Sam Harris – Science Based Morality

In his TED speech, Sam Harris talks about how morality can fall into the realm of science. He says basically that it isn’t really a subjective thing based on cultural differences. That humanity could and probably should have one morality.

This is a heavy subject and I fear I may have gotten myself into it without being prepared to write at length. Actually I haven’t yet formed my own opinion on the subject. But a couple of thoughts crossed my mind.

1. The human condition is the same across all humanity.

2. Does one morality leave any room for variation?


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0 thoughts on “Sam Harris – Science Based Morality

  1. I watched the whole thing. The whole goddamn thing. Keep in mind my responses are in chronological order.

    Someone sounds like they’ve gone off the deep end and started preaching science. ^_^

    Btw, everyone should note that though he speaks of universal moral truths, he does so from a western perspective. The very idea he speaks towards, he contends in his approach to the issue. He’s approaching it from the idea that murdering your own daughter to wipe the shame from your family name is not an acceptable idea. Earlier on in the video he also listed indiscriminate killing as being on the far low end of the moral spectrum. Why? So you want to set a bar for everyone to aspire to meet or to exceed. Great! Now, who gets to say where that bar is? He’s playing to the values of the crowd and he knows it. Same goes for the labeling of those that choose to model in little to no clothing as an extreme on the spectrum. According to whom? Let’s take a visit down to a village in Africa and have a chit chat with the natives who don’t wear anything covering their chests (male or female) because breasts are not viewed sexually, and wear little clothing because of the stifling heat. Let’s talk to them about their standards of decency and what is seen as extreme to them.

    He speaks about the religious demagogues and yet appears to be becoming one, ready to push his own particular brand of morality on the known universe.

    So you want to exclude some opinions huh? So you raise the question of whether every culture’s moral standards and opinions are worth considering? Well, then where is the line drawn? He says that there are facts in morality and I can’t help but believe he’s a bitter vanilla fan seeking to woo the masses of chocolate, strawberry, rocky road, cookies n creme, french vanilla, banana, and dulche de leche ice cream lovers to his cause with a well constructed argument with shiny wrapping. For example, the bit about cultures and moral opinions reliably leading to suffering. Who said suffering was a bad thing? Many cultures and subcultures use suffering for a variety of things, most especially to give meaning in our dichotomous world view to the things that bring us happiness.

    Oh, and about the burqas. The difference between the garments of many women of the muslim world (even those living outside of circumstances where perhaps they do not have a reasonable choice but to where them) is literally just the veil. If not the veil then also the hijab. That said, you don’t see people talking about how people are being stifled in the hot weather in these loose fitting, light material clothes that it was traditional at one time in history for everyone to wear, do you? You don’t even see them talk about women who wear everything except the veil. Suddenly, you put a single rectangular piece of cloth in front of someone’s face and it’s a mobile oppression unit. Suddenly it must be stifling in there and someone must save these women. All for one piece of cloth. Never mind the pimply faced teenagers in the 4 inch thick fur suits at disney world dancing and entertaining children all day with their entire bodies covered by those ungodly get ups. Nope, let’s not discuss them. Let’s talk about what we view as wrong, no matter what the person in question believes about their own choices or circumstances. We’ll tell them what’s right because we’re moral elitists! Yeah!

    I get what he’s saying and on some level I even support it but it’s not feasible. The instant you set out to answer those questions you’re elevating one view above another. To turn his own example on its head, a woman wearing a burqa under the social constraints of leading a muslim lifestyle. Now, he’s arguing on the basis of human flourishing. He’s also saying not to necessarily take their word for it when they say that it is their choice. However, for a person in a position where their belief system dictates a code of modesty in dressing and the person takes pride in adhering to principles they believe in (as many people do) would that not be an expression of human flourishing? And was that expression of human flourishing created by the circumstances that he is questioning morally? Again, this is an issue of where the line is being drawn. So, you’re admitting that some constraints are okay. Obviously you believe that it’s wrong to kill someone and obviously in any society there will be a means of coping with that legally. You just don’t believe in certain levels of constraint, like rapping children on the knuckles with a yard stick or, presumably, beating a child with a belt. Well then, we have a problem, don’t we?

    I wonder how a person like him who is so staunchly set on certain issues would take being proven wrong by the evidence. Would he take it in stride when his own ideals would be defeated by his system of scientifically determining morality? I strongly doubt he’d be easy going about it. Does it support the overall well-being of a people to behead a gay son? Well, I think that’s a question that falls into culture. We’re all in this together, right? Two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner I say. Don’t try to fix what already works.

  2. What a bunch of specious, “scientific” nonsense.

    “Values are facts about the well being of conscious creatures.”

    I’d like a definition of “well being” and an explanation of how someone’s well being isn’t entirely subjective.  He admits it isn’t.  What is suffering?  What level of suffering is or isn’t acceptable and moral?  He says it’s open for interpretation, and goes on and on about “there are many right answers”.  His analogies of physical health and chess fall short on elaborating his points.

    He likes to work in absolutes too much for my liking.  Food vs. poison.  Life vs. death.  Morality isn’t entirely black and white in the individual mind, so how could it be black and white as a whole for all of humanity?  He expects the technology of the future (brain mapping and such) to be able to answer these questions, but I don’t think that will be possible.  Just because we may understand the brain better in the future doesn’t mean we’ll have all the answers to life’s questions and moral dilemmas.

    “Values reduce to facts.”

    He never actually talks about what these facts are.  He goes on and on about finding balances, but doesn’t offer ideas on how to find those balances.

    He keeps comparing “Western intellectuals” and religious people, largely from Middle Eastern/Eastern cultures, as if they’re polar opposites and have entirely mutually exclusive ideas.  He sounds extremely prejudiced, if not slightly racist.

    What I think natural, “scientific morality” would be:  pure Darwinism.  The strong rule and the weak are left to die.  Adapt or be left behind.  This would sound barbaric to most people.  Honestly, I think the Piraha tribe of the Amazon might (arguably) have the best, most functional version of “scientific morality” on Earth.  Everything is based on the immediacy of experience principle for them; if you didn’t personally witness something yourself or hear it directly from a witness, it doesn’t matter and you don’t talk about it.  Everything requires empirical proof.  You are expected to fend for yourself if you’re facing death; for example, if you’re a woman bleeding out in the river during labor, you are left to die because you weren’t strong enough.  No one commits suicide.  They support their disabled, though, as long as they’re able to work somehow.  They place no value on trinkets or unnecessary decorations.  They make simple huts that can easily be rebuilt in case of a storm, and they constantly make “disposable” things such as baskets that they can throw into the jungle when they’re done with them.  They have sex with each other and change spouses whenever it suits them.  They simply kick dangerous people out into exile because they have no village elders or legal system.  Children are treated and spoken to as adults, and by the age of 3-4, are expected to work to support the tribe.  They have no creation myths or deities and cannot be converted by missionaries.  Et cetera.

  3. I took a look at the length of this video.  Unless Dr. Harris offers a full semester’s worth of discourse on this worthy topic, he’s not giving it the depth it warrants. Method and striemmy have several valid points, each of which could take an hour’s response.

    Unity in diversity is more than a tourist catchphrase for the Republic of Indonesia.

  4. Didn’t watch the video–as a long-time philosophy reader claims like “Science Based Morality” translate into “Random Abstraction Based on Preconceptions Anyway Based Morality”

    I would probably agree with schallerbrandon’s evaluation.

    But on the broader things you were questioning:

    1. Morality is a fundamental value theory that exists only for living beings. This is because living beings must meet conditions to survive, and must meet them in a way appropriate to their nature. A dog need nutrients to survive, but he cannot get them qua tree and plant himself in the ground and hope to survive.

    2. Humans share the same fundamental conditions for survival–and they are all human, they can survive qua human only.

    3. Thus, all humans require the same morality. There is only ONE morality. With NO variation.

    Further, the reason a “scientist” would say there is only ONE morality is because a “scientist” tends to see things in terms of principles and logic–that there is ultimately only one reality, and that if a thing is a thing, then all it is is that thing. A human is a human and that’s it. There isn’t a morality for black humans and a morality for white humans or a morality for male humans and one for female humans or a morality for muslims and one for christians–there is only ONE morality. Which means that of all the religions and philosophies in the world–only one is right or they are all wrong.

  5. he reminds me of dennis miller. funny man.

    I’m also concerned about those disney characters in those suits during hot weather the next time I visit disneyland, I’m going to ask donald duck if he is suffering heat stroke and then punch him in the face and run because he is there to entertain guests

  6. I’ll watch it tomorrow at work, but I’ve seen his lectures on an empirical morality before. I’ve always had two problems with it.

    (1) There is too much variability to have a unified theory that explains the diverse conditions of moral situations. In other words, a single morality would be so abstract and generic as to be meaningless. We don’t have one “theory of physics” and one “theory of economics” or one theory of just about anything. Theories are refined to explain a select set of statements, and inasmuch as we can conjoin those theories into some broader meta-theory, we are simply saying that they broadly relate to each other such as “theories of physics” or “theories of economics.” Such  meta-theory would tell us nothing about physics or economics other than the most generic ideas that don’t do the facts nor subject matter justice.

    (2) There is no definite empirical foundation for what is being approached. From what I recall he basically is on the right idea about being able to empirical justify moral claims, but that does not mean we can empirically analyze morality. There are implicit aspects about morality that are value-laden and theory-laden, which are not themselves empirically verifiable. In other words, moral inquiry requires something distinctly non-empirical. Inasmuch as we might say values exist in the mind, or goals have psychological necessities, and that we can use psychological empirical sciences to validate those values, goals or motives, that ignores the fact it just explains away precisely what is to be analyzed! It’s like saying we can talk about societies in terms of entities of atomic structure and then talk about social relations. Well, no you can’t. If we’re talking about people we need a domain of discourse for which people are the individuals entities to analyze. If you quantify them in terms of some more basic substructure such as their molecular makeup, then you’ve dissolved the individual entities for something more basic. That reduction or the possibility of reforming the relations on the unreduced entities is a non-trivial problem that is implicit in the kind of “scientific approach” to things of these nature (whether it be morality, the mind, etc.).

    As I said, this does not mean we cannot approach these problems with empirical support. In describing social relations there are instances which a reduction to some more basic substructure (or extension to a superstructure) could pose a useful model to capture, explain or illuminate some fundamental relationships. The argument that we can turn morality into a scientific inquiry begs the question that this is necessarily possible in all instances. As I said, this is a non-trivial problem that I find entirely unresolvable from a scientific standpoint. It is entirely philosophical, and I can go on the attack from that front precisely because science cannot empirically verify things that are implicitly theory-laden (e.g., empirical evidence cannot verify empiricism, which superficially makes empiricism a self-refuting philosophy). I will still watch this tomorrow when I have time. I enjoy Harris’ commentary, and he is an excellent speaker. He’s well informed and has good ideas, but he seems almost too dogmatically or too assuredly invested in some of these ideas. I can only muster that he goes to such excess to validate his atheism, but such is only speculation. 

  7. Universal “scientific” morality presupposes perfect knowledge.  It is possible, given limited knowledge, to have multiple, coexisting moral codes, that are each logically valid.

    That having been said, there are numerous moral codes that many people hold to that are not logically valid at all; Islam for example.

    @tjordanm – Not sure I completely agree (strike that: I am completely sure that I do not agree).

    You are advocating a logic-based morality, no?

    As I mentioned above, imperfect knowledge allows for multiple possible valid moral points of view.  The reason being that in the absence of perfect knowledge you cannot be certain of your assumptions; there can be facts that you are not aware of that would have a significant effect on your arguments.

    Ultimately, we are all responsible for living in a way consistent with what we genuinely see to be what is the most likely to be true.  But we must understand that it is what is most likely, and is not necessarily true (unless it is derived from direct observation, and even then, we may not understand fully what it is we’ve seen; take Newtonian physics for example).

  8. Damn I was going to post about this. You beat me to it.  The video is so short it only presents a very shallow view of his thoughts so of course its’ eas to pick apart. There’s a really interesting blog/debate between Sam Harris and scientist Sean Carroll that illuminates the two sides much better here.

    I’m not sure what I believe yet. They both make pretty good points. Harris’s point of view is something I would have said I totally disagreed with a couple years ago. Now I’m leaning more toward his point of view.

  9. @maskedman23 – Not so much “logic-based” but “reality-based.” Knowledge is not perfect and humans are not omniscient. However, knowledge is hierarchical–there are different tiers of generalizations and the human mind begins by learning, implicitly at first, the broadest possible generalizations which are sufficient to generate a theory of reality, mind, and values.

  10. He loses me right at the beginning. All morality is *not* based on compassion for the suffering of others. HUGE assumption he needs to jump from the realm of constructed ideas to the physical observable world.

    Without that link his whole talk falls apart.

    Sam Harris: FAIL

    Then he proceeds to make blatant begging the question fallacies with statements like “We know there are right and wrong answers to how to move in this space.”

    Uh, no, moron, right and wrong are what you are trying to prove and establish; you can’t just declare them as presuppositions.

    Sam Harris: FAIL

  11. And his characterization of theistic ethics (which in no small way betrays his bias) is asinine and insulting to say the least.

    Heaven and hell may be a carrot and stick for the common theist’s practical application of his faith, but they do not form the basis for all theistic morality. This guy wouldn’t pass an undergrad philosophy of religion class.

  12. Somebody needs to get this guy a time machine. He is a card carrying Modernist preaching 80 years after anyone took it seriously (Ayn Rand followers notwithstanding). His smug condescension over his seemingly obvious rhetorical questions (how could you ever disagree with something so clear unless you are a backwards cretin?) is extremely irritating.

  13. @roxics – Then his errors are even more egregous, implying he is pushing an agenda instead of simply explaining a scientific hypothesis.

    Wait, did you say BA? You can’t get published in *real* philosophy with only a BA. His books should be found next to The Secret in the Self Help section.

  14. There is much I could say about this video, now that I have watched it, but there are two fundamental problems I have with Harris’ approach. For one, as a mathematician, for you to claim a space exists in the sense he wants requires us to already know the measure of the moral entities. For instance, how do you know the real number space? Because you know that 1 is less than 2, 3, 4, etc. You can order them and measure distances between numbers (the metric is the absolute difference between two points). By setting up the space given the properties of the real numbers, you can talk about the space produced. We do not have any foundation for what are the fundamental entities of the moral space nor their properties and he entirely begs that question regarding it ambiguously as “well-being” and talking about “consequences” as if that is enough. I don’t discount the concept that such a moral space can be articulated, investigated or pursued, but Harris seems to think we already have it!

    Secondly, he is making a metaphysical error in thinking that morality is an issue of the brain. Notice how he tries to claim the social or cultural influences are entirely reducible to neuroscience by saying that “culture changes the brain” and ultimately we only need to study how the brain is at any given state. That “snapshot” of the brain at some time may say absolutely nothing about morality if morality exists in the threads of time for which culture changes our brains. There is no reason why values or morality are abstracted to the domain of culture and social relations instead of neuroscience, and he begs the question that it is not only possible to do a complete reduction of the sort required for his statement to make sense, but that it is also the case that moral facts belong properly to neuroscience!

    Disregarding the major issues, I don’t find it very contentious at all that values and moral perspectives are involved with facts. However, he also ignores the theory-laden properties regarding those facts, the abstract nature of many of those facts, their social contextualization and the fact that some of the facts only properly are what they are because they are value-laden, also. It is then circular to say we have uniform facts about values that are themselves value-laden.

    Consider for the moment when Harris asked about treating our water with disease or that there is a clear difference between food and poison. Alcohol is a poison, period. Yet, it has some health benefits in certain quantities, and people drink to excess regardless. While there exist some things that are clearly poison in the sense that they will kill you, period, we do not have a homogeneous space by which we can label things so clearly. The distinction he can make is only when the difference is so great that no matter how we measure it, the disparity is recognizable. In terms of the water example, it may be that by polluting a given water supply we are going to kill off an enemy force and secure ourselves for future generations by eliminating that threat. The absolute generic statements he makes as if they were universal maxims are not so clear cut. The statement he made entirely begged the question about the values involved, the goals pursued and the implicit moral statement underlying it that is the entire point! There are plenty of examples I can get into on this point, especially if I had my literature at home, but I’ve talked about this before with regard to moral realism. A statement of fact is morally irrelevant if there isn’t some intentional content behind it that directs the behavior or choice in relation to that fact. We don’t want to pollute a water supply because we don’t want to kill those people. However, if you turn it around so that you do want to kill those people then polluting it could be a damn good choice! (ignoring auxiliary factors and future consequences).

    @herzog3000 – I think there is a lot of dogma and scientism behind his beliefs, especially as they’ve evolved over the years. He is well educated and knows what he is talking about, but he ignores critical information precisely when it would contend with his beliefs. That is a clear instance of the kind of dogma I hate, and frankly Harris has only gotten worse. The more he learns, the more he solidifies his dogma because he interprets all those new ideas so that they fit his mold.

  15. @bryangoodrich – Maybe that is what got my goat when listening to him speak. I could sense his inner certainty in what are clearly faith statements. I expect JWs to knock at my door and tell me “truths” about the unseen spiritual world. I don’t expect that sales pitch from supposedly educated people.

    And about the poison analogy (and he used *way* too many loose analogies for my comfort; what is this? Morality for Dummies?) I thought the exact same thing! Some poisons are helpful in the right amounts and some good things, like needed vitamins and minerals are harmful in excess. The line between food and poison is nowhere near as well defined as he preaches.

    I wonder if they passed around a collection plate after his speech?

  16. @tjordanm – True.  But mores are usually quite specific.  For example, say a military officer refuses a direct order to take a vaccine because his own studies indicate that it has devastating long-term health risks, whereas the experts employed by the military insist otherwise.  In this case, the disease prevented by the vaccine is mild (and almost certainly non-lethal), and the health risks that the officer insists exist are devastating.  The order is lawful and legal, yet there is controversy over its safety.  Here you have two differing moral points of view.  Which one is invalid?

    @roxics – I’m not angry.  And you should never apologize for making people angry when you are simply looking for the truth.

  17. @roxics – First, not angry. Criticizing someone does not require anger or even irritation; it only requires that one know or believe that they are wrong.
    Second, not only am I an atheist, I’m an anti-theist…. but that won’t stop me from calling someone out when they support an nonreligious idea poorly.

  18. @maskedman23 – They are–morality is abstract and the specific situations and proper actions must be deduced from the principles one figures out based on the gathering of fundamental knowledge about reality.

    In the hypothetical situation you provide, there are several components involved–how those balance out depends on the individual officer’s hierarchy of values. If he is an officer who places his devotion and loyalty in the US Military above his personal health, accepting the risk for the vaccination is something he will take. It might be that he places his personal health, and other values, very close to his loyalty–in that case, discharge or prison time for insubordination might be a better result for him than taking the risk of vaccination.

  19. @herzog3000 – Analogies are good, they serve a purpose, but he needed more concrete examples to solidify his point. Analogies help us gain an intuition. Examples help clarify its exact nature. Facts tell us precisely what it is. He provided nothing but loose intuitions that are so generic everyone will agree to some extent. His rhetoric will then get accepted by many, but any depth of analysis will show how faulty his underlying argument was. Hell, he talked about a lot of important shit in meta-ethics: moral conflicts, moral progression, value theory. However, he has yet to demonstrate he knows anything about metaethics. He has some loose normative notions backed by beliefs regarding science that he takes for granted. It is disappointed.

  20. @tjordanm – I think we use the term “morality” to signify two different concepts.  Your concept, I think, is much more specific.  You seem to be using the term to signify specifically those principles from which moral decisions are derived, and, in fact, it is much more plausible to say that those principles can and should be universal (I cannot think of a counterexample at the moment; I’ll have to think about it).  My concept of morality also subsumes those decisions that are derived from the general principles.  My concept is inclusive of the entire decision-making process.  I think that my concept is somewhat more accurate because every step of the process is a part of moral decision-making.

    Good answer, though.

  21. @roxics – It definitely didn’t make me angry. I find Sam Harris really interesting. He’s clearly a smart dude talking about subject that he knows are going to be really controversial and which he’s spent a lot of time studying. 

    I think a lot of the disdain comes from the fact that he comes across as pretty arrogant. Who knows maybe he is. But that’s irrelevant as far as discussing his philosophy goes.

    I can’t stress enough how non-illuminating this video is about his thoughts. His response to his critics was much MUCH more informative, though I don’t know if it’ll be any more convincing to people.

    Overall, I like the project Harris is endeavoring upon, to try and bring a little more order to discussions of morality.  Anything that can improve the caliber of many of the inane discussions we had back in moral philosophy classes is worth doing.

    That doesn’t mean he’s right, but it’s definitely stuff worth thinking about. This is the kind of controversey that is good. It doesn’t hurt anyone to disagree about this.

  22. @maskedman23 – You need to take into consideration that my answer is simplified–like I said, the officer might have a series of other values that play a part, such as the legal obligations he’s made with the US Military and his willingness to honor it. His moral principles are “universal” but the specifics that will influence a moral decision are dependent on his personal value hierarchy.

  23. Indeed, not angry, just disappointed with his method of presentation. The suppositions he mounted within the four minutes I watched were absolutely staggering and could have taken a half hour to address. He seemed like an uneducated person, throwing terms around without paying them the emphasis due. 

  24. @roxics – I am angry but my anger has nothing to do with religion. Nor do I think that someone being an atheist would compell them to fall in line with what Mr. Harris is saying, though I can see how that might work out if you look at him as a religious demagogue. =)

    Also, wear*.

  25. Speaking as a Buddhist, I think it might be even more hilarious when secularists make asses of themselves than when theists do.

    @herzog3000 – For that matter, I am not convinced anybody with any serious education can take postmodernism seriously anymore either. We’re in a transitional period.

  26. @untainted_love_for_her – Postmodern as a period in history will fade. People are already sloppily throwing the term post-post-modern about. But the destructive methods of postmodernism will never go away. They have no refutation. And that is why people like Sam Harris will forever repeat the mistakes of previous ages. They forget these questions have no answers (something Plato and the Buddha knew well).

  27. @roxics – Citation needed. Particularly I’d like to know just which masters.

    That’s something I learned when I had an interest in martial arts. In these sorts of things, if a master can’t specify from whom he learned his stuff, he’s a liar.

  28. I commented badly and stopped watching after about 2:30.
    Then I thought that maybe I should open my mind and risk the rest of the speech going in the disappointing direction I suspected. Luckily skimming through this makes it clear I made better use of my time not finishing it–which I then waste complaining about it.

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