The science of morality


Luke Hollomon, Staff Writer


Consider the term “science.” What comes to mind? “Empirical,” “exacting,” “experiment” and many other cold, solid words.

Now consider the term “moral” or “morality.” The words that come now are a bit softer. “Right and wrong,” “values,” etc. These words don’t have the same cold feeling as those that go with science.

Now try putting “science” and “morality” together. What do you get? This strange mish-mash of hard, black-and-white science with soft, grayish morality. A strange combination indeed.

There are some who believe that these words fit perfectly together, and that right and wrong can be found scientifically. This movement in thought is spearheaded by Sam Harris, a philosopher at Stanford University.

Harris explained his idea that there is no necessary separation between human values and science at a recent Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference in a talk he gave.

“Values are a certain kind of fact,” he said. “They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.”

This statement opens the door for looking at moral values scientifically. If values are facts, they can be solidly right or wrong; the grayness of them fades away.

Harris also said that it does not matter whether one’s moral values are based on religious ideas or not.

“There’s … no version of human morality … that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience,” he said.

A crucial part of his argument is that there are certain truths of any human community that allow it to flourish. These are things like murder and adultery being bad, caring for the sick being good, etc. Although these truths are usually seen as moral values, Harris argues that they are moral facts of human life.

Harris went on to say that science will not necessarily be able to give all the answers in the moral sphere, but that it does have some say.

“I don’t think, for instance, that you will one day consult a supercomputer to learn whether … we should bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. But if questions affect human well-being, then they do have answers.”

Harris realizes that many may say that this undermines an objective morality, but he argues otherwise.

“The fact that there are many right answers to the question ‘What is food?’ does not tempt us to say that there are no truths to be known about human nutrition.” It is the same with morality, he says. There are many different answers to the question, “What is right?” but there are still solid truths about it.

To further show that this does not make all morality subjective, Harris draws upon another example.

“Whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded … Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering? No. How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being?” he asked.

To conclude his talk, Harris said, “We must converge on the answers we give to the most important questions in human life … And to do that, we have to admit that these questions have answers.”

Harris’ entire argument is based on the idea that moral values are inherently related to empirical well-being. This is an idea that has certainly garnered much attention from other thinkers. One of the most vocal opponents of Harris’ argument is Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology.

Carroll’s argument is based on three principles: that there is no single definition of well-being, that it is not self-evident that maximizing well-being is the proper goal of morality and that there is no way to measure well-being amongst many people.

This debate will undoubtedly go on for a very long time, centering on one question: Can you find out what ought to be by looking at what is?


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