever be, a matter of opinion, he does not provide any convincing explanation of how his own view does not ultimately rest on opinion as well.

    This can be hard to see because of his prolixity, certitude, and disdain for his critics; but look closely, and you will find it so.

    posted on March 31, 2010

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    am I really think you are onto something beyond the relativist moral confusion. A previous poster mentioned the psychologist Kohlberg. His “stages of moral development” see morality as cross-cultural - like you do. There are also some other stage conceptions that deal with this (as i’m sure you’re aware of, being so damn smart!  )
    As a huge fan of your work - especially your open-mindedness, I would love to hear you comment on this issue.
    Ps. As a philosophy/psychology student i’m very interested in the Mind-body problem. Do you have a strong point of view on this philosophical dilemma?
    Much love
    Samuel
    Australia

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    In response to 21, where is Mr. Harris’s dissertation, UCLA certainly doesn’t have it?  You used wikipedia as your source which used stories from newspapers.  I don’t think Mr. Harris has his PHD.  Maybe UCLA is hiding his dissertation like Princeton hid Michelle Obama’s.  Again, this guy is terrible at science.  He is just a charlatan.  He is making money of silly people who buy his books.

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    228. Michael Fiedler

    @Bill

    Sam recently published a study entitled “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief.” I’m not positive, but I believe this work was also submitted as his dissertation. Sam’s PhD is relatively recent, so it’s not surprising that UCLA hasn’t made it available yet. No need to start a birther-type movement here, demanding Sam to produce his dissertation.

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    229. Mark Hausam

    Thank you once again, Sam, for cutting through the cloudy thinking that gets in the way of people asking the important questions and looking for truth on these most-important issues.  I think you are quite right that morality is an objective thing, and that we should try to find out the truth about it rather than assuming that we never can out of of deference to every viewpoint, no matter how ungrounded or absurd.  And I say this as a Christian theist.  Thank you for asking the right questions.

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    230. James Allen

    “The fundamental problem with Harris’s argument is that despite his rejection of the claim that morality is, and can only ever be, a matter of opinion, he does not provide any convincing explanation of how his own view does not ultimately rest on opinion as well.” - TB

    He doesn’t need to. As he has said above, noone has ever said anything that isn’t ultimately rooted in opinion… including scientists. Hume’s induction problem leaves all empirical inquiry grounded in opinion. Harris has argued that this logical fact has not prevented us from scientific inquiry into non-ethical propositions, why should it stop us from scientific inquiry into ethical propositions? Or said the other way around: if we’re throwing out ethical science for this reason, why not throw out all science?

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    @ justaperson

    I don’t think it’s necessary for me to write my own book. The arguments I’ve presented can be addressed as they stand. It would also be disingenuous of me to present these arguments as *mine.* They represent (as close to) a settled core (as we’re going to get) of moral philosophy.

    I present them here to bring the mountain to Mohammed, because apparently Mohammed wants to crest the mountain without ever trying to climb it.

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    232. Eugene Hamburger

    “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 the only true statement in the entirety of the above article (the remainder is an appeal to emotion “Look into their eyes, and tell me that what has been done to them is… philosophically justifiable” and a condemnation of weak, Western liberal academia). Sam, you never once actually refute the above claim.

    + You nowhere prove that some brain states are better than others.

    + You nowhere prove that any “better” states apply equally across all humans (in fact, you admit the opposite with your “psychopath” example - and your rebuttal amounts to “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…” ie. “I just dismiss my critics.”)

    + You compare the study of moral “truth” to the study of truth in physics without realizing the chasm between them: actual, objective proof. If I say “this rock will not fall” you can toss it off a building and prove me wrong. If I say “certain brain-states are better than others” there is no experiment which can prove this. You actually admit this in your article, but then provide no real rebuttal except to say that those states correlating to “wellbeing” (whatever that means) are superior and that those who do not agree with you do not deserve a seat at the debate table.

    + You cannot define “wellbeing” except in some vague, general correlation to “happiness.” I assume you have some colorful brain-scan images which illuminate the state of being “happy” - but you cannot prove that this is “wellbeing” (or that “wellbeing” is positive).

    + Even if you could prove “wellbeing” is (objectively?) desireable, you cannot prove that it would not be better for some to have more “wellbeing” at the expense of others. In fact, your childish flailing is humorously displayed during your “debate” with the speaker from Duke: “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?” YOU might say this “diminishes wellbeing” but the very fact that she could conceive of scenarios where it might NOT proves my point: “wellbeing” is also subjective!

    Let us expand upon the above: what if the people in your imaginary culture believe that ritual blinding is necessary for human wellbeing - how can you prove them wrong? If you make all the arguments in the world and trot out all the colorful images of the brain you can find, they still will not be convinced. What then? Suppose eliminating the practice of blinding is accomplished via force - will they not experience less wellbeing?  And suppose the practice was eliminated gradually - what if their state of “wellbeing” as a “progressive” society without blinding is identical to their state of wellbeing when they still practiced blinding? Plenty of studies show that religion and ritual make a person happier, increase their sense of “wellbeing” - will your studies reveal that we should encourage religious belief, then? Studies also show people are happier in “like-groups” (ie. living in racially and culturally homogenous areas) - will your studies into morality encourage segregation, then?  I find that unlikely.  I imagine your studies into scientific morality will show you what all hubristic philosophers see: a reflection of their own values.

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    This talk was fantastic, although I do have one small truck with it. Not with the overall thesis but with the analogy that equated moral truth with truths of Physics. When talking about facts we simply mean things we know have always been and always will be true. So when talking about facts relating to the physical Universe we can happily say that they would exist regardless of whether we were around to recognise them. But the existence of moral truth/facts seems entirely dependant on the existence of living beings, after all how can anything be conducive to wellbeing if there are no living creatures around to experience it. So these are not truths that have been out there waiting to be found since the origins of the Universe. And they do not take a physical form in the manner that truths of Physics do and cannot exist separate to something being there to experience them. So to me this seems a slightly flawed analogy. And although this qualm may seem at best relatively superficial it seems worthy of note.

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    234. Robert Haines

    Bill wrote “In response to 21, where is Mr. Harris’s dissertation, UCLA certainly doesn’t have it?  You used wikipedia as your source which used stories from newspapers.  I don’t think Mr. Harris has his PHD.  Maybe UCLA is hiding his dissertation like Princeton hid Michelle Obama’s.  Again, this guy is terrible at science.  He is just a charlatan.  He is making money of silly people who buy his books.”

    So, you’re not content with claiming that Harris “isn’t a scientist” (which could’ve been easily checked and disproved—as I did), you now have to retrench and claim that his dissertation doesn’t exist?

    [shakes head]

    As Michael Fiedler pointed out—you sound like a “birther”. He’s right, but you sound like a fool as well, since you don’t even seem to understand how Wikipedia works. Wikipedia _isn’t_a_source_, it merely acts as a collection of references TO primary sources. So, when you look something up on Wikipedia (say, “Sam Harris”) and it says “In 2009 he obtained his Ph.D. degree in neuroscience at University of California, Los Angeles[4][5][6], using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty[5][6]”, you have to look at those little numbers, which are citations to primary sources, which can be accessed by clicking on them. If you click on [6], it will take you to an LA Times article where it says Harris recently finished his PhD dissertation and mentions one of the scientific studies he’s completed. In that article, there is a link to a peer-review journal (PloSONE), and one of the studies he’s published (“The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief”).

    I found Dr. Harris’ dissertation mentioned in less than 10 seconds, with this amazing tool called “Google”. The second result on Google linked to UCLA’s own news magazine, where it says the following: “Sam Harris, who recently completed his doctoral dissertation in the lab of Mark Cohen, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Staglin Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, was a lead author on the study.” That’s a respected university’s website making the claim, not Sam Harris.

    So, either Sam Harris is lying about his dissertation (which would be career suicide), AND the LA Times AND UCLA are lying as well, or you’re simply wrong. Again. Occam’s Razor says…

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    35. Sam with small truck….
    Earthlings may one day know that living beings from another planet have developed moral truths like ours. It will not be a coincidence. Moral truths are evolved and developed brain states. Brain states can only be made from the realities of the physical universe. Living creatures are entirely dependent on physical realities. It is not magic.

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    Actually, upon reflection of my previous comment i was wrong. It may be true that the existence of moral truth is dependant upon the existence of beings capable of experiencing it. But it is also true that the existence of physical truths studied by Physics is dependant upon the existence of a physical Universe. And even if no life existed in the Universe it would still be true that if a species were to evolve then there would be certain things that are and are not conducive to their wellbeing. The analogy is not flawed, my mistake.

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    237. James Allen

    @Eugene Hamburger

    “‘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’. [...] Sam, you never once actually refute the above claim.” - Hamburger

    ”[...] I merely assumed what I set out to prove. [...] 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. [...] 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 [science and morality].” - Harris

    So, the charge that Harris ‘simply proves what he set out to’ is no more valid when waged against him than it is when waged against science in general - or any other ‘truth’. That is his rebuttal. Feel free to argue against his point, but the argument that he has not addressed the charge is errant.

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    Morality is an element of consciousness. So, where there is no consciousness, there is no morality. In a non-theistic universe, there is no transcendent consciousness. Thus, in a non-theistic universe, there is no transcendent morality. This is a non-theistic universe. Therefore, this universe lacks transcendent morality.

    Where this leaves us:
    1) morality cannot be normative outside of conscious minds
    2) if we define consciousness as collective in some way, whether arising from a shared genetic/neurobiological legacy or some Jungian thing, then there can be a descriptively shared ethical normative
    3) descriptively normative ethics do not imply prescriptive normative ethics
    4) any strong meta-ethical argument must, in addition to proving the validity of its choice in “2)” above, exhaustively prove its leap from descriptive to pre/proscriptive.

    Sam doesn’t do 4 yet. I hope his book does, though his intransigence when faced with the whole history of moral thought leaves me with little hope.

    By the way, I am not part of the academy. I am an atheist who believes moral relativism is true only in a limited sense, and that the illusion of normative morality arising from well-thought consensus that relies on as few axioms as possible must be implemented to have an ordered society. Thus, I really don’t have a bone to pick with Sam’s conclusions, only with the sloppy thinking his facile argument will inspire. When sloppy thinking provides the foundation of a moral code, that moral code is itself unstable. We should not build a secular moral edifice on weak stone.

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    James Allen, well, if you believe in reality, not everything is an opinion.  The tree across the street would be 25 feet tall even if human beings never existed.  I’m not excluding brain function from the realm of objective reality.  Certain things actually do affect the brain in certain ways, and that’s not a matter of opinion.  It is also true that what humans value is a (complicated) question of fact—just as we would regard aliens’ values as a question of fact, theoretically answerable through study—and just as we can say that people actually do prefer sweet tastes to bitter tastes, or respond positively to a face that has eyes that are so far apart, and so on.

    But, would it make much sense to say to somone professing a taste for strong, black coffee and an indifference to cake, “You are incorrect”?  The reason this wouldn’t make sense is because we are using the language of preference, of opinion, of subjective judgment, of subjective belief.

    Similarly, one can study what people find beautiful, and announce some facts.  This sort of shape, color, line, curve, whatever, is, as a matter of fact, generally pleasing to the eye.  This sort of musical chord progression is, as a matter of fact, generally pleasing to the ear.  And we would all regard that sort of thing as relatively uncontroversial.

    But when we talk about beauty using the language of subjective judgment, it would be dissonant to say that one can be objectively right or wrong.  If someone said that they regarded a garbage dump as beautiful, and she knew what the word beautiful meant, she could be lying, but it wouldn’t make sense to say that she’s mistaken.

    Morality refers to a collection of subjective judgments about what humans regard as good and bad.  It does not purport of be a collection of assertion about objective reality—it does not purport to describe the universe.  We can say that humans, as a matter of fact, actually do regard x, y, and z as good or bad.  We can say that Steve regards x, y, and z as bad.  We can say that Steve’s beliefs are incoherent, because x and y are logically inconsistent or incompatable in some demonstrable way.  But we simply don’t have the ability to say that x, y, and z misdescribe the objective universe.  The statement, “You shouldn’t steal” simply isn’t an assertion of objective fact.  The language of “should” is the language of opinion and belief.  This semantic problem is probably where many of us are having trouble.

    Sam doesn’t like moral relativism.  I don’t either.  But relativism is self-defeating and incoherent on its own, and doesn’t require Sam’s theory to show that.  Relativism discourages moral judgment, and yet it makes a moral judgment.  It arbitrarily and unaccountably discourages all moral judgements except one—respecting other cultures—resulting in what seem like merely confused priorities, as Sam experienced at TED with the legal scholar.

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    240. M. Miller

    This is truly an ambitious project. The first difficulty I think has already been mentioned, that of determining how exact a science a science of morality or ethics can be. As a branch of philosophy ethics is already in effect a science, but how prescriptive can it be?

    With respect, I think the absolutist vibe of the way you present your arguments (for example, your descents into scorn and sarcasm) just gets in the way of sorting this question out. It provokes the false charge of your religious critics that you’re merely a secular fundamentalist. This analogy obviously doesn’t stand up but as always there’s a grain of truth. Absolutist thinking in general is as properly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition as Christian fundamentalism – the bible you may agree being the mother of ideology – and this way of thinking just isn’t adequate to the extreme complexity of the question you’re addressing.

    You should approve of my calling on Aristotle here, and his formula of the golden mean. In the moral realms the extremes are absolutism on the one hand and relativism on the other. The golden mean is pluralism. And what is pluralism? The best succinct definition I know of comes from the Upanishads: the truth is one, but the sages call it by many names. No doubt this is pointing out the obvious, but what this means is that we inhabit one interconnected world, that human beings share one general nature based in consciousness and its concomitants of reason and imagination, that human being only make coherent sense as social beings, etc. This list could be extended and includes many recognitions, from the golden rule and ideas of natural reason to Hume’s idea of natural sympathy.

    This is in line with your “many moral peaks”, except that perhaps it’s more accurate to say a single peak with many names. But again this is directly in line with your thinking: in an interconnected world with universal physical laws and human beings sharing the same physical/experiential basis it simply makes no sense to claim that we cannot arrive at universal moral values.

    Experientially at least, the world is pluralist (just as in the ultimate sense we may say the world is unitary, and in the absolutist/ideological sense we may say the world is dualist), and applying absolutist habits of thought to a pluralist realm, while it can be extraordinarily powerful and even unavoidable in certain cases, is disastrous precisely in the sort of project you have in mind.

    As to the various difficulties of defining human consciousness, well-being, human choice and agency, I’m content to wait for how you deal with all that in your forthcoming book. I read and enjoyed your End of Faith. My only aim here is simply to warn against the meme or set of memes reflective of absolutist ideology. It may have started in the bible in its grand move of countering the ideologies rooted in empires with its absolute monarch transposed to the heavens and thus from a tyranny of the world to a tyranny of the mind, but that transposition has long taken root. The most essential place to remove that root is not in the bible or religion but in one’s own mind.

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    40. ian, who wants a moral edifice on stone.
    Your cornerstone “morality is an element of consciousness” seems presumptive and thus inadequate. Which element of consciousness is it? Are you using element as emergence? When I am in the unconscious state of sleep, are you saying that I have lost my morality? How is it then that I seem to recognize the same morality the next day?

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    Reading these responses from Harris gave me an endorphin rush, realizing someone else thinks about these subjects with some clarity.  Keep raising consciousness, Harris—for the as yet undefined collective wellbeing.

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    243. Yonatan Fishman

    While science may be relevant for objectively deciding, at least in principle, how best to achieve particular goals, it cannot decide what these goals should be in the first place, and therefore cannot bridge the is/ought divide.

    Given that there is a fundamental subjectivity to deciding what our core human values should be, all we can do is to try to convince others, by appealing to their previously adopted set of values, that one particular way of life is somehow superior to another.

    Furthermore, suppose that we arrive at the consensus that the goals of morality are to maximize expected utility or ‘well-being’ (as Harris proposes), or to promote the propagation of genes (which presumably accounts for why moral instincts evolved). The question is, for whom? As long as we all live on the same planet and share/compete for limited resources, there will always be a conflict of interest with regard to the pursuit of these goals.

    These considerations make me rather pessimistic about the success of Harris’ project, as noble and promising as it might sound.

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    Great Article! Thanks for writing. The only unwarranted assumption that I could find was the inclusion of the last two words (“…with others”) in this sentence:

    “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)? “


    Perhaps you did not intend to formulate it in this way but the inclusion of “with others” in “living a fulfilling life” as the proper goal of morality is arbitrary and it is incompatible with your previous assertions that values are derived from facts that relate to a living conscious entity’s well being. I agree that living a fulfilling life is the proper goal but there is nothing that would indicate that moral values are only applicable when in proximity to other people, nor does it preclude the possibility that one can live a fulfilling life without others. Certainly, other people can and do make valuable contributions to ones well being (i.e. civilization) but that is not always true (e.g. Jews living with Nazis) nor does the lack of proximity to others absolve one from the necessity of discovering moral values. e.g. A person on a desert island still has needs that must be attended to (food/shelter etc.) and wants that can be fulfilled (i.e. better food, better shelter, useful tools etc.) which will result in improving his well being and which requires that he discover and follow a code of moral values, even if it will only achieve a bare minimum sustenance.

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    Not sure on your burka argument. That you have chosen to call it a cloth bag shows a bias. For general well being the burka hiding a womans body maybe a good thing for men (to reduce sexual thoughts and help keep them faithful) and for women helps to ignore standard of beauty when interacting with other women.

    So lets take a classic moral: “thou shall not kill”, this should only apply in certain sets, i.e. is invalid when an accident, is valid when is premeditated murder.

    So lets again use the sets theory with violent burka enforcement. If the amount of well being produced from violent burka enforcement is greater then the amount of welling reduced then we can consider violent burka enforcement to increase the well being of the people as a whole! However ofcourse violence is morally wrong in this situation.

    Guess we need different sets of moral codes for different communities, seems at the moment we have government/religious government mandated moral systems and prison / violence for those who disagree.

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    246. John Quinn

    [Reply to 123. Dennis on page 1] Yes, I suspect that “painless death” would require sedation or general anesthesia for most people, and I agree that nearly everyone tries to avoid death.  That doesn’t mean death is worse than suffering, it just means we fear death (irrationally, in my opinion).  We can’t even experience death itself.. I was just pointing out that from an objective, scientific viewpoint; we must assume that death is bad in order to morally justify the preservation of life (which inevitably entails both suffering and pleasure/well-being; in equal amounts, I would argue).

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    247. Eugene Hamburger

    @James Allen

    Allow me to elaborate: “...that some changes [in consciousness] are BETTER than others…”

    Emphasis mine.  That above is his axiom.  He maintains that refuting it equates to refuting all of science - yet he never proves that “better” can be objectively judged.

    He only states that anyone who agrees “better” cannot be judged is a fool with no place at the debating table.  I can determine how fast a rock falls.  How tall a tree is.  Yet I cannot determine in any objective manner what brain states are “better” or which ones correlate to the “wellbeing” of an individual.

    My main problem is that Harris throws around words like “better” and “wellbeing” as if they are “gravity” and “the strong nuclear force” - things which can actually, and universally, measured and applied.  He cannot even prove his terms, much less use them to create other axioms.

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    248. Eugene Hamburger

    I’d like to just stop beating around the bush and rebutt Mr. Harris directly. I challenge him to disprove me.

    He (and Carroll) ask: “Who decides what is a successful life?”

    Mr. Harris answers: “We do.”

    Mr. Harris, I say to you here that you could not be more wrong.

    NATURE determines what is a successful life.  She is the ultra-human force that ajudicates Right and Wrong action.  Her judgements are impersonal, immediate, absolute and - best of all - objectively verifiable in all senses of the word.  To those guilty of Wrong action, her action is swift, unavoidable and her judgement is always the same - death.

    The successful organism survives, possesses and propogates - the weak, die.

    This is provable without any philosophical backflips and mental gymnastics

    Those who will not hunt for food - die.
    Those who do not possess resources - die.
    Those who do not propogate - so ends their continued existence through their genes.

    RIGHT action is anything which does not result in the death of the organism; anything which increases its odds of survival and the number and survival of its progeny.  You may find certain cultural practices distasteful, but Nature has been host to a myriad of “distasteful” practices all across the animal kingdom: from bonobos going to war, lions devouring a rival’s cubs, baboons killing the elderly, herd animals abandoning the weak and sick.  You may find this distasteful, but Nature does not care - the Strong organisms live and do as they please, the Weak are ground under the great wheel of evolution.

    WRONG action, like right action, can only be defined objectively as that which results in the death of an organism and its offspring.  Even “good” actions can be contrary to nature. Christ, and now Science, ask us to shoulder the burdens of others until we too are overburdened, collapse and perish.  Our “luminaries” may judge this as “right” but Nature’s verdict is already visited and those who are slain are WRONG.

    These are commonplace facts.  Science regards all other animals in this manner, but clings to Enlightenment Era flights of fancy which hold humans as unique.

    Prove me wrong, Sam.

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    Nice response. The only issue I have with this ambitious project is the certainty of moral objectivity. It would be comforting if someone can provide an argument that suggests that if Harris’ project is undertaken, not by Harris but, by an Iranian Ayatollah, the resulting peaks would be no different than if Harris found them himself.

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    250. James Allen

    @JakeH
    “James Allen, well, if you believe in reality, not everything is an opinion” - JakeH

    This could be rewritten: “if you have an opinion in favour of reality, not everything is an opinion.” This is my point. Even underwriting reality, in the sense that there is something to be empirically looked-at at all, or that causation is even a meaningful guide, requires an underlying presupposition to support it. So far, no one has anything other than opinion in this regard. It might be a useful opinion. We might be comfortable with the opinion. It might be dutiful or traditional. But it’s still an opinion.

    “Morality refers to a collection of subjective judgments about what humans regard as good and bad. It does not purport of be a collection of assertions about objective reality—it does not purport to describe the universe” - JakeH

    I’m going to disagree with you here. Ethical propositions do in fact describe the universe. They also purport to be about the universe. What else could they be about? I think what you’re saying is that good and bad are not properties that exist phenomenally. So, we can’t build a good/bad detector and point it at objects in the world to discover their goodness or badness rating. I agree. But, we can’t measure a lot of things we use to describe the universe (like names for example). That doesn’t mean that I’m failing to describe the universe when I say that a chair is a “chair”.

    What ethical propositions are, and what people mean when they invoke them, is that a universe with or without the subject of that proposition results in different outcomes according to some… oh, let’s call it a heuristic. The difficulty with ethical propositions is that noone ever shares the heuristic that measures the difference in outcomes (and produces values). Often, they don’t even know what it is. I know I often don’t. A description of that (or those) heuristics, is a worthwhile line of scientific enquiry. The brain is also a likely place to look for such a thing, though experimental philosophy looks like fun too.

    Harris’ particular heuristic might be described as: more mental state of wellbeing = good.

    “We can say that Steve’s beliefs are incoherent, because x and y are logically inconsistent or incompatable in some demonstrable way.  But we simply don’t have the ability to say that x, y, and z misdescribe the objective universe” - JakeH

    Again, we don’t have the ability to say that about anything unless we adjust the level of certainty required to make the claim. We can’t say with absolute certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that apparently physical objects actually exist from an objective viewpoint, and so on. We simply do not have that ability. So, we adjust what “true” means to conform to what we can do, or at least, what we think could in principal be done. There’s no reason that ethical judgements should be held to standard higher than everything else.

    For the record, I don’t generally come at ethics from Harris’ perspective. I’m more interested in discourse ethics, but measuring wellbeing in the brains of others sounds like a potentially fruitful idea to me.

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    In response to Robert Haines.  You are obviously not a scientist either.  I was merely stating that UCLA does not have a record of Mr. Harris’s dissertation.  By record, I mean the actual dissertation in their library.  I have tried to find it by searching the online database of UCLA disserations.  In order to get a PhD, one needs to complete a dissertation.  I don’t care how many people say he has finished his PhD because I want an objective record.  I think Mr. Harris would agree that proof would be very important.  Birther’s finally got what they wanted so hopefully I will too.  I want to read his dissertation to judge his understanding of science.  A couple journal articles do not provide this.  In regards to articles, I don’t care how many articles Sam has published; a scientist it does not make.  I think the funniest thing is that he did not even do the experiments for his recent publication (please check the article’s contributions).  He just helped to analyze some data and write it.  What graduate student doesn’t do his own experiments?  Mr. Harris is a joke as a scientist (if he even has the PhD others say he has).  Occam’s razor would agree with me.  1) the dissertation does not exist in UCLA’s library 2) Mr. Harris has a history of not finishing things 3) People sometimes make mistakes and mention that someone has already finished his dissertation when in fact, he is still in the process. 4) One person made this mistake and the other news article continued the same mistake providing two sources of incorrect information

    You mentioned that wikipedia had references to some news articles (which are lousy references).  You used wikipedia as a reference the same way someone uses an encyclopedia as a reference.  This is called a secondary source.  Wikipedia is a lousy reference just as blanket statements made by articles are lousy references.  I can’t believe how little you understand about research and science.  No wonder people blindly follow this charlatan.

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    252. Concerned

    Sam Harris has now shown his astoundingly naive, offensive moralistic hand which seems to be attempting to turn science itself into a full blown religion.  His argument is just as offensive to me as religious dogmatism itself.  I don’t mind the discussion but it shows his penchant for objectivity at all costs, even at the cost of human will and human desire.  He seems to be wanting everyone to “believe in” and trust science to construct reality the way he does.  His “science equals reality” is just as simplistic to me as “religious text equals reality.”  His article here seems positively Orwellian to me.

    The book I am currently writing has a completely different reality approach which embraces natural complexity in its fullness, not just in the very philosophically limited amount that science can handle.  Science is extremely important and useful for what it is structured to do, but it’s not about reality and it can never be about reality because of its reductionistic foundation.  Harris’ approach runs into some of the same semantic problems I’ve encountered in writing my book, such as having to more clearly define, or clearly define for the first time, concepts such as “reality,” “well-being” and “health.”  I have to do that with so many terms in my book.  It’s necessary because people have to stop using crucial, meaningful terms loosely and vaguely if profound progress is to occur in the process of perfecting society and individual self.  Of course, “progress” and “perfection” are also semantic challenges my book tackles directly.

    I applaud Harris admitting his scientistic bias but the important points are what he wants to do with that bias and just how open he is to ideas that would be better than science.  Science does work very well precisely because of its narrow focus.  Take it out of its narrow focus and it’s useless if not very misleading.  To me, Harris implies that humanity’s only choices are science, religion or chaos.  What my book offers is very different from any of those choices.  Harris must have a very limited view of human potential if he thinks science can reveal it.  He seems to think that so many who don’t like his new approach to reality are necessarily mistaken about the meaning and potential of science.  I’d like for him to be very specific about what he thinks science is so I can tell whether he’s using the term in a way I consider accurate or useful.  I admit that there are always better ways to understand important ideas, but so far I see no evidence from him that his approach to science is any improvement upon the standard definitions.

    Harris speaks of happiness as though it’s an important goal if not the most important goal, and I’ve always held that happiness ought not to be a goal at all.  Humanity has a lot of maturing to do and that will involve many very difficult growing pains which will not be happy experiences.  A quest for happiness is a quest for escapism, not for progress.  Moreover, Harris comes across in the article as an elitist with his “leave reality to the experts” attitude.  I fully expect many who read my book to see me as even more of an elitist, but I go to great pains to reveal my anti-credentialism and inclusivity.  Does Harris just not know how to talk to anyone openly except to science worshipers?  His efforts to communicate seem quite lacking to me in regard to his major points.  His attitude suggests to me that he would choose to ignore or try to convert to scientism anyone who doesn’t immediately make sense to him.  That’s dogmatism—pure and simplistic.  He seems to think that imposing or nurturing scientism in the public is the only practical way to stop cruelty.  Of course I think scientism exacerbates cruelty with its dogmatism.  Humanity does not need a universal conception of moral values.  Humanity needs full social engagement made possible by self-definition, self-empowerment and enhancement of social responsiveness.  It is far more progressive to work in a society with philosophical flexibility than to work in a society with shared, rigid values that hide human uniqueness.  Rigid universality is dehumanizing.

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    practic example of a moral question that has science:

    should drug use be legal or not?

    we can take data from a varying collection of countries; prison satistics, gdp, mental health states, drug usage stats etc.

    I think the result will come somewhere between saudi to holland etc.

    p.s. all religion is the same sort of thing, a reducing of blood flow to the post sup. etc we can scientificly prove that one =]

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    Sam Harris is not a scientist.  He doesn’t even do his own experiments.  Quit acting like he is a scientific elite.  Sam Harris only tries to hide behind a little scientific background he has.  He wrote about fMRI studies, that somewhat else did, and is at best, a psychologist.  Yes, he has a supposed PhD in Neuroscience, but it is a somewhat hollow title because he doesn’t even do experiments.  This sort of offering of degrees to people who don’t even do the work to earn them is a joke and should be seriously scrutinized.  This goes back to the corruptibility of the scientific community that is accelerating at an unbelievable rate.  Science will soon be as big a joke as politics because of charlatans like Sam Harris.  Disgraceful.

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    255. Michael Fiedler

    @Bill

    If you are going to make these kinds of wild accusations, then I say you should disclose your identity. Making ridiculous accusations while hiding behind anonymity reveals either dishonesty or cowardice. Have the courage to say who you are. If, for example, you are a neuroscientist at UCLA and have reason to suspect that Sam’s credentials are not valid, that is one thing. If, on the other hand, you are a jealous neuroscientist at Hickville State, then that is something else. Nut up and do the right thing. Otherwise, sell crazy somewhere else; no one is buying it here.

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    “should do and should want”

    should thinking is one of our greatest sources of misery.

    wanting and not wanting is our greatest source of mental suffering.

    atheists know little about should thinking or wanting and not wanting as a source of misery and suffering.

    study up on buddhism and that may help over come at least some of your ignorance on should thinking and wanting and not wanting. or not.

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    This really isn’t all that difficult.

    Sam makes these wild claims in his talk:

      [CLAIM A] The IS/OUGHT distinction is quite clearly untrue.`
      [CLAIM B] Values are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures.

    I get these from the following segment of his talk:

    It’s often said that science cannot give us a foundation for morality and human values because science deals with facts, and facts and values seem to belong to different spheres. It’s often thought that there’s no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. But I think this is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures.

    CLAIM A is probably the claim that’s gotten the most attention. It’s certainly the most audacious and rebellious claim Sam’s making. He’s called the IS/OUGHT distinction “bad philosophy,” and has blamed it for for the moral relativism of the humanities (though, curiously, this accusation doesn’t really stick to most moral philosophers, although they might grace the IS/OUGHT distinction.) He’s defended CLAIM A above. It’s also the claim that Richard has weighed in on, apparently convinced that that the IS/OUGHT distinction is a “hectoring commitment of moral philosophers.”

    The IS/OUGHT distinction (henceforth I/O) is not, as Harris claims in his response to his critics, merely a pious dogma within moral philosophy (‘the last word from now until the end of time’) but a distinction that it is useful to make. It isn’t just that it’s “often thought” or that it “seems” that there is a distinction here.

    It derives from the observation that you can’t move from a factual statement, like…

      [1] Locking grandmother in the basement without her daily gallon of brandy is something that causes her unnecessary distress.

    ... to a normative statement, like…

      [C] We ought not to lock grandmother in the basement without her daily gallon of brandy.

    ...purely a priori. That means, [1] on its own does not logically commit us to [C]. We can’t infer [C] from [1] without something extra: a hidden premise. Something like:

      [2] We ought to avoid causing someone unnecessary distress.

    But [2] is a normative statement, an ought statement. The recognition that gives rise to I/O is that no purely factual statement, on its own, logically implies a normative statement. Where it appears on the surface that it does, there is always an implicit premise we are eliding, which states more clearly our prior normative commitment. That normative commitment is sui generis.

    This is not to say that factual claims are not relevant. We need the factual premise too, to arrive at the conclusion. Look:

      [2] We ought to avoid causing someone unnecessary distress.

      ...therefore…
     
      [C] We ought to avoid locking grandmother in the basement without her daily gallon of brandy.

    This is also an invalid inference, unless we have a factual premise that states that…

      [1] Locking grandmother in the basement without her daily gallon of brandy is something that causes her unnecessary distress.

    Facts about the world are therefore going to have primary relevance to working out what we should do, and how we should live, because you can’t do anything with a bunch of acontextual moral principles with no connection to the world. If you hold dearly to the idea that we ought not to cause unnecessary distress, you’re going to need a lot of facts about the world to tell you what actions cause unnecessary distress, so that you can avoid performing those actions. Science is the very best arbiter of factual claims that we have, and insofar as we can use it to provide us with relevant facts for our ethical decisions, it will be the best source of all the factual premises in our ethical reasoning.

    So it is no surprise when Sam says “when we’re talking about values, we are talking about facts” because normally, we are. This is uncontroversial, and no moral philosopher would disagree with it. But science, so we would claim, doesn’t provide us with the normative premises in our ethical reasoning.

    This is what Sam claims is obviously wrong. He claims I/O is clearly mistaken, as in CLAIM A.

    But according to Sam, a good ethical argument using his new sort of moral facts would look something like this.

      Throwing acid in the face of a sentient creature (according to facts about their neurophysiology) causes conscious state A.
     
      [ii] We ought to avoid causing conscious state A in sentient creatures.
     
      [C] We ought to avoid throwing acid in the face of sentient creatures.

    But, as you can see, the “moral-factual” premise, premise [ii], is actually an explicitly normative premise, and doesn’t derive here or elsewhere from any fact about the world. An attempt to show it does just goes back on a regress, and ends up looking like the above. You can make it as complicated as you want.

      [I] (Either conscious state A or conscious state B) and (not both conscious state A and conscious state B) can obtain in sentient creatures.
     
      [II] Conscious state B can be defined as a state of conscious “wellbeing”.
     
      [III] We ought to exclusively promote conscious wellbeing in sentient creatures.

      ...therefore…

      [IV] We ought to exclusively promote conscious state B.
     
      ...therefore…
     
      [C] We ought to avoid causing conscious state A in sentient creatures.

    Again, the ought comes in at [III], and is a sui generis premise, which does not follow from any of the prior premises.

    And Sam acknowledges this. Instead of trying to show, in his talk or in his argument, the moment of truth, where, looking at an fMRI scanner, an I statement magically turns into an O statement, he draws, in some cases, on the notion of consensus over moral commitments to vindicate the idea that we ought to promote conscious wellbeing in sentient creatures.

    He brings in [CLAIM B], saying that:

    Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures.

    Well, I can think otherwise than this. Let’s say that I think the set of all moral truths is the set of all truths about the wellbeing of a certain class of inanimate objects. Cars, for instance. I am indifferent to the wellbeing of conscious creatures. But, foundationally, we ought not to damage manufactured items like cars.

    But here’s where Sam brings in consensus. (This is where he implicitly denies [CLAIM A].)  Sam claims that this vision of automobile-directed morality is unrecognizable to most people.

    There is no… no notion of morality… of human values that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.

    While not strictly true, this is uncontroversial. Most people think what is important to morality is a concern for other conscious things. That’s the sphere of morality, for most people. But the very fact that I can think otherwise, (that there is no factual statement the acceptance of which logically compels me to think that conscious experience is what is relevant to morality), demonstrates that this bedrock principle that Sam indicates is really just a sui generis moral statement that most people would find agreeable. It’s uncontroversial. Most of us agree with it already. Bentham chose pretty much the same principle when he suggested felicific calculus. But it is a sui generis moral principle. And it is not a logical truth. It is not true by virtue of itself. It is not derived from a factual statement.

    Some might claim, it is derived from a fact about consensus. Well, let’s look at that.

      [X] Most people agree that we ought to bring about conscious wellbeing.

    ...therefore…

      [Z] We ought to bring about conscious wellbeing.

    Well, again, that’s missing…
      [Y] We ought to do what most people agree we ought to do.

    So even in Sam’s own arguments, he’s bringing in implicit ought-premises. And by trying to ground it out in intersubjective agreement, rather than some factual claim which somehow logically implies a normative claim, he admits this.

    [CLAIM A], therefore, is false.

      [CLAIM A] The IS/OUGHT distinction is quite clearly untrue

    ...is false.

    But this is where the talk starts to look very intellectually dishonest. Because Sam also holds [CLAIM B]:

    Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures.

    Well, accepting his foundational ought-claim, which we’ve already demonstrated can’t be derived from any is-claim, let’s look at an argument that includes facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures.

    Assuming an implicit premise that grandmother is a conscious creature (something I’m not quite sure of!)

      [1] Locking grandmother in the basement without her daily gallon of brandy is something that prohibits her wellbeing.
     
      [2] We ought to avoid prohibiting the wellbeing of conscious creatures.
     
      [C] We ought not to lock grandmother in the basement without her daily gallon of brandy.

    Look! Sam said that values are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. But it’s obvious that the ought-statement, the one where values are operative, is [2]. The fact about the wellbeing of concious creatures is [1]. But this is nothing more than the factual half of our ethical reasoning. This is not a value. This is simply a fact. It’s a common or garden fact, the sort of fact we already knew we needed in tandem with our normative premise to reach a conclusion. We already knew that we needed factual premises in any ethical reasoning. We need both normative and factual premises to reach a conclusion about what we should do in the world.

    Sam claims that the revolutionary new role that science can play in moral reasoning is to give us these “facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures” and also facts about the best way to facilitate this wellbeing. But these are nothing but plain facts. They are not values at all. The values, as we’ve seen, are tied up in his appeal to consensus for valuing wellbeing to begin with. Everything else is just a factual auxilary, to hook up our sui generis ethical commitment with the world, in order to find out what follows from it.

    So, if what he’s telling us is that science can tell us things that are of importance to ethical reasoning, he’s telling us nothing new at all. But that doesn’t sound particularly exciting or special. Certainly not worthy of a visionary. So, instead, Sam pretends that these facts which can compliment our ethical principles to give us conclusions are the values:

      [CLAIM B] Values are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures.

    But as we’ve seen, this is false. Facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures are just facts. However, the above (false) claim makes Sam feel entitled to challenge (casually!) what he perceives as a central dogma of moral philosophy, thereby attracting the maximal attention, pissing off the maximum amount of people who have spent their career carefully observing it out of a concern for logical validity, and drawing a gasp of uncomprehending admiration from thousands of people who haven’t a clue about it, and are now inclined to dismiss and ignore the entire field of moral philosophy as irrelevant, obstructive, Ivory Tower dogmatism:

      [CLAIM A] The IS/OUGHT distinction is quite clearly untrue.

    Which as we’ve seen is also false.

    It therefore appears that, through ignorance or PR-motivated dishonesty, Sam Harris is misrepresenting or exaggerating the import of what he’s saying. There’s nothing wrong with the content of what he says, but it’s almost completely trivial, and has been said before by many ethicists with their fingers in the neuroscience pie. It doesn’t merit mentioning. It doesn’t merit a TED talk. It’s already underway; par for the course; painfully obvious. Or if it does merit mentioning, if it does merit a TED talk, it’s hardly Sam’s idea to brandish around as if he’d discovered the Archimedean point on the moral geometry. The talk should instead be an advocacy of empirical mindedness as a component of best practice in ethics.

    So there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the substance of what he’s doing, except that it’s trivial. But there’s everything wrong with the way he represents what he’s saying - the claims he makes here are false, and bear little relation to what he’s actually doing.

     

     

    (There is another important distinction I’ve glossed over here for the purposes of clarity. Sam (doesn’t explicitly, but does seem to) equivocate between the IS/OUGHT distinction, and the FACT/VALUE distinction. Values are not oughts. While there is a lot of philosophy on just what a value might be, values are something like the criteria that motivate ought-judgments.)

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    Michael, all Mr. Harris has to do is provide his dissertation and explain why his PLOS one article says he only contributed to the writing and analysis of experiments (yet still got a first author).  If he said that it takes UCLA 1 year to post a dissertation, then fine, I still want to read it.  I have all the evidence I need for my case and would like Mr. Harris to provide these details.  If everything I said is true 1) He did not finish his dissertation yet and 2) He got a first author without doing experiments, then my stance is that the corruptibility of science is too great to uphold moral truth just like politicians are too corrupt to uphold the constitution.

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    259. Sebastian

    I think one important point is the principle/practice distinction in consensus of ethical sentiments. *In principle*, we cannot exclude the possibility that all our moral sentiments are ill-informed and one black swan human being with a genuinely different set of moral sentiments exists. *In practice*, we have to acknowledge the overwhelming empirical evidence that there is a huge overlap in the practical values and moral sentiments of humankind which *can* be explained in terms of eg. evolutionary psychology—say, the principle of reciprocity as something that increases fitness.

    This gap—that moral philosophy tries to base its arguments on necessary truths (principles), yet reality only holds a rough empirical overlap for us (practice)—is a serious one to address in the matter.

    Also, my actions are not energized by rational thoughts or justified known beliefs. My actions are energized by emotions. I do not want chocolate sundae *because* it is a justified known belief, a scientifically proven fact that the majority of human beings enjoy the taste of chocolate sundae, but because the thought, sight, smell of chocolate sundae triggers emotional and motivational reactions in me: I long for it. All scientific truth in the world cannot make me want it—there is no direct link from truth to emotion—that, to me, is the real is/ought difference. *But* *if* I emotionally sense what I want, scientific truth can inform me about how best to attain it, what other consequences might be linked to my attaining it that I (emotionally) do *not* want, etc.

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    Please keep writing books and doing debates like this!

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    261. Marc Country

    Way to screw up your italic tag, Fionn. That’s objectively, morally, wrong.

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    </i> Sorry about that. I’d reposted from RD.net, but I apparently didn’t successfully remove all the formatting tags.

    Apparently the unclosed italics tag in my post applies to all subsequent comments. My transgression was amplified by an apparent flaw in the blog software. Trying to fix it with this comment, by closing the italics tags. Don’t know if it will work.

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    Ah, the problem was caused by the way I numbered the propositions. Hopefully this will fix it.


    TESTING.

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    It’s fixed. It’s because this blog uses the bbCode formatting. Once again, sorry about that. If only we could edit posts!

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    Just a note… that’s a rather serious error in the software. Someone could really screw up the comment stream if they wanted to, by opening and not closing bbformatting tags that completely screw up the layout, making the text illegible by , so that it’s impossible to see what they’ve done, and therefore to fix it by closing the tags….

    Although one could just view source, I suppose. But it’s still a vulnerability. Note to admin!

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    ^^^^
    “...making the text illegible by making it huge, making it contain a link or turning every comment into a table, so that it’s impossible….”

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    <i> philosophers

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    All praise Sam Harris. May his good works lead to a golden age!

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    269. Bob Rodgers

    Sam,

    From a both a nerological and human well being perspective, please comment:  An unknown percentage of humans (I suspect a significant sub-set group) talk the talk but do not walk the walk of religious/cultural doctrine/morality.  I believe this poses a significant argument in favor of your position which I agree with.  The problem is that I’m not smart enough to peel back that onion.

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    @ James Allen (52):

    You argue that everything is an opinion.  Which way does that cut?  If everything is an opinion, how does that help Harris’s argument?  He apparently subscribes to the fact/opinion dichotomy.  He wants to move moral questions from the opinion realm into the fact realm, not the other way around—which is what you’re doing.

    In any event, I don’t find it terribly interesting to deconstruct the fact/opinion, subjective/objective dichotomy.  The fact is, we have a bunch of words and concepts that make this distinction, because it seems to make sense of the world.  We mean different things by them.  When I say that something is an objective fact, I mean to say that it’s actually true independent of any human perception of it—that the tree actually is 25 feet tall.  Could we be *mistaken* when we say that?  Sure, the tree might be 10 feet tall.  The tree might not exist.  All of reality might not exist in the way we mean.  We theoretically could all be brains in a box.  This is idle chatter.  The question here isn’t whether any given fact proposition is right or wrong but that it is a fact proposition.  Harris wants to say that we can make equivalent fact propositions about morality.  I don’t think we can.  How do you think he can?

    I said before that a “should” statement does not describe, or misdescribe, the universe.  You asked, what else could it describe?  Cute, but I think the answer is obvious, and implied in what I wrote.  Yes, it describes the universe, but only in the following limited way: it describes what you believe.  It is saying that you are having the thought you are expressing.  That doesn’t get Harris very far.  Feelings and thoughts don’t describe the objective universe, *other than the fact that you are having the feeling or the thought*.  Would that caveat solve the problem?  When I say that I love someone, I’m not saying that my love is somehow objectively correct.  I’m merely saying that it exists.  When I say that I like blueberry pie, I’m not saying that blueberry pie is objectively tasty, but only that I prefer blueberry pie.  When I say that someone should do something in order to be a good person, I’m merely announcing my moral judgment, and the only fact I’m asserting is that I am actually making that particular moral judgment and not some other opposing judgment.

    You suggest that, well, everything is a subjective viewpoint when you get down to it, and that the only difference between fact and opinion propositions is that fact propositions are more certain.  I don’t think that’s right.  When I say that the tree is 25 feet tall, I am not merely saying, “I hold the belief that the tree is 25 feet tall.”  I am saying that it really is 25 feet tall.  Are we doing something similar when we make moral propositions?  Do we mean to?  Well, perhaps some do.  Others do not.  The consensus on the existence of reality is a lot more firm than on the existence of objective morality.  In any event, when you think about it, I think the reason why we argue about this is because we’re not really purporting to describe the objective universe outside our minds when we announce moral judgments.  Should statements just aren’t is statements, such that it is senseless to say to someone professing a should statement we disagree with, “You’re incorrect” or “You’re mistaken” (except insofar as they are incorrect or mistaken about a point of fact or reasoning that informs their moral judgment), just as it would be senseless to say to someone who believes x is beautiful to say that she is incorrect or mistaken.  Why is my reasoning here incorrect or mistaken?

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    I think there’s a sense in which this lengthy clarification if self-defeating. The original claim was that science can settle questions of value; but the whole shape of this reply makes it clear that the really fundamental questions (concerning the validity of the is/ought distinction, the nature of wellbeing, moral relativism and so on) have to be settled philosophically before science can get involved. (That’s why this piece reads more like a philosophy paper than a physics paper!)

    I get the impression that Sam thinks it’s so obvious that what matters, morally, is just maximising human wellbeing/happiness, that we should all just accept that incontrovertible truth and get down to the serious business of deciding how to act on that basis - using science to help us. And when I think about the dangerous, atrocity-justifying rubbish spouted by some of his opponents - the religious nuts and the relativists who defend them - it’s hard not to share some of his frustration at the apparent difficulty of getting people to admit that promoting misery just can’t be better than promoting happiness.

    But there are plenty of people who have no time for either religion-based morality or relativism - and I’m one of them - who still don’t feel able to sign up to the sort of utilitarian view Sam proposes, just because that sort of view too can be used (without any obvious distortion) to justify plainly immoral things. Sam’s clearly aware of the sort of objections that crop up here - objections to do with the fact that if maximising wellbeing is all that matters, it seems that it must sometimes be right to do terrible, unjust things to people on the basis that overall wellbeing will thereby be maximised. (It might be OK to kill one person so that their organs can be used to save the lives of five others, for instance; there are many hard-to-answer examples of this sort, which I think is why utilitarianism is generally rejected.)  But he doesn’t really address this question head on; he just says things like

    “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”

    ...well, no, it doesn’t - but they’re all extreme cases in which there’s no obvious tension between individual rights and general well-being. But what about less extreme cases where there is such tension? In cases like that, the ‘science-will-settle-this-for-us’ view starts to look really terrifiying. Suppose science really could make us sure beyond reasonable doubt of some uncomfortable truth - that in societies where innocent scapegoats are occasionally convicted of high-profile crimes, the overall balance of well-being is that much higher (because people feel more secure, or are less likely to commit offences, or whatever). Is it then beyond question that that’s the course we should take?

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    Quit it, people.

    To anyone, if someone starts up the weird formatting again, just close the formatting tags using square bracketted formatting tags.

    So, without spaces, the following…

    [ / b ]
    [ / i ]
    [ / u ]

    etc

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    “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 angst of having to reeducate oneself about how to justify ethical behavior outside of a religious context only exists because religion (in the sense of “assenting to dogmatic assertions about right and wrong”) is consistently offered up as the only solution to moral/ethical problems. Teach a better framework, and you eliminate the angst.

    Sam Harris is offering a better framework, with the maximizing of well being as the division between things we should value and things we should not. Neo-pragmatists, like Richard Rorty, have also opposed moral relativism, on a similar idea of maximizing human potential.

    What Harris ads here is a empirical component, which will surely help in deciding some cases. His larger move is to counter the assumption that science has no role in determining what is right to do, which has long been a sort of pact between religion and science. He is also championing a sort of common-sense reasoning. It is, after all, hard to conceive of a way in which the more extreme religious practices and, especially, retributions for deviating from the same, can be ethically justified on any other standard than conformity to dogma. Rooting ethical behavior in an undefined notion of human well being is certainly no more arbitrary than grounding it in religious dogma. And, by Occam’s Razor, it is the better explanation.

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    Imagine for a moment that Harris is right; that we live in a world with some real, knowable moral answers, but they’re obscured by a position usually condescendingly called moral relativism (don’t worry about why this is).
    Now imagine we’re in Carroll’s world, where moral certainty is unobtainable. Forget the chains of reasoning and ask: would there be any observations we could make of actual human behavior that would suggest that one or the other view is correct?             [s]

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    Imagine for a moment that Harris is right; that we live in a world with some real, knowable moral answers, but they’re obscured by a position usually condescendingly called moral relativism (don’t worry about why this is).
    Now imagine we’re in Carroll’s world, where moral certainty is unobtainable. Forget the chains of reasoning and ask: would there be any observations we could make of actual human behavior that would suggest that one or the other view is correct? [s]

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    The part in the TED talk where Sam put up the two photos showing the extremes of the treatment of female bodies was a good moment of clarification for me. The extremes are clearly wrong, but there’s probably a wide range in between where well being is maximized. That makes sense.

    The liberal moral relativism that accepts cultural atrocities has always baffled me. During the fiercest time when Little Green Footballs was on its anti-jihad bent, they very often pointed out the falsity of liberal moral relativism. I never could come up with an excuse for it, and now I see that I shouldn’t.

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    [ / b ]
    [ / i ]
    This should fix the formatting. I didn’t know it was on when I posted. Sorry about that.

    Also, when I hit preview, it resets the comment box and I have copy/paste my comment back into it. Is that the way it’s supposed to work?

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    Fail. LOL

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    279. Eugene Hamburger

    @wheat

    The problem is that accepting Mr. Harris’ framework as the “correct” or “superior” one still requires a leap of faith. You, nor Harris, has provided objective reasons describing why his “framework” should be the one we all confine ourselves too.

    In fact, the more I consider it, the more humorous it becomes: all these scientific “luminaries” encourage human growth and the broadening of human horizons by CONFINING human thought to a very narrow, arbitrary sphere.

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    280. James Allen

    @JakeH and possibly @Fionn

    “He wants to move moral questions from the opinion realm into the fact realm, not the other way around—which is what you’re doing.” - JakeH

    There aren’t any realms. “Facts”, in the the empirical sense, are underwritten by assumptions about causation. So, facts ARE opinion. What Harris is proposing, in part, and what I’m proposing, is that ethics be held to the same standard that empiricism is. That is: that though logically incomplete, empiricism and ethics are pragmatic nonetheless. Or with greater philosophical succinctness: though neither is sufficient, both are necessary.

    “Should statements just aren’t is statements, such that it is senseless to say to someone professing a should statement we disagree with, ‘You’re incorrect’ or ‘You’re mistaken’ [...], just as it would be senseless to say to someone who believes x is beautiful to say that she is incorrect or mistaken. Why is my reasoning here incorrect or mistaken?” - JackH

    Well, the first point is that it’s not a good idea to treat aesthetic propositions and ethical propositions as if they’re interchangeable. They aren’t. But more importantly…

    You’ll notice two problems at play here. Fionn (see above) gave a great explication of how an “ought” cannot be logically derived from an “is”. His/Her argument is correct, but there is a converse problem. An “is” cannot be derived without an “ought”. Why else would we take sense-content seriously at all, if not because we think we ought to? We can thank Hume for both of these problems. The former is Hume’s ought/is problem, and the later is his induction problem. I can point to A.J.Ayer as well, who tried very hard to justify radical empiricism, but ultimately was stuck with an ethical claim - something to the effect that we should ignore the induction problem because, well, we ought to (except he struggled until his death without being able to admit it).

    It’s essentially a paradox. “Is” is underwritten by an “ought”, and not surprisingly, an “ought” cannot be derived from “is”. But, sadly, if “oughts” are senseless, then the same must be said of “is”, because “is” is underwritten by an “ought”. Said another way: if ethics cannot have truth values, then ether can empiricism, because empiricism rests on an ethical justification.

    Which brings us right back to the beginning. Holding up the is/ought distinction, as Sam Harris says, is ludicrous. We need to establish an ethical presupposition on which ethical claims can be scientifically investigated. Just as we did for all other types of claims.

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    281. Robert Haines

    Bill wrote “You are obviously not a scientist either.”

    Ah, more pronouncements from the expert on Dr. Harris AND on me. It’s astonishing, the things you (don’t) know. Or perhaps you’re relying on your psychic powers?

    “I was merely stating that UCLA does not have a record of Mr. Harris’s dissertation…1) the dissertation does not exist in UCLA’s library “

    No, you weren’t “merely stating that UCLA does not have a record”; you were stating that you couldn’t *find* a record. If you can’t tell the difference between those claims, you have no business discussing science.

    Nor are you correct that “the dissertation does not exist in UCLA’s library”. The ONLY thing that you “know” is that your search on UCLA’s *on-line catalog* did not produce a record for you of Dr. Harris’ dissertation.

    Well, I took the trouble of speaking with a librarian of dissertations for UCLA (her name is Annette Marines, and she’s at, sensibly enough, library.ucla.edu). She told me that the library is backlogged and new submissions often take 6 months to show up in their system, from when they’re submitted.

    I also telephoned Dr. Harris’ supervising professor, Mark Cohen (he can be reached at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and at brainmapping.org).

    He told me that Dr. Harris did indeed complete and submit his dissertation.

    So, there you have it: _you_ used a search engine and declared “fact” from its failings. _I_ spoke with a dissertation librarian and Dr. Harris’ supervisor, and got the actual story. Don’t let that stop you from spouting more nonsense, though. I doubt it will.

    A previous commenter nailed it on the head: you’re the equivalent of a “birther”—a conspiracy theorist (without much theory), using shoddy “research” to “prove” some nefarious plot to deceive people. Pathetic.

    “In regards to articles, I don’t care how many articles Sam has published; a scientist it does not make.”

    Ah, the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, in all its glory. So, he has a PhD in neuroscience, he does research, his results are published, but he’s not a scientist. Nice little fantasy world you’ve got going on there.

    So, by your definition, Alfred Russel Wallace, Michael Faraday, Thomas Huxley and Bucky Fuller weren’t scientists either After all, none of them wrote PhD dissertations; indeed, none of them had PhDs. Suppose you favor us with your definition of what a “scientist” is.

    You claim “1) the dissertation does not exist in UCLA’s library”

    Have you been to the library and searched exhaustively through their collection? Have you even spoken with their librarian who searched for it for you? No, and no. You used an on-line search form to access a database that you have no idea how complete it is or when it is updated. And yet, because you couldn’t easily find it in an on-line search, you’re perfectly willing to declare the dissertation’s literal nonexistence and to accuse both Dr. Harris and myself of not understanding science. LAUGHABLE.

    You claim “2) Mr. Harris has a history of not finishing things”

    I presume you mean *other* than two well-received books (both far larger than his dissertation) and a third on its way to the publisher. And a BS from Stanford. And a PhD from UCLA. And countless magazine articles, lectures, etc. No doubt you have finished far more things by the age of 42 than Dr. Harris has. That is, if you’re not a 20 year-old college student; which would be my guess.

    “3) People sometimes make mistakes and mention that someone has already finished his dissertation when in fact, he is still in the process.”

    Except that his supervising professor has stated that he finished it.

    “4) One person made this mistake and the other news article continued the same mistake providing two sources of incorrect information”

    It seems to me that one person (you) made this mistake (of claiming that Sam Harris isn’t a scientist and hasn’t finished his dissertation) and that person is now going into full prevarication mode to try to cover his incorrect information. You might want to quit while you’re behind.

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    282. Keith Hamburger

    First, to try to fix the formatting issue.


    Let’s see how that does.

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    283. Keith Hamburger

    Well, it got rid of the bold but not the italic.  Perhaps what I just put there will do it.

    Mr. Wood, your failure was one of following directions.  You didn’t remove the spaces.

    And, I posted the last comment on the previous page of 200 comments which has, therefore, apparently, been completely ignored.  I certainly wouldn’t mind if someone were to at least say I am completely full of crap.  (After reading the actual comment, of course.)

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    284. James Allen

    @Keith Hanburger

    Did you mean this….
    “[...] NATURE determines what is a successful life. [...]” - Keith Hamburger

    I don’t think this is “full of crap”, but I don’t think it amounts to an objection of anythingr. Certainly, the propagation of the human race can be considered a metric of success. I don’t see why not. The thing is, the actions that make up that determination are what are being discussed. After all, the odd thing about our existence is that we can discuss and determine conditions under which species flourish or perish. We are, in a sense, self determining. Even as a strict determinist (which I am), that natural process entails doing exactly what we’re doing: discussion in order to set the conditions under which we’re determined.

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    Haines
    You actually called the library?  Don’t you have a job?  Maybe you are unemployed because of this terrible economy.  You still have not tried to defend my statement that Mr. Harris doesn’t even do his own experiments.  All of the scientists you mentioned actually did experiments.  Yes, you don’t have to have a PhD to do science (although the PhD route is most common).  Nowadays, almost all scientists have a PhD or why else would Harris even try to get one?  But you need to look at his science record and you will see how lousy a scientist he is or claims to be.  That’s why I wanted to read his dissertation.  His research has basically been writing about experiments someone else did and analyzing some of the data.  That’s something you do for a high school science fair.  And he got a PhD for that?  He also had a major conflict of interest that he didn’t even mention to the journal which was later corrected.  This guy is a serious joke.  He’s taking you for a ride.  I watched the Nightline episode on the future of religion.  His “neuroscience” background was not evident.  I mentioned the stuff he hasn’t finished…which is any scientific experiments.  Dude, you need to find a job.  Hilarious!  Aren’t you the guy that doesn’t know what a secondary source is?  Hilarious!

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    286. James Allen

    @Robert Haines
    Thank you for you hard work. It WAS worth while.

    @Bill
    You’re an idiot. Einstein didn’t do his own experiments either. In fact, he didn’t do any. You’re a simpleton, lunatic, wanker, etc… The only person who hasn’t realized that you are simply a troubled and disturbed individual is you, and your persistence has become a embarrassment for humanity.  Please, desist. For your own sake, if not ours.

    posted on April 1, 2010
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    i loved the article.
    Whether you agree or disagree this is one of the most important arguments our society as a world has. At some point we will have to realize that there are no borders and there is no afterlife. No bountiful heaven or exscruciating hell awaits us.
    That said, we should let moral discrepancies be solved by the most intellegent people our society has created.
    You dont let a mentally disabled person start a fire. He feels it to be an exciting and fun thing to do. But this fire will have massive repercussions on its sorroundings.
    This is true for mankind. The population as a whole is like the morally handicapped. i hate to say it but a circle of moral elders is needed for our society to live on in some sort of general happiness.
    You may say that the Haitian woman who caves in to her existance and leaves her destiny in the hands of god, has that right. That same church told her,and throughout her life she believes,that abortion will send her to hell. Now her five children are brought into an immensley impoverished society where inlarge faith takes over the need for education.
    To let this go on by allowing her personal choice is basically telling these children “tough luck”.
    Every day religion to me seems to be the scourge of the earth, allowing faith to take precedent over factual analysis.
    But what do i know. Leave it to the scholars

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    @Fionn:

    I don’t think your interpretation of Sam’s statements as thinking he is being profound or novel is correct.  I’m sure Sam is quite educated on this subject and knows that moral realism has existed in the academic philosophical community for years, but the problem he sees is the disparity between the advances in that field and in the mainstream accepted views of educated liberal intellectuals (that of moral relativism).

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    A couple of questions I’m wondering about:
    1. Sam Harris assumes, very early on, that ‘human flourishing’ (or sometimes ‘wellbeing’) is an objective, absolute good. Is it possible to back this up, or even to define those terms explicitly?
    2. When he points out things that are ‘bad’, he generally mentions actions where there is already a consensus in the West, like honour killings and domestic violence, so it’s easy to say, “that’s just bad” and have everyone agree. How would you apply this morality to questions where there is less consensus like in, say, genetic engineering or human cloning?

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    Einstein was a Mathematician/Theoretical physicist which is a lot different from the experimental scientist that Mr. Harris claims to be.  At least Einstein did “thought experiments.”  The only thought experiment Mr. Harris does is did I just fart?  Again, the problem boils down to the fact that Mr. Harris is not an experimental scientist (because he does not do experiments) nor is he a mathematician who performs thought experiments and therefore fits no classification of scientist.  He is some guy who sells silly books that are equivalent to Sarah Palin’s autobiography in both depth and intelligence.

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    291. turtlemail1

    Science could obviously do better than religion at answering questions of morality.  Thank you, Sam Harris, for putting your energy and talents behind the effort.  I agree that well-being could be the standard, but more simply perhaps, survival of the species.  As we evolve, it seems our morality evolves too.  Eons ago, and with some today, procreation for survival was the rule.  Now, recognizing limited resources, women as baby machines no longer improves our lot.  Abortion and homosexuality are more accepted.  The industrial revolution replaced the need for slavery.  Living on a smaller planet,  we seem to be evolving away from fighting wars of mutual destruction to putting a higher value on communication and cooperation.

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    @ James Allen (82)

    Thanks for the reply.  Your first point about my comparison of moral judgments to aesthetic ones is to brush it aside as “not a good idea.”  Why not?  The reason we don’t like to say that moral judgments are akin to aesthetic judgments—mere matters of taste—is because the former are more important to us—of more urgent concern.  But the point of the comparison isn’t to say that moral and aesthetic judgments are of equal significance to us, or that they should be.  I’m not saying that.  It’s to say that they correspond to objective reality in analogous ways.  That is, they both announce subjective judgments, as opposed to objective facts.  Or, if you prefer, they announce perceptions of one’s subjective judgment, as opposed to perceptions about objective reality.  I understand your argument about “O” underwriting “I”—the induction “paradox,” about which nobody cares because the reality of reality is a “problem” in search of a graduate student.  (See, like Harris, I can breezily dismiss thorny problems that have consumed fancier and more prolix thinkers too!  Why is wellbeing the object of morality?  Pish, says Harris, it obviously is.  How do we know that things exist?  Posh, I say, they obviously do.)

    But let me ask you this:  How do moral judgments and aesthetic judgments, in *your* view, differ?  If we can theoretically say that a moral proposition is true—with the same sort of confidence, at least in principle, that we can say that an ordinary fact (i.e., Tokyo is in Japan, not Egypt) is true (which, you know, doesn’t seem right, which is why Harris is being “radical” and “controversial”)—can we not say the same about aesthetic propositions?  What, in your view, prevents us from making assertions of aesthetic fact that would not also prevent us from making assertions of moral fact, of the sort Harris urges, but that would not prevent us from making any assertions of fact at all?

    You want ethics to be “held to the same standard” as empiricism, at least philosophically.  If so, why shouldn’t aesthetic judgments, or other “mere matters of taste,” also be held to that same standard?

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    To Sam Harris and All in the Advisory Board of the Project Reason

    If now is the last few moments of my life, my simple inheritance (and hence my sincere contribution) to the Project Reason would be the single catchword “Abhidhamma”. Googlize for the word. This is god of all paradigms. It contains both theory and practical applications to understanding all universal events. It is just so overly precioius.

    Let me remind you all. Valuable and lasting discoveries can not be based on utter wisdom only. They all have to be based on morals and ethics; then followed by specialization (concentration) of studies.

    Summary: Morals, Concentration and Wisdom (application of knowledge). Only good combination of these three elements could result in valuable discoveries.

    posted on April 2, 2010
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    294. Brad Coy

    Sam

    I am a big fan of yours and applaud your efforts to align the different cultures with a universal set of guidelines that will optimize good behavior and overall wellbeing.  I also agree that science will help define the moral compass; however, I would like to share some constructive criticism of comments you made in the TED lecture concerning your comparison of the picture showing women in body bags with the US magazine covers featuring female models.

    One photo is about the restrictions placed on women, by men, that no doubt lead to needless suffering on a physical and emotional level with very little societal benefit. The other photo demonstrates the exploitation of women and illustrates our society’s infatuation with sex. Unfortunately, much of your audience is probably getting an unintended message; men shouldn’t be free to dictate how women dress, which is a good message, and magazine publishers shouldn’t have the freedom to advertise using sexy female models; not a good message.

    For you to say in your lecture that we should meet somewhere in the middle of the two photos implies you are comparing apples to apples. One natural conclusion when asked to compare these photos is that there is not enough freedom in one photo and too much freedom in the other. However, I don’t think you meant to imply magazine publishers should be restricted in their method of advertising. I believe the message you wanted to evoke is that our society could adopt a better way of thinking and behaving in line with a more appropriate set of values, so that scantily clad females on the cover of a magazine would not be an effective way to influence purchases.

    I believe the two photos are too different to be comparable. The body bag photo shows an unseemly display of male dominance, but the magazine covers don’t really convey a comparable message.  In fact, many of the magazines you show are purchased primarily by women, and are of little interest to men, which even dilutes the otherwise fair comparison that one photo exemplifies an extreme position addressing a need to suppress male lust and the other photo demonstrates an extreme position that caters to male lust.

    At the very least, it confuses viewers to compare these images and I would encourage you to either not make the comparison, or to at least explain that you are not making statements about freedom of choice or appropriate measures to assuage male lust.  By the way, I don’t have a Doctorate in Philosophy, so feel free to disregard my opinion.  smile  Brad

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    295. Maximum Awesome

    @Fionn: good explanation of the is/ought divide. 
    @Fionn, Hamburger: I think Sam’s point may be more concrete/practical - and less specific/technical - than what you’re arguing against: he’s not trying to heal the divide between types of logical statements, he’s only saying that real-world human actions (and especially cultural practices) can, in principle if not currently in fact, be objectively assigned a “value” (as in, numeric value, i.e. 1 to 10) of being more or less conducive to human wellbeing.

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    296. James Allen

    @JakeH (94)

    “Your first point about my comparison of moral judgments to aesthetic ones is to brush it aside as ‘not a good idea.’  Why not?” - JakeH

    Moral propositions are directed at things people do while aesthetic propositions are directed at representations. Mixing and matching them confuses rather than informs. There is a more significant reason though…

    “If we can theoretically say that a moral proposition is true—with the same sort of confidence, at least in principle, that we can say that an ordinary fact is true —can we not say the same about aesthetic propositions? What, in your view, prevents us from making assertions of aesthetic fact that would not also prevent us from making assertions of moral fact, of the sort Harris urges, but that would not prevent us from making any assertions of fact at all?” -  JakeH

    Aesthetic facts are not necessary, whereas moral facts are, which does not effect our ability to make other assertions of fact. In short: Moral facts are necessary.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean that “wellbeing” - as envisioned by Sam Harris - is the backbone on which moral fact should be hung, but moral factualness of some sort is necessary for social human action nonetheless - just as subjective morality is necessary for individual human action. The subjective form is something like: I need to make choices by virtue of my existence and I need a way to value those choices so that they can be made. Ethics are not optional - we only pretend they are.

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    297. James Allen

    @JakeH (94)

    Oh, I should mention….

    “See, like Harris, I can breezily dismiss thorny problems that have consumed fancier and more prolix thinkers too!  Why is wellbeing the object of morality?  Pish, says Harris, it obviously is.  How do we know that things exist?  Posh, I say, they obviously do.” - JakeH

    Exactly! So what’s the problem then?

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    Robert Haines,

    Wonderful stuff! Only by going to such trouble can you silence know-nothings like Bill. I think he is suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. He is so sloppy and so ignorant, that he is unable to even begin to see just how sloppy and ignorant he is. His very sloppiness and ignorance are precisely the things stopping him from slapping himself on the forehead and saying, ‘Uh-oh. I’ve made a bit of a fool of myself…’

    posted on April 2, 2010
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    Brad Coy,

    Very good point and very well made. Perhaps you should have a PhD after all.

    posted on April 2, 2010
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    effilc #44

    “Reading these responses from Harris gave me an endorphin rush, realizing someone else thinks about these subjects with some clarity.”

    Who, exactly, would the other person be who thinks about these subjects with some clarity? It wouldn’t, by any chance, be your, would it?

    Has it never crossed your mind that everyone believes that they belong to the chosen few who see things clearly? And has it never occurred to you that most of these people are deluded? What makes you suspect that you aren’t one of them? Because you’re you? Look around you and I think you’ll see that it is precisely the people who don’t make such claims and are conscious of speaking from a partial viewpoint that are worth listening to.

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