Sam Harris Throws Down His Gauntlet

Sam Harris Throws Down His Gauntlet September 16, 2013

Ok, probably not this gauntlet

Sam Harris, one of the ‘Four Horsemen’ of New Atheism, has issued a challenge to critics of his moral philosophy.

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

Entries aren’t due until February, and, when the time comes around, I’m minded to take a shot.  I was still an atheist when Harris’s book came out, and I had it on preorder, since I was dying to have a good book on groundings for morality to shove back at my Catholic boyfriend.  I was bitterly disappointed when I got to read it.

I didn’t write up a detailed rebuttal (I was sulking), but if I were to distill it to a paragraph, I’d say Harris assumes that contentment/absence of suffering is the best way to judge what is good for humans, and that neuroscience will help us advance to detect finely grained changes in happiness and select those actions that increase happiness/decrease suffering.  Moral action will become similar to adjusting the oxygen saturation for a patient.   But don’t let my possible strawman lead you astray.  Here’s how Harris summarizes himself on the contest page:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

Ross Douthat has already offered a critique.  The contest doesn’t bar posting your entries anywhere else, so I’ll have mine up here in February, and I’m glad to host the entries of any regular commenters who do not keep blogs of their own.  I should mention that First Things is a bit skittish of the contest, since Harris gets reprint rights for anything submitted, and they suspect entrants will be sliced, diced, and rebutted in a new book project for Harris.  To which I offer Lady Croom’s rejoinder from Arcadia, “Would you rather be thought not worth insulting?”


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  • Ada

    It interests me that even philosophers who agree with with Sam Harris’ conclusions tend to think his arguments are invalid (e.g. Richard Carrier.)

  • I also notice that he’s narrowing it to arguments that his case for a scientific basis of morality is mistaken, whereas I’d be more likely to argue that it’s incomplete. Not so much, “Look, you’re wrong,” as, “Look, you don’t have enough to convince me (or, I hope, anyone else) because there are these bits which you’re just assuming without arguing.” (But I’m going based on his talks, not on his book. Maybe his book is better.)

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      Sure. Okay, say we all agree that evolution and genetics and natural selection and everything means that, as humans, we are hard-wired to have distinct tendencies to whop other humans over the head with a rock and take their stuff.

      Where do we go from there? How does “science” (which tells us this is our base state) recommend whether we should stay as we are, or that we should try and overcome those tendencies? Scientific investigation can measure why we like whopping people over the head and taking their stuff, but it can’t tell us if it’s right or wrong, only that since we survived by doing it, it must have been a viable strategy.

      Getting into “what’s right, what’s wrong, is suffering bad, what do we mean by bad” means moving out of the narrow field of “here’s a brain scan we took on our latest most advanced machine” and working with the philosophers and the ethicists and the non-physicists. So a scientific basis of morality may tell us that “Sure, we can tweak this centre of the brain with this combination of chemicals to suppress this trait” but it doesn’t tell us is that a good thing to do, a neutral thing, or what might happen if we meddle with such delicate states.

      • Eriktb

        Why would we agree that evolution, genetics and natural selection leads to violence and robbery?

        Which scientific investigations have shown that we like violently attacking and robbing people? Further, which of them show that the process of evolution has led to us as a species finding violence and robbery the norm?

        I don’t have much to say about The Moral Landscape since I’ve never read it, so maybe what you’ve said has something to do with the book. If it does, please elaborate for those us who’ve never read it because otherwise you just sound strange equating evolution to violence and nothing more.

        • Randy Gritter

          Where would we get our tendency towards anger and violence? If you believe in evolution then at some point it gave us a survival advantage and so the trait became part of who we are.

          • Eriktb

            Who tends toward anger and violence? I haven’t lifted a hand in anger since I was a dumb teenager with hormones raging and good sense falling far behind. Why do so many people seem to think that being a violent thug is the norm? Seriously, why? From what I’ve seen adults who are still fighting are generally little more than over grown teenagers with a history of violence or abuse. Beyond that there are fanatics who by definition forsake reason for their cause. Both groups would obviously account for some percentage of the human race, but you all make it seem like the majority of people are only not killing, raping, robbing etc. because their religion tells them not to.

            If that really is the case I’m incredibly scared yet happy that they’re gullible enough to still believe their superstitions.

      • stanz2reason

        So a scientific basis of morality may tell us that “Sure, we can tweak this centre of the brain with this combination of chemicals to suppress this trait” but it doesn’t tell us is that a good thing to do, a neutral thing, or what might happen if we meddle with such delicate states.

        Side Note: This is really the key question brought up in ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

      • Right. You can even say that we are genetically hardwired to believe that there is such a thing as morality and it tends to look like such-and-such, but that still doesn’t get you to an ought.
        I haven’t read the book–maybe I should! I seem to have opinions on this–but it seems almost like he hasn’t bothered to look at the philosophy of ethics’ history to see where the hang-ups have been. Because it’s not just that lots of people are criticizing him; I bet most of his critics have consensus about his particular error.

        • Green_Sapphire

          Harris is saying the emperor has no clothes.

          He has looked extensively at the philosophy of ethics and theological morality. He is saying that its foundations are flawed and so what is built on it is flawed and also efforts to improve it by tweaking at it are bound to fail.

          It is understandable that traditional philosophy folks — like the emperor’s courtiers who designed his increasingly gossamer couture — would disagree with him.

          It is more understandable that theology folks would disagree with him because he believes morality should be based inter alia on metaphysical naturalism.

          He (and others, including Patricia Churchland and Joseph Daleiden) are saying that we should start over and develop a science of morality.

          For example, instead of endless meta-ethical wrangling about how to decide the best context from which to describe how to define what is good and from whence it comes and how it can become known, he says we should cut to the chase, using basic axioms, like “Morality is about the well-being / flourishing of conscious creatures.”

          (In traditional meta-ethics, this position fits under the heading of Ethical Naturalism and well-being / flourishing are among the translations of the concept of eudaimonia.)

          Harris also eschews the traditional divisions of utilitarianism and deontology but IIRC proposes a way to take both concepts into account. That is, despite what opponents often claim, he does not support simple consequentialism.

          He says that science — broadly defined and including academic disciplines which base their conclusions on the weight of empirical evidence — can and should be the way to determine what is ‘good.’

          • Is that what he says in the book? My bad, then. I suppose I should really read the book; from the talks he’s done it seems like he’s mired in the same problems as the philosophy of ethics and doesn’t really know it, but maybe he addresses the issue in a more sophisticated way in the book.

      • K.Chen

        Riffing off your point for a moment, science has discovered that humans – like their primate evolutionary cousins, have adaptations and behavior patterns encouraging monogamous pair bonding combined with the tendency to mate outside of the pair bond. Some soi distant scientifically informed thinkers have proclaimed this proof that monogamy is unnatural. Of course, the same scientific research notes that mate defense i.e., assaulting amorous rivals, is also frequent. So jealousy is also in that sense “natural.” So it is natural to feel jealous about a polyamorous relationship, but unnatural to advocate for monogamy.

        None of which I would argue, gives us even a little bit of an idea of how we should organize our personal lives, nevermind interlinked families or communities. Science is the superlative way of discovering facts. It isn’t a particularly special way of interpreting, contextualizing, and applying those facts in philosophy.

        • Hibernia86

          I think the problem here is that you assume that the only two options are absolute monogamy and absolute polygamy. In truth the human mating system is “seek out monogamous relationships because they are the best bet for having kids, but if you can cheat a little on the side to spread your seed or get impregnated by someone with better genes than your current mate, do that if you think you can get away with it without losing your current spouse.” This allows humans the option of both having children through monogamy and taking advantage of polygamy when they can get away with it. It produces the largest number of offspring with the best genes which is why humans do it (as well as a lot of other animals too).

          • K.Chen

            I actually assume that the options are p and not p, with P being upholding (which is not to say following) a monogamous norm and not P as everything else – but that is my own cultural biases speaking. I take your description to be a both reasonably accurate and precise description of human behavior in the state of nature.

            My wider point is that the same scientifically discovered facts, monogamous pair bonding, mate defense, and cheating, are susceptible to different interpretations and value systems more than we can derive value systems out of them. For example, I would argue the most obvious value system gleaned from your description of human sexuality is “form close reciprocal relationships, get away with betraying those reciprocal obligations as often as possible, and interfere mightily with your relationship partners attempts to do the same.”

            I think it is readily observable that the vast majority of people advocating a non-monogamous relationship do not hold that value system – even when they make an argument on whether it is natural or not. Empirically, discovering values by scientific observation does not lead to common or sound value systems.

            Philosophically, I think that scientifically gleaned morality is a class error because it presupposes facts present values, rather than tools on applying the same, and even if it didn’t, I think it would run into all the problems that act utilitarianism does.

          • Hibernia86

            Oh, I agree with you. Science teaches “is” not “ought”. People can’t say what is natural because natural changes as evolution proceeds. They can only say what the evolutionary forces are affecting us.

            I should point out that I am an unbeliever. I used to read Leah’s blog before she converted and have recently received e-mails from the site so I decided to check in again. I think the mistake that Leah made is that she said “I want objective morality to exist. Objective morality requires God. Therefore I’ll believe in God”. The problem with that is that wanting objective morality to exist does not automatically mean that it does. Also the question of whether God exists and whether objective morality exists are two separate questions. Having God as the creator or greatest power doesn’t make what he says moral. A parent is the creator and greatest power in a child’s life but there are parents who act immorally. Dictators rule as the greatest power but that doesn’t make them moral. Even if you wave your hands and say that God somehow has the characteristics of creating objective morality out of what he says, there is no reason that objective morality couldn’t exist without him. Objective morality are rules of the universe dealing with right and wrong and thus whether or not there is a God these objective morals could exist or not. Saying that objective morals need a creator but that the creator doesn’t need a creator doesn’t make sense. Add to that the fact that there isn’t any evidence for God in the first place.

          • Randy Gritter

            Don’t keep apologizing for being here as a non-believer. There are a lot of you here and I, for one, like it that way.

            If objective morality does exists that raises a lot of questions. How did it come to be? How do we know it? Why should we reorder our lives around it? These questions don’t trivially lead to the conclusion that God exists or ultimately that Catholicism is true but they can lead you to at least contemplate such thoughts.

            Can you not see how atheism has no real answers to these questions? In fact, accepting that non-material entities like love or justice exist outside the human mind you have already taken a step that many atheists will sneer at. That is believing in something with no scientific evidence to support it. It is in many ways parallel to the thinking that leads people to believe in God. So while objective morality does not logically require God it does require accepting something supernatural that is similar to God in some important ways. Really it means rejecting atheism as it is typically known in the modern western world.

          • Pofarmer

            The problem is, religion has no real answers to these questions either. It just makes up convenient answers that pacify us.

          • Green_Sapphire

            “If objective morality does exists that raises a lot of questions. How did it come to be? How do we know it? Why should we reorder our lives around it?”

            We evolved as a social species from other social species. Morality (aka prosocial behavior) actually predates societies — because a society cannot exist if the various moral drives (empathy, equity, compassion, etc.) did not exist.

            Species without these moral drives simply are not social. Morality is a basic requirement for social species. The hormone oxytocin is one of the significant morality supporters.

            These moral drives are as genetic and hard-wired as the drives for survival and for sex. Expecting and acting with fairness, justice, grooming/bonding, reciprocity are genetic. Social hierarchy, mating rules, food sharing rules are genetic. Limits on violence within the group is genetic. Punishment of offenders to these social rules is genetic.

            “How did it come to be?” Like everything else in biology — by natural population variation, mutation, natural selection, change over time in a population of inherited traits based on environmental pressures.

            Human morality, because of our abilities and our large, complex social lives, requires yet another level of complexity — developing additional rules using language.

            But it’s just another step in the long march of morality in social species.

            “Can you not see how atheism has no real answers to these questions?”

            Since atheism has nothing to do with these questions, being a single position with respect to a single question, it is tautological that it doesn’t have answers to other questions.

            But science has very extensive and very physical and testable and provable answers to many of these questions. Philosophy, particularly moral philosophy, is necessary to help lead us to additional answers.

            But we’re born with most of the answers built in. Morality is an “ought” that “is.”

          • Randy Gritter

            You missed the point. I was saying that someone believed in objective morality. What you describe is neither objective nor morality. It is not objective because it is a property of humans and not something that transcends humanity. It is not morality because it is an “is” statement rather than an “ought” statement. If evolution gives us impulses to do this and not do that then that does not make them right or wrong.

            But this is precisely what Leah said she rejected when she embraces virtue ethics. So you are saying she can’t get from virtue ethics to Catholicism because you disagree with virtue ethics.

          • Green_Sapphire

            “You missed the point.”

            I understand your point. I disagree with it. I also disagree with the traditional concepts of morality and ‘ought vs is’ because of scientific findings. I also disagree with your definition of ‘objective’ because it is wrong.

            “What you describe is neither objective…”

            Objective: “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.”

            When science finds that humans have two arms, that is an objective fact. When science finds that humans have a survival instinct, that is an objective fact. What science is finding — and proving — about morality is that it is fundamentally genetic, that is an objective fact.

            These are “properties of humans”. Objectively.

            Philosophy and theology have traditionally considered morality to come from ‘out there’ — from a deity or a Platonic realm or pure reason or some such that, as you say, “transcends humanity”.

            That was based on ancient concepts including body/mind duality. They viewed that which comes from the body is base and that which comes from the mind is pure or divine. They conflated that with assigning ‘bad’ desires to the body and ‘good’ desires to the mind. They added in that babies are born ‘naturally bad’ and must be ‘taught to be good.’

            These ideas are fundamentally, scientifically, objectively wrong.

            Philosophy and theology will have to acknowledge that some of their traditional views and fundamental premises about morality are factually, objectively erroneous.

            This is not to say that they will have to conclude that murder is good and love is bad. But they will definitely have to change several premises, including their simplistic and outdated and factually-wrong absolute dichotomy between “is” and “ought” and their idea of the natural immorality of humans.


            “…nor morality. It is not morality because it is an “is” statement rather than an “ought” statement.”

            I understand your view, which is widely shared. I disagree with it. That is my point.

            Humans are genetically moral. We are born with morality. We don’t learn morality from zero — we learn our society’s implementation of morality.

            I’m not saying that our instincts make our behavior good or bad.

            I’m saying that we are not instinctively bad and can only act good if society or religion teaches us what is good.

            I’m saying that we innately have drives to care for others, to act fairly, to cooperate, to reciprocate, to defend others, to resolve conflicts, etc. and we naturally dislike witnessing lying, cheating and stealing. This is what “is.”

            These are things that morality says we “ought” to do. This is therefore an “ought” that “is.”

            I agree that we need to have an expanded moral system in order for us and our society to flourish. But to be successful, it has to be built on a good, true, objectively-factual foundation.

            That means not assuming we are going from an “is” (zero morality) to an “ought” (taught/imposed morality).

            Instead, we are going from an “ought that is” (innate moral drives) to an “ought that ought.”

          • Randy Gritter

            So when I say strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream that would be objective to you? It is my opinion but the fact that I hold such an opinion is objectively true? Just weird.

            On the “is” and “ought” thing, you are wrong there too. But being wrong is not the point. The situation stipulated that objective morality existed. The specific context was Leah before she poped. So we are starting from virtue ethics and seeing how that might lead you to explore Catholicism. That is why your declaring virtue ethics to be all wrong misses the point.

            “Humans are genetically moral.”

            This needs some sort of definition. Do you just decide what humans are genetically disposed to do is moral? Is there some moral code somewhere that genetics leads us to follow? How does evolution produce genetically moral humans?

            Is lying wrong because we have evolved an aversion to it? I don’t see how that would follow. I have an aversion to changing diapers. Does that make it wrong? A heart surgeon has an evolved aversion to cutting open a person’s chest. That does not make it immoral. Some aversions need to be overcome and some need to be solidified. How do we tell?

          • Green_Sapphire

            EDIT: Randy ‘edited’ his previous comment to double its length after my reply. His comment previously ended at “…missed the point.” My comment here responded to his original comment. The ethical thing for him to have done would have been to put this additional verbiage in a second comment or subsequent comment or, at minimum, include an EDIT: line to indicate what was changed or added (which is de rigueur even at anarchic Reddit). In any case, I’m going to ignore it. If he wants me to reply to it, he can remove it from there and put it in a subsequent comment

            “So when I say strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream that would be objective to you?

            This is simply a straw(berry) man argument and not based in any way on what I actually wrote.

            Also, I never said anything about virtue ethics at all, so I can’t see how you think I am declaring anything about it.

            Your previous reply essentially just said “you’re wrong.” This reply essentially just says “you’re wrong.” If you’re not interested in engaging in a discussion but instead want to keep saying “you’re wrong” and repeating yourself (which is not a discussion), then I’m done.

          • Randy Gritter

            I just said “you’re wrong” because I didn’t intend to go into why you were wrong. Then I edited the post and added a bit about that. I should not have said “you’re wrong” but rather “I will comment on that below” which is essentially the same thing but more charitable. Sorry. (I edited my original comment)

            As for the strawberry argument, I do see a parallel. It is about terminology rather than truth but I do find your use of the term “objective” to be strange. Objective means not dependent on the person. If morality is genetic that is in the person. It is not “out there” to use your phrase. Now the fact that property X is in the person is an objective fact. That is true whether X means “believes lying is immoral” or X means “likes strawberry ice cream better than chocolate.” Both are objective facts about the person but because they are about the person we call them subjective.

          • Green_Sapphire

            “Objective means not dependent on the person. … Both are objective facts about the person but because they are about the person we call them subjective.”

            That is factually wrong. Here, again, is the definition of ‘objective’, and I’ve added more:

            “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts; not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.” Oxford

            “of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers : having reality independent of the mind” Merriam-Webster

            “Based only on facts and not influenced by personal feelings or beliefs. Real and not existing only in someone’s mind.”McMillan

            There is no definition where ‘objective’ means “not dependent on the person” such that “because they are about the person we call them subjective.”

            It is true that some matters are subjective, such as one person finds chocolate tasty and another person finds it disgusting. These are matters that are “influenced by personal opinion.” So we cannot say that ‘objectively’ all humans like the taste of chocolate.

            But there objective facts about humans that do not become subjective when referencing an individual human.

            It is an objective fact that humans have two arms (with exceptions for defects or injury). If we are talking about Alice, it is still an objective fact that she has two arms. We do not “call them subjective because they are about the person.” Her having two arms is not “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions” and is “not dependent on the mind for existence.” It is not her subjective opinion that she has two arms, nor my subjective opinion nor your subjective opinion. It is an objective fact.

            It is also an objective fact that humans have an aversion to harming other humans (with exceptions for neural defects such as sociopathy or brain damage). This doesn’t mean that they never harm other humans, but that ceterus paribus they avoid doing so. This has been studied extensively sociologically and anthropologically and psychologically, and more recently it has been studied neurologically.

            When considering harm to humans in various situations, for neurotypical humans in an fMRI, the same region of the brain is activated — the amygdala. In sociopaths, this region is not activated by the same stimulus.

            We are born with an aversion to harming other humans. It is genetic. It is innate. It is an objective fact.

            “Not harming others” is a moral value. People who avoid harming others are considered moral and people who do not avoid harming others are considered immoral.

            Therefore, it is an objective fact that humans have this moral value as an inborn trait. It is not a learned behavior. In fact, it cannot be learned; sociopaths cannot be taught to dislike harming others.

            The same is true of the moral traits of fairness, justice, altruism, reciprocity, cooperation, aversion to lying, aversion to stealing, conflict resolution, caring about reputation, and attending to social cues.

            Where did it come from? From the same place as our arms — evolution by means of natural selection and mutation.

            Over evolutionary time, many species did not develop these traits and did not become social species. Some species developed a subset of these traits. Some species, like the great apes (including humans), developed all of them.

            Humans are genetically moral. That is an objective fact. This is “objective morality.”

            We are not born bad and thus need to be taught to be good. We are born with both selfish traits and with moral traits.

            That doesn’t mean we don’t need a system of morality as a society. We do. We need to be taught how to nurture, direct, and balance these drives in order to lead a life that is both satisfying to us and beneficial to our family, friends, community and society. We need, as a society, a moral framework.

            But any successful system of morality has to start from what humans already are: moral beings.

          • Randy Gritter

            “Not harming others” is a moral value.

            The trouble is that what precisely that means is very much in dispute. Leah does not like football. She thinks “Not harming others” includes not playing or even liking tackle football. I don’t. So this allegedly objective moral value becomes subjective very quickly just by trying to be clear what it means.

            It gets worse. You still don’t know that this impulse to not harm others is right. All we know is it is an impulse many of us feel. If the Nazi’s say, “I know you have this impulse but what is really good for society is to overcome it and kill all the Jews” then what can we say? Impulses are just evolutionary artifacts. There is no moral principle that flows from them. Evolution can make mistakes.

          • Green_Sapphire

            Straw man again. You’re again not responding to what I wrote but spurting random prerecorded non-sequitor statements that seem to be triggered in your brain whenever the word ‘objective’ or ‘morality’ occurs.

            Plus Godwin’s Law.

            “Godwin’s Law: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. … The law is sometimes invoked, as a rule, to mark the end of a discussion when a Nazi analogy is made, with the writer who made the analogy being considered to have lost the argument.”

            This conversation is over.

          • Andrew Reid

            >> In fact, accepting that non-material entities like love or justice exist outside the human mind you have already taken a step that many atheists will sneer at

            True. A more polite and curious atheist would be interested in the reason(s) you have for having taken that step, given that you agree there is insufficient evidence for it.

            >> Can you not see how atheism has no real answers to these questions?

            I would say that the implications of Objective Morality being true are of academic interest only until such time as OM is shown to be true (or likely to be true).

          • K.Chen

            I just rediscovered Leah’s blog after I think some years so I can’t tell you why I think she converted, let alone defend her decision.

            That having been said, I think the question of “do I want this to exist” and “does this exist” are actually not quite as different as you think they are when it comes to philosophy. More precisely one form of argumentum ad absurdum is to prove that a conclusion may or may not be false, but is certainly unacceptable. For example, I believe I have free will – not because I can measure free will in the world in any way, but because if there “I” entity that is capable of making free enough choices, all the things that have caused me happiness and unhappiness are accidents, and if that is true, I want to get off this ride (that is, existence). Ergo, I believe that I have free will.

            For devotees of the Enlightenment and its progeny, this line of thinking is uncomfortable, if not outright heretical.

            The circular nature of who created the creator argument is actually not a big deal if you are willing to postulate an entity that does not obey laws and ideas that we are familiar with, but this is not an area I know particularly well or find very stimulating, so another will hopefully jump in to discuss that point with you. I find it entirely more interesting to explore the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God”

            For myself, philosophic exploration took me as far as determining I believed that there was a component to morality external to humanity – what I called nondenominational religious belief. My personal conversion to Christianity came from observing that I happened to believe that the external force was loving, which made me Christian, if a Christian sui-generis.

            My point here being that “belief” can be a slippery thing, and what someone thinks qualifies as adequate proof is not always obvious and may rest on strongly held, unquestioned and unstated priors, probably the result of cultural conditioning.

      • Hibernia86

        I agree that the science of “is” doesn’t get us to the morality of “ought”. But the fallacy, which Leah seems to have fallen for as well, is that “I want objective morality to exist. Objective morality needs God to exist. Therefore God exists.” First of all wanting objective morality does not mean that that it actually does exist. Second of all, the existence of objective morality does not require God. Either there are objective moral rules of the universe or there aren’t. God need not play a part and since we don’t have evidence for him it should be assumed that he doesn’t exist.
        I hope objective morality exists, but inventing a God that we don’t have evidence for in order to prove morality isn’t logical either.

        • KG

          So true. So many arguments for personal Gods end up being rooted in the *desire* for objective morality to exist. It’s a compelling argument for people who feel they will fall off the precipice into nihilism unless they find an objective moral system to grasp onto. But not so compelling for people who feel they can build a life around a moral system that isn’t necessarily written into the cosmos

          • Andrew Reid

            Yeah. While I can understand people pointing out that Harris has just plain declared ‘well-being’ to be axiomatic goal without proving it to be so, the same complaint can be made against all the alternatives.

            This is especially true of Objective-as-in-a-property-of-reality Morality (as opposed to Objective-as-in-true-for-humans-in-general Morality), which is a thing we have _no_ evidence for.

            So, if I’m reading him correctly, Harris’s claim is quite modest, and can be paraphrased as: “Naturalism is true, so moral truths are in principle discoverable by rational/scientific inquiry. Let’s take well-being as the target goal for now so we can start making some progress on the topic”.

      • Pofarmer

        “Sure. Okay, say we all agree that evolution and genetics and natural
        selection and everything means that, as humans, we are hard-wired to
        have distinct tendencies to whop other humans over the head with a rock
        and take their stuff.”

        Uhm, actually, we don’t. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of the arguments of folks like Harris and Dawkins. We evolved to cooperate in groups.

        • Anonymous

          “We evolved to cooperate in groups.”

          This is sloppy language. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt personally, because this type of sloppiness exists all the time when people talk about evolutionary processes. Regardless, we didn’t evolve “to” do anything. We merely evolved. At various stages, our genes have carried a predisposition toward cooperating in groups; at times, they carried a predisposition toward head-whopping. To claim that the former is superior or some sort of end goal is to smuggle in an unsupported value judgement.

          In fact, most people today possess the capacity to perform both types of actions within their biological systems. If you deny free will, then expression is merely a byproduct of circumstance (we happen to have found luck in the place/time we live, and those expressions can be switched faster than you can blink… merely due to circumstances). If you accept free will, then we have some sort of control over the expression of those tendencies… the extent of which is not really clear.

          • Pofarmer

            Well, I think that’s fair enough. But, at any given time their are billions of us living in large groups. Generally, violent crime within these large groups is measured in so many incidences per 100,000 occupants. It seems to me, that if head whopping were in general predominant, then you would see much greater incidences, generally, of that type of behavior.

          • Anonymous

            That number is just a number. There is no context. The number of scientists among us is measured per 100,000 occupants. …..and?

            The point is that many groups and individuals have successfully or unsuccessfully tried a myriad of survival strategies. Different ones worked at different times and in different situations. We still can’t argue that any of them are or are not the thing we evolved “to do” without inserting a value judgement. We didn’t evolve “to do” anything. We evolved because of selection pressure. At best, we evolved “to” survive selection pressure. Anyone that claims a 1-1 mapping to head-whopping or well-policed democracies is blowing smoke.

          • Pofarmer

            I dunno. Military trainer types indicate that it is indeed, difficult, to turn people into true head thumper types. So, if we accept that it generally takes special training to make ordinary folks into “good soldiers” then, would we attribute that to some kind of evolved state, or simply societal conditioning of some sort?

          • Anonymous

            I imagine a “good soldier” involves a lot more than head thumping.

          • Pofarmer

            Yes, it does. But two very hard things to teach are advancing towards enemy fire(self preservation) and pulling the trigger with another person in the sights.(reluctance to kill).

          • Anonymous

            I was referring to the fact that built into reluctance to kill is the whole order-taking mechanism… which is a massive block for getting to “good soldier”. Basically, “You should kill this person because we said so.” That’s totally understandable. It doesn’t say much about general head-thumping, though. When the cause, purpose, and goal are more immediately available to an individual (whether they’re actually valid reasons/goals or not), you might find head-thumping to have a lower threshold of difficulty.

            It’s really strange to talk about this, because most people worry about how low our threshold is. They do experiments where they tell a person to inflict very painful punishments on others, and many people just go along with the authority figure. I imagine that length of service in the military is what flips this picture from weekend psychology studies. You can get a person to trust that you have Really Good Reasons (trademark: Darren) over the course of an hour-long psych experiment… but it’s harder to maintain loyalty to orders after a few years of service.

  • Dan

    I suspect it is pointless to enter Harris’ contest. The argument against his view on morality depends on contesting his premises and that seems like a waste of time to me. Harris is smart enough to have foreseen any counter-arguments, and he apparently rejects them.

    Although, I suppose I’d cynically argue something like:
    1) According to science–specifically the study of animal behavior–animals make decisions to maximize their genetic fitness based on the animal’s perception of the environment.
    2) People are animals.
    3) No animal’s worth is intrinsically higher than another animal’s worth. Thus, there is no higher value given to animals with “consciousness” versus those that do not have “consciousness.”
    4) Each person-animal should act in a manner that he or she believes will maximize his or her own genetic fitness.

    5) It is irrelevant whether an animal’s actions to maximize his or her own genetic fitness harms another animal.
    6) Any behavior that reduces one’s genetic fitness is immoral as it will result in less of one’s own genes passed down to the next generation.

    • Randy Gritter

      So sterilization is immoral in this system? I mean that seems to directly reduce your genetic fitness.

      • Dan

        It depends. Self-sterilization would be immoral in nearly all circumstances (I could see a scenario where a woman prone to high-risk pregnancies could theoretically increase her fitness by never becoming pregnant and concentrating on indirect fitness–aiding siblings raising their children, for example).

        Sterilization of other people might be moral under this system if it directly or indirectly increases your fitness.

        Don’t read too much into this. I’m being rather cynical in this argument and don’t personally believe it.

      • Pofarmer

        Wouldn’t it rather depend on whether the sterilization of the individual was good or not for society as a whole?

    • Dan F.

      It still seems like there is an “is” vs. “ought” logical leap which can’t be demonstrated from science or anything else unless we agree on the specific “should” statement a priori which then makes the debate superfluous.

      More specifically, I reject your 4th statement since you can’t get “ought” from “is”. Just because every animal (seems) to maximize their own genetic fitness doesn’t mean that they “ought” to do so any more than just because rational animals *seem* to maximize their own economic well-being and happiness means that they *ought* to do so.

      I have yet to hear an argument from anyone that gets from “is” to “ought” without making an a priori assumption of the very point they are trying to prove.

      Having now rambled on I think a simpler way to say what I just said would be: Moral arguments from Science! (TM) are inevitably circular.

      • Dan

        That’s a good point. I’m (cynically) assuming that increasing the amount of your genes in the environment is the “moral” thing to do.

        It would be a nightmare if people actually followed this as a moral system.

        • Dan F.

          agreed. That *assumption* is where the argument always breaks down and people begin to talk past each other. I think that Harris and his critics fall into the same issue. It’s too much to have to agree to the premise that “increased communal happiness” (or however it’s put) is the highest good when that’s precisely the question. Is increased happiness the highest good? Not in the Christian milieu – the highest good is to follow Christ and while heaven promises happiness for the individual it’s in short supply here on earth. The only empirical experience is that following Christ means welcoming suffering.

          • Pofarmer

            I think Dawkins pretty much answered this in “The selfish Gene” but I haven’t read it through.

          • Dan F.

            I would be interested in an outline or sketch of that answer because I can’t get past the A/= not A dilemma

    • bob sugar

      pretty much all of your points are doomed. But to start with #3…. You make the statement, “no animal’s worth is intrinsically higher than another animals worth. Thus, there is no higher value given to animals with “consciousness” versus those that do not have “consciousness.”,

      First, what could the word “morality” possibly mean in the realm of unconscious beings (such as an oak tree or the AIDS virus)? Suffering and happiness have no meaning in this realm, because anything unconscious does not possess the machinery to have emotions like pain/suffering/happiness, the only things we can reasonably care about (your suggestion that morality means the free-reign of creatures to pass on their genes by any means necessary is completely delusional, because no one could possibly care about those things–and if they said they did, why would we ever include them in a discussion about what most people mean by morality?)

      Your understanding of what morality should mean negates the crucial connection between positive conscious emotions and what normal mean by the word “morality”

      • Dan

        But isn’t assigning happiness and the reduction of suffering as the goal of morality just as arbitrary as assigning genetic fitness as the goal of morality?

        That’s why it is pointless to enter Harris’ content. If we accept his premise that we should be utilitarians, then, of course, science will probably be able to accurately measure happiness and suffering sooner or later. This will allow societies to chart guidelines for behavior based on his original premise. Thus, accepting his premise is essentially accepting his argument, and the only option is to argue against his premise. However, if this is not allowed or if he is unwilling to entertain these arguments then the whole contest is a waste of time.

        • bob sugar

          “But isn’t assigning happiness and the reduction of suffering as the goal of morality just as arbitrary as assigning genetic fitness as the goal of morality?”

          It isn’t “arbitrary” at all, and it’s incoherent to suggest otherwise. Our motivations for how we treat other people and other animals depend on our brains, and therefore our psychology. The impulse to adjust how we treat other people and other animals in order to maximize their well-being is the only thing one can intelligibly mean when they use the word, “morality”.

          Again, Harris’ example of how people use the term “human health” is decisive. Lets give the example of an obese person with terminal cancer, cholera, and a flu that causes regular vomiting. Someone like you may make (in my opinion) the ridiculous argument that, “isn’t the assignment of the term ‘healthy’ to mean not having cancer, cholera, and a flu that causes vomiting entirely arbitrary? Who is to say that this person isn’t as healthy as you are?”

          You argument wouldn’t win because it’s a bad argument.

  • Randy Gritter

    He seems very focused on happiness. I wonder if he defines that in a scientific way. That is in terms of certain chemical activity in certain parts of the brain. It becomes complex because drugs that do that, that is they stimulate your pleasure centers and give you a high, they tend not to be viewed as good. In fact, they ruin a person’s brain so he can’t appreciate the typical pleasures of life like listening to some great music or telling a friend a funny story. So the goodness=happiness thing seems to break down if you cheat.

    Drugs are not the only way to cheat. Pornography does much of the same thing. It stimulates pleasure centers to the point where they can’t be easily stimulated any other way. So too much good ends up bad.

    • guest

      He might argue that drugs lead to more unhappiness than happiness, because of addiction and so on. I don’t think your description of porn is scientifically accurate however. Plenty of people look at porn and still manage to enjoy other things.

      • As far as porn goes, the evidence is mixed. There certainly is a lot of evidence that overuse of pornography and use of more hardcore pornography (versus soft core) do decrease a person’s ability to enjoy sexual intercourse due to desensitization. Perhaps this is the evidence Randy was thinking of? But that is specifically overuse, not occasional use, and research also indicates that pornography can at times increase a person’s enjoyment of intercourse if their enjoyment of intercourse suffers from tedium. (I can could probably find my sources again easily enough, if you want them.)

        • Hibernia86

          Exactly. Treating porn as evil is exactly like treating alcohol as evil like they did during the prohibition era. Almost everything is bad in excess, but that doesn’t mean that it is bad in moderation.

          • Randy Gritter

            What does moderation look like? When it comes to alcohol it means drinking but not getting drunk. Enjoying but keeping you self control intact. For me that means stopping at 2 drinks.

            What about looking at women? Where do you lose self control there? When it moves from admiring beauty to lust. The line is not as simple to draw. Yet anything our culture labels porn is on the other side of it. Most of what is on MTV is on the other side.

            So moderation is right but moderate at the right level. At a level where self control is still happening.

          • Hibernia86

            First I should point out that I am a non-believer (I followed Leah’s blog before she converted. I’ve been getting update e-mails from the site recently and decided to check back in) so I don’t think that lust is necessarily a bad thing unless it controls your life. There are a few general rules that can be followed to help make that distinction. If you find that porn is stopping you from completing other tasks you’d like to do, scale back. There is nothing wrong with looking at a beautiful woman, but if she notices you, you should look away because it might bother her to have you staring. Don’t cheat, but if you can have sex safely with someone, there is nothing wrong with that. I think rules like that will keep everything running well.

          • Well, now, there might be other reasons to treat porn as evil, feminist ones. I think it’s a mistake to say that all porn is bad on feminist grounds (male gay porn, for instance, can hardly exploit women), but I think it’s fair to argue that a lot of pornography as it is made in the West today is exploitative. You can talk about how pornography is hardly different from all of the other products we buy which rely on exploitation (a lot of sugar, for instance), but my point is that Randy’s arguments aren’t the only ones to confront if you want to say that pornography isn’t evil.
            You (Hibernia) probably already knew all this, but I felt like the feminist argument was missing from the conversation.

      • Randy Gritter

        If you want the long version of the argument try this:

        I don’t think he is saying that nobody who looks at porn ever enjoys other things. In fact, not everyone who uses cocaine gets addicted. The point is just that the same dynamic can be happening. Perhaps eating a lot of sweets could trigger it too. It is not just as simple as saying drugs are an exception.

        • guest

          Well, a lot of things can be addictive. Almost anything you enjoy is going to ‘release powerful neurotransmitters’- that’s actually, to a materialist like me, what enjoyment is. Gambling, overeating, exercise, sex- people have become addicted to all these things, but I don’t think they should be illegal. Alcohol causes a lot of addiction, misery and slow, painful deaths (or quick painful ones in the case of drink-driving) but we don’t ban that, because thousands of people also get enjoyment from having a drink or two now and then. What’s the difference? I think it’s the proportion of people who get hooked vs the amount who use it without damage. It’s easier to get hooked on cocaine than porn or sweets. I suspect it’s cultural as well, since alcohol has been part of our lives forever, (and so has porn in one form or other) while things like cocaine are relatively new.

      • Randy Gritter

        As far as Harris’s argument goes, he can’t just say drugs lead to unhappiness if he defines happiness in terms of brain states. The drugs do produce those brain states and meet the definition.

        So how does he define it? The ability to enjoy life? It seems like it becomes a much harder problem. The trouble is it seems like the more you quantify it the further you get from it. People often don’t know themselves what makes them happy.

        It might not be an unsolvable problem but my guess is the deeper scientists get into it the less obvious it will be that we have a moral obligation to maximize it.

        • guest

          Why can’t he say they lead to unhappiness if taking those drugs will have consequences that produce the brain state known as unhappiness? He doesn’t have to confine his analysis to the first five minutes after you take the drug. He can point to research that shows that drug addicts tend to have shorter, more miserable lives, and that a high percentage of people who take drugs end up as addicts. I’m not sure how he defines happiness, but I think a fair number of people would agree that drug addicts aren’t happy and they don’t want to be one.

          • Randy Gritter

            The trouble is the brain state of happiness is precisely what the drug produces. But too much happiness that is disconnected from anything else in our lives turns out not to be desirable. But if you are making that the end goal by which all goodness is measured and there are cases where it isn’t even desirable then you have a problem.

            How long does it have to last? There are drugs that can put you in that happy state for quite a while. But the question is hard for Harris. If moral goodness is based on happiness then how happy do you have to be and how long do you have to be happy?

            You don’t need to use artificial brain stimulants to see this. Often a person will pursue happiness through casual sex. They will move from one relationship to another and seem happy. Then after 10 or 20 partners they can reflect on their life and become profoundly dissatisfied. Too much happiness disconnected from anything else becomes undesirable. Is that good under Harris’ moral system or not?

    • Andre Boillot

      First, it should be noted that he’s focused on “well being” and not “happiness”, per se. He’s aware, for example, that it’s possible for people to emotionally enjoy things which are medically/physically bad for them. In terms of his definition of “well being”, he admits that this akin to trying to define what it is to be in good physical health. We’re much better at describing what’s bad for us, than we are setting up concrete benchmarks for what we should do.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Is it my imagination, or do utilitarian arguments promote the specific individualistic good at the expense of the common good?

    • It depend on the utilitarian, but usually not. The utilitarians (or consequentialists, generally) that I know of are concerned about the maximum well-being/minimum suffering across a system, not for an individual. (For instance, John Stuart Mill was concerned about this.) In this sense they are often even more communitarian than deontologists, who are necessarily concerned about their own actions alone. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is an argument for or against utilitarianism, consequentialism, deontology, etc.; I’m just describing.)
      Maybe what you’re thinking of is a tendency for short-term thinking among so-called/self-described utilitarians? Traditionalists sometimes argue that maintaining social institutions are better for everyone in the long term, against so-called “utilitarians” who want to abolish or reform the institution for on short and mid term grounds, but both arguments are usually consequentialist and communitarian ones.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Thank you- yeah, that may be more along the right lines. My autism has a tendency to push me towards traditionalism in such discussions; maintaining social institutions allows everybody time to learn the rules and a firm foundation of rules upon which to design a life. Constant change is extremely hard to deal with in comparison, but I’d agree, both are consequentialist/communitarian based ideal systems.

  • seba

    Still catholic? I guess it’s better than atheism, but I wonder when you will come home to orthodoxy.

    • guest

      Jewish orthodoxy?

      • Agni Ashwin

        The Orthodox Catholic Church.

  • guest

    That’s brave of him, but it would be braver if he weren’t judging the contest himself. A neutral judge would be better. Of course, everyone has their pet theory of morality, so a truly neutral judge doesn’t exist. Maybe a panel of philosophers, or a jury of his peers?
    I haven’t read his book, It’s on my to-read list, along with a million others. So I don’t really know what his arguements are like. I think reducing suffering and seeking contentment is a good start to morality, but not necessarily the whole story. I think there are some effects of actions that can be measured that are called harmful or helpful, and these can roughly map onto the concepts of good or evil. I agree with him that you need beings to have morality- a rock falling on a sheet of ice and breaking it is not an immoral act. A rock falling on a child and hurting it is not an immoral act either, because the rock is not a person and doesn’t have the capacity not to fall. Someone throwing a rock at a child is an immoral act. I agree also that our minds (and our bodies) are part of the natural world and follow natural laws, and so what is harmful or helpful to us will follow natural laws as well. I don’t know if that’s everything morality is though. I think there’s a social aspect to it that isn’t covered by harm/help.

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      So is my killing a rat a moral or an immoral act?

      A rat has consciousness, can feel pain and has a degree of what we call intelligence. Why is my being considered superior to that of a rat’s being, such that I can kill a rat for sharing my living space?

      Am I superior because I have a greater share of consciousness or intellect? Forget arguments that, for instance, rats carry disease – so do other humans, and if I killed someone for sneezing in my vicinity, no-one would accept that as a moral deed in defence of my health.

      If we are all animals (and we are), and evolution through natural selection does not have a purpose at all, but is merely a mechanism for winnowing out organisms so that those best adapted to the situations in which they exist will thrive, a rat is just as valuable as I am, has just as much right to exist as I do, and can equally claim rights to live in the house and eat the food as I do.

      If we decide that “science says humans are a higher grade of animals based on their level of intelligence and consciousness”, we’re already begging the question, because science doesn’t tell us any such thing; it just tells us humans have certain adaptations that other animals do not possess in the same degree (and seeing as how India has declared dolphins to be non-human persons, and octopi are apparently extremely intelligent, this distinction may not hold much longer).

      • Anonymous

        A rat has consciousness [citation needed].

        • Hibernia86

          You have consciousness [citation needed].
          The answer is that we have monitored the human brain and know in general what parts are connected to consciousness. The rat has forms of these parts which is why it is believed to be conscious. The rat acts in ways that suggest it is conscious. If you don’t accept that, then how can I hope to prove that you are conscious?

          • Anonymous

            Good point. The fact that I have consciousness should probably be demonstrated.

            We have monitored the human brain and know in general what parts are involved in determining whether we are awake or in sleep mode. I leave it as an exercise for Dan Dennett to demonstrate why “awake” may not necessarily map 1-1 to “has consciousness”. (Unless, of course, we’re being those people who define consciousness as essentially the same thing as “being awake”. In that case, citation is not needed… but then Martha probably didn’t need to utter the sacred word (and probably wouldn’t have).)

            The rat has forms of these parts, which is why we observe that it, too, has wake/sleep modes. What “ways” does the rat behave that lead us to believe it is conscious?

            You probably will have a difficult time proving to yourself that I am conscious. In fact, at least some people ’round these parts are pretty convinced that neither of us are conscious. I don’t really agree with them, but I’m aware that such a claim requires a little bit more than citing the fMRI images my buddy takes a couple buildings north of here and then swearing that it’s all the citation I need… ya know, because.

            (If you’re still not convinced, consider my area of work rather than my buddy’s – robotics. Our robots have wake/sleep modes. They have attentional and executive functions. Outwardly, they can engage in activities that closely mimic the naive picture of ‘consciousness’. What else do I have to do to convince you that my robots are conscious?!?!)

      • guest

        In my opinion, killing a rat is a neutral act, because it’s not a self-aware person. I have actually killed a rat in the past, which got into our house and was running around under the cupboards. We broke its neck with a rat trap. I doubt it suffered much. I don’t feel like a murderer. I suspect if it’d been a human, say a tramp, who was hiding in our house and I’d killed him I’d feel differently. Maybe the only reason for that is that I’m human too and so looking at a dead human is more likely to trigger my mirror neurons than looking at a dead rat. But I disagree that a rat is as valuable as a human. By any measure of the word ‘valuable’ a human is worth more than a rat. A human can be the mechanic who fixes your car, a doctor, the person who grows your food, a policeman, a novelist, your best friend or your spouse. Rats, on the other hand, have a limited range of behaviours and much less potential. You can eat them, as some cultures do, or keep them as a pet. Sometimes you can perform medical experiments on them, but those rats tend to be specially bred. I guess you could say that to another rat, a rat is more valuable than a human, but the problem is there’s no evidence that rats can think in categories like that, whereas we clearly can. There are some animals that have been shown to be self-aware, or possibly so, like elephants, and maybe they have concepts of value, but that’s yet to be shown. I’m curious, what would be your own answer to the question? Do you think it’s okay to kill a rat?

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    “I’d say Harris assumes that contentment/absence of suffering is the best way to judge what is good for humans, and that neuroscience will help us advance to detect finely grained changes in happiness and select those actions that increase happiness/decrease suffering.”

    Not having read the book or attended to the subsequent kerfuffle, I have no idea if this is an accurate representation of Mr. Harris’ views or not.

    However, let us assume it is (after all, if we can be confident that conscious minds are fully constrained by the laws of the universe, even if we cannot pronounce on what those laws may be, we can assume a whole lot of things).
    We genetically engineer/use surgery/dose up with drugs a sub-class of humans so that they subsist on a bowl of rice a day, we send them down the mines, and they live in squalid conditions – and they are perfectly happy with that. They are content, they don’t express any suffering, you ask the drone “Are you in pain?” and they answer “No, I’m fine!”

    Is this moral behaviour? If the drones maintain they are happy, are they correct? If our use of neuroscience is to change how the brain perceives stimuli, so that the drone experiences cold, hunger, and fatigue as pleasurable, is that “good”?
    If not, why not? Why are our feelings (can we say how we feel about the drones’ situation is not subjective) more important than the drones’ feelings? Have we an objective ground for what we say is true happiness or not?

    After all, unless you can plug someone in to a dolorimeter and calibrate it so that you can measure “You are currently experiencing 3.5 millitimons* of unhappiness”, then how else can we judge happiness except by a subjective report of “I feel happy/I feel sad”?

    And if we’re able to meddle with brain chemistry and structure such that a drone, when wired up to the dolorimeter, is measured (scientifically and objectively) to only be experiencing 2.0 millitimons and so is within the “fine and happy” zone on the Harris Scale of Happiness, is the drone’s situation a good moral one?

    *Named for Timon of Athens, as a prime example of being grumpy and dissatisfied.

  • Jordan

    It seems like any arguments of his that I’ve heard of so far involve him making a key term/definition switch near the beginning (by science, he really means basically any way of gathering information, not just literal scientific methods), going through the argument, then switching back at the very end and claiming he’s argued something he hasn’t. So he’s cheating. If there’s more to it than that, I’m missing it.

    • Andre Boillot


      “It seems like any arguments of his that I’ve heard of so far involve him making a key term/definition switch near the beginning (by science, he really means basically any way of gathering information, not just literal scientific methods)”

      It’s difficult to understand the point you’re trying to make. I’ve never seen Harris use ‘science’ in the manner you’re describing. Could you give an example of where you think he does this? I’m going to assume that we’re both working off the same definition of science (below).

      sci·ence noun ˈsī-ən(t)s

      : knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation []

  • bob sugar

    You haven’t agreed, but most everyone else has–and that isn’t a problem for SH’s thesis. The absence of dissent doesn’t mean a science of morality cant proceed (just like we can improve medicine in the presence of sociopaths who think having cancer + cholera is actually “healthy”)

    And again, SH would reject your assumption that having a plurality of seemingly moral behaviors undermines a a science of morality–that’s the entire point of his “moral LANDSCAPE” (which implies having peaks and valleys in different areas). However, he would also say the Nihilist and the religious person that would like to act out the genocides of the hewbrew bible do not have anything meaningful to contribute to a science of morality, because they have not calibrated their moral compass to well-being. (Also, I think you have a seriously warped understanding of what evolutionary biologists think about morality). He doesn’t hide the fact that he has made this “value judgement”, but it’s the same value judgement people make when loosely defining human health (Your first paragraph above this is incoherent and for some reason addresses the phonetics of the word rather than what people mean by the word)

    Your last statement shows that you don’t understand SH’s thesis; he isn’t saying that there is one way to be moral, however, he says AD NAUSEAM that once you link morality to the well-being of conscious creatures, you can then use the tools of science to discover ways of maximizing/minimizing how sentient beings flourish.

    • Dan

      “You haven’t agreed, but most everyone else has–and that isn’t a problem for SH’s thesis.”

      Who is most everyone else? Most scientists? Most intelligent people? Most secular humanists? Just because based on world-wide demographics, it is more likely that most people believe morality is derived from sacred texts.

      “[H]owever, he says AD NAUSEAM that once you link morality to the well-being of conscious creatures, you can then use the tools of science to discover ways of maximizing/minimizing how sentient beings flourish.”

      I did write that if Harris’ premise is accepted then his argument is valid, did I not?

      “[H]e isn’t saying that there is one way to be moral . . .”

      Wait? Isn’t that exactly what he is saying? Isn’t he saying that the way to be moral is to maximize happiness and reduce suffering, and we’ll develop methods to accurately measure these? And once we do this, we can develop procedures to maximize happiness/minimize suffering?

      “And again, SH would reject your assumption that having a plurality of seemingly moral behaviors undermines a a science of morality”

      Harris is probably correct (ok, almost certainly correct) that future advances will be able to accurately measure happiness and suffering. Still, how is this the science of morality and not the science of happiness/suffering?

      Re: Phonetics

      That was the whole point. Harris’ analogy is a clever way to change the dynamics of the argument in order to confuse people. He uses an analogy to “health,” which is a universally accepted term, to make a case for his definition of morality. However, morality is not an universally accepted term. Therefore, his analogy is irrelevant and misleading.

      Re: Evolution

      The common hypothesis is that human behavior primarily evolved during our hunter/gatherer days, correct? After all, our species spent significantly more time as small tribal units (about 2-3 million years) than as large agricultural civilizations (about 10,000 years).

      I suppose evolutionary biologists, like any humans, have varied personal views of morality, which is why I used “might” not “will” (hint: word choice is rather important). My example was of a theoretical scientist who believes that human behavior was selected for in our ancient past by the environmental pressures of our small tribal units; this theoretical scientist defines this evolved human behavior as “morality.” I cannot see how this is a “warped” position. Again note “might” not “will.” I am not speaking of all evolutionary biologists nor any evolutionary biologist in particular.

      Re: Opposing viewpoints

      “However, he would also say the Nihilist and the religious person that would like to act out the genocides of the hewbrew bible do not have anything meaningful to contribute to a science of morality, because they have not calibrated their moral compass to well-being.”

      That’s a rather easy to win an argument, isn’t it? Simply say the opposing viewpoint is wrong because they are the opposing viewpoint? This is why it is pointless to enter Harris’ contest. Apparently he’ll simply argue that you should “calibrate your moral compass to well-being” and if you don’t “you don’t have anything meaningful to contribute.” So, the only arguments he’ll entertain are from those that “calibrate their moral compass to well-being.” Once someone does that, Harris’ argument is fairly solid.

      To conclude, I am rather bored of this discussion. Your insults are tiresome, and I see no reason to continue to converse with you.

  • Anon

    What do you think is the best way to judge what is good for humans? Why?

    (Anyone can answer)

    Do you disagree that ‘Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds’?

  • Hanan

    Hmmm… One would think Leah would chime into some of the comments here. Seems like right up her alley

  • Irenist

    As a Thomist, I actually find Harris’ rejection of relativism and of Hume’s is/ought dichotomy sensible and refreshing. Indeed, if the unnecessarily narrow word “science” were to be replaced by the word “reason,” (or “knowledge” to track medieval “scientia,” although I think “reason” is a closer fit to Harris’ point) I think any Thomist could broadly endorse this part of his statement:

    “Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.”

    As for this: “[c]onscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end)”–well, the parenthetical is doing a LOT of work there, and for certain hylomorphic values of “natural” I don’t actually have a problem with it.

  • Andre Boillot


    I think it might help if you go back to the source, and perhaps figure out what Harris was saying in context.


    What follows the excerpt that Ms. Libresco quoted was this:

    “There are many tools one must get in hand to think scientifically — ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc. — and many come long before one starts worrying about mathematical models or specific data.”

    This was all part of the argument he was putting forth that flips the is/ought distinction on it’s head – which, if you’re not familiar is Hume is essentially the idea that you can’t derive values from facts. Harris is saying that there are things you must value first, if you are to ever hope to arrive at facts.

    I hope this helps.

  • Mariana Baca

    Does this challenge require us to actually buy his book? :/ I guess I could go to the *library* or something…. 🙂