Toward a Science of Morality

Sam_Harris_01 Sam Harris in the Huffington Post:

[T]he response to my TED talk proves that many smart people believe that something in the last few centuries of intellectual progress prevents us from making cross-cultural moral judgments — or moral judgments at all. Thousands of highly educated men and women have now written to inform me that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions and, therefore, nonsensical, and that concepts like “well-being” and “misery” are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them. 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, 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. Given my experience as a critic of religion, I must say that it has been disconcerting to see the caricature of the over-educated, atheistic moral nihilist regularly appearing in my inbox and on the blogs. I sincerely hope that people like Rick Warren have not been paying attention.

First, a disclaimer and non-apology: 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. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing my book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy is unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the prominent philosophers I've consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.

Many people believe that the problem with talking about moral truth, or with asserting that there is a necessary connection between morality and well-being, is that concepts like “morality” and “well-being” must be defined with reference to specific goals and other criteria — and nothing prevents people from disagreeing about these definitions.