“Science can answer moral questions”

Here’s a TED talk in which Sam Harris argues that we don’t need to rely on conjecture or appeals to authority to find moral truths – we just need to look at the science. According to Wikipedia, “Sam Harris is an American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist, as well as the co-founder and current CEO of Project Reason.”

Unfortunately, I disagree with him, and I hope it’s obvious why I think he’s wrong. He immediately equates morality with human well-being, explains that through neuroscience and psychology we can measure well-being, and therefore through neuroscience and psychology we can dictate morality. If only it were that simple.

Not everyone equates morality with human well-being – in fact, I’d argue that few, if any, people do. There are at least two obvious alternatives to maximizing human well-being as the objective of morality – obeying a higher authority, or respecting human rights that appear self-evident. If someone finds a certain right to be self-evident and inviolable, for example, then whether or not it’s best for human well-being is absolutely irrelevant. One might assume that science could tell us how to maximize human well-being given the limitation of respecting human rights, but in any case that won’t result in everyone being able to agree on what’s moral or not. 

Sam Harris can claim that these alternative systems of values are wrong, but there’s simply no scientific basis for that, or for any system of values. He can use science to explain how best to get what we want, but not what to want – just like the chocolate or vanilla comparison he used, wrongly. 

This post of mine definitely seems to stray hard from science to philosophy, but I think it’s important to recognize the boundaries of what science can tell us. I think Sam Harris seriously misunderstands or misrepresents this. Science remains what it’s always been – our best tool for surviving and thriving – but how and if we use it is still up to us. 

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