Sam Harris on the Fact/Value Split: Can Science Inform Moral Judgments?

TED Talk by Sam Harris on the fact/value split and the notion that science can produce moral judgments:

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8 thoughts on “Sam Harris on the Fact/Value Split: Can Science Inform Moral Judgments?”

  1. Lots of good stuff here. But, just to play devil's advocate, I have a question. Doesn't he begin with a false assumption? He says that we treat primates better than rocks or insects because of the range of conscious experience. And the level of conscious awareness is measurable, thus we might be wrong. But, he does not give a reason why conscious experience is grounds for moral preference. There are other ways to conceive of moral preference. He obviously does a good job of talking about how facts are critical to making value judgments on how humans flourish. But, he still doesn't answer the "why we ought to" question.

  2. I agree. I think he makes good points about facts and values having a lot to do with each other. But there are too many missing steps in the argument he wants to make.

  3. Harris says that "The demagogues are right that we need a universal conception of moral value." But embedded in his view is that the criterion is human flourishing. There are huge questions that arise about that, which he does not even mention, let alone address. For one, are we to treat human flourishing, then, as an unconditional good? The answer would seem to be, obviously, NO! But what about the FACT that no one has the guts to admit that we have to confront that question before we tragically outstrip our biosphere's ability to sustain the population, or human flourishing may well bring about human tragedy on a mass scale. But if we do admit that human flourishing is not an absolute good, then we need to ask a host of very unattractive questions: One by one, which ideas of flourishing must we curtail or eliminate and which can we endorse. And presumably we will be looking to the future with a preferred view of human flourishing in mind to make those judgments.

    Here's a better approach. Forbid the thinking of oneself or anyone else as a god, and forbid the conceiving or making of gods, while thinking of ourselves as in a garden where anyone and anything can become a weed if it functions like a god/weed. Then seek the best information and the purest good will in carrying out our lives in this garden. It sounds oddly familiar. :)

    The goal is to bring fact and value together in the optimal way. That can't be accomplished till we--including Harris--get over ourselves and put the hard questions on the table. Till then we will continue to think unproductively about the challenges ahead.

    Of course, trusting anyone to do this kind of radical appraisal of human future is very difficult. I need a model of radical goodness, love and courage that cannot be reduced to an idolatrous god to guide me. Which is why I cling to my Christian faith.


    BTW: Harris' approach is Aristotelian. The Nichomachean Ethics contains everything he said, implicitly.

  4. I think the reverse is true as well. Christians mistakenly try to treat the Bible as if it were a science textbook, as if it were a document written by a modern Western empiricist. Instead of looking at the Bible in the context of the minds and times it was written, it's treated like a collection of literal facts that stand without interpretation. And this is how we get Christians opposing a heliocentric solar system, or lightning rods, or evolution. It's so hard to stamp this attitude out, it's a category error. Also - it leads to a certain indifference in fundamentalism to demonstrable facts.

  5. Harris makes a volume of mistakes here that I wish to briefly point out:

    1) He presents the image of a moral landscape claiming there are various "ways" of equivalent moral structure. He then proceeds to make the argument for a universal moral structure. Does he believe that the universal can be compatible with the landscape? Does he want Roman Catholicism or Protestantism?

    2) He treats science as static. His use of a string theorist who is the "smartest" physicist around implies that beyond this guy, there is nothing more to know. For all we know, someone could figure out that the guy was actually completely misguided, knew nothing about the very basest levels of physical matter, and disprove everything he ever taught. This type of thing has happened over and over again in science. After Einstein everyone "knew" Relativity was true. Now, it is in question. For a while everyone "knew" gravity was the strongest force in the universe. Now, we know that is not true. The point being, scientific fact, in many cases, can be debatable. Hardly is it as objective as he makes it out to be.

    3) He is painfully unaware of his own cultural heritage. He makes statements as though they are self-evident forms of morality. Case in point, he jokingly discusses the immorality of abusing children in class as though hitting a child with a rod is clearly wrong. However, as little as 100 years ago, not hitting a child with a rod would be seen as immoral whether you were a Christian or an atheist. On a different moral landscape, his assumptions would be met with serious confusion and dissent. This goes to show that the accepted forms of morality are not static either. Hence, he misses the boat on how science and morality are similar. He wants to become a form of atheist Pope (made clear by his appraisal of religious demagogues), but unfortunately, life is not so cut and dry.

    4) He carefully selected his caricatures. He picked the Dalai Lama. A Buddhist leader works very well for Harris because Buddhism is inherently atheist and humanist. Aside from their metaphysical views, Harris and the Dalai Lama see quite eye to eye. Had he picked another person, say, Mother Theresa or Dorothy Day, we would be looking at an entirely different argument. He could not avoid that those two women were extremely driven by their belief in G-d (despite Mother Theresa's dark night of the soul). Juxtaposed against a serial killer, the Dalai Lama's humanism prevails; against a Christian, G-d would prevail. Can't have that, can we Sam?

    Overall, I would say he contributed nothing to the argument. He represents a play actor who plays on people's innate longing for peace, justice, and righteousness. His only problem is he cannot even locate where that comes from. He can only say it should be there. Thanks for posting this Dr. Beck.

  6. ben adam,

    I agree that Harris' perspective is a bit simplistic, and agree with some of the critiques posted above. That said, for what it's worth I disagree with you regarding the 'mistakes' you pointed out.

    1. Harris addressed the compatibility of the 'universal' and the 'landscape' with the analogy of food: the existence of the multiplicity of things that qualify as good, healthy food does not impugn the proposition that there is indeed such a thing.

    Likewise, Harris may say that the moral structure of scientific naturalism (himself) and the Dalai Lama and (say) the Unitarians are 'good', and that the moral structure of neo-Nazis and al Qaeda and Pat Robertson are harmful.

    I think your mistake here lies with your misunderstanding that he is claiming equivalent moral structure within the diversity of the landscape. I don't have to claim that fresh fruits and vegetables are equally as nutritive as a Big Mac to make the claim that they are both nutritive in contrast with strychnine or dog feces. (And again, though both strychnine and dog feces are both non-nutritive, they are not equally so.)

    2. I refer you to Isaac Asimov's The Relativity of Wrong. As with nutrition and morality, 'wrongness' in science does not imply equal wrongness. "[W]hen people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

    3. Regarding corporal punishment, what I take Harris to be saying is that there are objective, scientific ways to assess whether such practices are helpful or harmful to a child's psychological development. It doesn't matter how many thousands of years it has been practiced, or how great a majority believes it is correct, we can say definitively that it is harmful to children to beat them, harmful to women to force them into burqas, harmful to humans to force them into slavery.

    4. On the contrary, I think Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Romero, Gandhi, etc., would have all fit very well within his schema. All showed a very humanistic faith, all worked for the common good, all had more healthy moral systems than Ted Bundy or David Duke.

    The earlier criticisms of Harris' preconceptions about the criterion of human flourishing and consciousness as the basis for compassion and morality strike me as apt. But ultimately these 'mistakes' that you call out ring hollow to me.

  7. Huh... Speaking as someone who is looking hard for meaning and value outside of religious domain, I'm pretty disappointed with this talk. More/better facts make for better judgments-- that is quite an underwhelming premise for a TED talk. I want to see the facts that led to "human flourishing" as a moral principle that should guide moral decisions. Furthermore, I would like to have seen some acknowledgement of the disasters that the is/ought primrose path has led to in the past. For example, behaviorism of the mid 1900s and the atrocities of communism--governments making decisions about "ought" based on a false premise of "is" coming out what was being learned about psychology at the time. You can't just go pointing your finger at religious fanatics who strap bombs to themselves, without pointing fingers at the leaders who killed millions in part because of "facts" from science.

  8. More sophomoric junk from Mr. Harris. This guy plans on emotions more than any substantial critical thinking or evidence.

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