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Sam Harris Does Not Say Natural Science Can Answer Moral Questions

May 24, 2013

Sam Harris wrote a book called The Moral Landscape and gave a TED talk “Science can Answer Moral Questions.” He wants to debunk relativism and nihilism. He wants us to be optimistic about using our reasoning abilities to know what’s right or wrong — to know moral facts. He thinks we can know that happiness is good and pain is bad. Many people have criticized him for thinking natural science (rather than philosophy) is the proper domain of ethics — but he doesn’t actually say that.

Harris does not really say that natural science (physics, biology, chemistry, or psychology) can answer moral questions. He uses the word “science” loosely to refer to secular reason. Perhaps one day there will be an ethics class taught in the science department. Harris doesn’t say it won’t happen. However, he seems happy enough for people to agree that moral philosophy can tell us something about morality. A lot of people don’t think philosophy can!

Consider the following quotes:

We’re using “science” in very different senses in the conversation. There’s a lot of confusion about certainly what I mean about science. I did not mean for a moment to defend science in the very narrow sense as experimental science — men in white lab coats scanning brains — as the only source of morality, and that is really a straw man. I mean “science” in a much broader sense. The sort that Steve invoked of secular rationality and honest truth claims based on honest observations, and honest clear reasoning. And we all are honorary citizen-scientists in many of our moments insofar as we are intellectually honest and trying to have our beliefs about the world, and our certainty of the world scale with the evidence. And that is the source of clear thinking about the possibility of human and animal well being. The crucial thing I want to argue for is — what do we mean when we want to say that something can be morally good or evil, and is that a truth claim or is it merely manufactured based on cultural invention, something that’s been drummed into us by evolution and is just a product of our social emotions? (The Great Debate – Can Science Tell Us Right From Wrong?)

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. (Moral Confusion in the Name of “Science” )

The reason that Harris mentions that people are taking “science” too narrowly is because they want to tell us that morality is properly understood with philosophy rather than science — or that there is some other reason that natural science has not yet touched the subject. But Harris’s main point is merely that there are good and bad moral beliefs because there are moral facts that we can try to understand. We should use our reasoning abilities and certain standards to justify our moral beliefs. We can try to know what’s true about morality.

Also note that Harris has critics who criticize him precisely because he doesn’t take “science” to exclude “philosophy.” Here is what they say regarding his book:

There are innumerable silly things throughout the book, too many to do it justice in a short review. A personal favorite: an early endnote, Harris defines “science” as “our best effort to form a rational account of empirical reality,” not to be distinguished from a more general concept of “facts.” For example, the fact that JFK was assassinated, he writes, is a scientific fact as he will use the term science. Of course, under this bizarre and idiosyncratic definition of “science,” essentially every intellectual inquiry is a science, including philosophy and religion. It is typical of Harris, though, to misuse terms in this way. (The Science of Bad Philosophy)


Near the close of The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that we can’t always draw a sharp line between science and philosophy. But it’s unclear how this is supposed to help his case. If there’s no clear line between science and philosophy, why are we supposed to get so excited about a science of morality? After all, no one ever said there couldn’t be a philosophy of morality. (The Science of Right and Wrong)

Why would Harris talk about the science of morality instead of the philosophy of morality? Perhaps because “philosophy” is already taken to be nonsense. Philosophy has pretty much no credibility in the public’s eye. Science has more credibility. It sounds authoritative.

And is Harris saying anything interesting at all? Of course we can have philosophy of morality, right? It should be noted that many moral philosophers are skeptics. They don’t believe in moral facts or in our ability to know about them. Harris wants us to be optimistic about understanding morality. A philosophy of morality will allow for skepticism that Harris wants to be defeated. Harris is saying something interesting insofar as he wants to defend a controversial position — that we can know about moral facts.

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