Can science answer moral questions?

Here’s a great TED talk by Sam Harris. He is well known for his best selling books The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and its follow-up Letter to a Christian Nation. But he has recently been researching the neuroscience of morality and ethics. Sam has a a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. He is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.

Harris has a new book coming out in November – The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It should be fascinating.

A fact-based morality

He is certainly in good form in this video. He argues for a fact-based morality which enables moral logic and decisions. This conflicts with ideas of moral relativism and god-given morality, or “objective morality.”

I think his arguments are important. Science has made important progress in researching the evolutionary origins of moral intuitions and their role in today’s morality. But very few people have argued for recognition of a fact-base morality, an objectively-based morality, underpinning moral logical and a sense of universal moral truth. This is not the same as the objective morality” arguments of religious apologists or divine command morality theory of conservative Christians. I have argued before that these are just covers for a morality based on arbitrary will and obedience. That it leads to justification for some of the worst forms of  moral relativism (see Human Morality I: Religious confusion, II: Objective morality, III: Moral intuition, IV: Role of religion and V: The secular conscience).

Anyway, watch the video. I am sure you will find it interesting and stimulating.

See also: Sam Harris on science and morality by Russell Blackford


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87 responses to “Can science answer moral questions?

  1. ‘fact’-based morality.

    I’m still waiting to see a ‘fact’ that leads unfailingly to a moral goal or principle –


  2. I think today humanity largely accepts the equality of genders, the wrongness of slavery and the wrongness of discrimination on the basis of sexuality, gender, race, politics and belief/religion. I also think we inevitably come to these moral conclusions based on the largely accepted fact of our existence as an intelligent, sentient and empathetic species.

    This may not be completely conscious or admitted by all. But, in the end, how else have we come to these moral conclusions?


  3. as for your ‘how else’ question, that’s not my particular concern in responding to your post here.

    My driving question concerns how ‘facts’ are a basis for morality.

    Now then, first of all, we’re not always ‘intelligent’ (some have mental challenges), not always ‘sentient’ (we sleep and slip into comas), and not always empathetic (we can be indifferent at times). Your ‘facts’ present only half of the ‘raw data’. And secondly, how do we get from the ‘is’ statement a) ‘humans exist as intelligent beings’ to an ‘ought’ statement b) ‘we ought to do ‘x’…’ ???

    How do you connect the ‘facts’ to the goals which underlie morality?


  4. Well, Dale. We do seem to accept my points on equality and discrimination as moral “oughts” don’t we?

    How do you think we got to that position without accepting the fact of our existence as an intelligent, sentient, empathetic species. (Note I said species — concentration on individual deviants is a diversion).

    What else did we use besides (in the end) facts.


  5. You know as well as I do that acceptance of equality is not fully ‘accepted’. And do I detect a ‘majority rules’ approach to morality in that framework? If 51% agree, then…??

    And again, what the heck does ‘intelligence’, ‘sentience’ and ’empathy’ have to do with a prescriptive principle (‘it is right/good to do ‘x’…’)?

    And I don’t want to accuse you of speciesism, but what are you on about when you talk of ‘individual deviants’ to our species? I know you well enough to know you would accept mentally challenged as humans, but that comment could be interpreted as implying they are a ‘deviant’?

    And again, you ask again the ‘what else’ question, but my main question here is to ask how (as reflected in the post) morality could be ‘fact based’ – I don’t think it (directly) can.

    Please don’t pretend for a moment that I’m suggesting ‘facts’ don’t matter. I think they do – but I don’t think they can found moral goals/principles.


  6. Bugger – I seem to have lost my last reply.

    Anyway, I don’t think we ever get 100% accetsnce kf anything. But it is not honest to deny a conclusion of moral logic purely because it gets majority support. This just ignites the logic and intelligence involved.

    We can arrive at mosk conclusions which just don’t have majority support and yet recognise them as correct. I’m my time I have seen that with our attitude towards women and homsexuals. Towards apartheid and segregation.

    We may yet see a breakdown in moral logic in the future as the behaviour if the “teabaggers” In the US demonstrates.

    But it us still possible to hold confidently to one’s moral conclusions while the rest of thecworld goes mad around one.

    I think the facts of our existence provide an excellent basis for our moral logic and explain why we can come to common concluions.

    I repeat my question: how else do we, in the end, do it?


  7. Sorry about all the mistakes. iPods really aren’t ideal for this. Neither are my eyes and new crappy specs.

    Hope to make more sense when back on my PC.


  8. Ken,
    If you were to say that morality was entirely subjective, then we’d be having an entirely different conversation, and I’d be asking entirely different questions of you. But instead, you say that there is an ‘evidential’ and even ‘factual’ basis for moral conclusions.

    You’re still not answering my question (which relates most directly to your post) as to how “the facts of our existence” relate at all to morality. I think that last word is key to clarify. Correct me if I’m misrepresenting, but you seem to be referring to “morality” as the sum total of human moral intuitions/feelings/behaviour – in a vague and prescriptively-void way. Morality is about right action, however – what people ‘ought’ to do, not what they ‘do’ do. It is ‘prescriptive’, not ‘descriptive’.

    Facts are ‘decriptive’. They dont’ instruct, they only inform. Now indeed, we want our moral thinking, constructing, digging, discovering, etc. to be ‘informed’ by facts, to be sure. But there is a huge chasm between facts ‘informing’ our moral reflection and them ever being able to ‘form’ or serve as a basis for it.

    I want to be clear that you acknowledge this distinction – that we share at least this common understanding – before we talk about “how else” we do it.


  9. You are misrepresenting me. Clearly our moral intuitions are often judged wrong when we apply a fact based moral logic. That has happened, and still happens, with attitudes to “others” involving race, gender and sexual orientation.

    The chasm you see between facts and conclusions us where our logic comes in. It seems obvious to me that we should arrive at a prescriptive morality opposing discrmination based on gender, sexual orientation, race, polytical/ religious/life stance etc. by using logic/reason. Most of us can and will do it – and therefore arrive at similar conclusions.

    How else have we been able to do this?

    Sent from my iPod


  10. Ken,
    I agree with your non-descrimination conclusion, I just don’t know what you’re basing it on, other than the mere popularity of it? Surely popularity cannot be the qualifier of what makes a moral conclusion a ‘good’ one?

    Again, I want us to reach common understanding on this before talking about ‘how else’ we might do it.


  11. I have surely made clear that moral conclusions are not just a reflection of popularity – far from it as my examples show.

    We base our moral conclusion on our objective existence as an intelligent, sentient, empathetic species. That is the starting point for our logic. That’s why we can reach common agreement much of the time.

    Of course the process is fraught. All sorts if subjective factors interfere. But that’s the way things are. We live in s complex world.

    I was trying to make the point that our expanding knowledge about reality has shown not only a single human species (it didn’t have to be so) but also that we are closely related to other non-human species. These are also often sentient, empathetic and have a degree of intelligence. Some people are drawing moral conclusions from these facts. Peter Singer is particularly convincing in his argument for animal rights.

    Sent from my iPod


  12. Richard Christie

    Ken’s post makes more sense to me when I read “facts” as “observations”


  13. Facts, observations, whatever. I am really argueing that we have an objective basis for many if our moral conclusions. Our moral logic starts with our objective reality and/or the objective reality of others – including other species.

    I have used the concept of objectively based morality ( which is not the same as the apologists objective morality which proves to end up as the worst form of moral relativism). The concept of fact based morality us probably the same but is the terminology Sam Harris is using in the video.


  14. Ken,

    We base our moral conclusion on our objective existence as an intelligent, sentient, empathetic species.

    This is the exact kind of statement I’ve seen numerous times from you, and is precisely the statement I don’t understand at all. First of all, again, we are more accurately described as having varying degrees of intelligence, sentience and empathy. But the most important question – which I’ve never seen you actually spell out – is how you work from these ‘descriptions’ to any kind of ‘prescriptive’ goals or morality.

    We really should use a specific example to show what you’re talking about. Perhaps start from any of those (degrees of) qualities (intelligence, etc.) and show how you get there from a certain action (say in the area of sexual ethics?) being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. How does it work? When does the ‘is’ become an ‘ought’?


  15. Dale, we get from the facts of our nature and existence to a “prescriptive” morality via logic. We are capable of that because of our intelligence. We appreciate consequences because we are sentient. We include others in our consideration because of our empathy which is hard wired in us and many other species. All this is important because we are also a social species which probably is the reason for evolution of empathy anyway.

    As an example our sentience enables us to feel personal injustice. Our empathy enables us to feel injustice to others as if to ourselves. We can, and do, literally put ouselves in other positions. Our social nature means that we are hardwired to appreciate and consider others. Our intelligence enables us to overcome bias/prejudice and recognise that others of different sex, sexual orientation, colour, race, belief/ politics have similar feelings/ emotions/rights/aspirations. We can even carry over that appreciation to other animal species.

    By applying some of our intelligence we can develop the consequent moral arguments/logic to come up with a prescriptive morality.

    Yes, of course some will ignore intelligent and rational logic, appropriate our conclusions, and these then become “teachings” and dogma imposed on others (particularly children). This process can be, and has been, used to justify anything, even an inhuman “morality” like slavery, discrimination, etc,

    This process of going from these objective facts and characteristic of our nature to a prescrptive concept of right and wrong just seems so natural to me. I feel I have done this all my life and really can’t understand why it is not obvious to you. I am surprised I have had to spell it out.

    Then agian I have never had, or understood, a concept of “objective” morality, a god given morality or a divine command morality. Those just have no reality to me and seem very artificial whenever I hear them advanced,

    To my mind it appears that most of us use a process of moral logic more or less as I have described but we may dress it up in religious clothes. But that is just a superficial description often imposed for cultural reasons.

    Sent from my iPod


  16. Ken,
    Please be patient with me as I’m genuinely trying to understand you. 🙂 I’m not intentionally being difficult. 🙂

    A central thing I think you’re skipping over is the difference between what we can do as humans, and what we should or ought to do as humans – what we must do to be responsible, moral, humans; in other words prescriptive.

    Your treatment is very positive and dare I say not reflective of history or other cultures. Unfortunately, humans just do not always consider others, empathise, etc. And one could offer an utterly contradictory summary of ‘human morality’ which is far less positive.

    To demonstrate the ‘prescriptive’ nature of any given moral outlook, one needs to show not merely that humans can (though don’t always) respect others, but why the must do so – indeed one needs to show why ignoring and degrading the other is immoral.

    All I see in your treatment is: ‘humans are capable of doing x, and are capable of supporting x with intelligent reasons’. That is descriptive (‘are capable’).

    Again, not trying to be a pain – just wanting to take the descriptive/prescriptive distinction seriously.


  17. Well, Dale, as I said the process is second nature to me. I think you are resisting my description and that leads to you misrepresenting me.

    However, as you are now lecturing me on how a moral outlook must be presented I suggest you provide your own example .

    You are determined to resist my description so I think it only right that you should explain how you think we do develop a moral outlook. And you will be able to show by example how one should present a moral outlook correctly. You can apply your own criteria.

    Sent from my iPod


  18. Ken, I would only do so from a point of common agreement between you and I which recognises the distinction between describing what humans ‘can’ or ‘do’ do, and prescribing what humans ‘must’ or ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to do.

    Nothing I say will make sense if you don’t share an understanding of that distinction with me.

    Do you understand why you’re description was not prescriptive?

    And again, I’m genuinely trying to understand your position, so am not trying to misrepresent you. I’ve been a stickler on the prescribe/describe distinction, yes, but I’ve tried to be patient, so please give me the benefit of the doubt?


  19. “…why you’re description…” (Dale hangs head in shame of the infamous grammatical sin.)


  20. You are misrepresenting me again, Dale.

    I have explained how one gets to a prescrptive moral outlook from factual, objective starting points. I strongly believe that most of us have a moral outlook largely developed that way, no matter that sometimes this has been taken over by religious groups who claim their own special role.

    I think you insist my moral viewpoint is not prescriptive for your own ideological reasons. This prevents you seeing what has been clearly explained.

    I suugest that you adopt a positive response, present your own understanding of how we, as a species, develop a moral outlook . You never know, we might have large areas of agreement.

    Sent from my iPod


  21. Ken it’s not a personal attack, but maybe this will help.

    I don’t doubt that we reach many of the same moral conclusions. For example, we both think that paedophilia is wrong, I assume. The thing I’m interested in is what you mean when you say that this can be grounded or based on those ‘facts’ of intelligence, etc.

    I think at a popular and uncritical (perhaps intuitive) level, we don’t reflect and critique why we think things are wrong, but rather tend to reflect the moral zeitgeist of the influence of opinions around us – hence the common tendency for westerners like ourselves to have a morality which has tolerance and permission giving as it’s trendy, PC, cuddly flavour. Which, interestingly, disappears when it comes to paedophilia or rape. All of these actions (monogamy, polygamy, abstinence, incest, homosexuality, pansexuality, ad infinitum) probably have a range of developmental, evolutionary, ‘inbuilt’ factors which influence us. But describing all this doesn’t get us an inch toward a prescriptive statement as to the right-ness or wrong-ness of any of them.

    Enter goals.

    Again, without a given/set/agreed-upon goal, morality is a meaningless thing. For the goal of a certain preference for biological results, the action of incest is ‘wrong’. For the goal of sexual satisfaction, incest is fine.

    I’ll stop there, before going further as to how we might discern/discover/judge the goodness of these goals, but just want to hear some acknowledgement from you of, for example, the meaninglessness of morality without goals, etc.


  22. “Meaningless of morality without goals” is a vague potentially ideologically laden statement. Of couse being an intelligent, sentient being implies some goals. These go with empathy, sentience, intelligence and our social nature. But I can just see the theologically inclined ignoring these facts and imposing their own wishful goals.

    Sent from my iPod


  23. If we don’t know where morality comes from then…what stops us from killing and raping and watching too much TV?

    Maybe, just maybe, it could be something (or someone?) that gives us our morality-our instinct for right and wrong?

    I think the answer is obvious.
    Baal gives us our morality.
    Nothing else makes sense.


  24. Ken,

    I can just see the theologically inclined ignoring these facts and imposing their own wishful goals.

    Anyone with any ideological bias can ‘ignore’ or ‘impose’ anything. Now that we’ve cleared that up…

    Of couse being an intelligent, sentient being implies some goals. These go with empathy, sentience, intelligence and our social nature.

    But how does our capacity for intelligence, empathy, etc. relate to our moral duty to be intelligent, empathetic, etc.?? In short, how does ability relate to response-ability?


  25. You don’t have a “duty” to be sentient, intelligent, empathetic and social. All this is part of being human. The overwhelming majority of us come fully equiped as a result of evolution. The lack of these features in an individual us usually a sign that something is physically wrong in the brain.

    Sent from my iPod


  26. So those with a lack of those features are other-than-human?


  27. That’s not a serious question is it, Dale?

    You don’t want to explore these ideas any further?


  28. Yes to both (serious question & wanting to explore further).


  29. Surely, Dale, you are aware there is a natural variability within any species. There will be a small fraction of humans born with brain differences which deny them empathy. Some individuals arive at that situatiom via injury. We don’t exlude them from our species because of this.

    Sent from my iPod


  30. That good, and what I hoped/expected to hear 🙂

    So, can we get back to why we ‘ought’ to be, i.e., compassionate, when we don’t have any duty/responsability to do so? (i.e. why we ‘ought’ to stop rapists, when we don’t have any responsibility to?)

    And please don’t say because we have the capacity to be compassionate or something, because clearly we have the capacity to be the rapist or an indifferent spectator as well. The question is about why we ‘ought’ to.


  31. Dale, machines have capacities – humans have a lot more. Empathy is not a capacity. It involves feelings, emotions, intuitions. And usually it is not a rational thought process. Humans act intuitively, spontaneously, without taking time to think. Most of us will act immediately to protect a child without any thought process to slow us down.

    Of course things are complicated. As we adjust our moral standards thought does get involved. But even here thoughts become habits and then intuitions.

    I think there is some interesting ideas around the concept of conscience. The book The Secular Conscience discusses this and why we can almost see our consciounce as an external voice. This may relate to the concept of the transcedent nature of human morality.

    Yes, positive empathy is part of a whole mix. The “them vs us” intuition is strong and easily aroused. Demagogues, politicians, nationalists and religions are well known for cynically using this. Humans can easily give in to primitive sexual and violent urges. We can easily be enlisted to do horrible things in the name of an ideology or even as a result of peer pressure/manipulation.

    We are intelligent but not always rational. However part of us becoming more moral is becoming more rational and I believe that is happening, slowly. Certainly our moral expectations/standards are improving and our quality of life is ethically much better than it used to be.

    So I think the “capacity” , “duty”, ” ought” questions are really a mechanical way if thinking inappropriate for us humans.

    Sent from my iPod


  32. Ken,
    I do appreciate the detail, but you seem to be both acknowledging the distinction between ‘capacity’/’duty’, but at the same time suggesting it’s unimportant.

    I don’t think it’s misrepresenting to say that this language of ‘fact-based’ morality depends on a re-definition of morality in descriptive terms.

    The odd thing is that your tone right throughout assumes that one set of things (equality, etc.) is ‘better’ then others (prejudice, etc.). But then you saw off the branch that this tone of voice stands on by saying that we have no duty to treat people equally, etc.

    Again, we come to many of the same conclusions, which is great. But the point here is that you speak of a ‘fact-based’ morality which in my view simply cannot ever be prescriptive. There are ethically neutral terms that are probably better to use for this kind of ‘fact-based’ approach – ‘functioning’ or ‘behaviour’. These terms are non-prescriptive and fit with the ‘data’ of human behaviour. But when you go past mere, general ‘behaviour’ and onto talking about immoral/bad or moral/good behaviour, then that gets into a prescriptive analysis, which goes beyond merely describing the facts of human behaviour, but prescribing which behaviours are moral or not.


  33. Well , there is your problem Dale. On your view a fact-base morality can never be prescriptive. And you will insist on that view whatever.

    I think I have commiited sufficient time to informing you. You insist on your view so I won’t waste further time.

    All I can say is that I have given what I consider a structured rational approach to morality. You have given nothing in return but misinterpretation. I haven’t been able to get a proper critique of my ideas because of that insistence on misinterpreting them.

    I am left with the impression that you don’t understand morality as you appear reluctant to present your own ideas. However, I am prepared to accept you do have some ideas if your own – if I can only see some evidence.

    Sent from my iPod


  34. Ken, you take offense at my suggestion that ‘fact’-based morality couldn’t be prescrptive, and you accuse me of misinterpreting you, but you’ve yet to even attempt to explain how your approach is prescriptive and has anything to do with ought/should/duty. All you did was dismiss this as ‘mechanical’.

    This distinction is not complicated, and you’ve every chance to be clear. Just tell me how a fact-based approach can be prescriptive, which will require you showing why, based on whatever ‘facts’, humans should act one way in a given situation and not another.

    And I’ve been very upfront about why I’ve nto bothered to go into my views just yet – I’ve repeatedly stated that I want to do so only after we share an understanding about the descriptive/prescriptive distinction, which you seem to refuse to discuss head-on?


  35. No, Dale, I haven’t taken offense. Just that I seem to have done all the heavy lifting. You have a block about my position which results in misinterpretation. Consequently, I don’t want to waste time going around in circles. I don’t think we are getting anywhere. A pity no one else is participating and could give their opinion on the discussion.

    It’s up to you. If you have any rational thoughts on the subject – your own understanding of how we arrive at our moral outlook – go ahead.

    After all that is how discussion occurs, how ideas develop.

    Sent from my iPod


  36. If you have any rational thoughts on the subject – your own understanding of how we arrive at our moral outlook – go ahead.

    Skipping the endless waffle, it will inevitably end up like this…

    Number 62.
    (1) If there are absolute moral standards, then God exists.
    (2) Atheists say that there are no absolute moral standards.
    (3) But that’s because they don’t want to admit to being sinners.
    (4) Therefore, there are absolute moral standards.
    (5) Therefore, God exists.


  37. Ken,
    Actually, there can be advantages in keeping just two cooks in the kitchen (or two people at the conversation table). On a blog as well-visited as yours, threads can get crowded quickly.

    All I’ve done is to challenge/question how a ‘fact-based’ morality could be prescriptive, and I think the is/ought, fact/value, describe/prescribe, capacity/duty distinctions have been clear and simple enough right the way through. If you find things are going in circles, I think you’ll find that your ‘objective’ approach is unable to cross sides into the prescriptive and is only able to go in circles from ‘facts’, to ‘descriptions’, to ‘capacities’, and back to ‘facts’, etc. That’s not actually sarcasm from me either, that is actually how it looks to me?

    I think ultimately prescriptive moral principles, ‘oughts’, ‘shoulds’ (and the goals which necessarily underlie them) will always be less than strictly ‘factual’ or ‘objective’ in their nature. Life is richly and wonderfully subjective. And we do the best we can at discovering truth – and in one sense I agree with you when you say that we all arrive at our moral conclusions via very similar judgment processes (as well as often acting spontaneously and uncritically).

    It’s just that when someone claims that a morality can be ‘fact’ based or ‘objective’, I need to be persuaded how.


  38. Dale, one has to be particularly thick, use a particularly dense ideological filter or be purposefully obstructive to equate a fact-based, objective basis for, moral outlook with with “factual or objective moral principles.” They are completely different things. One arrives at one’s outlook by applying moral logic to the facts of one’s existence. That outlook will include principles and prescriptions which may well be tentative or temporary. The open person will acknowledge that. The ideologically closed person treats their moral conclusions, no matter how they were derived, as absolute, as objective morality, and may claim they are divine commands.

    While you continue to conflate the objective facts with the final moral conclusions how is it possible to discuss such issues. It just ends up with continual misrepresentation. I agree that an honest discussion between two people can be a lot better than a crowded one but my hope was that a third person would be able to confirm your “mistake.”


  39. Our your ‘mistake’ Ken, if you make any? 🙂

    I’m not ‘conflating objective facts with moral conclusions’ at all – quite the contrary. I’ve been trying to distinguish them right the way through!

    And I’ve acknowledge ‘facts’ as necessary the who way through. Indeed, it was me who expanded your list from ‘intelligent’ (etc.) to ‘varying degrees of intelligence’ (etc.). which is I dare say a more accurate reflection of the facts.

    What I’m interested is this thing you just called “applying moral logic”. What is that? What does it look like? How, more specifically, does it get us from a descriptive ‘fact’ to a moral conclusion? A concrete example, maybe?


  40. [“OR your mistake…”]


  41. So – you now accept that I do not claim that I have a factual or objective moral outlook or prescriptions.. Will let’s not bring that conflation up again.

    Your only admitted outstanding point then seems to be that you can’t understand “applying logic.” How to get from an objective fact to a conclusion. What the application of logic “look like.”

    Surely we don’t have to go into that? You, surely, do this all the time. We all do it. We couldn’t live, get by, without doing it.

    Come off it – if you want details why not present your own. Contribute something.


  42. Ken,
    Surely you do have at least prescriptive opinions, though? Dare we bring up Hitler again? I’ve more than verified your criticism of him, yes? That surely can be called prescriptive in that what he did was ‘wrong’, etc.?

    The reason for asking is to demonstrate just how un-‘factual’ and un-‘objective’ our moral outworkings are. Which does contrast with what Sam is saying (and your implicit agreement)?


  43. Get over it, Dale. This is typical theological jelly wrestling in an attempt to misinterpret Sam and me.

    It’s also a cover for your inability to put up an alternative description of how we develop a rational moral outlook.

    Sent from my iPod


  44. I’m still waiting to see a ‘fact’ that leads unfailingly to a moral goal or principle

    Sam is talking about neurology and what subjectivity means in how our brains interpret data. Subjectivity in this sense is not a reason for assuming that morality as an interpretation is beyond the establishment of a fact-based (read materialistic/naturalistic) moral code of conduct.

    What he is tackling is the false dichotomy that morality is either so relative and subjective that there is NO basis of legitimate comparison or the notion of an ABSOLUTE moral basis on a single objective code of conduct.

    He suggests that there is very much a neurological species-wide and thus common basis (objective) for interpreting action (subjective). This is why the dichotomy is false. This common basis (especially consistent when measuring responses to suffering) is what he means by ‘fact’. These facts are knowable and measurable and are part and parcel of the spectrum upon which we judge ‘right’ acts or, as you write, a moral goal or principle.

    We know that morality precedes religion and we know that we share a neural inheritance to mirror (and subjectify, if you will) experiences other than our own. We know that the very high consistency rates of responses to ‘right’ acts cross cultural, racial, linguistic, and religious boundaries. If anything can be termed an ‘objective’ moral system or principle, we know that it is on the basis of what moral attitudes people have in common not about conditions and acts close to home where the judgment has already been formed and is familiar about what is ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’ but on novel situations. It is in this area of research where the baselines of morality can be ascertained by consensus and become ‘factual’. And it is against the same innate set of moral principles we ascertain here that can then be successfully applied as a legitimate comparison to other real life situations for measurement. And that is how we will be able to ascribe these ‘facts’ to then lead us to be able to measure our favourite local and familiar morality in a more objective way: with facts rather than supposition or empty-headed relativism.

    The time of allowing morality to be the purview of woo-meisters is fast approaching its end. Science, not religion, will become as much a reliable guide to moral behaviour as physics has become to engineering.


  45. Sam talks at greater length on this subject;


  46. Ken,
    What part of ‘I only want to share my views after reaching agreement on the presribe/describe distinction’ do you not understand? I probably should have realised a few comments back that you weren’t interested in sustaining dialogue?


  47. Dale – if you are genuine you will contribute some substance to the discussion. But, unfortunately you have fallen back into the jelly wrestling of vague statements and misinterpretation. there is no issue over prescribe/describe. You are inventing it.

    If you are genuine you will stop misinterpreting and distorting me and Sam. And you will contribute your own understanding of how we develop our moral outlook. You have been asked to do that many times.

    My view is that life is too short and fascinating to waste time on jelly wrestling.


  48. Ken,
    Actually I was trying to save time by reaching a mutual understanding before comparing our understandings. The mutual understanding I was trying to reach involved:

    1. a recognition of the describe/prescribe distinction

    2. a recognition that ‘facts’ are themselves ‘prescriptively indifferent’ (i.e. actions with varying labels, whether thought to be ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ can be equally described ‘factually’, without any prescriptive implications).

    I am deliberately not taking the step of comparison of views until we both can understand these distinctions, and it’s not apparent that we both do?


  49. Bit wordy, Dale, but as have already said we don’t have differences on this.

    Sent from my iPod


  50. OK then, if you agree with the above 2 points, then can I clarify what is meant by a ‘fact-based’ morality? Because it surely can’t be that ‘facts’ can determine what is right/wrong action?


  51. “…then could you clarify…”


  52. I have done the heavy lifting here. Harrishas made a clear and useful contribution. It’s your turn. How do you explain the evolution of our moral outlook?

    Sent from my iPod


  53. As far as evolution/biology is concerned, our biological history (past) and experience (present) certainly affect our desires and feelings. My main critique of Harris and the so-called ‘fact’-based morality is as follows;

    Morality (inherently prescriptive by nature) cannot be constructed upon ‘facts’. Sure, there is no question that an objective, prescriptively indifferent scientific account of human ‘moral’ behaviour can be given in a descriptive sense: i.e. humans have ‘x’ kinds of desires and construct ‘y’ kinds of goals and infer ‘z’ kinds of actions/principles to be ‘moral’. But as long as this account is ‘factual’ and ‘scientific’ there can be nothing said about the true goodness/rightness of ‘x’ desires, ‘y’ goals or ‘z’ actions.

    Now, to use a distinction Ian/I have discussed, the question is: how do we ‘know’, then, what is right/wrong? or: can we ‘know’ at all? or do we ultimately just ‘think’ things are right/wrong?

    Of course, epistemic issues abound anywhere the word ‘know’ is used. (please don’t be baffle-gabbed by that word) As a Christian, my epistemic understanding is that we/humans ‘know’ in part. As I’ve said in a recent post on my blog, humans aren’t all-knowing, so we shouldn’t expect humans to ‘know’ everything about morality too.
    This, however doesn’t mean we have to be moral agnostics, though (even if philosophically speaking that is ‘logical’ – and many take that view, admitting that ‘facts’ cannot get us judgment-free goals, values, morals).

    If our epistemic gates are wide enough for emotions, desires, reason, tradition, intuition and experience to (when taken together) be valid sources of ‘knowledge’, then we can be perfectly justified (within that epistemic framework) in saying such ‘other-than-factual’ statements such as murder/rape is wrong. Heck, we can even say that our intuition might just be correct that being a jerk is wrong, too? Is this subjective? Yes. But (again epistemic issues) who said that truth could only be ‘known’ via ‘facts’?

    So in sum, what Sam seems to be doing is admitting that some things are just true, though I don’t hear him acknowledging this quite epiestemically-wider-than-science/facts gate that would require? Meaning, he skips quickly from ‘facts’ to ‘some moral opinions are “just wrong”, without admitting that it is probably intuition, reason, emotion that tells us that! Not very ‘factual’. But probably true! Which is why I was reacting to the language of ‘fact-based’ morality. Really, Sam?? Sounds to me like you’re using intuition like the rest of us.


  54. So, according to you, our moral outlook is simply based on our intutions? I am lumping in here emotions and desires.

    You do mention reason – which, if you include, brings you at least partly into my and Sam’s camp (moral logic). Even more so if you acknowedged that intuition may not always produce a good or correct moral outlook so must be overridden by reason at times.

    Of course when you bring in reason and logic you are admitting facts, objective reality of our nature and existence, as a basis.

    Tradition, in the sense of moral code or teachings, I see as not a basis, at least in the primary sense, but more a recorded and/or historical outlook already derived from intuition, reason, logic and social/poltical requirements.

    By it’s nature tradition is not necessary reliable – just as old beliefs are not a reliable way to understand the real world.

    Sent from my iPod


  55. Like I said, epistemic differences.

    And I don’t think the use of reason/logic can be conflated with “admitting facts”. “Facts” are important, but they don’t tell us anything about what is good/bad or right/wrong.

    Tradition is not automatically unreliable ‘by it’s nature’. It’s not infallible, but we are fools to not listen to wiser ones who have gone before us. Aristotle’s virtue ethics is still bearing fruit today and no doubt will for the forseeable future, for example.

    And because I take values and goals to be very much a part of “the real world”, beliefs (esp. ones where intuition and reason reinforce one another) are perhaps sometimes the best way to understand some very “real” aspects of the world.


  56. Use of reason/logic is not conflating with admitting facts. Reason and logic use facts.

    So you get to conclusions about right and wrong by using logic. Not from the unprocessed facts. That is obvious, I think.

    Beliefs really are usually not the best way to understand reality. After all, the real world is in many ways counter-intuitive. And beliefs probably rely too much on intuition. They can be quite divorced from reality. They are certainly not objective.

    An important point about any starting point. Our moral actions are usually immediate, intuitive. We actually don’t use the conscious part of our brain but react instinctively. Good evolutionary reasons why this is so.

    The unconscious brain can process things a hell of a lot faster than the conscious brain. It’s only when the impulses last beyond a certain length that we can have an awareness of them.

    But, ask a person why they responded a certain way and they will give you an answer. They will rationalise to explain why they responded the way they did.

    And that is a problem. Rationalisation is an after the event justification, not a reasoned logical working out of the moral position.

    Consequently we can appear to be using logic/reasoning when in fact we are just involved in an exercise of justification. I think this happens very often when we refer to authority, tradition, etc. Often we are just justifying our instincts.

    Of course we can apply objective reasoning – even though it is difficult. And the more we can encourage people to see ethical authority as resulting from objective reasoning the better society will be.

    I think this is how people in the past were able to see slavery, discrimination against women and homosexuals, apartheid, segregation, etc., as morally wrong. Even though the traditions, religious authorities, political authorities and intuitions encouraged rationalisation supporting the existing social moral outlooks.

    Personally, I think humanity has gradually evolved its moral outlook to make it more based on reality, on our nature and objective existence, than on simple prejudice, intuition and tradition. This helps explain the moving and improving zeitgeist


  57. Ken,
    Yes, the ‘facts’ have to be ‘used’ (but which way?) and ‘processed’ (but accurately and according to a goal, etc.). In other words, ‘facts’ don’t self-prescribe a moral injuction.

    I want to offer a strong correction as well:
    While ‘rationalisation’ is indeed a human activity, it is not the ONLY way we think about morality. We also discern via logic, intuition, reason, etc. moral goals which we commit to and which shape our actions. We commit to doing a certain thing if/when we find ourselves in a particular expected/regular/reoccurring sitution (anything from deciding to only spend $20 at the movies to determining to be kind to John at work). In other words, we don’t only reactively rationalise, we also proactively determine our moral goals/actions.

    Another significant correction:
    It is far too vague/inaccurate to say that ‘traditions, religious/political authorities/institutions’ prevented moral progress. There will inevitably be ‘traditions’ and ‘religious’/’political’/’social’ authorities/institutions on BOTH sides of an issue.

    Again, I agree that some significant positive developments have occurred in recent western history, but what makes us able to say that these developments are ‘positive’ as opposed to ‘negative’ is not bare/raw ‘facts’, but our best intuitions (self-evident equality), desires (peace), and goals (freedom).


  58. We can interpret our moral progress as positive because of the objective facts of our existence. This helps us see removal of slavery, discrimination, etc., as positive (Our empathy for other sentient beings).

    Sure – there have been activists on both sides of moral debates in religious, etc., traditions. But while the negative promoters have usually appealed to tradition/authority/prejudice the progressives have been more likely to reach their conclusions by applying reason/logic to the facts and recognising our nature as sentient, empathetic, etc., beings.

    I always come back to the film “Other Lives” about the Stasi agent in East Germany who was capable of getting beyond the social demands and attitudes and develop an empathetic understanding of someone he was investigating. This enabled him to take some actions saving this person’s life.

    Similarly their were Christian opponents to slavery who were able to get beyond biblical morality and Church teachings and apply a positive moral attitude. We see this today with those Christians who have opposed their Church’s positions on homosexuality to adopt a humane position.

    We know these attitudes as positive because we can relate them to the facts of our nature and existence.


  59. We’re probably going to have to agree to disagree before you get annoyed at my pointing out your words like “see” (we ‘see’ them as positive) “applying” (logic/reason to facts) and “relating” (attitudes to facts).


  60. Point away!

    Sent from my iPod


  61. I thought I just did? 🙂


  62. ((btw, have you seen Sam’s attempted defence of his multiple critics on the TED talk? Interestingly, even Sam seems to be aware of the epistemic issues involved – and nobody accuses him of bafflegab!?))


  63. Heres an interesting post that is tangental to this subject:

    I found this from some links provided by Sean Carroll over at cosmic variance.

    If nothing else, Sam’s TED talk has stirred up some interesting discussion.

    I hopefully will have some time later on to contribute my opinion to this thread.


  64. Morality (inherently prescriptive by nature) cannot be constructed upon ‘facts’. Sure, there is no question that an objective, prescriptively indifferent scientific account of human ‘moral’ behaviour can be given in a descriptive sense: i.e. humans have ‘x’ kinds of desires and construct ‘y’ kinds of goals and infer ‘z’ kinds of actions/principles to be ‘moral’. But as long as this account is ‘factual’ and ’scientific’ there can be nothing said about the true goodness/rightness of ‘x’ desires, ‘y’ goals or ‘z’ actions.

    Oh really?

    You seem to me to be asserting that we cannot possibly find any objective justification via facts to claim that throwing acid in a girl’s face for her wanting to learn how to read is immoral except by a subjective moral blueprint. You even go so far as to write that “Facts” are important, but they don’t tell us anything about what is good/bad or right/wrong.

    Isn’t the fact that such an act reduces that girl’s well-being is obvious? It is to me. And it should be to you, too. As Sam writes, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal wellbeing that we can, in principle, know—simply because wellbeing (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.

    Note the emphasis on the term in principle even if we have no one right answer in practice. What I think Sam means is that epistemology of determining human values must be rooted in human consciousness itself and brought forward into our ontology through reason and neurology rather than either the current moral capitulation of tolerant relativism or unjustified claims to a divinely inspired moral code.


  65. I finally managed to watch the Sam Harris Ted talk.

    I had similar feelings as to some of his earlier talks that I have seen. In that, I find myself happily nodding along and mentally agreeing with a lot of what he saying during the first half of his talk, but as soon as he starts giving examples, and in this talk, answering questions, all sorts of warning klaxons start going off in my head.

    He seems to think that a research program into morality informed by neuroscience is going to start delivering some moral certainties and that furthermore, this will be critically useful in some way. I think that there are a couple of problems with this. Firstly: There is a fundamental disconnect with his argument and his examples. Also, he seems to be massively underestimating the complexity of the research effort and massively overestimating the utility of the results.

    It seems obvious to me that he has already reached a number of (seemingly obvious) conclusions and is expected these to be rubber stamped by whatever research is undertaken. His talk is littered with comments about “not needing an NSA grant for this” etc.. Also when asked how he would respond when the research showed that wearing a Burqa was a good thing, he was quick to dismiss this by going around the research.

    In my understanding, this approach is fundamentally incorrect when it comes to applying the scientific method. I have seen many examples of this approach in other contexts. For example: The cosmological constant (or fine structure constant, or big bang, or whatever unexplained bit of fundamental physics or cosmology that you like) is proof of god’s existence and that he created the universe, just so for human inhabitation. In other words: When you start with your goal, then all of your research results are going to be interpreted in the context of supporting your goal.

    When it comes to the utility of what he proposes, I think that the research effort is a great idea, and deserves whole hearted support. I suspect that parts of this are already hot research topics (oxytocin, empathy through mirror neurons etc…), but if anything, I suspect the main utility of this research will not be in providing moral certainty. To the contrary, I suspect this will be mainly useful in destabilizing and upsetting moral certainties. Injecting large elements of doubt into simplistic moral judgements be they of a consequentialist nature or otherwise.

    Finally, I think that the previous paragraph hits on a fundamental point that he his missing. He alludes to western moral relativism as being a big problem, that this new “scientific morality” will be a big help in solving by allowing us to say to other cultures/societies/communities/religions, “No, you are wrong. We are right”. I think that perhaps he spends a little bit too much time involved with academic circles, as I see no shortage of this sort of sentiment in the politics of the western or any other part of the world. Look at the so called “war on terror”, invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq etc… These are justified (perhaps not honestly based) on exactly these grounds. Freedom for women in Afghanistan, bringing democracy to Iraq, yada yada yada. The fact of the matter however, is that we are not lacking moral certainties, rather, nobody seems to know how to, or have the capability to take action on these sorts of moral judgments without making the problems worse. If Sam Harris has some answers to that question, then I think that would be much more useful to hear than what he has offered.


  66. Moral certainties? What are you on about, Nick?

    Harris says let’s inform human morality and human values with fact as much as we can. We know that we will never be able to provide all of the answers to all of the questions but perhaps it’s time we put aside the is/ought barricade and realize that the potential to have a right answer is far more justified than is the notion that all answers are equally moral.


  67. I thought I was pretty clear, but perhaps I can try some other words ….

    I don’t think that Sam is offering anything of great help to the current problems in our world (suffering, persecution etc…) as I don’t think that there is a yawning void of conviction that some of the practices that he mentions are wrong. Again, look at what language the political leaders use to justify military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    The problem is, there is a big difference between saying “that is wrong” and being able to successfully and morally do something about it.

    I also think that he is almost completely ignoring the practical difficulties (if not “in principal” problems) with what he is suggesting. For example, with his issue of Burqa wearing, although I would (without considering the issue in too much depth) be fully of the same opinion that this is bad, at the same time, I can see that there might be some pretty rigorous justifications that could be made for such cultural practices. Society being strengthened by conformity to authority etc.. What if there actually was some basis to the idea that women showing their skin contributes/causes the catastrophic downfall of society with commensurate bad outcomes?

    I, of course do not think that is the case, but I am not in the position to say definitively that that is so, and I don’t see that Sam Harris is in any better position to say this either. In principle I think that you could research such a question if you stated it clearly, but I can’t see that this would be easy, or perhaps even practically possible.


  68. Perhaps it would help to think of Sam’s point this way: look at the Enlightenment – particularly the Scottish influence – and consider how these radical principles (at the time) of rights and freedoms informed the development of various expressions of it in the scientific, political, and legal, arenas. These were not any kind of ‘certainties’ derived from cultural norms and practices but a vastly different philosophical foundation than what existed at the time, built from reason and fact, upon which much of we have come to consider ‘normal’ in the Western world has come… especially within the cultural sphere.

    Similarly, can we build through reason and fact a moral foundation of enlightened values that supersedes cultural norms and common practices… not to dictate what is and is not right and good but rather as a backdrop and/or framework against which we can legitimately compare and contrast and promote what is best in the human condition rather than tolerate what is the worst?


  69. @tildeb. I have already said that I think this is a good and positive thing to do. I don’t disagree with a single word in your last post. As you allude to, this is the pathway that we have been treading and hopefully we will continue walking.

    I just don’t think that there is anything particularly novel or controversial about that idea, except for perhaps with the religious. Some of Sam’s comments seem to have upset the more philosophically inclined, but I am not a subscriber to the “no ought from an is” perspective.

    But, I would like to avoid repeats of such wonderful concepts such as “game theory based” cold war strategies, or “general equilibrium” / “rational economic being” theories of economics if at all possible.

    In my opinion, the above examples come from ignoring the complexities of the endeavour being undertaken.

    I also fear, that the elephant in the room that Sam is not mentioning, that is, what action do we take, involves troops, weapons and killing.


  70. nick/tildeb,
    Too much for me to respond to, but just to put you at ease, I do also agree that acid-in-girls-face is ‘obviously’ (self-evidently) yet non-‘factually’ wrong. Words like ‘revealed’, ‘manifest’, ‘evident’, ‘obvious’, ‘common sense’ and ’eminently reasonable’ come to mind. But all of these are other-than-strictly-‘factual’. In a rather narrow epistemic sense, every scientific ‘fact’ is less than completely known, rendering all ‘facts’ subjective anyway. But the point is that the fact/value distinction seems to be the main thing that Sam is blurring, because he assumes that a) ‘well-being’ can be seen in a brain state, and b) surely everyone agrees on what well-being is. NOt only is there the problem of consensus/’majority’ not automatically being right, there is also the problem of determining ‘well being’, especially in less than ‘obvious’ cases (i.e. the ‘wellbeing’ of the foetus, when the ‘wellbeing’ of the mothers bank account is in question – to put it crudely).


  71. Straw man, Dale. I don’t think anyone says acid in the face is factually wrong. I can’t even imagine what that neans.

    They do say that it is morally wrong. And they reach that moral conclusion starting from the facts of the existence of the girl (and also abserver and perpetrator) as a sentient, intelligent, social and empathetic being.

    Sent from my iPod


  72. Dale writes every scientific ‘fact’ is less than completely known, rendering all ‘facts’ subjective anyway.

    All human perception is subjective using this sense of the word in an epistemological sense. But you are being purposefully duplicitous by suggesting that because all human perception requires a subject, all input cannot be ontologically known.

    As Sam carefully explains, speaking “objectively,” we mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counter-arguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, etc. There is no impediment to our doing this with regard to subjective (i.e. third-person) facts.

    Many people seem to think that because moral facts relate entirely to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e. biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue.

    Sound familiar?


  73. tildeb,
    Thanks for daring to speak of epistemology and ontology (I typically get accused of ‘bafflegab’ when I use that (immediately relevant) langauge!).

    In a sense, I completely agree – Truth (necessarily distinct in ontology from the material/physical world), though we don’t know all of it!, can be ‘known’ (epistemic)!! 🙂


  74. Dale – you say: “I do also agree that acid-in-girls-face is ‘obviously’ (self-evidently) yet non-’factually’ wrong. Words like ‘revealed’, ‘manifest’, ‘evident’, ‘obvious’, ‘common sense’ and ‘eminently reasonable’ come to mind.”

    Can you explain how you have concluded that it is morally worng. Did you start with any facts? Did you ignore facts but start with a revelation?

    Wny is it “obvious”, “common sense” etc.?


  75. I don’t care if ‘revelation’ is a word you get thrills from dissing, Ken; but ‘revealed’/’discovered’ seems a heck of a lot closer to Sam’s phrase ‘patently obvious’ than you or Sam may wish to admit?

    Are you epistemically ‘wide’ enough to allow for Truth to be ‘revealed’ through other things than raw ‘data’ and ‘facts’?


  76. Dale, “in a sense” really covers all the bases, doesn’t it?

    I, like Ken, am interested by what process you have concluded that acid throwing is wrong, one that supposedly avoids any use of dastardly facts. Without facts, to my way of thinking, there can be no action, no consequences, no event to be morally examined. And I suspect that is exactly what you want… to clear the intellectual deck in order to prepare for the religious landing of a supposedly divine moral code, supposedly revealed, supposedly superior to anything brought forward by any human. But we both know that no such divinecode stands up to even the most superficial examination.

    The process of exercising morality starts in applying some kind of framework in principle based on something or somethings. These ‘somethings’, too, are part of the facts that not only begin the process but describe the avenue down which our total biology will take us. Some avenues can be and are better informed than others. That’s a scientific claim. What these avenues are (ontology and scientific ) is prescribed by how we place value (epistemology and morality); what we think is prescribed by how we think. That’s how facts inform morality. Change how we think (the factual process), and we change what we think (our morality).

    That’s what education can help us to do: help us to think in different, more informed, ways. And that’s exactly what we can do to establish universal, scientific morality… morality informed within a universal human framework. No sky father needed.

    I happen to favour Rawls notion of thinking about morality the same way he suggests how we think about political rights and freedoms: awarding what each of us thinks is morally sound to a person hidden behind a curtain… someone who could be our kin or a complete stranger, someone within our clan/tribe or foreign, someone of whatever gender, race, colour, language, culture, creed, age, right up to and including ourselves. Morality in principle needs to be specific to the species as a whole rather than falsely subdivided by some lesser concern listed above like religious chauvinistic favoritism. And we can make it universal if we ask the right questions, the ones whose answers meaningfully inform and justify the moral framework. In the same way that killing can be wrong or right depending on the circumstances without bringing the legal principle into disrepute, so too can morality find a framework that upholds the principle but allows for circumstance.

    But we can’t even begin this process if we assume the is/ought barricade precludes any further inquiry, any kind of further moral enlightenment than ‘whatever’, any kind of scientific understanding and incorporation of the facts into a workable unified framework, one that tolerates acid being thrown in a girl’s face because we are more concerned about protecting our self-righteous value of tolerance over and above the very real suffering of very real people at this very moment and allow relativism to make every act and every opinion morally equal. In principle moral relativity is moral capitulation. Although that relativistic and tolerant moral framework may be termed by many to be the only reasonable, it is really a non-approach to informing morality. I think we can do far better as a species than what we have now.


  77. Dale – I am just interested in your detailing how you arrived at this truth on splashing acid on the girls face. Patently obvious, etc., may be true – but why?

    I am not dissing or refusing to admit anything. I am just after clarity.


  78. tildeb,
    sorry don’t have time to interact with your lengthy post, but on browsing it looks like you’re thinking well about it.
    really it comes down to the foundational assumptions we have about the world. Not very detailed/clear, but still I think much of our other-than-factual assumptions can be properly basic and we are justified in believing them.


  79. Now, Dale, that is bafflegab. I would have thought the question was easy to answer.

    Sent from my iPod


  80. Science, be it neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, law has much to offer on this question but I don’t think science should be ‘the final word’ on morality. A sense of justice is a human universal. Ethics is an established academic discipline without the baggage of religious and cultural connotations. Ethicists try to outline codes of behaviour that respect the human person and our place in the world. This could be considered a science I suppose but like other social sciences there is a large element of subjectivity.

    Morality is a human enterprise, and as such it’s within the purview of science. Academia already has a significant influence on the acceptable morality of society (e.g. Alfred Kinsey, Karl Marx). But EVERYBODY has some effect on the moral climate of society by their personal actions. Laws define the ‘lower bounds’ of morality accepted by the state but social norms are presumably stricter than this. Religious norms are stricter again. Vegans have a strong sense of ethical consumption.

    Personally I don’t believe in a universal objective morality as the complexities of relationships and motivations colour all our behaviour. Religions generally attempt to enforce their vision of morality but this fails to respect our (God-given) free will, suffocates freedom of thought, and infantilises those who follow its strictures like obedient sheep. (Jesus taught a better way… but that’s another topic)

    A mature person makes free choices and takes responsibility. All we know for certain is that we are here, so I suggest we invest our energies in making life on this planet a generally better experience for all 🙂


  81. Personally I don’t believe in a universal objective morality as the complexities of relationships and motivations colour all our behaviour. Religions generally attempt to enforce their vision of morality but this fails to respect our (God-given) free will, suffocates freedom of thought, and infantilises those who follow its strictures like obedient sheep.
    A mature person makes free choices and takes responsibility. All we know for certain is that we are here, so I suggest we invest our energies in making life on this planet a generally better experience for all.

    Well, damn! I couldn’t have put it better myself.
    (round of applause from the gallery)


  82. I am not trying to demonise the man, but people might also like to read some more of Sam Harris’s words. This time from 2005 on torture:

    Maybe I am being naive, but I just don’t see the big problem with Islam that he does. For those that are interested, you should search for the video of an exchange between Sam Harris and Scott Attran on the subject of terrorism.

    I am just not convinced that Sam Harris really wants to objectively consider the evidence or do the research on this subject.


  83. The Sam Harris/Scott Attran video was recorded at one of the Beyond Belief sessions. Sorry I don’t remember which year.


  84. I will now present an argument for the use of torture in rare circumstances. While many people have objected, on emotional grounds, to my defense of torture, no one has pointed out a flaw in my argument. I hope my case for torture is wrong, as I would be much happier standing side by side with all the good people who oppose torture categorically. I invite any reader who discovers a problem with my argument to point it out to me in the comment section of this blog. I would be sincerely grateful to have my mind changed on this subject.

    So, Nick, where is his argument wrong, presuming that you posted this to reveal Harris’ inability to consider evidence objectively? If anything, I think it suggests the opposite.

    He has also suggested that it may be necessary and justified to use nuclear weapons. Again, though, it is important to understand not his positions on this matter or that per se but his reasons that inform why he has reached the conclusions he has. If you don’t understand those reasons and have no legitimate critique of why the argument may be unreasonable, then your position on judging Harris’ positions is without legitimacy.

    He presents a very strong case in his book End of Faith – he started writing it on September 12th, 2001 – why it is not only in our species’ self interest to end support for religious beliefs as legitimate ways of knowing, but why Islam in particular is such a growing threat to every Enlightenment value that informs secular liberal democracies everywhere. But the danger does not lie solely with Islam, which is why he wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, to reveal the same impulse to stupid and delusional self-destruction in the name of religious belief exists within christianity.


  85. @tildeb. I haven’t offered my opinion on Harris’s torture post. I have linked to this so that other people can read it and form their own opinions. There certainly seemed to be a lot of words there, but I don’t know if any of them would qualify as research into objective morality.

    Quite frankly, I don’t really have the interest to delve into his thoughts on the great threat of the islamic religion to western society. I have kinda had a gutsfull of that particular topic over the last decade or so.


  86. Pingback: Is and ought « Open Parachute

  87. Pingback: A scientific consensus on human morality | Open Parachute

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