Is Sam Harris on to something? Can science answer moral questions?

Near the end of his wildly popular 1975 tome, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, E.O. Wilson declared that it was time for biologists to, at least temporarily, take over the study of ethics from the likes of Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls.1 In Philip Kitcher’s classic reply, he identified four ways biology could possibly inform ethics. The first is that science could just explain how people come to accept ethical principles and make ethical judgements. The fourth is that science can be a source of ethical principles: science can tell us how we ought to behave.2

Wilson, at least in Sociobiology, could be read as merely arguing for the first way, which isn’t very controversial. However, Kitcher, considering Wilson’s further work, argued that Wilson actually endorsed all four ways. This interpretation makes sense given that Wilson wanted biology to take over ethics, not just contribute to its study. As far as I am aware, most philosophers agree with Kitcher, following David Hume, that the fourth way is simply not possible. Nothing we could ever conceivably learn from biology could inform us about which fundamental ethical principles we ought to adopt.

Now, 35 years after Wilson, we have Sam Harris:

Harris has expanded on his argument here and here, and has a forthcoming book on the topic, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

Let there be no doubt, Harris is arguing for the fourth way:

I was not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind’s dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.

So what do you think? Is Sam Harris just repeating Wilson’s mistakes, or is Hume’s is-ought divide best forgotten? Can we really find new ethical principles by studying biology, psychology, or neuroscience? What would they look like? What do you think of the principles Harris proposes in his TED talk?

  1. E.O. Wilson. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) pp. 562-4.
  2. Philip Kitcher. “Four Ways of Biologicizing Ethics” in Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, Elliot Sober, ed. (1993).

    Kitcher’s four ways:

    1. Sociobiology has the task of explaining how people have come to acquire ethical concepts, to make ethical judgements about themselves and others, and to formulate systems of ethical principles.

    2. Sociobiology can teach us facts about human beings that, in conjunction with moral principles that we already accept, can be used to derive normative principles that we have not yet appreciated.

    3. Sociobiology can explain what ethics is all about and can settle traditional questions about the objectivity of ethics. In short, sociobiology is the key to metaethics.

    4. Sociobiology can lead us to revise our system of ethical principles, not simply by leading us to accept new derivative statements—as in number 2 above—but by teaching us new fundamental normative principles. In short, sociobiology is not just a source of facts but a source of norms.

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Mike Thicke

About Mike Thicke

Mike is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Toronto's IHPST. His research concentrates on social epistemology, the use of economics in philosophy of science, and philosophy of economics.

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23 Responses to Is Sam Harris on to something? Can science answer moral questions?

  1. Greg B says:
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    Has Harris any evidence for science answering a moral question? Not just informing or modifying our intuitions, or reframing the objects about which we reason (moving from souls to neurons, for example), but actually proving in the lab 'hey, X is the moral answer'? The only attempts I've seen are th...

  2. Greg Lusk Greg Lusk says:
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    Just to start, I will summarize what I think Harris' position is. I would also like to note, the ideas expressed here may or may not match my personal opinions. Please correct me in the comments below mine if I misconstrue his viewpoint, but it seems to be something like this: 1) We are all humans a...

  3. Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
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    In response to both Gregs I should point out a couple of subtleties of Harris's argument: (1) Harris points out that consensus is neither necessary nor sufficient for a scientific fact to be objectively true. There just has to be a fact of the matter for people to be right or wrong about. You can...

  4. Greg B says:
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    That's fair enough Mike. (My tone may have been unfair, in my weak defense Harris's timbre isn't great either, but then again he's also had plenty of salvos his way.) On point (1). If there are ethical facts on the same plane as scientific facts, what are those facts? It seems any answer bounces...

  5. W. Dean says:
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    I agree with most of Greg B’s and Greg Lusk’s objections, though I’d like to point to a theoretical problem that’s often missed when evolution is appeal to as a foundation for morality. Note that there is no such thing as a perfect organism, one adapted to survive any possible environme...

    • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
      [+]

      I don't think Harris would see any problem for his program here. He might even see your point as supportive. If ethical facts are discoverable through science, it must mean that ethical facts are contingent on the state of the universe. Otherwise nothing we could learn about the state of the univers...

      • W. Dean says:
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        He certainly shouldn’t find support in what I said. The problem, in a nutshell, is that his program, like E. O. Wilson’s before him, is a foundationalist normative program based on the inherently foundationless framework of evolutionary adaptation. It’s trying to have Aristotle’s ethics wi...

        • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
          [+]

          I don't see anything from Harris about evolution or adaptation. My point is just that if you are arguing that all we need to study morality is science, then you are arguing that all moral facts are empirical. If all moral facts are empirical, then there are no apriori moral facts - all moral fact...

          • W. Dean says:
            [+]

            Mike, You’re right that I got a bit ahead of myself. Harris doesn’t state that the foundation is evolutionary in any of the pieces cited above. But he has raised it before, and I’m betting he will go there in his book, whether explicitly or implicitly, because the behavior and brain state ...

  6. Boaz Miller Boaz Miller says:
    [+]

    In this video Harris makes two points. The first is claim for moral realism - the view that there are objective moral facts; moral claims are objectively right or wrong; it is a matter of fact that a certain practice is right or wrong. He actually doesn't give an argument for that, but appeals p...

    • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
      [-]

      I think what Harris is actually arguing is that morality has to do with things that have brains. By studying brains we can learn what is good for them and thus learn about morality.

      • Curtis Forbes Curtis Forbes says:
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        While I agree that studying the brain can teach us things about morality, I do think that Harris is equivocating on some important issues. His notion of "good" (for brains) is laden with ethical theorizing, as it presumes that "good" means something akin to "human flourishing". This is simply a co...

      • Boaz Miller Boaz Miller says:
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        The question is who's brains. He makes it very clear that we are not talking about the brains of Afghans. He seems to think that scientific progress and moral progress are somehow related. So just as you wouldn't want to take scientific advice from these backward Afghans, you wouldn't want moral ad...

  7. Greg Lusk Greg Lusk says:
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    Curtis – Not to turn the comments to you, but I’m curious if you could elaborate on the ways in which you think the brain can teach us things about ethics? And do they differ from Harris’?

  8. Allan Olley says:
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    Sam Harris should just have started the talk with "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." and admitting the moral basis he was starting from [well welfare and flourishing plays better these days I suppose]. Since he seems to be making Bentham's a...

    • Boaz Miller Boaz Miller says:
      [+]

      Allan, the philpapers poll is skewed toward the views of North Americans. I think he is relying on the fact that they tend to be moral realists. US Americans often tend to think to think that with their system of individual freedoms they have the only true and objective morality in the world. The o...

      • Allan Olley says:
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        Boaz, I'm not clear that European, Asian or African intellectuals are the sort of moral relativists he contends even if they are overwhelmingly moral anti-realists. Certainly among the broader public I get the impression that the Europeans are often quicker to condemn other countries and cultural pr...

  9. Anthony Kulic says:
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    I’m sympathetic with much of the critique of Harris here, but I’m nevertheless intrigued by inquiry into whether science can help us answer difficult moral questions. Harris is clearly willing to set aside certain problems arising in metaethics for the notion of objective moral truths, and I ...

  10. [+]

    That scientific knowledge has a moral relevance is obvious. But I cannot understand how Harris' argument could avoid the so called naturalistic fallacy: that is to derive an ought to be sentence from an it is so and so sentence. The only possibility I can imagine is that the distinction between ough...

    • Allan Olley says:
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      This is a bit pedantic, but the naturalistic fallacy (as originally defined by Moore anyway) is to identify goodness with (reduce it to) a natural property. One could perform just such a reduction by using some ought premise along with the is premises about the natural property and so avoid deriving...

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