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Sam Harris on moral relativism March 31, 2010

Posted by michaelmussachia in Ethics, religion, Science.
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Sam Harris gave an interesting and thought-provoking talk at the 2010 TED conference on how neuroscience can contribute to our understanding on morality and values. For those who are interested, the url is http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/moral-confusion-in-the-na_b_517710.html.

Harris challenges the traditional fact/value, is/ought distinction by pointing out that science can investigate values, both how they arise socially and their neurobiological nature.

To quote Harris:

“When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal well-being that we can, in principle, know–simply because well-being (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.”

He argues that if morality involves well-being and happiness (rather than “God’s will”), it has an empirical basis. Science can provide data on what factors are most efficient it bringing about happiness and well-being, just as it can with regard to what constitutes a state of good health and what can bring it about. Harris grants that, just as there are numerous ways to achieve good health, so also there are many ways to achieve happiness and well-being,  but their effectiveness can nonetheless be scientifically investigated. Harris also argues that while happiness, well-being (and good health) cannot be defined in a completely objective and universal manner, experience and empirical data clearly show that some values and forms of behavior  are more likely to result in happiness and well-being than others, e.g., if good health is a value, then consuming poison is not an effective way to realize that value; if well-being is a value, throwing acid on the face of young girls because they resist arranged marriages with men three times their age is not effective in realizing that value. Of course, there are all kinds of social issues here, including who defines the values and the means to achieve them, e.g., a Taliban fundamentalist vs a liberal secularist, but I agree with Harris that, broadly and loosely speaking, values and the means to achieve them are subject to empirical investigation. This doesn’t eliminate the fact/value, is/ought distinction, but both sides of the distinction involve empirical issues.

Another part of Harris’ argument is that a value does not have to be subject to a completely objective and universal (let alone mathematical) formulation for us to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable definitions of the value. He also argues that when academics embrace moral and cultural relativism, they confirm the claim of religious moral objectivists that only religion can provide an objective basis for values and morality.