The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 1, 2010

I just watched a fascinating video presentation by Sam Harris titled “Science Can Answer Moral Questions” which he gave at the TED Talks this past February.  One of the key questions it addresses is the notion that science & morality (and hence, religion) must, by definition, occupy different spheres of influence.  While I don’t agree with Harris on everything, I certainly think he makes a very compelling argument in this presentation, and I encourage you to watch it.

Hat tip to Phil at Skeptic Money for directing me to this video!

One Response to “Can Science Answer Moral Questions?”

  1. I disagree with Harris on this one. His thesis is that it is self-evident that the well-being of people in general (and not just you personally) is what constitutes the good. If that were true, then he would be correct. While almost all of us would be of the opinion that the general well-being is the good, that doesn’t make it true. Philosophically, his claim goes nowhere.

    The way to see this is to imagine that Mars has been terraformed and colonized by humans. A mutant virus infects the Martian populace and the symptom of the virus is that it alters everyone’s moral opinion. After the infection has swept through the population, every Martian believes that general well-being is *not* the good. Instead, the Martians like to torture people. Now, suppose we send a mission to Mars to convince them that we are right and they are wrong. What possible evidence do we have to sway them? Or they us?

    It’s just a matter of opinion. Thousands of years ago it was self evident that we ought to keep slaves, and keep our women barefoot, pregnant and uneducated. That didn’t make it right.

    Okay, back to the real world. Differences in morality often arise because many people are not humanists. Purity or devotion to the sacred is more important to some people than consequences for human pleasure or pain. Such people consider a painful life that’s pure to be preferable to an impure life filled with pleasure. Everyone feels this to a degree, but some people feel it in the extreme.

    If you look at the anti-choice crowd, they’re not swayed by facts about the beneficial consequences to the health of society (or the mother) that derive from abortion. For them, it is an issue of purity. Just as no one would accept benefits to society as a justification for murder, neither would the anti-abortion activist.

    Contra Harris, it’s not really a scientific problem, IMO. The problem is a philosophical one. It’s philosophy that shows us that humans are biological systems, and that we’re not endowed with a spark from God. Once we see this, then we realize that embryos are not persons, and abortion is not murder.

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