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Science and Morality

I have frequently said that science can only provide data to inform our decisions but can’t tell us what we “should” do; that it can determine facts but not values. I stand corrected. A persuasive new book by Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape,  has convinced me that science can and should determine what is moral. In fact, it is a more reliable guide than any other option.

The Moral Landscape

Several recent books have looked at morality from a scientific viewpoint. Animals have been shown to exercise altruism and to appreciate fairness. Human cooperation has been shown to offer a survival advantage to individuals and groups. Game theory has demonstrated the success of the tit-for-tat strategy. In The Science of Good and Evil,  Michael Shermer argues that evolution has produced in us a moral sense that is not a reflection of some “absolute” morality but that constitutes a worthy human project that transcends individuals. He posits a pyramid of morality that becomes more advanced as it is applied to larger in-groups, from self to family to community to all living creatures. He amends the Golden Rule to specify that we should treat others not as we want to be treated but as others want to be treated. 

Harris goes much further. With a background in both philosophy and neuroscience, he is qualified to do so. He points out that questions about values — about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose — are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. He says we know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. He shows that it’s as senseless to claim morality is relative as to claim it is absolute. Morality cannot be understood as some Platonic ideal; it cannot be understood as whatever the preferred deity of one’s society has commanded; it cannot be dismissed as meaningless and varying with culture. Cultural relativism is stupid: we should never accept slavery or female genital mutilation as moral even in the societies that practice them believing they are moral. It is immoral and irrational to accept such practices out of political correctness and unwillingness to offend.

Harris has honed in on what we all believe, no matter what we might say we believe. He defines an action as moral if it increases the well-being of humans and other conscious beings, and immoral if it decreases well-being. We all accept that a good life is preferable to a life of suffering and that things like kindness to children are desirable. We all accept the Golden Rule: it’s not that we accept it because religion so dictates, it’s that religions have adopted it because we all know that it is valid. 

Religion has long claimed that morality is its province, but this is clearly untenable. Different religions have different standards, religious commandments have encouraged immoral behaviors, non-religious societies are as moral as religious ones. Guidelines are inconsistent: the Catholic church excommunicates women who try to become priests, but fails to excommunicate priests who rape little boys. Religious morality also values human well-being, but with a difference. Most religions give priority to well-being in some imagined life after death. This often leads to unnecessary suffering in this, the only life we can be sure of.

Just as people are often wrong about science (i.e. rejecting evolution) people are often wrong about what is moral, but Harris sees signs of progress.  Slavery is now universally condemned. Racism has diminished. But some societies mistreat women and deny them education, and our fear of offending the beliefs of others has prevented us from improving the lot of humanity by fighting certain clearly immoral practices. If morality can be established as a science, it will facilitate rational progress. 

Science can have a great deal to say about morals. It can examine whether making women wear a burqa improves the well-being of a society. It can test whether corporal punishment has the beneficial results envisioned by those who prefer not to “spare the rod.” It can test whether abstinence-only education achieves its stated goal of reducing pre-marital sex. It can try to measure well-being. Well-being will be difficult to quantify, but not impossible. The environment and the individual’s response to it can be objectively studied. The important thing is to be willing to look at these issues and to try to evaluate moral questions through rational inquiry. It is no longer acceptable to claim that slavery would become moral if a society chose to practice it or to claim that homosexuality is an absolute evil.

It would be easy to reject Harris’ ideas as simplistic and impractical or to mistake hedonistic “happiness” for true well-being. If you think he is wrong, I would urge you to read the book to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of what he is actually saying. 

Harris sees the moral landscape as one with valleys of suffering and peaks of well-being. He accepts that there can be different peaks with similar magnitudes, so there need not be one single prescription for all societies.   

He sets us three ambitious projects:

  1. To explain why people tend to follow certain patterns of thought and behavior (many of them demonstrably silly and harmful) in the name of “morality.”
  2. To think more clearly about the nature of moral truth and determine which patterns of thought and behavior we should follow in the name of “morality.”
  3. To convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behavior in the name of “morality” to break these commitments and to live better lives.

These may be phenomenally difficult, especially the third, but they are indisputably worthy goals to aim for. There must be something to know about meaning, morality and values in principle, if not always in practice. And Harris believes that merely admitting this will transform the way we think about happiness and the public good.

This is one of those books that can stretch the reader’s mind to new dimensions. Even the eminent Richard Dawkins was altered by reading it. He says, 

I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. Moral philosophers, too, will find their world exhilaratingly turned upside down, as they discover a need to learn some neuroscience. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.

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241 thoughts on “Science and Morality

  1. Mark P says:

    We all accept the Golden Rule

    A sweeping generalisation, at best.

    A major issue is the weighting given to individual versus group rights and responsibilities. Some societies will deny individuals rights because they believe the result is better for the majority, while others usually privilege the individual.

    This, for example, is where much of the grief over homosexuality lies. Modern western liberal thought is that homosexuals should have freedom to do what they wish. Other societies believe that it is best for everyone is children grow up in a stable society with regular families, and that accepting other alternatives is destabilising.

    You cannot wish this away by waving “the Golden Rule”. The choice of individual over collective is not easy.

    I notice that many Americans in particular have so little comprehension of collectivist ways of mind that they cannot even give them them benefit of existing. They are so alien that they are just waved away. It cannot be done: some societies just are not particularly interested in individual rights.

  2. Necandum says:

    While I’ll definitely be having a read of the book for myself, from your review, there seems to me to be a fundamental flaw in his argument.

    He defines morality as that which most increases the well-being of sentient beings and then seems to conflate this definition with the other one, i.e that a moral act is the one we ought to do.

    I’m afraid I don’t see how he makes that connection. While it is definitely an appealing idea, there exists no reason to say that increasing our well-being is what we should be doing, no matter how much we might desire to.

    Ultimately, saying that we should increase human well-being is only our opinion, springing from our own judgement. Just because science determines what shall increase it, doesn’t mean the basic premise isn’t a completely relative assumption.

    Though I have to say, its not his conclusions I disagree with (slavery, burqas, corporal punishment ) but rather his reasoning, which smacks of utilitarianism.

    Personally, I’d much prefer for us to base our morality on an assumption that every creature has the right to whatever freedom it can demand and just leave it at that.

  3. Dr. Le Petomane says:

    Sorry, Harriet, but for once, I thoroughly disagree. Before science can measure ‘well-being,’ we must define ‘well-being’. That’s not scientifically derivable variable. I feel that belief in ‘scientific’ morality is a slippery slope that leads down the same path as some religion (see, for example, some Marxists). Harris himself provides a frightening example in his book, ‘The End of Faith’ in which he spends the second half cheerleading Bush’s wars and feverishly endorsing torture. (How, in Harris’ mind, Bush transubstantiates from a Christian Fundamentalist into a secular crusader I don’t know. Faith, I guess.)

    Religion is a Rorschach blot with which we impose our impressions of morality. Martin Luther King and Tamurlane were equally devout. ‘Science’ can easily serve the same purpose.

  4. Dr. Le Petomane says:

    Correction: ‘on which we impose. . .’

  5. bluskool says:

    “Before science can measure ‘well-being,’ we must define ‘well-being’. That’s not scientifically derivable variable.”

    Is “health” scientifically derivable?

  6. lhaber says:

    It’s fabulous to see a positive review of this book. Every one I’ve read so far gets bogged down in the “is/ought” debate, which I think is sad, since that’s the core of the problem, and has been for centuries.

    Kudos to Harris for thinking outside the box; for demanding that we assess values and morality from the same perspective that has been so very successful in every other field of study–science.

  7. David Gorski says:

    @Dr. Le Petomane

    Gonna have to agree with you. Of course, I’m afraid I’ve never been much of a fan of Sam Harris. I read The End of Faith and, quite frankly, couldn’t understand what all the buzz was about. It was a mediocre book, and Harris’ arguments were weak at best, truly scary at worst. Harris also appears to have a glaring double standard when it comes to “spirituality” (Abrahamic religions always bad; Buddhism and fuzzy New Age “Eastern” mysticism good).

    No, I’ve never been much impressed with Sam Harris. Maybe he’s gotten better in the last three or four years though.

    Regarding the issue of defining morality through science, as Harris tries to argue for in this book, whenever I see that argument I always see the potential for advocates of science and reason to be doing what many woos accuse us of (falsely most of the time, I believe), namely of turning science into a religion. No, I’m not arguing that science can’t study such issues or that we need God to be good; I just don’t have the touchingly naive faith (word choice intentional) that Harris appears to have that science is the best way to define what’s moral.

  8. Thanks for the review Harriet Hall. I was impressed with the author’s brief presentation on the Daily Show, but I’ll have to read his book before coming to a conclusion on whether I agree with his premise or not. If Dr. Le Pentomane’s example is accurate, it would definitely be a concern for me.

  9. Scott says:

    He defines an action as moral if it increases the well-being of humans and other conscious beings, and immoral if it decreases well-being.

    And once science can demonstrate that this is what “moral” means, he’ll have a point.

    Based on this review, the impression I get is not of a book which has finally figured it out, but of a book who has completely and profoundly missed the entire point. Of course science can help us determine the most moral actions – but only once we have defined “moral” in the first place.

    It sounds like he took the fundamental question of the entire field and simply declared it answered by fiat. Sorry, doesn’t fly. This is best illustrated by the lines following the above quote:

    We all accept that a good life is preferable to a life of suffering and that things like kindness to children are desirable. We all accept the Golden Rule: it’s not that we accept it because religion so dictates, it’s that religions have adopted it because we all know that it is valid.

    These statements are simply false. Some people believe that a life of suffering is preferable (mortification of the flesh, and all that). Some people simply don’t care about kindness to children (e.g. child molesters). And for some people the Golden Rule is “treat others as I want to treat them” (e.g. Robert Mugabe).

  10. Nescio says:

    This book looks like an interesting read, but when words like “wrong” and “should” are used I feel a little uncomfortable, as they imply some higher power or authority that decides what is “wrong” and how we “should” behave. I don’t think you can scientifically define morality, I think it is entirely subjective, and that morality and ethics are best considered a branch of esthetics.

    You could argue that a world of eugenics and totalitarianism, with compulsory exercise and rigidly enforced diet and education would be the best for human “well-being”. We could eliminate congenital diseases, unemployment and crime in this way, for the greater good – pure utilitarianism – but at the cost of individual freedom. Personally I would not wish to live in such a world.

    I think that we need to decide what kind of a world we would like to live in, and use science to create it. That may take a little debate, but really, how can science answer questions of what is right or wrong?

  11. Ian says:

    Basically I think Harris is trying to create a new moral authority to replace religion. But why even play at that game? As Harris points out, our morals didn’t really originate from religion before, they were just projected on to it. So a lack of faith creates no moral crisis that needs to be solved. The whole enterprise smells of Objectivism, even if he wants to use legit science.

    And Harris came out against Park51. Pretty much the whole “ground zero mosque” controversy did a really good job of ferreting out hypocrites and idiots. And Harris was dredged up.

  12. Ali771 says:

    This is an interesting topic and I feel compelled to pick up the book and have a look.
    But in reading Harriet Halls review I would have to ask. Shouldn’t science exist outside of any arguments about morality? I think it would be better defined as a tool – a window, a microscope, or a telescope, to see what exists. Unless we’re talking about pure mathematical formula, the glass will yes, be tinted by the scientist’s own identity, attitudes and beliefs. As humans our lives are complicated by consciousness. No doubt we should celebrate our humanity, but take careful note of our biases when venturing into the realm of science.

  13. Not having read the book, I can only reply to what I have read in this post.

    Does the book cover what do do with conflicts between collective well being and individual well being?

    From such an approach:

    How does allowing severely impaired infants to live necessarily improve anyone’s well being? (either individually or collectively)

    How does allowing habitual murderers or incurably & criminally insane individuals (or any individual scientifically determined to be detrimental to society) to live enhance society’s collective well being?

    Dawkins and Hitchens would likely argue that this approach justifies the position that it is immoral (rather than just irrational) to have religious beliefs. Would this position be correct in that context? (either individually or collectively)

    Does it enhance well being to allow impoverished persons already dependent on state support to reproduce? (either individually or collectively)

    There’s a plethora of other questions along similar lines raised by this approach.

    I would think that maybe science can sometimes help us make better choices about what is moral, but it can not be used as a litmus test to determine what is or isn’t moral.

    Again, not having read the book, maybe all my question are addressed and my concerns are unfounded, but I don’t like where this concept could easily be taken.

  14. Harriet Hall says:

    @ Mark P: “Some societies will deny individuals rights because they believe the result is better for the majority, while others usually privilege the individual.”
    Presumably there is an answer to the question of which kind of society is best; only rational inquiry can hope to find that answer. Religion-based prescriptions and cultural relativism are not helpful.

    @Necandum: “there exists no reason to say that increasing our well-being is what we should be doing” I suppose there exists no reason to say that improving our health is what we should be doing. Is there no reason to have health care, medical treatments, vaccination campaigns, etc.? Is there no reason to say we shouldn’t murder and torture others? Is there no reason that we should feed our children to keep them alive? I think there “should” be things we can agree that we “should” be doing. If “should” doesn’t come from rational efforts to improve human well-being, where else could “should” come from? If there are no “shoulds,” we are left with moral anarchy – no standards at all.

    “I’d much prefer for us to base our morality on an assumption that every creature has the right to whatever freedom it can demand.” How is that any better supported than Harris’ assumption? Where does that “right” come from?

    @ Dr. Le Petomane: Why can’t science try to define well-being just as it tries to define health? No one said it would be easy. Mistakes will inevitably be made en route. Can you propose any better approach to morality?

    @ David Gorski: Let’s not change the subject to criticism of Harris’ previous writings. Turning science into a religion would be based on a misunderstanding of his ideas. Isn’t rational inquiry with testing of testable ideas the only way humans have ever succeeded in advancing reliable knowledge? If science is not the best way to determine what’s moral, what is the best way?

    @Scott: People who seek a life of suffering are only seeking another kind of well-being: pleasing a deity or earning Brownie points for a life after death. Child molesters and Mugabes are immoral exceptions to the general rule, just as unscientific evolution deniers don’t invalidate science.

    @ Nescio: In your example, the trade-off between totalitarianism and individual freedom can be rationally studied. The fact that you would not want to live in such a world is evidence that it does not really increase human well-being, despite its apparent benefits.

    @ Ian: Harris is definitely NOT trying to create any kind of moral authority. He shows that those who rely on authority or on moral relativism are equally misguided. Our morals didn’t originate from religion, but we clearly have morals. And some people’s morals are better than others. Scientific thinking has at least a chance of determining which are better.

    @Ali771: Science is a tool that can study human behavior. Our moral standards are part of human behavior and are a legitimate field of inquiry. So are our biases, and if scientific inquiry can never be entirely free of human biases, it can at least aspire to that goal.

    @Karl Withakay: Harris would say that such dilemmas about the well-being of groups vs. individuals have a best answer that we can hope to find. If science can’t help us determine what is or isn’t moral, what can? Like the famous quote about democracy, science could be considered the worst option except for all the others.

    @ everyone: Please read the book before you condemn it. Harris’ arguments are far more nuanced than I could represent in a book review. We have been conditioned by all of human history to think about morality in certain ways: breaking out of the box is not easy. If you reject scientific inquiry as a way to understand morality, think about whether any other approach could be better.

  15. kurofune says:

    First time commenter after following this blog for some time. Many great comments and the review was well-formed. This is only a review of the book but there do seem to be some unfortunate arguments:

    The claim that there is no absolute moral authority is quickly followed by the claim that some ‘moralities’ are “demonstrably silly”. This certainly requires a universal standard in the negative sense and seems to deny that an absolute morality may be broad, i.e. allow for multiple correct approaches.

    There also seems to be an implicit assumption that current moral authorities are not based on the kind of thought prescribed. Little room seems to be given for the thought that two reasonable people thinking scientifically might reach opposite conclusions if their values are different. Additionally, there seem to be weak support for values themselves being derived scientifically.

    It is disconcerting that cases of hypocrisy or immoral action in religion is taken as an example against religion without careful comparison of control. Most such cases stem from an abuse of authority and exist with and without religion. The argument that science should be an authority in moral arguments might only exacerbate this problem.

  16. jpmd says:

    In all fairness, I need to read the book as suggested, but it appears defining morality is a major problem. Unless it can be defined in a measurable and testable way, it remains opinion, not science.

  17. Scott says:

    People who seek a life of suffering are only seeking another kind of well-being: pleasing a deity or earning Brownie points for a life after death. Child molesters and Mugabes are immoral exceptions to the general rule, just as unscientific evolution deniers don’t invalidate science.

    You don’t get to claim “immoral exceptions to the general rule” as a defense for “we all accept.” I would also be more interested to know your response to the more focused first part of my post.

    Please read the book before you condemn it. Harris’ arguments are far more nuanced than I could represent in a book review.

    Unfortunately your review has quite emphatically convinced me that it would be a complete waste of my time to bother reading the book.

  18. bluskool says:

    @Harriet Hall
    “@ everyone: Please read the book before you condemn it. Harris’ arguments are far more nuanced than I could represent in a book review. We have been conditioned by all of human history to think about morality in certain ways: breaking out of the box is not easy. If you reject scientific inquiry as a way to understand morality, think about whether any other approach could be better.”

    Seconded. Every objection that has been raised in the comments here are dealt with in the book at length.

  19. I’d rather ask What would Carl do? than What would Jesus do? If that puts me in the Harris camp, I’m okay with that.

  20. Toiletman says:

    Oh no! Sorry but this time you really wrote nonsense. Science cannot give us any moral guidelines. Already he assumption is silly. However, science can explain why we have invented the concept of morality and how it might develope. The is/ought problem has already been mentioned by other comments before. You apparently already saw the problem yourself but do not accept it as answer. There are no “shoulds” at all. Morality is nothing. Just a concept human societies have invented as in-group regulation that thrived because people with it were successful in genetic and memetic reproduction. There is indeed no objective rule that we should not randomly kill anybody who just blinks at us.

  21. Harriet Hall “Please read the book before you condemn it. ”

    I do agree on the reading/condemning point. But I think it has been useful for me to read other commentor’s criticisms and concerns before reading the book. This way, I can watch out for how they are answered or alleviated as reading.

  22. Harriet Hall says:

    Toiletman,

    I think it’s your concept of moral nihilism that is nonsense. Does your name indicate that your personal morality is in the Toilet? You say there is no objective rule, but I don’t imagine you would feel morally justified in randomly killing anyone who blinks at you. Why not? How and why would an artificial invention of human societies constrain you? No one acts as if “morality is nothing.” Even the most amoral criminals have standards (“At least I didn’t let my buddy down.”)

  23. wstrinz says:

    To all the people who have said “No, sorry, there really is no morality”: I feel for you. Reading the book might help, but you’re probably going to feel the same way. That said, however, you’re wrong. You’ve figured out that morality isn’t really real in the platonic sense, but you haven’t thought much about what to do about it. Morality is not ontologically basic; unlike electricity, there are no moral fields or “moralons”. But this does not mean morality is not real, any more than the fact that there are no ontologically basic mental entities (Souls, ghosts, spirits, etc) means that you are not conscious.

    Naturalistic morality is fairly complicated, and I think Harris does a good job of getting at what it is and why its important. I do think he misses a few things, namely that collapsing morality down to “the well-being of conscious entities” is insufficient to capture the complexity of value. At best it requires so much unpacking so as to be just a really good heuristic for moral decision making, at worst it misses the point entirely. Have a look at this page for more info: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Complexity_of_value

    I personally prefer Joshua Greene’s treatment of morality as laid out in his PhD thesis “The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality and What To Do About It” (http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/Greene-Dissertation.pdf). I think commentators who responded negatively to this post might be happier after reading that. In my opinion, his arguments are both more thorough and more nuanced than Harris’. That said, Harris is still doing the world a service by popularizing naturalistic morality. The more smart people we have working on this the more we will learn.

  24. dwpeabody says:

    Wow so many people missing the point. I really kind of expected better from sbm readers. I have not read any harris before but I may just have to read this book.
    To me the idea that science or at least critical investigation and reasoning can help determine what is moral is obvious. I really wonder if people think that the only people able to comment on morality are bearded men in high backed leather chairs puffing a pipe or religious leaders.
    The statement that morality can never be defined is ridiculous and it should be obvious your point is flawed when you have to go to the extremes of society to find people that support your point.
    Morality will never be a scientific law with exact predictions and nobody is saying it would be. Instead using science to help make a moral judgment is like a rule of thumb that could work for the majority of society not for every situation but for a lot of them.
    If you cant understand that a better society would involve less death, less illness, clean environment, less suffering and basic human rights for all groups then I am afraid there is no point discussing this with you as you are either a sociopath or way to into a solipsistic way of thinking.

  25. David Gorski says:

    Let’s not change the subject to criticism of Harris’ previous writings. Turning science into a religion would be based on a misunderstanding of his ideas. Isn’t rational inquiry with testing of testable ideas the only way humans have ever succeeded in advancing reliable knowledge? If science is not the best way to determine what’s moral, what is the best way?

    Actually, Harris’ previous writings are quite relevant in that they point to his track record in discussing issues of faith, reason, and morality, and that track record is uneven at best, particularly if we look at his excusing torture and preemptive war, take a page from his new book, and then ask what science would tell us about that. Also, in criticizing a hypothesis (in this case, Harris’ hypothesis that science can tell us what is or should be “moral”) it is not necessary to provide an alternative. Providing an alternative may strengthen the criticism, but in science if a hypothesis doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it is perfectly OK to simply say it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    Now, that being said, I find it necessary to point out that no one here, least of all me, is arguing that science shouldn’t be applied to questions of morality or that science can’t tell us quite a bit about morality. What we are questioning is Harris’ premise, upon which his entire argument appears to be built, which is that morality is defined as maximizing the “well-being” of sentient creatures. In fact, it’s been pointed out that he goes beyond that and says we “must” define it so! And it’s true that if we do define morality thusly then science can have quite a lot to say about what is “most good.” The problem is the premise. From my reading of reviews, I can’t find anywhere where Harris is said to have anywhere near adequately justified why we “must” define morality that way. He just assumes that we must.

    Of course, there are many ways morality can be defined (and is defined) by various branches of philosophy. From what I can tell from your review and others Harris simply uses as his premise that his way is best without providing any evidence to back it up, as a couple of other reviews have pointed out:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/05/sam_harris_v_sean_carroll.php

    http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=12020

  26. David Gorski says:

    Morality will never be a scientific law with exact predictions and nobody is saying it would be. Instead using science to help make a moral judgment is like a rule of thumb that could work for the majority of society not for every situation but for a lot of them.

    If my interpretation of Harriet’s review and others I have read is correct, that’s not what Harris is saying. He goes considerably beyond that.

  27. dwpeabody says:

    I sometimes wonder if the amount of philosophy read is not directly proportional to ones need to obfuscate the obvious.

  28. I wonder, is one of the criteria for well being is “happiness”? I believe that we Americans are far too into happiness as a goal in and of itself.

  29. trrll says:

    So in what way, if any, is this an advance over plain old Utilitarianism?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism

    I saw Harris on the Daily Show and was decidedly unimpressed. Stewart, in his usual humorous way, raised some basic challenges, and Harris seemed utterly unable to come up with a meaningful response. I hope he writes better than he talks.

  30. Harriet Hall says:

    trrll asks,
    “So in what way, if any, is this an advance over plain old Utilitarianism?”
    As I understand it, Utilitarianism emphasizes “pleasure” rather than objective measures of well-being, and depends on thinking about what is right rather than actually putting ideas to the test. Utilitarians base their calculations on their own subjective feelings and opinions rather than on any measurable objective standards. And Utilitarianism fails to take Kant’s categorical imperative into account. Having 90% of the population own the other 10% as slaves might conceivably be calculated by a Utilitarian as increasing the total overall happiness of the society, but it wouldn’t be moral and if those doing the calculating had to be the slaves they would probably change their minds.

  31. windriven says:

    I have to agree with Dr. Gorski. Dan Dennett for one argues atheism (and isn’t this really a polemic supporting atheism?) far more convincingly than does Harris.

    The Merriam Webster definition of morality – “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior” implicitly accepts that morality is a social construct based on cultural acceptance of a set of strictures. Science can study different cultures and their moral and ethical frameworks. That is rather different from asserting that science can determine human values.

  32. Jerry Schwarz says:

    “Science can have a great deal to say about morals. It can examine whether making women wear a burqa improves the well-being of a society. ”

    If it turned out that by some definition of “well-being of a society” the burqa was a good idea I wouldn’t start advocating its adoption in America. And I doubt that Harriet would either.

    What I would do in practice is look for a different definition of “well-being of society”. Many other commentators have made similar points.

  33. Harriet Hall says:

    @windriven,

    No, this isn’t a polemic supporting atheism. It’s an argument rejecting both religion and cultural relativism as ways of determining what is moral. If science can study the moral frameworks of different societies, it can also compare them and look at objective measures of their outcomes.

    @ Jerry Schwarz,

    Giving one example of how science might be mis-applied to reach a false conclusion does not invalidate the entire project. Your (and my) belief that burqas are not a good idea must have some basis: what do you think that basis is? Is it only our unsupported opinion, or is there some objective standard that could provide supporting evidence that we are right?

  34. David Gorski says:

    Giving one example of how science might be mis-applied to reach a false conclusion does not invalidate the entire project.

    Ah, but how do we know it’s a “false conclusion” to say that making women wear a burqa improves the well-being of a society? Not by science, I would argue.

  35. vicki says:

    Yes, science can test whether abstinence “education” reduces pre-marital sex. But that doesn’t answer the larger question, which is whether reducing pre-marital sex is morally good, bad, neutral, or more complicated than that. (For example, suppose that it’s harmful for people to have sex before age X; that’s at most loosely related to whether pre-marital sex is good, bad, or neutral.)

    What to do when the well-being of society and that of individuals conflict is non-obvious, to put it mildly. Many of us are sure of which is more important, but it comes down to axiom conflict, not to something that is testable the way a hypothesis like “lowering the speed limit will reduce the number of fatal car crashes” is testable.

  36. “If science can study the moral frameworks of different societies, it can also compare them and look at objective measures of their outcomes.”

    But isn’t that rather hard, considering all the variables? Meaning, the outcomes are not going to be strictly associated with the morals. There will be many other factors that influence the outcomes. Environmental, morals and politics of other influential cultures, etc.

    “Guns Germs and Steel” is a good discussion of these variables. But I don’t think science really is capable of modeling all the factors.

  37. Joe says:

    I doubt that science can ever decide the morality of the death penalty. Moreover, I don’t think science can settle on the morality of abortion. It is bad for the fetus and good for the woman.

  38. Also, why are burqas not a good idea? They keep the sun off. I can agree that punishments for not wearing burqas are a bad idea. But in a society that has arbitrary etiquette about when a woman can show her breast or breastfeed, I’ve always found the burqa and head covering scorn a bit hypocritical.

  39. Harriet Hall says:

    @David Gorski, “Ah, but how do we know it’s a “false conclusion” to say that making women wear a burqa improves the well-being of a society? Not by science, I would argue.”
    If not by science, then by what? That’s the essential question. Is there a better way to determine those things than by rational inquiry and testing hypotheses?

  40. Harriet Hall says:

    @Vicki,

    Can’t science ask whether premarital sex is good, bad, neutral or more complicated? When the well-being of individuals and society conflict, do you think a right answer exists? Do you think we should try to find an answer? How could we go about finding it?

  41. DrEvil says:

    Seems to me we could look at questions like that from the point of view of womens rights in general. The specific case of the burqa is but one instance of a general stance toward womens rights that we can look objectively at, by comparing societal progress in more developed countries and how it is overwhelmingly positively effected with the adoption of womens rights.

    I don’t think the point of the book is that science has answers for every question of morality, but that science can be used to present evidence in support of one side or the other, which is even by itself a much more useful tool than trying to justify a stance with religion or some other meaningless metric.

  42. daedalus2u says:

    Women and girls wearing burqas is bad because then men and boys do not learn the body language of women and do not learn how to relate to women as human beings and instead treat them as “the other” and more easily subject them to dehumanizing treatments and brutality including honor killings and FGM.

  43. Harriet Hall says:

    @micheleinmichigan

    Damn right it’s hard! In many cases it will be impossible in practice. But isn’t it possible in principle, and isn’t it worth trying? Especially if the option is to give up and say we can’t know anything about moral standards?

    Why are burqas not a good idea? Are you serious? They are not a sunscreen or a fashion statement, they are a severe restriction of women’s rights. Haven’t you noticed that men are not required to wear them in any society? Why are there different standards of modesty in clothing for men and women? Maybe men should wear burqas, so we weak females will not be overstimulated by seeing big muscles or a bulge in the crotch area, or catching a glimpse of sexy hair on a male head. If the conventional clothing for men is enough to protect male modesty, why wouldn’t similar clothing suffice for women? And maybe the restrictions on showing a breast or breastfeeding in public are also immoral and reduce overall human well-being. Shouldn’t we be able to apply rational inquiry to all those things?

  44. Harriet Hall says:

    @joe,

    Do you think that theoretically a “right” answer exists as to whether the death penalty and abortion are moral? Either all options are equally valid or one is better than the others. If one is better, do we have no hope of ever figuring out which? I’d like to think we can at least apply rational inquiry to these questions.

  45. daedalus2u – I’m not sure that women’s body language is significantly different than men’s, see Ekman on universal expressions. Also, I don’t believe burqa are generally worn in the home when child rearing, so girls and boys would have the early years when they typically learn these skills to learn them.

    Regardless, if a woman wants to wear are burqa is it morally acceptable to make her stop so that men and boys have greater opportunities to learn body language? Where does that end?

  46. Harriet Hall says:

    In my opinion, if a woman independently decides that she wants to wear a burqa it is not morally acceptable to make her stop, except in situations where the public welfare is at stake. But if she is brain-washed into thinking she wants to wear one, if she is coerced and forced to wear one by her whole society, is it morally acceptable to condone that practice and to claim that the society is fully as moral as one that gives women rights comensurable with those of men? Is it morally acceptable to enforce burqa wear for women but not for men?

  47. windriven says:

    @ Dr. Hall

    “No, this isn’t a polemic supporting atheism. It’s an argument rejecting both religion and cultural relativism as ways of determining what is moral.”

    Hmmm, the line we’re discussing is pretty thin. The fundamental intellectual arguments supporting atheism include the assertion that neither god nor religion is required to establish a moral framework nor to ensure individual adherence to such a framework.

    Harris is one of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) of the atheist ‘movement.’ I certainly encourage their efforts singularly and collectively. I’ve just not found Harris’ previous work to be particularly compelling. Compare and contrast with Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves” or “Breaking the Spell.”

  48. Harriet Hall says:

    I don’t think there are any valid arguments to support atheism. I just don’t see any valid evidence to support theism. There is a big difference.

    Harris’ new book is not an attack on religion. It only attacks religion’s claim to be the arbiter of moral questions. I think it would be perfectly possible to believe in God in a Deist sense (a la Martin Gardner) and still agree with Harris’ approach to morality.

  49. windriven says:

    “But if she is brain-washed into thinking she wants to wear one…”

    One person’s brainwashing is another person’s education. Mainstream religions have indoctrinated their young from early age to accept blind faith over rationality and called it religious education.

    Many in the US (though the numbers are declining) maim their male children during infancy for no reason other than Abrahamic tradition. Yet we find the genital mutilation inflicted on some Muslim girls to be barbaric. Curious, don’t you think?

  50. windriven says:

    “I think it would be perfectly possible to believe in God…”

    And so it is. But the context of this blog is science and I am not aware of any scientific requirement for the existence of a god.

    “I don’t think there are any valid arguments to support atheism.”

    I think you will find any number of people who disagree with you. The single most valid argument is that god is objectively superfluous and empirically nonexistent.

    You might wish to read one of the Dennetts previously mentioned or Harris’ “The End of Faith” for a number of arguments the validity of which you can judge for yourself.

  51. Harriet Hall says:

    @windriven
    “One person’s brainwashing is another person’s education. Mainstream religions have indoctrinated their young from early age to accept blind faith over rationality and called it religious education.” I consider that immoral, and I think scientific inquiry is likely to show that societies that favor rationality and teach their children critical thinking skills instead of blind faith are better off. What do you think?

    “Many in the US (though the numbers are declining) maim their male children during infancy for no reason other than Abrahamic tradition.” Isn’t this immoral? Don’t you think we can make judgments about whether this contributes to human well-being?

  52. Well, If we are looking for equality, burqas for women, beards and head coverings for men is the Taliban policy. I find the legal enforcement or violent cultural enforcement unacceptable in both cases. I also find the banning of muslim women’s head scarves in some area (france, I believe) due to the rational that the women have been pressured or brainwashed as unacceptable and patronizing.

    I wanted to point out that whether science “should” decide morals is a bit of a mote point. Unless science is going to stage a coup on a major government and set down laws based on scientific proof, the current system of consensus winning remains. Science seems very good at finding things out, but it’s record of gaining converts may be considered questionable. Currently, there is still much dispute within the public as to whether evolution, global warming or rheiki healing is real. Meanwhile, various religions have done a very good job of convincing people of all sorts of improbable things, like a cup of wine turns into blood magically when it is blessed.

    Is it the fault of religion that has become so good at storytelling, art and drama, and that science is either unwilling or unable to be convincing in these practices?

  53. daedalus2u says:

    Michelle, men and women communicate different things via body language. They cannot be the same. I have blogged about how xenophobia develops.

    http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/2010/03/physiology-behind-xenophobia.html

    Harriet, what a victim does to mitigate her injury is up to her. But that a victim comes to accept their victimization as the natural order of things and not a crime is unacceptable. Minors who have been raped don’t get to redefine the law to make their rape not a crime, even if that is the mechanism by which they try to mitigate the damage by pretending it was consensual.

    Two wrongs don’t make a right, and that a person accepts their own victimization to mitigate their injury does not give them or anyone license to victimize anyone else.

    It is a near universal characteristic of victims of child abuse that they blame themselves. I see this as a psychological device to mitigate the injury and to preserve one’s life. The same as Stockholm Syndrome.

  54. Joe says:

    Harriet Hall on 12 Oct 2010 at 6:18 pm wrote “Do you think that theoretically a “right” answer exists as to whether the death penalty and abortion are moral?

    No; but I am willing to reconsider. That is a great question, sorry I didn’t have a great answer.

    HH “… I’d like to think we can at least apply rational inquiry to these questions.

    Sure, we can try; however, as I said, I don’t think there is anything we can get from science that would settle the abortion question. In addition, even rigorous conclusions we draw in the physical sciences are provisional.

  55. windriven says:

    “I consider that immoral, and I think scientific inquiry is likely to show that societies that favor rationality and teach their children critical thinking skills instead of blind faith are better off. What do you think?”

    I couldn’t possibly agree more!

    “Isn’t this immoral? Don’t you think we can make judgments about whether this contributes to human well-being?”

    Both immoral and unethical. And we most certainly can – nay must – make judgments about contributions to human well-being. How else can we construct rational moral frameworks?

  56. sindegra says:

    I’m assuming that Sam Harris is not trying to defeat the is/ought fallacy (as the title suggests), because that would be pretty much impossible. I wonder thought what exactly he IS trying to accomplish in that case. I guess I’ll have to read this book to really understand the argument he is making.

    I just don’t understand why Sam Harris, someone with only a Bachelor’s in philosophy, would try and write such an essentially heavily philosophical text. From what my professors tell me, most of moral philosophy seems to be heading in the direction of Aristotlean virtue ethics. To bring it back to, (as far as I can gather from this review), a kind of quasi-consequentialist/deontologist model seems so… antiquated. I could think of a whole range of problems which this kind of a view typically would have, but who knows, maybe Sam manages to avoid them all. I can’t say that it seems very likely though.

  57. “Yet we find the genital mutilation inflicted on some Muslim girls to be barbaric. Curious, don’t you think?”

    Uh, umh, well….oh I’m not going there or we’ll have 600 emails on the c word…(no the other c word) the word I’m not going to say least I bring out the campaigners.

  58. mikee says:

    @ Mark P

    I find it hypocritical of you to challange Dr Hall on what you perceive as a sweeping generalisation when you choose to make the following statement

    “Modern western liberal thought is that homosexuals should have freedom to do what they wish. Other societies believe that it is best for everyone is children grow up in a stable society with regular families, and that accepting other alternatives is destabilising.”

    Modern liberal thought no more supports homosexuals have the freedom to do what they wish than for any other group in society. Rather modern liberal thought (which is a generalisation in itself) typically supports everyone have equal rights.

    The implication that if homosexuals did have equal rights that society would be less stable or destablised is erroneous and in my opinion irrational and homophobic.
    You might want to look at the veracity of your own arguments before commenting on what you percieve as errors in the arguments of others.

  59. I look forward to reading the book, and I shall try to keep an open mind. But I have to admit my first response is that this is simply another version of utilitarianism. And while that is sometimes a pragmatically useful approach to morality, it ultimately still begs the question by taking what we are biologically predisposed to want or to do and making it the touchstone for what is moral.

    Sure, I’m not inclined to randomly kill people who blink at me. But while evolutionary psychology can come up with pretty convincing explanations for why that is (since such tendancies would have been maladaptive for my ancestors and diminished their chances of successful reproduction), this doesn’t automatically translate into any grand right or wrong, should or ought. And the fact that most of us condemn slavery now is no more a moral argument against it than the fact most people used to condone it is a moral argument in its favor.

    And what is scientific about claiming that “human well-being” is intrinsically the measure of morality, even if we could agree on what that is, how to measure it, and how to assess the impact of specifical moral rules and laws/public policies on the net total of it? Why not animal well-being, plant well-being, the entropy of a closed system, etc?

    My sense is that we want to make our own needs, desires, and fears the foundation for codes of behavior because that is how evolution programmed us as a social, cooperative species to feel. Nothing wrong with it, but a far cry from a scientific approach to morality.

    Science can probably do a great job explaining what we feel and do and why, but I’m not yet convinced it has anything useful to say about what we ought to do from a strictly moral point of view, since “oughts” are just the enactments of our own fears, desires, and innate behavioral tendancies. Shermer and Marc Hauser make stronger cases than I suspect HArris will here, though again I’ll keep that a provisional judgement until I actually read the book.

  60. windriven says:

    @Mikee

    “The implication that if homosexuals did have equal rights that society would be less stable or destablised is erroneous and in my opinion irrational and homophobic.”

    It is arguably erroneous and I would agree that it is irrational and homophobic. But I don’t think that MarkP was arguing that homosexuals destabilize society. He was simply pointing out that morals are implicitly linked to the culture that adheres to them.

    You certainly understand that there are any number of groups who believe that homosexuality is immoral. That a moral fabric that embraces homosexuals equally with heterosexuals is arguably a superior morality isn’t the point. The point is that a given moral framework is inextricably linked to the community that embraces it.

  61. llewelly says:

    (a) What do people mean when they talk about “well being”?
    This is a scientific question (for any given group of people), and the ability of science to provide useful answers to the this question has increased rapidly over the last 20 years or so, and is likely to continue to do so(0).

    (b) Given a definition of “well being”, how can it be measured?
    This too is a scientific question, and for many reasonable definitions of “well being”, scientific ability to provide useful measures has increased rapidly over the last 20 years, and is likely to continue do so.

    (c) Given a reliable, scientific way to measure “well being”, science is by far the best way to determine which course of action is most likely to improve the “well being” of any group of humans, or any individual. Again, scientific ability to compare the results of various courses of actions has been improving rapidly lately, and is likely to continue to do so.

    I think these facts have profound implications for how we think about morality, and, more importantly, what we do about it. If word gets out – that is, if knowledge of these points spreads beyond the science-interested-geek community – human thinking about, and implementation of, moral behavior will change dramatically (over several generations), and probably for the better.

    To the extent Sam Harris makes these points and informs people of their importance, I think he’s doing us all service(1). I don’t think these facts create a rigorous bridge over the is/ought gap; that still requires warp drive. If Sam Harris thinks warp drive is in the near future of science, I am very interested, but also very skeptical.

    (0)For the near future, that is. I do not expect unending improvement; in a world of finite resources, unending improvement is impossible.

    (1)Unfortunately said service is marred by some deplorable political opinions, and failure to recognize certain morally important scientific facts, for example, the fact that the use of torture actually degrades the ability of investigators to obtain useful information; the tortured tell the torturers what they want to hear, reinforcing any mistaken ideas, and failing to provide novel information, which is essential.

  62. daedalus2u says:

    I think a large part of the problem of “morality” in western thought is the (wrong and irrational) idea that bad things need to be balanced out. That the commission of a crime requires the punishment of a criminal, even if the person punished didn’t commit the crime. The idea that if any bad thing happens, that someone is responsible.

    I think a lot of this irrational belief stems from self-proclaimed religious people telling their followers that suffering in this world is good because all the suffering will be “balanced out” in the next world. Of course the reason they tell everyone that is so that the self-proclaimed religious people can have great lives in this world.

    When bad things happen, it is a opportunity to scape goat who ever the self-proclaimed religious leaders are down on. Call them a witch, a liberal, a socialist and kill them.

    I see the real reason for the need to “punish” as a human compulsion to generate a social hierarchy with some people at the top (who are the “leaders” and who control everyone underneath them), and some people at the bottom. In the limit people at the bottom are insufficiently “human”, such that the golden rule doesn’t apply to them. I discuss this in my blog post on xenophobia linked to above.

    The whole notion of “forgiveness” derives from a top-down social hierarchy, that only someone at the top can bestow good things on people at the bottom, that goodness flows down the social hierarchy, an action is “good”, or “moral”, by definition if the entity at the top of the social hierarchy says it is.

    The whole idea of Christianity is that because there was so much sin in the world due to human beings being as they are, that someone had to be punished for all of that sin so Jesus had to be tortured to death. I guess it is appropriate, if God made the Universe, such that all “sin” must be balanced by “torture”, it is fitting that He should be the one who is tortured.

  63. windriven says:

    @daedalus

    “[T]he problem of “morality” in western thought is the (wrong and irrational) idea that … the commission of a crime requires the punishment of a criminal, even if the person punished didn’t commit the crime.”

    Where is this enshrined in “western thought?” One might argue that this notion can be found in civil jurisprudence in English common law and its derivatives but not, to the best of my knowledge, in criminal law.

    “Call them a witch, a liberal, a socialist and kill them. ”
    Have we left Western Civ now? I don’t recall any witch burnings in Western culture in roughly two centuries. We’ve lynched people for the unforgivable sin of having dark skin in recent years but liberals and socialists of the white persuasion have been ragged on but not slaughtered.

    I’m trying to follow your thought here and I think it boils down to this: western morality expects personal accountability; that actions necessarily have consequences. People who prepare themselves with a good education and follow through with hard work should expect to achieve social and financial reward for their efforts. People who attempt to redress their grievances through assaults, those who steal what is not theirs, those whose behaviors unnecessarily endanger the life and limb of others should expect to be separated from civil society and to pay retribution to those they have injured.

    What I’m struggling with is the part of this that you apprehend to be ‘bad.’

  64. windriven says:

    @michele

    “oh I’m not going there or we’ll have 600 emails on the c word…”

    circumnavigate?
    circumference?
    circumstance?
    circumflex?

    Whatever word do you mean?

  65. JMB says:

    Game theory has demonstrated the success of the tit-for-tat strategy.

    There’s nothing about morality in the concept of the Nash Equilibrium, just the efficiency of the operation of the free market.

    If not by science, then by what? That’s the essential question. Is there a better way to determine those things than by rational inquiry and testing hypotheses?

    Theories that can be proven without experimentation are mathematical theories. Scientific theories are those that can be proven or disproven by experimentation. The design of an experiment requires the choice of a metric. While testing a moral theory may make it look scientific, the moral judgment is still embodied in the choice of metric.

    Again, scientific ability to compare the results of various courses of actions has been improving rapidly lately, and is likely to continue to do so.

    Decision theory and Bayes theorem may give us the optimum strategy to achieve a desired goal, but they do not tell us which goal to desire. They are mathematical theories. Measures of probabilities used in calculations for desired results can be obtained by scientific methods. The use of mathematical theories and scientific method does not mean that the decision represents the best science. It only becomes science when the prediction is subjected to experimental validation (not agreement of computer models). Then the scientific concept achieved tells us that to cause a desired (moral) effect, we can follow the tested procedure (the old cause/effect paradigm).

    There is much confusion about what constitutes science and what constitutes value judgment. Darwin fell into that trap when he substituted “survival of the fittest” for “natural selection” in his writings. Social Darwinism was a regrettable diversion from the progress of evolutionary science.

    Why would evolution gives us moral answers, when the smartest product of evolution could possibly destroy themselves? To be scientific about it, give humans another 30,000 years to prove that they are good. That’s a blink of the eye in the age of the earth.

  66. Ken Hamer says:

    A “science-based morality” is the worst form of morality except all the others that have been tried.

  67. JMB says:

    The whole idea of Christianity is that because there was so much sin in the world due to human beings being as they are, that someone had to be punished for all of that sin so Jesus had to be tortured to death. I guess it is appropriate, if God made the Universe, such that all “sin” must be balanced by “torture”, it is fitting that He should be the one who is tortured.

    Guess you believe the Mel Gibson version of the Passion represents all of Christianity. You might want to go back and read the rest of the story, the Book is much better than the movie.

  68. Harriet Hall says:

    Ken Hamer said “A “science-based morality” is the worst form of morality except all the others that have been tried.”

    Amen to that! I think that is the most succinct and accurate paraphrase of Sam Harris’ message.

    But I get credit for saying it first, in my comment earlier today (at 1:04):
    “Like the famous quote about democracy, science could be considered the worst option except for all the others.”

  69. JMB says:

    A “science-based morality” is the worst form of morality except all the others that have been tried.

    I thought Nazis followed a science based morality.

  70. Ken Hamer says:

    Harriet Hall said “But I get credit for saying it first…”

    Well fooey. I guess that’s what happens when you post before reading *all* of the comments.

  71. Ken Hamer says:

    “I thought Nazis followed a science based morality.”

    Nazi morality is science based the same way homeopathy is science based.

  72. Toiletman says:

    [quote]Toiletman,

    I think it’s your concept of moral nihilism that is nonsense. Does your name indicate that your personal morality is in the Toilet? You say there is no objective rule, but I don’t imagine you would feel morally justified in randomly killing anyone who blinks at you. Why not? How and why would an artificial invention of human societies constrain you? No one acts as if “morality is nothing.” Even the most amoral criminals have standards (”At least I didn’t let my buddy down.”)[/quote]

    As I feared, a reponse based on emotion rather than philosophical criticism and even added with a little ad-hominem. That is kind of disappointing because of the high quality of your previous posts. Not that it matters at all but my name was jokingly chosen because I have to spend a significant part of my life on that place because of an illness so I was always searching for toilets first when I was staying at new places.

    But let’s not forget, the topic is still the connection of science and morality. I admit that it is hard to accept but science simply cannot give you any moral guidelines or judgements. I understand that people, who have turned away from believing in a supernatural morality giver, search for a replacement. Concepts like good, bad/evil, moral, ethical etc. play a huge role in our society so, I guess, it’s just natural for us that we want to believe that these concepts are something real that can be scientificly measured. But this is simply not the case. Science describes this physical reality. When we try to describe humans and their societies scientificly, we will inevitably stumble over the concept of morality. Some research even points at the direction that there is a neurobiological reason for such behaviour. Let’s simply assume that it is this way for sake of discussion. Does the fact that we are programmed to have an inert morality give us objective guidelines how we should act and what is good? No, it does not. It only gives the individual the guideline what it subjectively perceives as good. But what an individual perceives as good or bad is eventually totally irrelevant for objective moral guidelines. They differ from individual to individual. Science can only describe what we are but not what we should do. Science is eventually morally nihilistic because it describes reality. Evolution has produced countless different behaviours in organisms but how can it judge any such behaviour as good or bad? Evolutionary science only has the criterion of reproductive success. So are humans good and dinosaurs bad because our ancestors survived and eventually evolved into humans while the dinosaur arm got extinct? No, that’s no morality either. It’s just the description of which behaviours were successful and which not. Science can describe morality as biology induced behaviour and judge which behavioral strategies were successful but it is fully indifferent on what is good and bad. These concepts simply do not exist there.

    And regarding nazis. They were a quite heterogenous group but the most basic description of their ideology is that they believed in a form of ethnic collectivism and a kind of imagined struggle of survival in which one ethnicity fights another in order to get stronger and survive. They believed themselves to be superior to their eastern neighbors and that they should be able to enslave them in order to further their own thought collective entity. What this means in some details can be seen well at the 24 points plan of the NSDAP (nazi party) prior to its rise to power aswell as Hitler’s own book Mein Kampf. The NSDAP originally also had a strong socialist wing but it was eventually purged by Hitler and his followers just like in-party criticism in Stalin’s USSR or practically every totalitarian state. A good modern example is North Korea, which ironically shares many ideological similarities (well, atleast if you don’t consider North Korea as the Kim Dynasty’s personal playground alone).

  73. DLC says:

    Thanks for the review. It’s certainly something to think about for a while.
    While no one book or article about a book can really settle such a complex issue, it’s worthwhile discussing things.
    Harris (and others) have laid down a tough set of problems here.
    First: define “cultural” or even personal well-being.
    Second: establish a set of standards whereby that “well-being” is maximized, or at least not diminished beyond a definable point.
    But it’s not an easy thing to do.

  74. daedalus2u says:

    Windriven, yes. Shove people to the bottom of the social hierarchy and in the limit you can kill them. That is what every genocide is about. Figuring out some arbitrary reason to kill people where the actual reason is only “they are not like me”.

    Wasn’t 1930′s Germany part of Western civilization? Of course many of the victims were not killed for being witches, but for being Jews which is a difference in degree I am unable to parse. In the UK in the 1950′s, homosexuality was a crime. Alan Turing was not executed, just treated so badly he committed suicide. Again, a difference in degree I find difficult to parse. In the present, in the US, there are politicians who want zero support for the unemployed, I presume anticipating that the unemployed will simply disappear. It took considerable media prodding to get some politicians to express disapproval of the Ugandan “kill the gays” bill, and those same politicians consistently oppose hate crimes legislation. Why? I presume because those politicians find it politically useful to vilify homosexuals, even while they hide in their closet.

    JMB, the Nicene Creed is pretty clear about sin and Jesus being tortured and by virtue of that torture humans have the opportunity of salvation. Yes there are some groups that consider themselves Christian who don’t subscribe to the Nicene Creed but they are a small fraction of those who consider themselves Christian.

    One of the problems of the idea of morality is that it has gotten all bollixed up by self-proclaimed religious people distorting it to exert control over others, usually through conflation of bad acts and bad thoughts.

    All the Patriarchal religions have God as the source of all goodness at the top, and humans at the bottom as the source of all things not-God, or all things bad. It is the people in the hierarchy in the middle that control the flow of things good from God to the bad people underneath them, by extracting tangible things (labor, money, sexual favors) from those at the bottom in return for allowing the intangible goodness of God to flow down to those at the bottom.

    Morality is a property of actions, not a property of thoughts or ideas. Of course if you want to punish someone (and so induce Stockholm Syndrome so you can control them easier), and need a justification, what better justification that “thinking bad thoughts”. It is very difficult to not think about something, and essentially impossible if you have been accused of thinking about it.

  75. jdombrow says:

    Harriet,

    Interesting choice for a post. Certainly, it has provoked more (reasonable) counter-arguments than most other posts in quite a while.

    Like many others, I am doubtful about science’s ability to ‘determine what is moral’, especially for poorly quantifiable outcomes such as ‘the well being of a society’. ‘Even if we all know that it is valid’ is one of your weakest arguments on this blog.

    So please riddle me this:
    - If lying is immoral, and
    - Harris’ modification of the Golden Rule, “we should treat others not as we want to be treated but as others want to be treated,” is true, then
    - Am I immoral when I lie and tell my girlfriend that her dress doesn’t make her look fat? (assuming my girlfriend wants the answer to her question to be NO!)

    How does one measure the morality, or degree of ‘well-being of society’ for such a situation? It seems to me that such a variable would be dependant on the relative contributions of the value of truth and the value of the application of the Golden Rule. Can those contributions be independently measured and compared objectively? Does it only matter for my *girlfriend’s* value and weighting of truth and the Golden Rule in this situation? If so, then how can there be any true societal morality?

    How should I decide which behavior I ‘should follow in the name of “morality.”’? Am I ‘committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behavior in the name of “morality”’ if I lie to my girlfriend?

    Criticism of me (being lazy and) not reading Harris’ book will be readily accepted.

    JD

  76. Dawn says:

    @jdombrow: I guess I would turn that around: would you like your girlfriend to tell you that your suit/dress makes you look wonderful or that it makes you look fat?

    I don’t agree lying is immoral. I think lying for a greater good (the example being if I was, in Nazi Germany, hiding Jews, would I tell the Gestapo they were there or not) is moral. Saving someone’s life by lying is better than telling the truth that leads to their death.

  77. jdombrow says:

    @Dawn,

    Sure, but how does science fit into all of that?

    JD

  78. windriven “circumnavigate?
    circumference?
    circumstance?
    circumflex?

    Whatever word do you mean?”

    Ahhhh, no! now your going to draw in the flat earthers with their insistence that the globe can’t be circumnavigated :)

  79. “Ken Hamer said “A “science-based morality” is the worst form of morality except all the others that have been tried.”

    Amen to that! I think that is the most succinct and accurate paraphrase of Sam Harris’ message.

    But I get credit for saying it first, in my comment earlier today (at 1:04):
    “Like the famous quote about democracy, science could be considered the worst option except for all the others.”

    I’m not feeling the love on these statments. What’s your evidence that science-based morality decisions are “better”. Science says so? Bit circular logic there.

  80. bluskool says:

    “What’s your evidence that science-based morality decisions are “better”. Science says so? Bit circular logic there.”

    What’s your evidence that valuing evidence is better than not?

  81. qetzal says:

    I agree with all the objections that science can’t tell us what we “ought” to do. However, that objection begs a key question. It assumes that there do exist things we ought or ought not do, in some absolute sense.

    I haven’t read Harris’s book, but from some discussions on other sites, I seem to recall that Harris rejects the idea of any absolute, intrinsic morality. He’s an atheist, so he doesn’t believe there is any God to mandate what’s moral. Presumably, he’s also unpersuaded by attempts to derive any objective, non-theistic morals either.

    If that’s the case, what’s left? If morality still has any meaning, it must be a meaning of our own invention. (Or maybe I should say convention?) In other words, I think Harris wants to define morality empirically. He wants to look at what humans have historically claimed about morality, and what function those claims have served, and use that information to better define morality.

    Thus, he’s not arguing that morality = enhancing human well-being because he thinks that’s intrinsically true, or because that’s what God wants, or because it’s self-evidently what we ‘ought’ to do. He’s arguing that empirically, the role of morality in humans has primarily been to enhance human well being, within the context of human cultures, social interactions, etc. And if that truly captures the empirical ‘truth’ about morality, then that’s the best we can say about what we “ought” to do. It may not offer the intrinsic authority of a morality imposed by God, or some absolute, human-independent morality, but if neither of those exist, then the empirical approach is the only option (other than to abandon the concept of morality altogether). From there, it seems conceptually straightforward to use science to better define human well-being and determine how best to enhance it.

    At least, that was the understanding I got from some other discussions. Perhaps Dr. Hall (or any other readers of Harris’s book) will comment on whether that’s a fair description.

  82. Harriet Hall on the scientific basis for morality: “Harris has honed in on what we all believe, no matter what we might say we believe. He defines an action as moral if it increases the well-being of humans and other conscious beings, and immoral if it decreases well-being. We all accept that a good life is preferable to a life of suffering and that things like kindness to children are desirable. We all accept the Golden Rule[.]”

    If by “morality” we mean that gut feeling we get that something is right or wrong that we can’t describe in terms of utility, sure, science can explain the origins of this feeling of righteousness in terms of our evolution as social animals. This is descriptive, not prescriptive; can you describe how Sam Harris avoids the naturalistic fallacy of saying NatureDidIt therefore it must be “correct” at some pure mathematical level?

    One pitfall of this reasoning is that what NatureDid is provide humans with a variety of different patterns of feelings of righteousness which are optimal in different circumstances. Some appear to be latent (borderline personality is favoured by a stressful childhood, which makes sense if black-and-white thinking is relatively more fit in times of war or conflict). Others may be distributed more randomly (the parasitic psychopath is fit in a cooperative society, but a society composed entirely of psychopaths would be unfit and implode so there will always be a certain low percentage of psychopaths in any society — and nature considers this a feature, not a bug). There is no such thing as “we all believe.” There are individuals who are burdensome to a prosperous cooperative urbanized society in peacetime who we might be tempted to exclude from the “all” who define what we “believe,” but they might shine in other conditions. We therefore can’t define them as somehow defective and exclude them from people who count (“we all”).

    Most people (not all) prefer to live in prosperous, cooperative, low-conflict, egalitarian societies with low disease burdens. In low-prosperity, high-conflict times the virtues of egalitarianism fade into the background. There’s not enough to go around and if you don’t take it from someone else and defend it vigorously once you’ve got it, you’ll go without. Sexual violence and control of sexual access to women take on great importance to men who might not be around tomorrow. Sexuality, women and what women wear become the focus of disproportionate attention and strong feelings of righteousness. The fact that the high levels of sexual violence in South Africa today are not unexpected from a scientific point of view does not make rape virtuous. The fact that small towns in Québec with no muslim inhabitants enact laws against stoning and burqas does not make them enlightened, either: they are just fighting for control over access to women, like a band of monkeys, and feeling motivated by feelings of righteousness.

    You gave specific examples of what “we all believe.” The amended Golden Rule, for instance. “[T]reat others not as we want to be treated but as others want to be treated.” Well, we don’t have to look any further than the local libertarian to know that this is most definitely not something we all believe. Libertarians treat others the way they would want to be treated themselves and assert that since this is the empirically correct way to treat someone, that anyone who complains that this is not what they want is an immoral weakling who deserves what they get.

    “Kindness to children is desirable.” If we all believed this, we would all arrange for children to be well-treated. It’s clear that this is not the case. It’s not at all uncommon for adults to refuse to care for stepchildren for instance, even to the point of killing them.* Strong feelings of righteousness may motivate abuse of the children in their care.

    “A good life is preferable to a life of suffering.” The culture of professional soldiers over time and cultures is pretty consistent. A hard life of fighting and suffering is preferable to the soft, untested life of the effete urbanite. Luxuries like beds undermine character. Soldiers can feel pretty righteous about their hardships.

    If we are using “morality” to mean something different from “that which fosters feelings of righteousness,” we need to be clear because that is what most people mean. If what we really mean is “that which fosters a high UN Human Development Index rating,” then maybe we can scrap the word “morality” altogether and simply talk in terms of the HDI.

    ___________
    *Abuse of biological children is not uncommon either, but stepchildren are particularly vulnerable.

  83. MKandefer says:

    Harriet,

    I think what most scientists and skeptics object to is the idea that there are objective intrinsic values, and stating the maximization of “well-being” as moral is to state that “well-being” has intrinsic value. However, a number of skeptics and scientists leave their thoughts here and never go on to explore the ramifications of this criticism. How can we justify moral claims and reason morally? Humans, make moral claims all the time, yet are they unjustified in doing so? You rightly point out the problems this poses for the applications of medicine and the ethics surrounding scientific inquiry.

    Luke at Commonsense Atheism addresses moral theories frequently, and has tackled some of the claims in Harris’ book.

    http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=12020

  84. MKandefer says:

    Alonzo Fyfe (AtheistEthicist) has also tackled Sam Harris’ topic. He has a long series of posts on it starting here:

    http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2010/04/sam-harris-science-and-morality.html

    One of the most interesting ones addresses the claim made by many here that science can’t deal with moral claims, or if it can what makes it the best choice:

    http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2010/05/carroll-v-harris-what-is-and-what-ought.html

  85. bluskool

    “What’s your evidence that science-based morality decisions are “better”. Science says so? Bit circular logic there.”

    What’s your evidence that valuing evidence is better than not

    Stop, you are making me dizzy. ;) I used the word evidence because science requires evidence (yes?) So that is what you would use to show that a science based approach is better. I used better because if you want to change the status quo, you must convince me that the new method is better.

    In my book, you don’t need evidence, you just need a convincing argument. I believe this is more philosophy than science.

  86. bluskool

    “What’s your evidence that science-based morality decisions are “better”. Science says so? Bit circular logic there.”

    What’s your evidence that valuing evidence is better than not

    Stop, you are making me dizzy. ;) I used the word evidence because science requires evidence (yes?) So that is what you would use to show that a science based approach is better. I used better because if you want to change the status quo, you must convince me that the new method is better.

    In my book, you don’t need evidence, you just need a convincing argument. I will look at how your argument jibs with my golden rule-esk – what mom taught me, approach and use it if I think it’s helpful. I believe this is more sofa philosophy than science.

  87. bluskool

    “What’s your evidence that science-based morality decisions are “better”. Science says so? Bit circular logic there.”

    What’s your evidence that valuing evidence is better than not

    Stop, you are making me dizzy. ;) I used the word evidence because science requires evidence (yes?) So that is what you would use to show that a science based approach is better. I used better because if you want to change the status quo, you must convince me that the new method is better.

    In my book, you don’t need evidence, you just need a convincing argument. I will look at how your argument jibs with my golden rule-esk – life experience – what mom taught me, approach and use it if I think it’s helpful. I believe, this is more sofa philosophy than science.

  88. Oh jeez, sorry for the multi-post. not sure what I did.

  89. daedalus2u says:

    My own take on “scientific morality” is that it is analogous to “scientific induction” where “scientific induction” is the most reliable method for making inferences from incomplete knowledge. We don’t know exactly what “scientific induction” is, or even if there is such a thing, but if there is any reliable method of induction, then “scientific induction” would tell us to use that reliable method, and so “scientific induction” must exist if any method of induction does.

    By analogy we can have “scientific morality”, which I take as the most reliable method for determining morality. If there is any reliable method of determining morality, then by “scientific morality” we should use that system, so if there is any reliable system of morality, then “scientific morality” exists.

    What properties does “scientific morality” have to have? It must be as “universal” as possible, which makes it observer independent. That is every objective observer with the same facts will come up with the same relative ranking of moral actions.

  90. Harriet Hall says:

    @jdombrow: “How should I decide which behavior I ’should follow in the name of “morality.”’?

    Either there is a preferable behavior or it doesn’t matter which you follow. If you think it matters, why do you think it matters? What’s wrong with studying the consequences, using common sense, and deciding which approach will achieve the greater well-being for all concerned? Isn’t that what we all do in practice? Can you conceive of any better approach?

    @quetzal: I think you have come up with an excellent paraphrase that captures Harris’ thesis very well. “the empirical approach is the only option (other than to abandon the concept of morality altogether).”

    @Alison Cummins: “can you describe how Sam Harris avoids the naturalistic fallacy of saying NatureDidIt therefore it must be “correct” at some pure mathematical level?” The fact that we are programmed by evolution to act in a certain way does not mean that it is moral; it doesn’t even mean that it has a survival advantage. Some products of evolution are “spandrels” that just came along for the ride. Some traits might have improved human well-being in an early environment but might no longer be advantageous in our modern world. Harris goes into these ideas in great detail. Again, I urge commenters to read the book before condemning it.

    You misread what I said about Michael Shermer’s amended Golden Rule: that was his proposal to improve moral thinking, not something that we all believe. I think your examples are ill-chosen. The occasional aberrations of cruelty to children do not invalidate the general opinion of most normal individuals and of all societies that kindness to children is desirable. Soldiers believe theirs is a good, meritorious life, and they would be less happy if they couldn’t soldier. They place other considerations above creature comforts.

    “There is no such thing as “we all believe.”
    I disagree. There are clearly traits of human nature that are found in every society ever studied. The list of human universals (see http://condor.depaul.edu/~mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm) includes items like “murder proscribed” and “childcare.”

    “The fact that the high levels of sexual violence in South Africa today are not unexpected from a scientific point of view does not make rape virtuous.” Of course not, and no one suggested it did, especially not Sam Harris.

  91. “From there, it seems conceptually straightforward to use science to better define human well-being and determine how best to enhance it.”

    Why is it conceptually straightforward to use science to better define human well-being? Why not use philosophy, intuitions, history to define well-being?

    I feel a little bit like all the folks here are scientists, so they want to use the science tool because they have it handy.

    This is one of those discussion where I find myself thinking, “wow, these people are all alot smarter than I am. I must be missing something here”

    But I don’t see the assumption that science is a better expert at the human condition or experience. For one thing I feel it’s focus on testable – provable makes it great for what it is – science – but not great for highly subjective experiences. That is not to say that I don’t believe that science should inform us at all in questions of morality. I’m just not sure that it’s always better than e.e.cummings, Socrates, Billy Bragg or my mom.

    Could someone outline how coming to an answer for a moral question using science would be different than the golden rule, intuition/instinct or philosophy?

    It’s just funny to me because it seems that until now, science has looked outside itself to ethics philosophy to set up ethics for things like medical research standards. Why did science/scientists fail in the Tuskegee experiments, but they won’t in other questions?

  92. Harriet Hall,

    You’re right, I misread this: “Michael Shermer argues that evolution has produced in us a moral sense that is not a reflection of some “absolute” morality but that constitutes a worthy human project that transcends individuals” and attributed it to Sam Harris. So is the moral sense that evolution has produced in us irrelevant to Sam Harris’ arguments? If there is no relationship between this moral sense and Sam Harris’ book, why mention it?

    I clearly misunderstood you. When you say that “we all believe” you mean “the general opinion of most normal individuals and of all societies is” and “is a trait of human nature found in every society ever studied.”

    If I understand correctly, a normal individual who disagrees with the general opinion in their society is by definition excluded from “we all.” Would it be fair to say that “we all believe” and “more than 50% of non-diseased individuals believe” are identical?

    Infanticide of stepchildren is a trait of human nature found in every society ever studied and among our primate ancestors. It is *not* an aberration. It is part of the normal range of human behaviours. Since it is universal in all cultures, is it fair to say that “we all believe” that infanticide of stepchildren is virtuous? How would we reconcile that with more than 50% of non-diseased individuals believing infanticide to be undesirable?

    I also clearly misunderstood your statement that we all believe that “a good life is preferable to a life of suffering,” because you seem to say that it is consistent with “Soldiers [...] place other considerations above creature comforts.” Could I combine these statements as “A life of suffering on the battlefield is preferable to a life of suffering”? What would that mean?

    (By the way, is the scientific view of morality consistent with soldiers’ belief about the goodness and meritoriousness of war? I haven’t read the book so I genuinely don’t know; I just know that “believing” that something is good and meritorious is not usually considered to be scientific evidence.)

    Being on the atheist end of the agnostic spectrum, I don’t take my morals from revealed sources. I would love scientific support for morality, but in the absence of that (so far) I have relied on hedonism. I pay attention to what gives me pleasure, and it turns out that I like to be fair and I would like to live in a fair and egalitarian world. (Among other sources of pleasure.) Hedonism is hard to generalize though, because Paul Bernardo has very different sources of pleasure incompatible with mine.

    I do bridle at unqualified generalizations like “we all.” A definition of “we all” like “we all believe this except those people who don’t, and they don’t count because they don’t believe it” is utterly useless and potentially dangerous. People die for that definition every day, and it scares me. Are you truly not able to define “we all” any better? Does Sam Harris define it anywhere? It woud seem to be the crux of the book, and the appearance of skipping over it worries me. As Daedalus points out, xenophobia is about as universal a human value as child welfare.

  93. Fifi says:

    So do people who think burquas are “wrong” also think nuns’ habits are “wrong”? Burquas are just pieces of clothe – it’s what they symbolize that’s problematic. Particularly what they symbolize to Western women who equate freedom with bra burning. Women in the West are no less objectified or treated as objects by the larger culture. And men in highly traditional religious cultures also lose most of their autonomy and choice – I haven’t noticed the Taliban embracing homosexuality.

    Sure I’m glad I was born in the West and brought up by people who practice science and taught how to think critically (but that’s less about growing up in the West and my particular situation/context, privilege buys you freedoms everywhere). I’m equally glad I got to travel a lot as a kid and got to know people from all kinds of cultures because it means I’m not prone to the kind unconscious bias that makes me want to project all human shittiness onto “them” while ignoring exactly the same/similar shittiness being committed by “us”. Not being blind to one’s own culture is important if you’re going to try to claim you’re being “objective” and “scientific” about cultural (meaning human) values.

    The same problems of culturally endorsed promotion of women as objects for male sexual or domestic use exists in our culture, it just takes a slightly different form. Sure I prefer our form because it’s what I’m used to and know how to navigate but I don’t assume that women in all other cultures are any more or less idiots than women in the culture I live in (and, to be realistic, I generally hang out in a sub-group which is outside the norm and into critical thinking). Thinking outside of the box means getting beyond either or thinking – East vs West is either or thinking that makes people blind to the real issues facing us as a species.

    And, as usual, it’s worth reminding everyone that science actually becomes as dangerous as religion when it tries to define what is moral/right and what isn’t. Mainly because most “moral” choices are about weighing the collective vs the individual good/interest and these kinds of situations are highly context specific.

  94. dwpeabody says:

    God I hate philosophers.
    I wonder when they will hop off the hamster wheel.

    Core problem: People either think morality is subjective to every individual or that this is subjective but can be applied generally the same way to the majority of people for the majority of moral questions.

    Science & Morality: The Idea that science has nothing to say about morality is laughable. Science is how we impartially observe and measure anything. Once you have a premise on what the majority of people would think was more moral i.e. less people dying appose to more. You can use science to decide which of A of B will kill more people and thus use science to aid you in making a more moral decision. Deciding to not use science is to decide to use anecdote and your gut…. I kind of thought that’s what we were against at SBM.

  95. bluskool says:

    Michele,

    Stop, you are making me dizzy. I used the word evidence because science requires evidence (yes?)

    Valuing evidence is a principle of science, but it cannot be justified scientifically. It is just a value judgement.

    So that is what you would use to show that a science based approach is better.

    You can’t use science itself to show that a science-based approach to anything is better.

    I used better because if you want to change the status quo, you must convince me that the new method is better.

    Well, what is the old method and what are the goals of morality (since something can only be said to be “better” with respect to certain goals)? I agree with Harris that human well-being should be the goal, and that science is in the best position to tell us what mental states relate to human well-being.

  96. MKandefer says:

    dwpeabody said,

    “God I hate philosophers.
    I wonder when they will hop off the hamster wheel.

    Core problem: People either think morality is subjective to every individual or that this is subjective but can be applied generally the same way to the majority of people for the majority of moral questions.”

    I believe neither of these, but perhaps it is because I’ve read some moral philosophy papers, rather than just denigrate their field. :)

  97. dwpeabody says:

    See that’s the problem if you read too much philosophy you get brainwashed to the point where nothing makes sense and everything is subjective.
    Beware you will grow old in your leather chair pipe in hand.

    Joking aside I also wonder whether we all have the same end goals for morality. To me the study of morality is to gain understanding to make more fair laws that will enable a more beneficial society.
    However I guess some people may be trying to understand morality more for the sake of such and thus you don’t have to be pragmatic about your assumptions.

  98. “Science can have a great deal to say about morals. It can examine whether making women wear a burqa improves the well-being of a society. It can test whether corporal punishment has the beneficial results envisioned by those who prefer not to “spare the rod.” It can test whether abstinence-only education achieves its stated goal of reducing pre-marital sex.”

    Sure. But are any of these questions moral ones? The only reason we might call them moral is that they touch on areas that call up those atavistic feelings of righteousness: control of [female] sexuality; maintenance of hierarchy; the desire to be feared. I happen to think that we need to be aware of atavistic emotions, but they don’t form the basis of my moral code.

    The question of whether abstinence-only education achieves its stated objective of reducing pre-marital sex is no more a moral question than the question of whether airtight canisters achieve their stated objective of keeping pantry moths out of the flour. Both can be answered very quickly and usefully with simple experiments, but we don’t go apeshit about flour canisters.

    The question of whether the outcomes of artificially created fear and ignorance could ever be desirable is a moral one. If one considers that education, knowledge and curiosity about the world to be good things, as I do, then the outcome of the abstinence-only education experiment would be largely irrelevant. If we discover that fearful and ignorant people avoid pre-marital sex while educated and engaged people do not, then I would conclude not that abstinence-only education is effective, but that avoidance of pre-marital sex is not necessarily a good thing and might even be bad.

    If one starts from a moral assumption that sexuality belongs under the control of the community and not the individual, that would be hard to reconcile with full and frank education of individuals. Any harm that befell someone from acting while ignorant would be a natural consequence and appropriate punishment for attempting to sidestep community control. Again, the outcome of the abstinence-only education experiment would be irrelevant. Whether the outcome was positive or negative, the moral question is not about effectiveness.

  99. MKandefer says:

    For me “morality” is concerned with the malleability of desires, the ways we can change desires through condemnation an praise. and the reasons we have for using these tools of change. Laws are one such way of changing desires, but not the only ones. However, what “morality” denotes isn’t as important as the fact that we can still study what I said above with science.

    Let’s not forget that science was once a philosophy (natural philosophy). I used to be of similar mindset as you regarding philosophy, but always being in the habit of questioning what I believe I decided to ask my friend. His response is worth quoting:

    “As Bertrand Russell has pointed out, when philosophers do reach consensuses on things, those areas of inquiry tend to take on a different name, and are no longer thought of as “philosophy”. Consider the natural and social sciences – once they started making serious progress in understanding the world, they ceased to be called “natural philosophy”. This doesn’t mean that these areas are philosophy (or perhaps more accurately, that they aren’t “philosophical”); it just means that they have taken on a different character, and those who study them categorize the fields differently.

    This is, I think, because one of the central goals of philosophy is to draw out and examine assumptions and their implications (consider Socrates’ entire project). Once those assumptions are, for all intents and purposes, not worth questioning (at least from the point of view of that discipline – there’s usually some assumptions that need examining), then we stop debating them. Consider – no biologist seriously debates whether or not evolution is a fact. It has been established to the point of overwhelming consensus, and so the debate ends. Thus we can talk about biologists agreeing on the fact of evolution. The difficulty for philosophy in these cases is that one of the central projects of the discipline is no longer applicable to that topic.”

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