Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Posted by on June 15, 2010 in Thoughts | 9 comments

Here are a couple of the more powerful statements he made in this TED presentation:

“Is it a good idea, generally speaking to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy emotional development and good behaviour? Is there any doubt that this question has an answer and that it matters? Now many of you might worry that the notion of well-being is truly undefined and seemingly perpetually open to be re-construed, then how therefore can there be an objective notion of well-being?”

“Consider the great problem of women’s bodies. What to do about them? Well this is one thing you can do about them . You can cover them up. Now it is the position generally of our intellectual community that while we might not like this, we might think of this as wrong in Boston or Paolo Alto, who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture are wrong to force their wives and daughters to live in cloth bags? I mean, who are we to say even that it is wrong to beat them with lengths of steel cable or throw battery acid in their faces if they decline the privilege of being smothered in this way?

Or who are we NOT to say this? Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well-being that we have to be non-judgemental about a practice like this? I’m not talking bout voluntary wearing of a veil, women should be allowed to wear what they want as far as I’m concerned. But what does voluntary mean in a community where when a girl gets raped her father’s first impulse rather often is to murder her out of shame?”

I think this should be shared around as much as possible, and I really think every person should see it.

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9 Comments

  1. I really got the concept of only those with ‘moral expertise’ being in a position to provide solutions to moral dilemmas as opposed to the “voice in the wind” Considering we’re becoming a society/civilization that relies on logic, data and experience, it’s an obvious answer.

    I also enjoyed how he challenged an idea that seems to be ingrained, where just because a group in society has a ‘barbaric’ (backwards) approach in its treatment to its fellow person and is claimed as ‘part of the culture and/or religion’, then the rest of society should keep our collective mouths shut because we have no understanding of the matter, but what it really comes down to is whether we have a moral understanding of the situation, can empathise with those who are being done wrong by and reach a conclusion on whether the continuation of the act should be allowed. Sure, there are going to be people saying “but where do you draw the line?” and “on who’s authority can we base these types of decisions”, but you can always ask them “well, if this was you in that situation, don’t you think YOUR line would’ve been crossed?” and “who’s authority? Those who can empathise and come to a logic conclusion based on study and data; that’s who’s authority”.

    It was also wise to include Western Society’s version of femininity as well as Islam’s/Afghanistan’s/Iraq’s lack thereof.

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  2. Yet, Dr.Harris has yet to answer Sean Carroll’s critique. Even PZ Myers recognized the dilemma that Dr. Harris cannot. The “is” “ought” divide remains. Since Dr. Harris can only see the world in Manichean terms, Religion/Science, Them/US he lacks the intellectual tools to enter the ethics conversation in a meaningful way. But, mostly likely his book will be a best seller and he will be invited to speak in various colleges. Bad Philosophy makes for good business, just ask the tea party.

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    • To anyone interested, the comment above from titopoet is related to a post on their own faith-blog: http://www.life-and-faith.org/2010/05/sam-harris-is-dancing-with-stars-and.html

      While I tend to agree that Harris hasn’t really addressed the idea that science can answer these moral questions, the topics he covers are very important, regardless of the argument by Carroll, Myers and anyone else that says that.

      I think he may have made a mistake in the TITLE of his piece, but the CONTENT is sound. I think you, Carroll and PZ are all nitpicking the title of the piece and not the content. If you ALSO disagree with the content of the piece based on your particular religious mindset, then I am more than willing to discuss this with you.

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    • Unfortunately, saying that Harris only sees the world in “Us/Them” or “Science/Religion” terms isn’t true, in fact I have heard on many occasion Harris speak with one of the clearest perspectives on the issues facing the world in terms of culture, faith and spirituality. I can see why you are keen to grab onto this point, as you obviously dislike Harris.

      What do you mean by “meaningful”? Obviously you can’t see past the the failure to address the topic of science and morality when listening to his talk? YOUR failure to recognise this, reveals your motive of discrediting Harris rather than pretending to want to add to the ethical debate.

      “Manichean” terms? Did you just look this up now? So Harris sees the world as a fight between God and The Devil played out in the earth and in the bodies of men? Or are you using it as a way to illustrate the idea of 2 opposing sides?

      I can assure you, Harris doesn’t think this is the case.

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  3. I agree, atheistclimber, to describe Harris as Manichean is a gross oversimplification. It’s also a projectionist point of view. Reading several of titopoet’s blog postings, I perceive a mind which very much believes in a good-versus-evil world. Wouldn’t life be wonderful if it was so simple?

    I agree as well that Harris’s title for this endeavor is unfortunate. On the other hand, it does a good job in catalyzing discussion and conversation on the topic. Perhaps titopoet, and others who are of similar minds will engage on the topic more….meaningfully.

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  4. Thanks for this. I happen to be blogging about morality myself at present and will no doubt link to this. I think you and Synthaetica are correct in that the title may be simply to ‘catalyze discussion’.

    I think science is fantastic. However, I feel the bald statement “Science can answer moral questions” is false, and I understand that most philosophers would back me up on that.

    Science (or perhaps history and sociology) can tell us that humans sometimes kill each other, and that other humans don’t like that. It can’t tell us whether killing people is right or wrong. That’s the job of ethics, imo. :)

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  5. Science can not answer moral questions unless we successfully transformed Science that making us “well informed”, toward Knowledge and beyond that making us “knowledgeable”

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  6. Hi! I stumbled across your blog a few nights back. I’ve read a few of your entries, and after viewing this one I was reminded of a website with a similar theme.

    The council for secular humanism (http://www.secularhumanism.org/) treads a lot of the same ideological terrain as Sam Harris does in the video. For instance, their home page states that “Atheism and agnosticism are silent on larger questions of values and meaning. If Meaning in life is not ordained from on high, what small-m meanings can we work out among ourselves? If eternal life is an illusion, how can we make the most of our only lives? As social beings sharing a godless world, how should we coexist?”

    Cheers!

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    • Thanks for your comment.

      “Atheism and agnosticism are silent on larger questions of values and meaning. If Meaning in life is not ordained from on high, what small-m meanings can we work out among ourselves? If eternal life is an illusion, how can we make the most of our only lives? As social beings sharing a godless world, how should we coexist?”

      That’s statement is odd, because most people I converse with, and those I am influenced by may be atheist but talk about these very things, as I try to also. I have talked at length about morality and how it’s informed within a person, and about meaning. Search through some of my documents and you’ll find these. I find these to be “The Big Questions” as it were, and the only way we CAN move forward.

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