Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

Sam Harris thinks so, arguing that “values” are really objective, knowable “facts” about the well-being of conscious creatures—meaning science can tells us what we should value. As he explains in his TED talk, descriptions of how the world “is” can tell us how the world “ought” to be because “there are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing, and morality relates to that domain of facts. It is possible for individuals and even for whole cultures to care about the wrong things, which is to say it’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that reliably lead to needless human suffering.”
Not so fast, says physicist Sean Carroll, who disagrees with Harris’ thesis because:

Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the big-bang model and you believe in the steady-state cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. 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.

Harris has promised to respond, so stay tuned.

Category: Debates

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4 Responses

  1. V. V. Raman says:

    I think there is, as there always has been, and there probably always will be, gross confusion in the minds of even intelligent thinkers when it comes to some fundamental issues. In their enthusiasm to preclude religion from every sphere of culture, some otherwise clear-thinking scientific thinkers, instead of saying that it is possible to articulate and follow moral principles without the paraphernalia of traditional religions, make statements to the effect that science can teach us all morality as well. For most common people and many decent scientists is difficult to see how it follows and from what scientific knowledge that one should be faithful to one’s spouse, one should tell the truth, be kind to the poor, or respect those we disagree with, or go and serve the wretched of the world. Even if by some twisted sophistry one tries to argue that through science we can show that it is in the larger interest of humanity if everyone if charitable and compassionate, this is reasoning by common sense rather than from scientific knowledge. Moreover, this is not quite what motivates caring, kind and generous people. And some top notch scientists are known to have been Nazis and Fascists.
    Science, like art and music and poetry and literature, is enriching to the human spirit in a thousand ways, but to claim that therefore it can give us the joys of music and art and poetry and love and the civilizing elements of enlightened ethics is not unlike greedy capitalism which, not content with the substantial profits it legitimately makes, wants more and more and imagines it has the right and the resources to exploit the whole world to get all that it can, irrespective of the needs and longings of others. Such totalizing anti-religion fanaticism can be as dangerous to society as religious bigotry. Indeed it has the potential for fanning a similar fanaticism of the religious variety, and often does.
    V. V. Raman
    Author of “Truth and Tension in Science and Religion.”
    March 29, 2010

  2. Thomas Moore says:

    Oh, gosh, leave it to a physicist (like me) to object on the grounds that we cannot and should not specify detailed individual behaviors. This misses the point that we know and agree on the goals of human culture. We want collectively to survive and thrive and become all we can be; the same thing we want for our gardens and pastures. And just as horticulture is a scientific approach to gardening and animal husbandry, human culture could perfectly well be a scientific approach to getting what we want out of life. Neither specifies in detail how each plant or animal or human should behave. But it does specify how the gardener should behave in the face of threats to the health of the garden, and why, in each and every case. There is no reason to invoke the will of another in this; in the case of human culture, we do it for our own sakes and because we know how, and it’s high time we admitted as much.

  3. [...] maintains cosmologist Sean Carroll, who first responded to Sam Harris’ TED talk on the subject a couple of months back. (Harris’ main point is that science can help us get at what we ought [...]

  4. [...] Harris has responded to cosmologist Sean Carroll’s latest response to his TED talk, maintaining that science can help us create a universal foundation for morality: Imagine that we [...]

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