The buzz in secular circles lately has been about a TED talk by Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith, and Letters to a Christian Nation.

The title of Harris’ talk is “Science can answer moral questions,” and you just know that as a former scientist and currently a philosopher, I simply have to comment on it.

As it turns out, there is much that Harris and I agree on, but I think his main target is actually moral relativism, and that he would get more mileage out of allying himself with philosophy (not to the exclusion of science), rather than taking what appears to be the same misguided scientistic attitude that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have come to embody so well. But let us start with a summary of Harris’ arguments, with extensive quotations from the lecture, proceeding then to my commentary.

Harris begins with a rather startling claim: “The separation between science and human values is an illusion,” adding “facts and values seem to belong to different spheres [but] This is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of facts. They are facts about the well beings of conscious creatures.” This is a frontal assault on what in philosophy is known as the naturalistic fallacy, the idea — introduced by David Hume — that one cannot directly derive values (what ought to be) from facts (what is). As Hume famously put it in A Treatise of Human Nature:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

Harris justifies his position by asking his audience to consider under what circumstances we feel that we have moral obligations: “Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks? ... Because we don’t think that rocks can suffer. ... [talking then about insects having a very limited inner life] This is a factual claim, this is something we could be right or wrong about.” He continues: “If culture changes us, it changes us by changing our brains. And therefore whatever cultural variation there is in the way human beings flourish can at least in principle be understood in the context of a maturing science of the mind,” implying that neurobiology — the field in which he is getting a doctoral degree — will soon be the key to moral discourse.

Harris then introduces the idea of a “moral landscape” describing the sort of ethical decisions that further or hinder human wellbeing, and just couldn’t help himself sneaking in some mystical fluff (he has a weak spot for Buddhism and transcendental meditation), suggesting that perhaps one way to access the structure of the moral landscape is by way of mystical experiences. Whatever.

The talk at this point takes a sharp turn, where Harris aims his fire at moral relativism, though he never actually mentions the term: “Just admitting that there are right and wrong answers to the question of how humans flourish will change the way we talk about morality.” Taking the example of several States in the US that allow corporal punishment of children, he asks: “Is it a good idea, generally speaking, to subject children to pain, and violence, and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy emotional development and good behavior?”

He then makes an analogy between human flourishing and physical health to show that though both are complex and varied, we can still make sense of the idea of “health” and act on it. Harris also makes the point that even if it turns out that there are “many peaks on the moral landscape,” i.e. many ways to flourish, this doesn't undermine the idea of an objective assessment of moral claims.

Another example Harris introduces is that of Muslim women who have to cover their body completely so as not to offend their alleged god, regarding which Harris rhetorically comments that “it is the position, generally speaking, of our intellectual community, that we might not like this ... [but] who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture are wrong to force their wives and daughters to live in cloth bags?” As he correctly points out, we do in fact know a lot about human wellbeing and how it is affected by repressive cultural practices, so that we can indeed be judgmental about such practices.

The final argument of the talk is supposed to reinforce the analogy between moral and scientific expertise, both of which are non-arbitrary: “Most Western intellectuals ... say, well, there is nothing for the Dalai Lama to be really right about or for [serial rapist and killer] Ted Bundy to be really wrong about. ... [One] likes chocolate, [the other] likes vanilla. ... Notice that we don't do this in science,” at which point Harris proceeds to compare differences of opinions about an expert in string theory and himself, claiming that the expert gets the right of way quaexpert. “This is just the point, ok, whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded. ... How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise?”

Let me start my commentary by pointing out that I do agree with Harris’ criticism of moral relativism, for much the same reasons that he advances. However, Harris must be living in a semi-parallel universe if he is convinced that “most Western intellectuals” have no problem with burkas, female genital mutilation, beheadings of “blasphemers” and the like. Perhaps a small number of hyper-politically correct and culturally neutral postmodern cuckoos do subscribe to that notion, but it is hardly “the position, generally speaking, of our intellectual community.”

The analogy between physical health and wellbeing, or flourishing (a term borrowed from the philosophical tradition of virtue ethics, which traces back to Aristotle) is convincing, but not new: it is exactly the way neo-Aristotelian philosophers defend the idea that although the notion of flourishing is complex and multifarious, it is not in fact either arbitrary or useless. The same goes for Harris’ argument that even if there are multiple peaks on the “moral landscape” that does not preclude developing an objective notion of morality. Again, this is an argument well known in moral philosophy.

Where I begin to diverge from Harris is when he talks about moral propositions as a particular kind of empirical facts. First off, as I pointed out before on this blog, to say that something is objectively true is not the same as to say that it is a fact, an equivalence strangely implied by Harris’ talk. There clearly are notions that are objectively true — such as mathematical theorems — but that in no meaningful sense are “facts.” Also, for a notion to be objectively true does not mean that said notion is also universal: morality applies only to human beings and other relevantly self-aware social beings, not to rocks, plants, ants, or other solar systems (unless they are inhabited by self-aware social beings), although on this latter point Harris seems to agree with me.

Let us also set aside another often controversial point in these debates: that of the role of emotions in ethical judgment. As Hume famously pointed out in his Treatise of Human Nature, “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger,” meaning that no matter what logic tells us, we are motivated to act only if we are endowed with certain emotional reactions against, say, injustice. These emotions are a complex result of our evolutionary history and our cultural evolution, but they do not enter into the picture sketched by Harris, so we will just mention the issue and move on.

The crux of the disagreement, then, is embodied in the title of Harris' talk: in what sense can science answer (as opposed to inform) ethical questions? Let me take one of Harris’ examples, the (highly questionable) legality of corporal punishment of children in several US States. Harris rhetorically asks whether we really think that hitting children will improve their school performance or good behavior. But that isn’t the point at all. What if it did? What if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits? Harris would then have to concede that corporal punishment is moral, but somehow I doubt he would. AndI certainly wouldn’t, because my moral intuition (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it, deal with it) tells me that purposefully inflicting pain on children is wrong, regardless of whatever the empirical evidence says.

We can now turn to the wearing of burkas, another issue where Harris and I agree on the substance (it is wrong to force women to “live in cloth bags”), but for different reasons. My position is that I think it immoral for a society to impose that degree of restriction on individual choices (a restriction that, as Harris points out, is backed up by the threat of force and even of capital punishment). That is because as a philosopher inclined towards virtue ethics I think individual and societal flourishing ought to be interconnected in a positive way, not in the negative one implemented in so many Muslim societies.

But Harris has to justify why he poses individual women’s wellbeing ahead of societal wellbeing, or even of the wellbeing of the families (and especially the males) of those women. Again, what if an empirical study were to show that — on balance — societies with restrictive rules about women’s attire and behavior flourish better, qua societies, than their more liberal counterparts in the West? Would that make forcing women to wear burkas morally right? I don’t think so.

These examples could be joined by many others making the same point: if we let empirical facts decide what is right and what is wrong, then new scientific findings may very well “demonstrate” that things like slavery, corporal punishment, repression of gays, limited freedom of women, and so on, are “better” and therefore more moral than liberal-progressive types such as Harris and myself would be ready to concede. The difference is that I wouldn’t have a problem rejecting such findings — just as I don’t have a problem condemning social Darwinism and eugenics — but Harris would find himself in a bind. Indeed, he seems to be making a categorical mistake: what he callsvalues are instead empirical facts about how to achieve human wellbeing. But why value individual human wellbeing, or the wellbeing of self-aware organisms, to begin with? Facts are irrelevant to that question.

Of course, I am in complete agreement that our sense of morality is an instinct that derives from our biological history, and that our moral reasoning is carried out by certain areas of the brain. But neither of these conclusions make evolutionary biology or neurobiology arbiters of moral decision making. Of course we do moral reasoning with the brain, just like we solve mathematical problems with the brain. Is Harris going to suggest that neurobiology will supersede mathematics? Of course our basic sense of morality has its roots in having evolved as social primates, but so do xenophobia, homophobia, and a bunch of other human characteristics that are not moral and that we don’t want to encourage.

So, how do we ground moral reasoning? This is the province of a whole area of inquiry known as metaethics, and I suggest that Harris would benefit from reading about it. Ultimately, ethics is a way of thinking about the human (and other relevantly similar organisms) condition. Just as we don’t need a good answer to the question of where mathematics comes from to engage in mathematical reasoning, so it is not very productive to keep asking philosophers for “the ultimate foundations” of what they do (if this sounds like an easy way out to you, remember that neither math nor science itself have self-justifiable foundations). A much more productive line of inquiry, it seems to me, is to combine the best of what both philosophy and science can offer in our struggle to make our world as just and moral as possible.