Sam Harris Asks, “Can Science Answer Moral Questions?” No, Sam, It Cannot

I was having a back-and-forth on Twitter with Craig Mazin ‏(@clmazin) about Sam Harris’s claim that morality is a scientific and not a metaphysical question. As evidence, Mazin pointed me to Harris’s TED talk, which I dissected.

[ted id=801]

Sam’s Happy Talk

Now, since it’s important to begin by saying something nice, I note that Harris wore a suit, for which I praise him; alas, sans cravat. The moderator wore ugly jeans (forgive the grammatical tautology) and a sloppy t-shirt.

Harris’s thesis is that, “The separation between science and human values is an illusion. And actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history.” His introduction (with [my handy lettering]):

[A]Values are a certain kind of fact. [B]They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. [C]Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations towards rocks?…Because we don’t think rocks can suffer. And if we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects…it’s because we think they’re exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. Now the crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim. This is something we could be right or wrong about. [D] If we misconstrued the relationship between biological complexity and the possibilities about experience, why then we could be wrong about the inner life of insects. There’s no notion, no version, of human morality and human values that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.

[A] Values in this sense can be a “certain kind” of fact, namely particular observations. Examples: “Jones holds that same-sex ‘marriage’ is moral” or “The residents of North Carolina do not.” But head counts (votes) do not make or prove a value ethically or morally right or wrong. The mere observation that people are generally “for” or “against” some value is never a proof that that value is morally right or wrong. And even if it was, the proposition “Votes [observations] decides what is morally right or wrong” is not scientific and subject to empirical verification. No escaping metaphysics here (or anywhere, considering any argument uses logic, which is not scientific but metaphysical).

[B] False: they are observations (in his sense), which may be against the wellbeing of conscious creatures, as with people who purposely inflict pain or harm (and not just negatively: think of self-defense, war, and capital punishment).

[C] It is observed people that don’t care about rocks (except for Pet Rocks, of course, and New Age crystal mongers) and do care about macaques, which is another “factual claim.” But this is just an observation, which is not a proof etc.

[D] It could be mosquitoes just want our love. But to claim all morality should begin with a “concern about conscious experience” is not scientific, but metaphysical.

Harris then lists marks of a “failed state”: things like mothers not being able to feed their children, strangers who can’t peacefully collaborate, presence of wanton murder. And then he lists, as his example of contrasting idyllic conditions, his talk (yes). All very well, but more observation. Not even a hint of a proof that metaphysics can be eliminated. He here and elsewhere seeks audience support by listing moral goods and evils which are indisputable, and by that act hoping nobody notices he hasn’t proved that mere agreement is not proof these values are the values which are best. Perhaps this is done with calculation (see below), or maybe he just doesn’t know what he’s doing.

In talking about values, we are taking about facts…[E] If we’re talking about human wellbeing, we are of necessity talking about the human brain…So what I’m arguing is that values reduce to facts, the facts about the conscious experience of conscious beings and we can therefore we can visualize a space of possible changes in the experience of these beings…[F] Perhaps there are states of human wellbeing that we rarely access, that few people access…perhaps there are other states we can’t access because the way our minds are structured but that other people can access.

[E] No, human wellbeing is not “of necessity about the human brain”, coincidentally Harris’s day-job focus, except that, say, if you lose your foot you need your brain to help shout “Ouch!” But never mind.

[F] Here comes the scientific Buddhism. Secret, hidden doors exist in your brain which can be unlocked if we could only find the key! Send $19.99 (plus S&H) and I’ll show you how to fetch one of these keys. Even if this science fiction were true—I’ve reached level 92, thank you very much—it does not prove the judgments of Enlightened Ones is more moral, it presupposes it, a metaphysical proposition.

For his next non sequitur, he mentions corporal punishment and claims the rationale for it is solely religious. “Is it a good idea generally speaking to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy moral development and good behavior?” Perhaps the main fallacy is better labeled special pleading. You be the judge. The error in fact (only religious people spank) is just sloppy research.

He finally asks if there can be an objective definition of wellbeing. He compares by analogy that changing notions of health does not make health vacuous. And then he gives examples of moral wrongs, such as the mistreat of (mainly Muslim) women, and of the common open displays of lascivious pictures (concupiscence). He wondered whether a balance might be reached (this earned audience cheers).

It was at this point in the video that my Spidey sense twinged (start at 11:30). He puzzled over whether it was A-OK for a man to kill his daughter after she had been raped in order to save his (and her) honor. Most of us say no, though our mere agreement is not a proof we’re right. But look how Harris milks it! He says it once, twice, thrice, and then brings out the onion. How big his heart is! Good thing the tear almost fell, because it distracted everybody from realizing that he left his question sitting alone in the corner, unanswered.

He next claimed those who agree with him about the existence of moral absolutes are “religious demagogues” (and to prove his childish bona fides, as an example he shows a picture of emeritus Pope Benedict). “The demagogues are right about one thing: we need a universal conception of human values.” In so admitting what is true, that there are moral absolutes, he has not proved these absolutes are scientific. So his talk is a failure, even though we agree on many of the absolutes themselves. He then lapsed into standard foolish mistakes about religion that we needn’t bother with, they not being to the main point.

Since he still had time to fill, he contrasted the Dalai Lama and Ted Bundy and their notable differences of opinion in practical morals, making the valid point that academics mired in relativism can’t say which man is right, which wrong. He develops this by comparing his opinion on string theory with those of a physicist (“I’m the Ted Bundy of string theory”, a good joke). “How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise? Or moral talent? Or moral genius? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count?…There are right and wrong answers.”

Amen, brother, there are. But they cannot be proved scientifically.


  1. It is interesting to note that science and morality often align and when they do not, we need to ask ourselves why. I say this because the morality given us by God protects us from the “natural consequences” of the world. This blog often discusses sexual morality. Religion says no sex until marriage, monogamy thereafter. Scientifically, this stops 99.9% of all sexually transmitted diseases and illegitimate births (100% if you add in the rules that forbid rape and incest). Scientifically, the moral behaviour is sound. However, when the two coincide and we do not like the “moral” behaviour, we throw the science out as being “morality”.
    While the two do coincide, the science does not have a moral component–it is neither good nor bad, it just is the way biology works. You have to add religion or other source for the “good” or “bad”.

  2. Ken

    That’s interesting, from a philosophical standpoint, I guess, but there are some interesting tangible benchmarks that we can literally “put our finger on” (though in practice this is typically done via an MRI).

    We KNOW with CERTAINTY that the human brain is incredibly malleable–much more so than anyone imagined even 20 years ago. Neuroplasticity this is called.

    We KNOW with CERTAINTY that in early childhood that the brain sends out neurons & growth at an incredible rate, and apparently at random. Those neurons that get used, survive. Those that don’t, wither away. For example, its been observed that infants born with defects (e.g. cataracts) that blind them, but which are removed after about six months never regain eyesight, even though the eye is fully functional–because the neurons that transmit the signal to the brain were not used & “pruned” in the brain’s now well-known maturation process (in intermediate cases, e.g. where medical intervention occurred sooner, but not soon enough, vision may be saved but at an inferior capability, such as only the ability to see light vs. darkness, etc.).

    We KNOW with CERTAINTY that infants known to have been subjected to infantile abuse consisting of erratic parenting (feeding done randomly relative to the infants needs), harsh punishment (yes, some parents even spank infants for crying, and more), withheld cuddling and so on show stunted brain development in particular areas (e.g. the pre-frontal cortex). Where such is observed in youth/adults it is very common to be able to determine the parents exercised such an abusive parenting style (e.g. from interviews, neighbor reports, police reports, etc.).

    So, we KNOW with CERTAINTY that certain types of parental abuse (though many parents do no consider it abuse) correlates with particular types of brain underdevelopment.

    We KNOW with CERTAINTY what those brain regions contribute (e.g. executive thinking, emotions, etc.).

    Empirical data shows the following:

    – Adults with fully-developed brain regions are most likely to engage in altruistic behavior (e.g. “good Samaritan”) in various settings (e.g. laboratory games, social experiments where the subject do not know they are subjects, etc.)

    – Adults with stunted brain sections associated with harsh & deprived parenting styles do not, essentially never, engage in altruistic behavior (e.g. “good Samaritan”).

    – Adults known to have been subjected to particularly harsh & deprived parenting styles (e.g. to “toughen up the infant”) also consistently show a pronounced inability to feel empathy. Empirical evidence puts narcissists and sociopaths at the extreme ends of this category — these are people lacking entirely any empathy towards others to the point that other humans appear perceived by them more as objects than what most of us would consider other people (e.g. as many Nazis believed Jews were not really humans at all).

    ONE MECHANISM: the orbitofrontal cortex, when deprive of stimulation via neglectful or abusive ‘nurturing’ has no chance to develop or under-develops; the orbitofrontal cortex functionally mediates the capacity to empathize with the feelings of others and to reflect on internal emotional states, one’s own and others, when these emotionally rejected children grow up they are unable to empathize with others or have much insight into their own emotions–they lack the ability to engage in meaningful introspection.

    Again, this has been repeatedly observed in brain imaging studies (& some post-mortem dissections correlated with other data — including abusive studies on apes & rats, which are likewise observed to result in predictable stunting of brain development with associated behavior patterns).

    BOTTOM LINE: The infant-development vs. parenting style and associated brain development/stunting correlation with altruism & empathy is physically tangible, predictive, and objectively measurable (& has been measured). Thus, we have very clear evidence of “moral” values in adults directly linked to brain development & nurturing. In a sense, the correlations are so strong they might be considered “absolutes” — where an adult with wholesome nurturing will naturally value consideration, altruism, etc. (stemming from empathy) to be “natural” moral values. Those subjected to harsher & more deprived/depraved nurturing will have stunted brain development in particular areas, lack the ability for empathy, and as a result see no merit to charity/altruism and also may consider as reasonable moral values lying, cheating, manipulation, etc. when it serves their selfish interests and/or the interests of their social group.

    Thus, “morality” by some measures is KNOWN WITH CERTAINTY to derive from brain development, or lack thereof, directly linked to child-rearing practices, wholesome thru abusive. The particular types of “morals” actually held by an individual (which may vary with what they espouse to a broader audience) vary with biology and correlate precisely–the “morals” actually held not correlate relative to any absolute external standard.

    I’ll leave it to others to find the studies & data — which is “out there” and is accessible, if people want to find it & don’t mind simplistic ideological values being upended.

  3. Rich

    “Why is it that when all the questions of science have been answered we feel that the real problems of life have not been touched at all? And just this is the answer.”

    “If you want facts you have to go and look. If you want morals you have to choose.”

    I like these quotations so I’ve shared them.

  4. Ken

    Some interesting recent studies:

    Babies seem “hard-wired” to dislike those who are different from them, an unusual hostile bias against those perceived as nothing more than different (sort of, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you–but ONLY if they are like you, otherwise attack them’):

    From that link at Science Daily are many reports of studies indicating that humans are “hard-wired” for fairness…but those studies are invariably based on “normal” study subjects (i.e. those having a reasonably healthy upbringing of nurturing). The really interesting studies are those addressing situations when the individual’s environment was structured abusively — those are all too common in our society at all socio-economic levels (but particularly at the lowest levels).

  5. Ken: I would disagree that any of this is “certain” (short the cataracts and blindness) outcomes. Increasingly, psychologists damage humans by making them incapable of recovering from anything–PTSD, childhood abuse, etc. I saw that frequently in the adoption arena–every child was labeled forever damaged. We saw this in the past with mentally handicapped children-Down’s syndrome was a life spent in abject conditions, never being part of the outside world, continually cared for. Now these children go to school with other children and while needing some supervision as adults, some actually hold jobs, etc. Labeling a child FOREVER lost is a terrifying idea. Children who are abused do excel at times and children of privilege can be complete losers in life. You give far too much credit to biology and are locking away Down’s Syndrome surrogates to a life without hope. (I am not saying that changing behaviour is easy–people are lazy and revert back to what they know and understand, which is why the abuse seems to powerful. It’s not that they cannot change–it’s just simply too uncomfortable and too much work.)

    Also, even if such ideation were true, it remains that this how it is, NOT is it good or bad. Morality involves good or bad.

  6. DAV

    So, we KNOW with CERTAINTY that certain types of parental abuse (though many parents do no consider it abuse) correlates with particular types of brain underdevelopment.

    abuse is a word often abused.
    So is the word certainty.

  7. My simplified view of morality devolves to following two statements.

    Moral: If it increases the chance of survival of the community.
    Immoral: It it decreases the chance of survival of the community.

    Homosexuals not contributing to the gene pool are not a problem below some overall distribution level. At 3% they don’t present a moral issue for the community. At 10% it is also not a challenge. If everyone in the community suddenly becomes a non contributor to the gene pool, the community is at risk. At what point between 10% and 100% does the risk become to high to accept?

    Anyone fixing a number in the equation is a fool though. We adapt to the situation that is there. 100% is definitely deadly to the species. That 1 buck can impregnate 20 does or more makes the equation really murky. Solomon did have 300 wives and 700 concubines. 😉

  8. MattS


    Certainly, certainty is the most abused word in the English language. ;-P

  9. Ray

    “Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations towards rocks?…Because we don’t think rocks can suffer.”
    Isn’t that a non sequitur? What does suffering have to do with ethics? You don’t have an ethical obligation to an inanimate object. Rocks don’t have rights because they don’t have moral agency.

  10. Hans Erren

    Can religion dictate moral answers?

  11. Isn’t that part of what religion does–answer moral questions?

  12. Alan D McIntire

    ‘For his next non sequitur, he mentions corporal punishment and claims the rationale for it is solely religious. “Is it a good idea generally speaking to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy moral development and good behavior?”’

    I’m reminded of a study I read about the Israeli, and US Air forces. Flight instructors learned that after praising a student, the student usually did worse next time, after chewing the student out for screw ups, the student usually did better the next time. – negative feedbacks are not just a religious prediliction.

    Of course there SHOULD be a combination of positive and negative feedbacks to reinforce learning- that’s one reason the private market works so much better than government supported groups like Solyndra and the US post office. Those in private practice receive both positive AND negative feedbacks.

  13. Refuting Harris on this topic is no more difficult than refuting his rants against religion as such:
    1. Science is concerned with what can be done: the “is” of existence.
    2. Morals are concerned with what may and may not be done: the “oughts” of human nature.
    3. It is provably impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.”

    If Harris had read C.S. Lewis as a wee lad, he might — might, I say — be less of a doofus about it all.

  14. Ye Olde Statistician

    Deriving an ought from an is is impossible if you subscribe to Kantian metaphysics. From an Aristotelian perspective, it is not; but adopting an Aristotelian perspective results in unpleasant side-effects for folks like Harris.

  15. Briggs

    YOS, TPO,

    Ed Feser has an excellent series of posts on this from quite recently. See this and links.

    We need observation all right, but there’s no escaping metaphysics.

  16. Mark

    I suppose it may in principle be possible to construct a morality grounded in science… but it’ll be damned difficult to do so, if not in practice impossible.
    Now admittedly I’m no philosopher, but it seems to be that it is impossible to prove that, for example, “happiness” is a “good” thing to the same degree as V=IR, E=MC^2, thermodynamics or any number of other scientific theories (or mere laws for that matter). Accordingly, the foundations of any “scientific morality” must be based on a kind of “if / then / else” statement – “if happiness is a good thing then such-and-such is good, else it is bad”, etc.
    Still, we’ve got our foundations, so now we have to build upon them. But how do you measure morality? I can measure energy, mass, distance, time and so on and so forth. But how the devil do I objectively measure happiness?
    Given all that, I think that science’s role in morality is merely to proffer information. “Will a moral code of abstinence reduce teenage pregnancies?” is something science can answer (or at least attempt to answer), but it CANNOT tell you whether that moral code is, in fact, moral.

  17. Sanderr van der Wal

    Morality is indeed metaphysical, in the sense that one cannot know which specific set of moral rules is the best set of all possile moral rules.

    One can use a relIgions, another unprovable metaphysical system to say which specific set of morals is best. And the result of that is that each religion has its own set of morals, some of which are quite repulsive to people believing in a different religion.

    There is also the possibility of using falsifiable, scientific, theories to base a morality on. Like the ones based on the idea that societes that are succesful, will have a morality that will help that society be succesful, or will at the very least not have a moral theory that will endanger that society so much that it will not be succesful.

    Science itself does not generate these moralities, the societies do. After all, science never generates theories. People create theories, science roots out the falsifiable ones that are rubbbish.

  18. steve em

    I just found your blog,excellent polemic against Harris Science can tel us about morality,sophistry. It seems to me the very first bit of nonsense with Harris is found in his statements about “science” as if it were some Platonic form of knowledge instead of what is, which is what individual scientists do. Science is a multi-layered complex system involving a community of scientists engaged in research using scientific methods in order to produce new knowledge. So what science is he talking about science the social institution,the researchers, the research process, the method of inquiry? Or is it “scientific knowledge” which in many cases is in dispute i.e. Plasma cosmology and the Big Bang.

  19. Ye Olde Statistician

    Sanderr van der Wal: each religion has its own set of morals, some of which are quite repulsive to people believing in a different religion.

    Less so than many people think, and then mostly at the edges. But “set of morals” is a misnomer and imagines that morality is something like the USC or the CFR: a list of rules and regulations.

    Nor is it correct to confuse cultural practices with morality. Recall what Augustine said
    We must, therefore, consider carefully what is suitable to times and places and persons, and not rashly charge men with sins. For it is possible that a wise man may use the daintiest food without any sin of epicurism or gluttony, while a fool will crave for the vilest food with a most disgusting eagerness of appetite. … it was disgraceful among the ancient Romans to wear tunics reaching to the heels, and furnished with sleeves, but now it is disgraceful for men honorably born not to wear tunics of that description…
    — On Christian doctrine, III:19-20

    The Christians took their scriptures not as a kind of Code of Federal Regulations, but as a set of principles from which to reason about the world. That is, they were orthodox, not orthoprax. The reasoning made important use of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.

    Sanderr van der Wal: There is also the possibility of using falsifiable, scientific, theories to base a morality on.

    Since science deals only with the metrical properties of tangible matter, this seems unlikely. What moral principle can be derived from the inverse square law? What is tangible and metrical about loving your enemy?

    Sanderr van der Wal: Like the ones based on the idea that societes that are succesful, will have a morality that will help that society be succesful, or will at the very least not have a moral theory that will endanger that society so much that it will not be succesful.

    Of course, the morality is that “successful” is the good that is sought. Why? “Successful” against what standard? It’s the standard that defines the morality.

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