Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions

What’s good, and what’s evil? Tra­di­tion­al­ly, reli­gion and phi­los­o­phy have answered these ques­tions, push­ing sci­ence to the side, ask­ing it to stick to the world of nat­ur­al laws and know­able facts. But Sam Har­ris wants to change things. At TED, he’s argu­ing that sci­ence (par­tic­u­lar­ly neu­ro­science) can address moral ques­tions pre­cise­ly because these ques­tions fall into the world of know­able facts. And, even bet­ter, sci­ence can pro­vide defin­i­tive, high­ly objec­tive answers to such ques­tions. Just as there are sci­en­tif­ic answers to all ques­tions in physics, so there are clear answers in the moral realm. This applies, for exam­ple, to whether chil­dren should be sub­ject­ed to cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment, or how soci­ety deals with very mean­ing­ful gen­der ques­tions. (Things get a lit­tle emo­tion­al on this top­ic at about 11 min­utes in.) The upshot is that Har­ris isn’t buy­ing a rad­i­cal­ly rel­a­tivist posi­tion on moral­i­ty, and this will dis­ap­point many post-mod­ernists. The Enlight­en­ment project is alive and well, ready to make its come­back.

Update: You can find a rebut­tal to Harris’s the­sis from physi­cist Sean Car­roll here. Thanks Mike for point­ing that out.


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Comments (3)
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  • Roderic Rinehart says:

    Fan­tas­tic. Sam Har­ris is such an enjoy­able author, I was not sur­prised to find that he is enjoy­able to lis­ten to. He needs a pod­cast on iTunes or a course at The Teach­ing Com­pa­ny. I know I would sub­scribe or pur­chase.

  • Ben says:

    So unfor­tu­nate that Sam Har­ris has over­looked the art of con­tem­pla­tive reli­gion in it’s entire­ty. If Mr. Har­ris were to allow him­self a moment of humil­i­ty in the pres­ence of liv­ing con­tem­pla­tive mas­ters, I think that he would quick­ly real­ize the deep (and record­ed) empir­i­cal research into the nature of con­scious­ness and moral­i­ty that con­tem­pla­tive… See More “reli­gions” have been under­go­ing for at least 2500 years. Har­ris’ fatal blind-spot may well be his sub­con­scious sub­scrip­tion to Protes­tant indi­vid­u­al­ism and sci­en­tif­ic mate­ri­al­ism… The roots of which are hard­ly unre­li­gious. Once he starts “inter­ro­gat­ing” peo­ple’s emo­tion­al respons­es with neu­ro-gad­getry, it is like­ly (like many oth­ers) that he will dis­cov­er empir­i­cal evi­dence SUPPORTING the very same devo­tion­al ele­ments of con­tem­pla­tive reli­gious cul­tures that he so vig­i­lant­ly aims to dis­prove.

    There is so much great neu­ro­sci­en­tif­ic research going on around ethics, emo­tion­al states, and human com­pas­sion at the moment. A great Bud­dhist schol­ar & neu­ro­sci­en­tist named B. Alan Wal­lace has a very good video on this sub­ject…

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