Giving science a bad name by pretending it can encompass morality by mattsteinglass
May 10, 2010, 12:14 am
Filed under: Philosophy, Science, Sexuality and Gender

Sam Harris thinks we should create a universal morality through…science!

Carroll and Myers both believe nothing much turns on whether we find a universal foundation for morality. I disagree. Granted, the practical effects cannot be our reason for linking morality and science — we have to form our beliefs about reality based on what we think is actually true. But the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous.

They have? Name a single disaster that has resulted from “moral relativism.” Couldn’t, could you? Here’s what happens to Sam Harris when he tries, earlier in the essay.

Many people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose, because we can combat human evil while knowing that our notions of “good” and “evil” are unwarranted. It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the “contextual” legitimacy of the burqa

Okay, stop right there. The burqa is “abominable behavior”? Has Mr Harris traveled to Afghanistan or rural Iran and asked women whether they would like to go out in public without a burqa? What responses did he receive? Gender-based dress codes inculcated at young ages become part of people’s cultural assumptions. Women in traditional areas of rural Iran or Afghanistan aren’t up in arms over their traditional form of dress. They’re probably much more upset that their men beat them. Women in urban Iran want to be able to dress as they please and resent legally imposed dress codes, but guess what: they arrived at that desire entirely without the aid of any scientifically grounded system of morality, and Westerners have universally supported them on the basis of existing Western liberal ideas about personal freedom, again without any need for a scientific grounding of morality. Now, systems of norms that allow men to beat women, or expect them to commit shame killings for violations of caste or religious expectations, are indeed “abominations”. But those abominations don’t suit Sam Harris’s purposes, because he wouldn’t be able to find any so-called moral relativists to defend them, so they don’t help him to denounce moral relativism. Continuing:

…or a practice like female genital excision, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that his moral relativism does nothing to diminish his commitment to making the world a better place.

How many Westerners can Sam Harris find who defend female genital excision? There basically aren’t any, and indeed the overwhelming majority of those who denounce female genital excision are secular Western leftists, precisely those whom Harris would presumably denounce as moral relativists. The defense of female genital excision is carried out by Muslim men and women who live in the countries where it is practiced. And here’s the key: Western governments have had no trouble whatsoever enacting or enforcing bans on FGM on their own territory, while Western anti-FGM activists have had only moderate and gradual success in fighting the practice through propaganda in the countries where it is practiced. And neither of those things would change one whit if we decided that we had some kind of science-based morality in addition to the Western rationalist secular moral tradition that has been getting along quite well over the past several hundred years.

I am a big believer in science. That’s why I think it shouldn’t attempt to generate knowledge in fields where it can’t generate knowledge. Science has been badly damaged, over the past century-plus, on those occasions when it has attempted to make claims in normative political arenas where it cannot justify those claims: Nazi racial “science” (projecting aesthetic and nationalist sentiments into biology), early “criminology” (of the phrenological variety), the “science” of marijuana-fiend drug abuse, and so forth. The wave of anti-scientific and anti-rationalist feeling that began in the ’60s came in reaction to attempts to misuse the mantle of science in service of moralistic claims. It doesn’t make any sense to repeat that episode.


22 Comments so far
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While science has a very bad track record on morality (the Manhattan project comes to mind, too) I do respect what Harris is trying to do. Essentially, he’s trying to set up a framework for evaluating what it is moral beyond the usual tools of tradition, religion and culture. Admittedly, science is an awkward tool, perhaps a better phrase would be “reason.”

On the subject of “How many Westerners can Sam Harris find who defend female genital excision?” I think it’s worth noting that the American Academy of Pedriatics recently changed its opposition to FGM to add the qualifier “that poses life threatening health risks.” That sounds suspiciously like defending the practice to me:

Comment by andyengelson

Andy, according to the post, that doesn’t seem to be what they did. They changed the recommendation, instead, to oppose “all forms of FGC that pose risks of physical or psychological harm.” The key issue appears to be this:

“In some countries in which FGC is common, some progress toward eradication or amelioration has been made by substituting ritual “nicks” for more severe forms….The World Health Organization and other international health organizations are silent on the pros and cons of pricking or minor incisions. The option of offering a “ritual nick” is currently precluded by US federal law, which makes criminal any nonmedical procedure performed on the genitals of a female minor.”;125/5/1088

The person posting at the Slog doesn’t seem to have understood what was actually happening here.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

On the broader issue of Harris’s project, though, what seems key to me is that besides tradition, religion and culture, we’ve got 2300 years of Western moral philosophy, from Aristotle to Kant to Hume to Bentham to Rawls. Harris comes very close to saying the entirety of Western moral philosophy is garbage:

“Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “anti-realism,” “emotivism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”

I think this decision to largely ignore the history of philosophy is small-minded and likely to make anything Harris has to say rather weak.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Agreed that this particular article wasn’t nuanced having now read the NYT piece on it…but it certainly does raise the complicated issue of whether the “nick” should be condoned. And I think as a practical, utilitarian matter, if it prevents what it’s hoping to prevent–having girls sent out of the country for even more destructive practices, it seems like a necessary compromise. I’d argue that this is what Harris is arguing: looking at the extentuating factors, balancing the net pain vs. flourishing.

I do agree with Harris’ approach to trying to do this in clear language–that’s my fault with western philosophy as well…certainly you need “terms of art” and these are complicated concepts, but there has to be a way to delve deeply into the philosophy of ethics without completely befuddling 99 percent of your reading audience. I completely agree with his assessment of philosophy–although it certainly won’t win him friends in the philosophical community and yes it will limit the kinds of arguments he can make. And I think it’s clear that Harris isn’t ignoring this tradition, or think it’s “garbage” in fact he’s fairly well steeped in Kant, the work of Daniel Dennett, the philosophy of neuroscience, etc. It’s can we translate these ideas into terms that most people can find useful in their lives, in decisions they and their leaders need to make?

In some ways he’s bringing back a utilitarian/common sense argument back to these issues, it seems to me (and I’m certainly not qualified to talk in technical philosophical terms). I’ve been thinking about the allusion I made to the Manhattan Project for instance. I think our natural aversion to having science talk about moral issues is that it’s tended in the past to do all sort of moral calculus while ignoring the true human costs: body counts from bombing missions, efficiency…as if success in war could be reduced to a formula in Robert McNamara’s head.

But…how do we approach the issue of Hiroshima? What are our benchmarks, our tools? Religion? The New Testament and Old Testament don’t have a verse on the use of nuclear weapons. Do we follow Christ and take the way of the peacemaker, or is it follow the God of Ecclesiastes: a time for war, a time for peace? It seems to me religion is fairly wanting on the issue.

What Harris is asking we employ isn’t really out of the range of Western Philosophical thought, you’re right. We ask: where do we balance harm for harm? At what point are too many innocent civilian deaths and suffering too much? Certainly Hiroshima fails that test today, and where you stand on say civilian deaths in Afghanistan is open to debate. I don’t know if I believe there’s a “correct” answer out there to the question, but we can begin to think and analyze the question and formulate a least-worst answer.
And the tools logic, of Western Philosophy, certainly apply. We could employ other methods (say, divination looking at how a set of bones falls on the ground) but I think most rational people would find the arguments presented wanting.
I think the trouble here is the use of the term “science” since it’s the idea of verifiable, uncontested facts in the realm of morality that rubs most of us the wrong way.
Anyway, sorry for the atrociously long comment. I’ll post something on my blog on this once I’ve thought it through.
I think at the very least Harris has hit a nerve.

Comment by andyengelson

In economics, my professors talked about theoretical “utils,” units of utility that could be counted which don’t exist, probably can’t exist and need to exist for the science of economics to be scientific the way the natural sciences are scientific. I wonder what units Harris plans to calibrate his moral astrolabe by.

This was one of the finest posts I’ve read on the net. I hope you’ll continue along this line. There ought to be a lot you can say about politics, philosophy and morality starting from here and extending to sarcasm.

Comment by citifieddoug

Science is a methodology for understanding how the world around us works. It is not, and it never will be a philosophy, or even a meta-philosophy. People who discuss Science in those terms are revealing a level of ignorance that invalidates the rest of their argument on the grounds that nobody can understand what they’re talking about.

That said, religions have been building social structures around daily life since we began recording history. The problem in the last century is that the exponential progress of scientific knowledge, and the technologies derived from it, have pretty much made a mess of what was once the common sense of a religious upbringing.

For example, birth control technology has changed how we view sexual relations. Genetic testing has completely changed how we can approach issues of parenthood. And modern aviation has made a mockery of the “God in sky” stuff that many used to believe without question.

The question of whether technology can imply any morality is mostly a matter of the nature of that technology. We are still adhering to older rules which assume certain technologies that are no longer true.

If he really understood what he was talking about, Sam Harris would ask for people to invent new religions more compatible with the technologies we use today. Thus, a religion of this sort would be able to deal with reasonable moral behavior for the one night stand.

The problem with teaching morality of this sort is that it usually comes back to a cabal of priests who have to make this stuff up. There is real power in religion. People do not entrust just anyone in such things. Arbitrary religions need some form of bootstrap method to get them going. Sam Harris doesn’t realize it, but he is basically asking for an age old institution.

They’re called cults.

Comment by jake brodsky

Your examples of master-race eugenics, phrenology, and Reefer Madness were not good science. Like intelligent design, these sorts of things are often agendas masquerading in the guise of science.

I’m sure that Sam Harris would agree that bad (or false) science should never be used for any purpose whatsoever. I seriously doubt that he is a marijuana-hating Nazi phrenologist or, if so, he hides it well.

Comment by jcalton

As jcalton points out, your examples of past horrible examples of failed attempt to extract moral knowledge from science are used as prime historical examples of bad science and bad logic.

Science can be done well. There is no logical reason science cannot tell us the underlying, necessary characteristics (assuming there are any) of what moral behaviors ‘are’.

Sam Harris has unfortunately made some assertions that have been interpreted in ways that hurt his case,such as: “(Moral) Values are facts about the well-being of conscious beings”. As a statement about “Moral values” this is easily argued to be unsupportable.

But the idea that we might exploit for our benefit any knowledge science might give us about what moral behaviors ‘are’ is perfectly sensible and defensible.

There are logical reasons that science cannot tell us what moral behaviors ‘ought’ to be but that is another subject.

Comment by markus7

I think you’re absolutely right that we should exploit any knowledge science can provide about what moral behaviors are. My objection is to the idea that science can provide, as Harris puts it, a “universal foundation for morality”.

Comment by Matt Steinglass


I’ll provide an example of a potential “Universal foundation for morality” from science.

The following observation is based on the evolution of morality peer reviewed literature: “Almost all moral behaviors increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation for the group and are unselfish at least in the short term”. (Virtually all behaviors except those related to kin altruism and aversion to inbreeding are covered.)

Posed as a hypothesis about all moral standards and intuitions it can be shown to be provisionally ‘true’, ‘false’ or indeterminate using the normal means of science (best explanatory power, predictive power, no contradictions with known facts, etc).

If shown to be ‘true’ it implies a universal foundation for morality based in science: “Moral behaviors are behaviors that increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation for the group and are unselfish at least in the short term”.

If groups decide, as a rational choice (the choice expected to best meet needs and preferences) to adopt it as a moral reference, then science has provided a universal foundation for morality.

Comment by markus7


I would guess you’re going to run into two problems with this line of inquiry. The first is in defining what is meant by “benefit”. The second is in the challenge of proving anything non-trivial, once you’ve selected a way to define “benefit”.

But I concede I’m completely unfamiliar with any practice of scientific peer reviewed morality literature and perhaps I have a lot to learn. To me it just looks like it has to entail many of the problems associated with “happiness” research.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Both challenges you mention turn out to not really be problems.

Benefits are whatever people who want to cooperate want them to be: material goods, emotional goods, or sometimes even reproductive fitness. So there is nothing here like the intractable problems Utilitarianism has with defining “Good” or “Happiness”.

As an example of Utility, understanding the underlying, necessary characteristics of moral standards allows people to rationally choose which version of the Golden Rule (or no version) they will use as amoral guide in day to day life. Just FYI, the science predicts the Mathew 7:12 version (with a certain addition) will produce more benefits, specifically emotional benefits, even for secularists like me than, for instance, Confucius’ version.

I though my comments provided a nice balance. How about making them Called-out?

Comment by markus7

My policy is to make all comments “called out” up to the point where I can’t be bothered anymore. The site administrators don’t give me an option to make all comments automatically “called out”; I think it’s a silly system.

“Almost all moral behaviors increase, on average, the benefits for the group”. “Benefits are whatever people who want to cooperate want them to be”, assessed by observing what people do, which is assumed to be what they wanted to do. >>>> Almost all behaviors are moral behaviors.

This is what I mean by the difficulty you’re having in getting results that are non-trivial. But in fact I think you’re in deeper trouble here: I think you’re going to get an enormous number of false positives if you simply define benefits as whatever people decide is a benefit.

(I’ve re-edited with a better example of what I’m getting at:)

For example, try this on: in rural Baluchistan, it is a moral obligation for women to wear burqas. Does it increase benefits for the group? Sure: in rural Baluchistan, if women don’t wear burqas, they will be raped or assaulted by men, men will be angered and upset, and the women and their relatives will suffer intense anguish. So we’ve upheld our hypothesis that moral behavior increases benefits for the group. But this is just tautological — the moral behavior increases group benefits because this group defines it as moral behavior, and when any group sees violations of its moral code, it will experience more harms and thus fewer “benefits”.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Actually, on re-reading your comment, you seem to be suggesting something even more problematic. What you’re saying is that science can “predict” which version of morality will produce more “benefits”, even though you’re also saying that “benefits” are simply whatever people want them to be. You then say that “science” “predicts” that Christian morality will produce more “benefits” than a Confucian morality.

Okay. In China, it is a moral obligation for men to marry and produce a male heir. Whether or not they are homosexual is irrelevant. Let’s say a gay Chinese man adopts a Western moral code and decides to come out and not marry. His parents are miserable. He may be miserable, due to social stigma. On the other hand, he can be open about his sexuality. Has his choice produced more “benefits” for the group? Who knows? Science has nothing to say about this.

Comment by Matt Steinglass


First, there should be no problem confusing benefits from moral acts with other kinds of benefits. They are a very special class. They are the benefits obtained only by 1) cooperation and 2) cooperation that is initiated and maintained by unselfish acts. This greatly restricts the kind of benefits that moral behaviors might produce.

For instance, cooperation as part of commerce (made possible by rule of law and the invention of money but not requiring unselfishness) is not considered moral behavior regardless of how large a cornucopia of benefits it produces. There are fundamental reasons that cooperation as part of commerce (without any requirement for unselfishness) cannot be morally admirable, though it may be socially admirable, as is great beauty for instance.

Second, as I expect you will agree, science is about what ‘is’, not what ‘ought’ to be. Therefore on questions like “Are women morally required to wear burqas?” science might tell us why this ‘is’ considered a moral standard in that culture: because it requires unselfishness (on the part of women) and can at least emotionally benefit, in terms of power over women, the sub-group (men) that imposes this ‘moral’ requirement. But science cannot tell us which of two moral standards that may meet the requirement for producing benefits within a group and requiring unselfishness are more or less moral even if they are contradictory.

Fortunately, nothing in science prevents groups and individuals from deciding, as a rational choice expected to best meet needs and preferences, to adopt as a moral standard “Women are not morally required to wear burqas”. Using science to explain why a moral standard ‘is’ considered moral in a society is not the same thing as claiming it is moral or immoral in an absolute sense (which science is incapable of doing).

I don’t see my arguments about morality as being only tautological. It seems to me very helpful to understand that rather than being duties and burdens, moral behaviors are strategies which motivate unselfishness to increase the benefits of cooperation. With regard to the gay Chinese man, such knowledge might be very helpful in understanding why his society and parents will be so upset with him if he refuses to marry and father children. That knowledge from science might be very useful in rationally choosing the course of action that will best meet his needs and preferences.

If your point is that science cannot tell him which course of action is ‘really’ moral in an absolute sense, I agree with you. Science cannot do that.

Thanks for your comments. It has been helpful to talk to someone with a different viewpoint.

Comment by markus7

Great post Matt. You do a great job of highlighting that Harris often factually wrong. He talks a lot about science and scientific thinking, but ironically fails to provide evidence for his claims. I agree that he treats 2,500 years of Western philosophy too casually.

In a shameless display of self-promotion, here’s something I wrote on this topic:

I’d be interested in your thoughts.


Comment by pxk161

I’m a philosophical naturalist, but I think science should put its own house in order before trying to invade other provinces. We have enough problems which everyone accepts that science should solve, such as eradicating disease and providing effective treatment for psychological disorders before we can go trying to construct universal moralities based on nascent neuroscience.

Science is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between rationality and intuition, with the ultimate goal of explaining phenomena, and morality is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between action and inaction, with the ultimate goal of minimizing harm; we can use the tools of science to help us more-effectively minimize harm but Harris’s idea that science itself can be a moral authority seems incoherent.

The burden of human existence is and will always be to act with uncertainty:

Comment by christophercarr

“The defense of female genital excision is carried out by Muslim men and women who live in the countries where it is practiced.”

Just to pick on this line: FGM is practiced across much of northern Africa, by both Muslims and Christians. It’s a local culture/development issue, rather than a religious one. I just think this correction should be made because it adds to Harris’ argument that somehow these practices are tied directly to religion. In contrast: prominent Islamic legal scholars have spoken out against FGM.

Comment by kochevnik81

Any serious connection between science and morality is going to have to confront serious questions about methodology.

In particular, explaining existing states of affairs with respect to happiness, pain, pleasure, or any other morally important property (whatever that means) in relation to other variables is not going to be as straightforward as associating home prices with #’s of bedrooms, bathrooms, and transportation alternatives. The reason: we have a good independent idea that these variables effect home prices given a suitable context. We even have a feel for what makes a context suitable (or at least, realtors do).

Here’s an example. Suppose one variable explaining general pleasure is having a strong marital relationship. A regression analysis may discover a strong relation. But choosing relationships as variable as independent for the regression evidences a pre-existing narrative. And those narratives get supplied somehow – by pop-psychology, literature, and philosophy. It could be, after all, that both happiness and strong relationships are commonly caused by a group of other factors: parenting, wealth, etc.

A great way to check whether the narratives we select for ex-post facto analyses describe actual chains of causation is through experimentation. It’s pretty obvious that experimentation in these areas is ethically troublesome! Thought experiments won’t hurt anyone, but they’re not science either.

There’s a perfectly general point here: an objective morality based on natural facts scrupulously discovered buys its objectivity at the cost of any degree of certainty. A good scientific moralist is going to be extremely humble about her claims. A good scientific moralist is going to sound a lot like a relativist.

Comment by Dan Orr

Dan, I agree your final point is correct and consistent with the limitations of science.

What science can do, though, is inform us what the underlying principles of moral behaviors ‘are’ (assuming there are any). But if such a hypothesis as I have suggested in my other posts (you may have to click on “All Comments” to see them) are shown to be provisionally true, then its implied morality would not be nearly so relativist as the word might suggest.

For instance, knowing the underlying principles of all moral behavior might allow you to, as a rational choice, choose which version (or no version) of the Golden Rule you think following in day-to-day life might be expected to best meet your needs and preferences. This is very different from claiming the morality of all common versions of the Golden Rule are somehow equivalently moral as I expect some moral relativists would claim.

I disagree strongly with the idea that science cannot provide useful knowledge about moral behavior that people can rationally choose to exploit to improve their lives.

But just to be clear, I don’t see how science can 1) provide any source of justificatory force beyond reason for accepting the burdens of any morality, or 2) define moral absolutes. Is that a humble enough position?

However, these ‘shortcomings’ in no way means science is incapable of supplying the foundation for a moral system that might be adopted by a group or individual as a rational choice.

Comment by markus7

I have to confess, neither philosopher nor scientist, that some of the comments are flashing me back to Jonathan Pryce in The Adventures of Baron Von Münchausen.

Comment by citifieddoug

[…] Steinglass, a friend and journalist in Hanoi, also wrote about Sam Harris and morality on his blog, and I briefly entered the discussion. But those thoughts were tossed off in a couple minutes. […]

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