Sam Harris On Scientific Morality

I recently found this video of Sam Harris giving a TED talk in 2010 about how science can answer moral questions.

tl;dw Morality is the science of maximising the wellbeing of conscious creatures, we can measure wellbeing, so there goes religion.

There are actually parts of the video where I think he makes good points, such as when he says we have to have a consensus on morality and cant simply tolerate and respect all points of view.

However, what I think we must note here is the degree to which that which Ryan Faulk calls ‘humanism’ has taken over. (Harris actually extends the concept beyond Faulk’s definition to include animals.) Harris automatically assumes that morality is concerned with maximising the ‘wellbeing of [all] conscious creatures.’ This is, of course, a value judgment, and not one rooted in any scientifically verifiable fact, at least not any such fact that Harris has stated or provided evidence for.

Now, if I were writing this to critique atheist morality, I might stop here. I’ve made my point; Harris epically failed to show that ‘values reduce to facts’ but simply inserted a single, all-encompassing and somewhat arbitrary value (‘maximising the wellbeing of conscious creatures’). Of course once you have a single overarching value that covers everything, other values do reduce to facts. Is X good? Well, it’s good if and only if it contributes to the maximal wellbeing of conscious creatures. This may be difficult to measure, but Harris posits that in principle it’s measurable. (Personally, I think you get into trouble when trying to compare hedonic satisfaction levels among different individuals, but we’ll overlook that for the moment.) The fallacy here is obvious. What if I only care about human wellbeing? Or white human wellbeing? Or tall human wellbeing? Or bald human wellbeing? Or my own wellbeing? Heck, I could pick any arbitrary group I want and make its wellbeing the standard of morality. I’d probably be wrong, but science could not prove me so. And what if my standard isn’t based on wellbeing? What if I say ‘what adheres to the Ten Commandments is good, regardless of hedonic effect’? How can Harris possibly disprove these ideas ‘scientifically’?

But what I find far more interesting is that he surely does this unconsciously. He simply assumes humanist (or consciousist or something) valueas a fact, and proceeds from there.

This is actually to be expected. It’s normal. People think these are facts, that they’re settled, that no one could question them. What we are up against is not simply ideologues, but ideologues who have no idea that there is anything but their ideology. It’s not that they’ve consciously rejected it. It’s not even that there’s honest censorship (which at least lets you know there are other ideas to be censored). To the modern man, universalist utilitarian morality is no more to be questioned than the necessity of breathing.

This is the problem we have to overcome. This is why it’s such a shock when you take the ‘Red Pill’ and are exposed to reactionary ideas for the first time. And this may be our greatest asset. Never having been exposed to anything but liberalism, how can the modern man have built up any immunity to competing ideas? He cant have.

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2 comments on “Sam Harris On Scientific Morality

  1. stoney says:

    I agree with this post (values not being something scientifically quantifiable), funny to point out the flaws of valuing one human aspect over any other when you support such things as “being against feminism” or the confederate flag on this background. However kudos to your post, IMO an over bearing liberalism is not so much the cause (if it is real, or even a problem at that) as it is a misjudgment. Lack of education and willingness/ability to conceive of ideas other than ones presented to you, then making sound judgments, would be the cause IMO.

    • Hi, stoney. Thanks for your comment. A few points though:

      ‘funny to point out the flaws of valuing one human aspect over any other when you support such things as “being against feminism” or the confederate flag on this background.’

      I’m not sure what this means. When I brought up systems of morality designed to maximise, for instance, the wellbeing of white people only, my goal was not to advance them or to critique them. I’m not a utilitarian of any kind, whether the measure of utility is white people, humanity as a whole, or all conscious creatures. My point was simply that Harris assumed a standard of value, and that that standard of value was without scientific basis.

      In fact, Harris’s value claim itself (‘we must maximise the wellbeing of all conscious creatures) could be true for all it affects this post. The point is not whether this is the right standard of value. The point is simply that it is a standard of value, and one that is not scientific, thus disproving Harris’s claim that ‘values reduce to [scientific] facts’.

      ‘IMO an over bearing liberalism is not so much the cause (if it is real, or even a problem at that) as it is a misjudgment.’

      No. Harris did not consider the racist morality, the heightist morality, and the various non-welfarist moralities (such as ‘follow the Ten Commandments’) and then reject them. That would (if we are to consider one of those moralities as true) have been a misjudgment. He didn’t even dismiss them out of hand, which would have been at worst unjustified dogmatism. Rather, he showed no awareness that the conceptual space these ideas occupy even exists. To him, morality is about ‘maximising the wellbeing of all conscious creatures’, not because he thought about it and that’s the proposition that seemed most reasonable, but just because it is. ‘Moral behavior’ and ‘behavior that maximises the wellbeing of all conscious creatures’ are not distinct in his mind, either (to borrow Scholastic terminology) really or formally.

      ‘Lack of education…’

      Harris has a BA in Philosophy from Stanford and a PHD in neuroscience from UCLA. This is not to say he is educated. But if he is not educated we have some work to do.

      This, of course, depends on what we mean by education. If you’re talking about the Cathedral’s Sacrament of Education, this guy is quite Educated. If not, please elaborate further.

      ‘and willingness/ability to conceive of ideas other than ones presented to you, then making sound judgments, would be the cause IMO.’

      And that has nothing to do with liberalism, right? The fact that liberalism (or progressivism, as I would call it more precisely) is the unquestionable orthodoxy of our educational system has nothing to do with the fact that its utilitarian universalist view of morality is implicitly treated as a scientific fact by American public intellectuals? Please tell me that’s not what you meant to say.

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