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.


  • Greg B Reply

    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 those which say a particular approach will maximize well-being or will let the individual thrive, or will let humanity thrive, or are premised on the optimization of happiness. But one can always say “Well, why should I act in accordance with your definition of maximizing ‘well-being’ for everyone? Why not optimize well-being for myself, or maximize ‘virtue’ or ‘pleasure’ for everyone, or myself?” And any response the ostensible science will give me in return, I can still say “well, why should I accept those justifications?”

    It appears that he is going to address these questions by defining well-being in the project-reason link, but then dodges and darts around specifying what it is, or defines it in normative terms (happiness, thriving, etc.). He asserts that any objections to his use of well-being as the arbiter of moral value imply that well-being is arbitrary and meaningless (another of his many strawmen), and he relies on this false dichotomy between (1) being a moral realist like himself or (2) it’s all arbitrary wackadoo ‘postmodern’ anything-goes-ness.

    Would science ever cause us to overturn our moral intuitions? What if the ethics lab proved that we should kill others whenever we can get away with it? What if xenophobia maximizes ‘well-being’? Would we be compelled to follow those results? I suppose Harris would see the convergence of the conclusions of ‘moral science’ with those of moral intuition as a mark in favour of his argument; I see it as ‘moral science’ providing just-so stories in defense of intuitions.

    Harris tries to redefine ‘moral’ as ‘good for well-being’ and then wants to make ‘good for well-being’ an objective property, a measure of conscious states. If he convinces people that this is desirable or correct, it will allow him to exclude debates over what ‘moral’ or ‘well-being’ is (for after all, it’s an objective thing, isn’t it?), and all we can do is ask whether particular stances achieve the conscious state which he’s established as desirable. But how do we know which conscious state is desirable? By people saying ‘this state gives me pleasure’? So we’re utilitarians, still facing our calculation problem. But is well-being the same as pleasure? Probably not. Maybe my well-being occurs when I am virtuous. Or selfless. Or selfish. Or maybe it depends on context. Should I have children, or adopt? Should I favour a leftist or rightist government, or should I be a revolutionary anarchist? Maybe science can answer those questions too (or maybe it’s turtles in lab coats all the way down). In the meantime, life carries on, let us know when the ethics lab proves something that we didn’t know already.

    I could spend another few thousand words cataloging other problems with Harris’ arguments, but as he says, “On the subject of morality, as on every other subject, some people are not worth listening to.”

  • Greg Lusk
    Greg Lusk Reply

    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 and share similar physiology, 2) science can investigate our physiology and determine if we are flourishing in any number of ways 3) since we have similar physiologies, conditions of flourishing will be similar, 4) morality is intimately linked with well being or flourishing, C) thus science can give us a morality – it can tell us what does and does not result in flourishing (almost) universally.

    I am not sure if this is an unfair caricature or not – Harris’ position is frequently stated in rhetorical questions and (false?) analogies that I cannot make sense of. But let me see what results from it.

    The first thing that I want to point out is that premise (4) from above comes close to begging the question (assuming the conclusion as a premise). Harris seems to take it as obvious that what morality should be is something that promotes human flourishing. Although this is a common position, it is not universally accepted. Furthermore, what morality should be is a MORAL question, not answerable by science in the way that Harris wants morality to be. I cannot do a brain scan to see what conditions result in flourishing in order to learn if I should be flourishing or not. So if he wants a universal morality that is based on science, he can’t accept the argument I put in his mouth above – he presupposes a non-scientifically informed “moral” premise in order to show that science is important to our morality.

    Premises one and three can also be problematic. In the first other article linked to in the OP Harris says:
    Being members of the same species with very similar brains, we are likely to converge to remarkable degree [in regards to what brain states we find to be “good”]. I might find that brain state X242358B is my absolute favorite, and Carroll might prefer X979793L, but the fear that we will radically diverge in our judgments about what constitutes well-being seems pretty far-fetched. The possibility that my hell will be someone else’s heaven, and vice versa, seems hardly worth considering. And yet, whatever divergence did occur must also depend on facts about the brains in question.

    I’m not sure if “my hell will be someone else’s heaven” is so easily dismissed. I can think of a litany of examples of what other people would call flourishing that I would think is destructive: sadomasochism, bondage, and Brussels sprouts, just to name a few. I’m sure my brain has something to do with this, but how does that help? Unless we are willing to intervene on someone’s brains to make them more inline with mainstream views of flourishing – the presupposed similarity that results in the universal nature of science derived morality is absent.

    Harris responds:
    Even if there were ten thousand different ways for groups of human beings to maximally thrive (all trade-offs and personal idiosyncrasies considered), there will be many ways for them not to thrive.

    Sure – but the problem is one person’s flourishing is another’s decline. So I’m not so sure this helps. Instead, Harris might say that what we wish to do is create legislation that allows the allows the individual to engage in the practices that she/he feels result in flourishing. In Harris’ terms, we want to allow the peaks but prevent the valleys.

    There are two problems here. The first is that individual self-reflection is not scientifically based in the way Harris wants. It is perfectly possible for someone to be wrong about their conditions of flourishing, counter to the scientific program being laid down. More importantly however, there will presumably be trade offs – we will need to prevent some individual’s flourishing because it creates “valleys” for other people (for example by hoarding resources, polluting, exploiting others, etc). But where do we draw the line? Science can’t tell us this. Even if we could quantify all the relevant factors, what method of optimization do we use – Highest average? Maximally high minimum?

    Harris slips back and forth between the level of flourishing we desire, and this results in many of the complications above. Do we want to promote flourishing at a global, national, or individual level? He talks a lot about different personal preferences for flourishing as we have seen, but talks little about these different levels. Here flourishing does matter. Personal flourishing does not necessarily result in global flourishing, as is evident by the poor work conditions and low wages in developing countries that supply cheap products to the wealthy ones. What we mean by flourishing matters a lot, and Harris, as best as I can tell, doesn’t give us an answer.

    So it is kind of obvious that I don’t think that science can tell us how we ought to behave. It might be able to, as Harris suggests, tell us if an individual is flourishing or not – at least physically. This would be helpful is testing the effectiveness of all sorts of legislation, especially medical policy. Once brain science develops, I’m sure we will be able to say more, but it seems that the best uses for scientific investigation are still at the level of assessing policy, not at the level of suggesting what policy to enact.

  • Mike Thicke
    Mike Thicke Reply

    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’t cite lack of consensus in science against the possibility of there being objective scientific facts, so why should you be able to do it with ethical facts?

    (2) Similarly, just because you can’t see a way of convincing someone that they are wrong about morality, doesn’t mean that they aren’t wrong about morality. Harris isn’t arguing that science can answer all moral questions now, in such a way that everyone will be forced to agree. He’s arguing that these are questions that can be answered in principle, even if we can’t see how they will be answered.

  • Greg B Reply

    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 us back into a basic fact/value distinction where calling something an ethical fact is a category mistake. “We shouldn’t be cruel” is a value, “People generally don’t like cruelty” is a scientific fact. I haven’t read in Harris a convincing claim which would disrupt this but am open to the possibility.

    On point (2), where you say He’s arguing that these are questions that can be answered in principle, even if we can’t see how they will be answered.

    Yes. But I’ll take up his example, the question “Exactly how many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth at this instant?” This can be answered in principle. We can also imagine what such an answer would look like (a number which is zero or greater). We can’t quite see how such a question will be answered, though we may speculate (estimation, a lot of people counting, organic RFID tags).

    Now, compare a moral question, “ought I X?” It can be answered in principle. We can also imagine what such an answer would look like (‘yes’ or ‘no’ or maybe a qualified answer). We can’t see how such a question will be answered, as Harris admits. However, I can’t even speculate how such a question would be answered scientifically, and I don’t think he does a good job outlining this either. What is a state of well-being? How do we decide without importing other moral principles? There is still a jump from descriptive accounts to moral ones. Consequently, for him to say ‘well, this question can be answered via science at least in principle’ seems not to do the necessary heavy lifting. Absent even a hypothetical mechanism for obtaining the ‘scientific’ answer, I guess I can agree with Harris that ‘yes, science may one day provide an answer to some moral questions’ but there aren’t really any implications for that, are there? There’s no proposed procedure which may give an answer to any moral question, so it doesn’t go anywhere. I can already get an answer to a moral question from Kant, or Singer, or Plato. Science has yet to give me an answer. When it does, I can see whether it relies on antecedent moral commitments and whether it has a quality different than the answers already offered.

  • W. Dean Reply

    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 environment. Even human beings would scarcely survive, say, a large asteroid impact. But if we did, the humans who emerged from this catastrophe might look and act significantly different from the ones around now in virtue of the radical change in their environment, much in the same way that we are very different in our behaviors than our Paleolithic ancestors. In other words, there’s no unique set of physical attributes that allows organisms to flourish at all times, in all places.

    Just as there is no unique set of physical attributes that guarantees survival, so there can be no unique set of beliefs or modes of behavior that guarantees it—let alone one that guarantees prosperity or happiness. The fact that some beliefs have served us well in the immediate past means nothing for the future, so these can hardly be binding, even on purely practical grounds.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      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 universe would tell us anything about ethical facts. Harris would thus be fine with the idea that if circumstances change, so does morality. If well-being is different for post-apocalyptic humans than current humans, no problem. That doesn’t imply that well-being isn’t objective in either case.

      • W. Dean Reply

        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 without essentialism. The ethical side of Harris’ argument is that there is a set of behaviours conducive to human flourishing. Unlike Aristotle, who rooted these behaviours in a fixed human nature with a fixed end, Harris (ultimately) claims that these behaviours provide an adaptive advantage.

        Using adaptive advantage as a foundation severs the link being “what you are” and “what you ought to do” by making the latter right in virtue of its advantageousness to you as an individual. Moreover, the implication is not just an updated version of the Lockean “virtue is its own reward” argument. Because what’s right is what’s advantageous, and what’s advantageous changes with environmental conditions, the only safe (i.e., advantageous course) is amoralism.

        In short, the only ethical ideal that could be based on adaptation is Gyges’ ring: the ability to appear just without actually being bound by it.

        • Mike Thicke
          Mike Thicke Reply

          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 facts depend on the contingent state of the universe. If you are only arguing for moral naturalism, and not for one set of purported moral facts, then you should be quite happy to say that if the state of the universe changed any or all moral facts may change as well.

          • W. Dean Reply


            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 correlation has to be empirically cashed out in a way that separates the moral from the immoral ones. Behaving nicely might correlate with the happiest brain state for me and I can call this my personal morality. But to turn this into a moral code that applies universally, I have to show that behaving nicely would make even people who don’t behave nicely happy or happier than they are. He can’t do show this with brain science. In order to bridge the divide, he will eventually resort to the only other avenue: the argument pioneered by E. O. Wilson that human beings have an evolved preference for niceness, which he argue for by claiming that niceness is an adaptive advantage. And the problem, as I said before, is that there is no such thing as absolute advantage.

            Consider the following remark from Harris: “Everyone also has an intuitive ‘morality,’ but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective wellbeing) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing.”

            Plato said exactly this in Republic when he claimed that only the philosophers know the best life, because only the philosopher has experienced the highest life in addition to the other kinds of life (pleasure and honour). The difference is that Plato had a cosmos governed by the Good to back him up—that is, he could get bridge the gap between the morality of philosophers and the morality of all. But Harris lacks this stable ground insofar as adaptations are contingent on circumstances.

            As for the rest of your response, Harris is fairly clear that “moral facts” (which I assume means the true moral propositions) cannot be relative to one’s circumstances or the present state of the universe. He explicitly rejects moral relativism and various moral judgments about the treatment of women on the grounds that they are intuitively wrong. He can’t very well allow the contingency of the present state of the universe while disallowing the views of people in other parts of it.

  • Boaz Miller
    Boaz Miller Reply

    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 people’s intuition by asking “don’t certain practices such as beating women seem so wrong to you that it must be a matter of objective fact that they are wrong?”. I an not persuaded. I don’t think that for such practices to be wrong they need to be wrong in any deep metaphysical sense.

    The second claim he makes is epistemic. He argues that science, particularly brain science, can give us answers to such moral questions.
    His argument is basically:
    1. morality is in the brain; (this premise is in possible tension with the previous claim about moral realism)
    2. scientists are the ones studying the brain;
    3. therefore we should defer to science on moral questions.
    This is just a poor argument.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      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 Reply

        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 covered over commitment to utilitarianism. Whereas Harris thinks he can make the case for the fourth way of biologizing ethics, I think that would require first determining, through scientific study, which ethical framework (Kant, Mill, Aristotle) is correct. But Harris clearly does not mean to do that; which makes sense, because as Greg B’s been emphasizing, there’s really no way to even begin such a program (how would one even begin to test ethical theories?).

        Therefore, I think he’s doing something more like the second way – rather than actually determining which ethical theories are correct, he seems to simply be teaching 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. That, I don’t think, is nearly as controversial as he thinks it is. It’s more like a scientific study of preferences than it is a scientific study of ethics.

      • Boaz Miller
        Boaz Miller Reply

        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 advice either. By contrast, Americans are a different story – people who can drive big cars to big shopping malls and buy 37″ wide flat TVs that other people in China make for them must be better moral agents – their brains are simply more advanced.

        On a more serious note – if you want to know what’s wrong with this picture and with naturalistic ethics in general I strongly recommend chapters 1 and 3 of Charles Taylor “Sources of the Self”. In my view, few philosophers have his depth when they discuss these issues.

  • Greg Lusk
    Greg Lusk Reply

    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’?

  • Allan Olley Reply

    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 argument that all moral deliberations avere to the thing he then takes as the key thing (the parallel is close but probably unintentional). This actually does not bring in Hume’s law (no ought from is) because it could just be the argument, no one believes not A, so we can reason from A. If you already believe A why should I bother making an argument for A? If we just can’t avoid believing A then we just have to accept that and move on (now if we go ought implies can that might we infer not-ought from not-can which may contradict Hume’s law). Neither of these readings of the Harris-Bentham argument challenge Hume’s law as usually understood.

    A note, I think he (like the religious conservatives he opposes) conflates the belief that imposing our morality on others will be more trouble than its worth (see a war you do not like) with stereotypical vacuous post-modern morality of don’t judge anyone. According to a survey ( ) done by David Chalmers and my friend David Bourget 56% of philosophers tend to moral realism, so it can not be as dire as goes on about throughout the talk (and I suspect many moral anti-realists are not stereotypical vacuous post-modernists). So great effort to beat up the strawman!

    I think the proof of Hume’s law lies in one of the key functions of morality (or one of the popular envisionings of morality etc.), this is evaluating across counterfactuals. Morality should help me evaluate whether I ought to have a bottle in front of me or have a frontal lebotomy. If the factual determines the moral evaluation then I can’t do that (since it might be that if I have a bottle in front of me its better to have a bottle in front of me, but if I have a frontal lebotomy then a lebotomy is better), an important form of moral realism is impossible or limited.

    If there is a non-question begging form of Harris’s argument (for basic ethics as a subject of science) it is probably a form of the argument about promises made by among others Searle. If I promise to pay Mike $5 then I am morally obligated to do so, the claim is made this is dictated not my moral principlies but by the mere scientific linguistic facts of semantics and grammar that determine the meaning of a promise! Similarly it could be the case that if we have a brain then there is some process it can go through that is flourishing by a parallel application of scientific laws and inference to the speech act case.

    However, I find Searle’s argument deeply unconvincing (I mention it because many such as Paul Thompson find it convincing or important). I think you can infer that people ought to keep their promises but only by an act that requires us to employ some suppressed moral assumptions or moral reasoning. For example can I promise to break all future promises, I think its clear that a mere analytical analysis of the meaning of that promise and another later promise (to give Mike $5) does not resolve to any clear restriction on my behaviour, but if we bring in some moral principles (either of fact or inference) then we might resolve it.

    Similarly a deep understanding of neurology might allow us to infer what the best brain processes are, but only by at least one reference to some synthetic inference that would seem to be moral reasoning not scientific or reference to some moral fact not a natural one.

    Now we could argue that the inference from brain processes to best brain processes (or the fact and conventional meaning of promise to its moral force) is merely some scientific synthesis, but I just find this odd since the only new fact adduced is a moral one. If it were an analytic act of reasoning I would probably buy the claim, but it does not quite seem at the level of “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles” (, since no contradiction follows from admitting any associated “is” claim but denying the “ought” claims, I don’t see how it could be purely naturalistic.

    Of course naturalistic facts (such as the precise meaning of a promise or the neurology of pain) do play an important and subtle role in morality and since much of what he says is just in that vein he has a point.

    I would point out that with my moral rationalist hat on I’m tempted to the view that science requires certain implicit moral assumptions, but while morality might justify science I can’t see the reverse argument goes through.

    A final note, Kitcher gave a talk at the IHPST (in Toronto) coming out in favour of some heavily attenuated naturalistic ethics (and I think he’s been making the rounds on it, may be in his next book)…

    • Boaz Miller
      Boaz Miller Reply

      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 only thing that is left to do is to prove it scientifically.

      • Allan Olley Reply

        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 practices than North Americans. Although perhaps its just that Europeans as good moral relativists are quicker to condemn variations from their cultural norms in their midst?

  • Anthony Kulic Reply

    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 suppose this is warranted to some degree—after all, we haven’t had to solve the conceptual problems related to quantum mechanics (e.g. quantum superposition, the ‘measurement problem’, etc.) in order to successfully apply quantum mechanics in both empirical and theoretical contexts. What’s not warranted is his ostensibly flippant attitude to these problems, and the rhetoric with which he dismisses them.

    For example, Harris’ readiness to dismiss the fact/value distinction without acknowledging the seriousness of doing so seems to belie his understanding of the issue. Harris states, “Carroll appears to think that Hume’s lazy analysis of facts and values is so compelling that he elevates it to the status of mathematical truth.” This couldn’t be more ironic, since the fact/value distinction is just an applied case of a foundational logical (i.e. mathematical) principle: that it is fallacious to include something in a conclusion (e.g. an ‘ought’) that doesn’t appear in the premises from which it is taken to follow. Harris needs to acknowledge the seriousness of denying this principle.

  • vincenzo fano Reply

    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 ought to be sentences and it is so and so sentences is not able to represent our actual cognitive activity. In other terms, may be there are a lot of intermediate degrees between these two extreme, so that one can produce a sort of continuous passage from science sentence to moral sentences. But I don’t know whether this possibility makes sense.

    • Allan Olley Reply

      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 an ought conclusion from premises that were all in the form of is statements. On the other hand by goodness Moore may have meant ought-ness such a reduction would I suppose rob you of your ought premise… The restriction of not deriving an ought conclusion from premises all of the is form is called Hume’s law or the is-ought problem (and probably other things besides).

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