Sam Harris gave a TED talk in 2010 in which he argued that science can-and should-be used to define morality and ethics. His argument essentially boils down to this: moral decisions are decisions made about facts. The more we know about the world, the more facts we have about it and the better and more sophisticated our understanding of those facts, the better decisions we can make. Therefore, morality should be guided by science (and presumably not religion) because it is the scientific process that allows us to test which ethical decisions work well, and which are deficient.

At its core, I don’t disagree with this argument. For example, if we want to help children grown up healthily, I think it makes sense to research nutrition, to see what foods tend to help children grow quickly and healthily. Such an approach would be broadly scientific, and it’s hard to argue with. But it also seems clear to me that Sam Harris both misunderstands the traditional “science can’t define an ethics” argument and is overly credulous when it comes to science’s general merits. The presentation video is below:

First off, though Sam Harris seems to think that he is debunking the argument that science can’t provide the basis for ethics, he actually never discusses it. He is either woefully, even shockingly unaware of what the real debate is about, or is being disingenuous in his presentation. The claim that ethics and morality are beyond the realm of science is a claim about the foundations of ethics, not its application. It’s one thing to say that “assuming that X is good, science can help us achieve X”. I think this is a pretty uncontroversial statement. But what if someone questions the goodness of X? Sam Harris argues that science can help us to figure out how to help conscious beings live more fulfilling lives. But why is helping conscious beings live fulfilling lives good?

This may seem to be some sort of trick question, but it’s not. Harris simply assumes an ethical system, and then argues that science can help us to apply that system-and he’s right. But he completely ignores that science is essentially agnostic when it comes to the basis of ethics. Why is it wrong to kill a person? Science can help us develop better ways of saving lives, of fighting disease, perhaps even through psychology it can help us to deter people from attempting harm one another. But what does empiricism have to say about why it’s wrong to kill someone in the first place? The traditional approach has been to build on some sort of pragmatic or utilitarian philosophy, but again these simply assume the right- or wrongness of given activities, and argue how best to organize human activity so as to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

Science simply gives us data on causality and being: it helps us understand why and how A leads to B. But ethics is interested in whether A leading to B is good, bad, or neutral. And this is always subjective. Is my taking $100 dollars from your wallet a good or a bad thing? Obviously that depends on who’s asking. I may argue it’s a good thing; you would probably argue it’s a bad thing. Most observers would probably agree with you. But what if an extremely poor man stole $100 dollars from Jamie Dimon to feed his starving children? Dimon might actually argue that this is still a bad thing, but I imagine that most of us would not agree. Could science ever provide a definitive answer to this? It might very well provide better systems for preventing theft, it could also provide better thieving systems. But could it provide conclusive reasoning for deciding what actions are bad?

In short, why is it good to help conscious beings thrive? Viewing such thriving as a good thing is an act of valuing. I value conscious beings, but not for truly, or directly, rational reasons. I am delighted to see a dog playing, for example, but it’s not because I somehow think that the dog’s play will indirectly help me. It’s an emotional response, deeply complicated. Now, it is true that that science, in the form of psychology or neurology, could help explain why I find a dog’s playfulness enjoyable, and why I might choose to, for example, build a dog park, or rescue a dog from the pound. But is my choice to do so the right choice, from some sort of factual, objective standpoint? What does that question even mean? How would we determine the rightness or wrongness of my rescuing a dog, from a scientific standpoint?

The point of arguing that science cannot speak directly to ethical issues is to make it clear that science cannot give definitive answers as to why something is ethical or unethical. It can help us achieve a more ethical society (at least in theory) but science could be marshaled to defend any number of ethical systems which would conflict with one another. Science itself is ethically agnostic, because it objectifies the world. Science analyzes things into their components to understand them. Ethics is a subjective process in which unified wholes are valued for a complex set of reasons; different subjects value differing things, and there is no objective way to prove or disprove either valuation. Although science certainly can explain how the valuing occurs, it can’t comment on whether the valuing is good or bad, right or wrong.

Harris doesn’t seem to grasp this, which is amazing, because this is really fundamental philosophical stuff. He wouldn’t have to open the Bible or any other religious book to explore this conundrum; Sarte or Nietzche would do just as well. The disconnect between the world seen as an object and the world experienced as a subject is probably the oldest problem of philosophy, and one that still dominates it. That Harris could spend years writing about religion an ethics, and seemingly never come to understand this, is quite amazing and perplexing. But his position also belies a subtler, but still significant confusion.

Harris seems extremely confident that empiricism-science-will allow humans to build a better and better world; he seems to believe in the inevitability of human progress: as we learn more about the world, we can manipulate it into a better and better place for us to live. The evidence suggests, though, that science has had a much more equivocal impact on the world and on human life. Science has, on the one hand, brought us vaccines, and sanitation systems, and medical intervention, and increased food production, and all sorts of creature comforts. This can’t be denied, and let me be honest: I’m sitting in a heated room, typing on a computer. I have refrigerated food here, and all sorts of books, food, clothes, etc. that were shipped here on technologically advanced ships, trucks, and trains. I’m not a Luddite, and I’m not here to say that science is inherently evil.

But science has also brought atom bombs, machine guns, mustard gas, mercury poisoning, and global warming. It’s not some unalloyed good; progress isn’t guaranteed just because we are applying science to our problems. In fact, it could be argued that though science has improved the lives of a relatively small number of fortunate people, on balance it’s proving to be a growing catastrophe for life in general. This remains to be seen, though. Many people hope that we can use science applied through technology to address the problems caused in the past by science applied through technology. “Green” energy sources, for example, can hopefully be deployed to replace fossil fuels. I hope they are right, but I have to be honest that I’m not particularly confident. “Green” technology may prove to be extremely damaging to the environment; let’s remember that when people started burning coal on a large scale in the 19th century, they had no idea it would lead to the problems we now face. Manufacturing millions of solar panels and wind turbines will involve vast mining operations and the expenditure of huge amounts of energy, and their deployment into the environment may prove to have unforeseen negative consequences.

Of course, perhaps not. I’m not trying to define a wholesale anti-scientific pessimism, but I do think we should be aware of the limitations of our knowledge and the real possibility of serious problems arising from the solutions we are so enthusiastic about today. Ultimately, this credulous approach to science is very much an ideology; some have called it “scientism”. It boils down to a fervent confidence bordering on faith (though they would hate for me to use that word) that human beings, through the application of reason and empirical investigation, can fully understand the world, and apply that understanding through technology to master the world as on object. I am decidedly unconfident about our odds here; as we just discussed, our history suggests that science’s advances nearly always come with huge downsides, major vulnerabilities. I don’t think we are as in-control as “scientismists”, as it were, would have us believe.

And, interestingly enough, this gets us back to the subject-object dichotomy discussed above. A highly credulous view of science ultimately depends on a fully object-focused view of the world that is reductionist and even mechanical. Such a view is less and less capable of making effective predictions as more and more complex systems are added to what is being observed. We are coming to find that the earth, as a biosphere, is far more complex, and sophisticatedly balanced, than we realized before. The argument that we can simply apply our ever-increasingly knowledge to the objects before us and increasingly develop a more convenient environment runs into the real experience of humans, that as we manipulate the biosphere to garner given benefits, real costs are extracted, though often in hard-to-predict ways, and often on people who were not involved in the development of the original technology (i.e. these effects are often “externalities”).

Harris, then, misses the mark, I think, both in his basic philosophical confusion, and in his over-enthusiasm for science as a sort of panacea for all human ills. Again, none of this is to say that I do not believe we should apply science to our problems. But, first, I think we have to recognize the science itself is built on a wide base of philosophical assumptions, some of which may prove to be false, and that there are questions that this system of though cannot effectively answer in full. Ethics is perhaps the best example of this; science can certainly help us to apply our ethical system, but it can’t answer the basic, fundamental, crucial questions at the very core of our ethical investigations. Second, science itself is a bit of a fickle mistress: what it gives with the right hand it takes with the left, and I think we need to be much more cautious with it than many modern science-boosters would have us be. Harris seems to make massive errors in both of these areas of thought, and I am sad to see his public influence continue. It’s especially ironic that he fancies himself a trusted ethicist, considering that he apparently believes that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (The End of Faith, p. 52). Harris really seems to be the epitome of polarized, hyper-empirical “scientismist”: fully confident of his own moral rightness and his capacity to understand anything and everything. He is much more similar to the oppressive religious leaders he is so (rightly) critical of than he seems to realize.

I would submit that the video below, an abbreviated (and wonderfully animated) recording of a presentation that Iain McGilchrist gave to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, portrays a much more accurate, useful, and sophisticated view of human decision-making than Harris’.

Scott Lipscomb is an Episcopalian and a theology student at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. He has worked with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy as well as the Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Program. To read more of his writing, visit his blog, Life’s a Lap.


Bookmark and Share