Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions (1)
I'm going to speak today about the relationship between science and human values.
Now, it's generally understood that questions of morality -- questions of good and evil and right and wrong -- are questions about which science officially has no opinion. It's thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value. And, consequently, most people -- I think most people probably here -- think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life: questions like, "What is worth living for?" "What is worth dying for?" "What constitutes a good life? So, I'm going to argue that this is an illusion -- that the separation between science and human values is an illusion -- and actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history.
Now, it's often said that science cannot give us a foundation for morality and human values, because science deals with facts, and facts and values seem to belong to different spheres. It's often thought that there's no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. But I think this is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. Why is it that we don't have ethical obligations toward rocks?
Why don't we feel compassion for rocks? It's because we don't think rocks can suffer. And if we're more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it's because we think they're exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. Now, the crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim: This is something that we could be right or wrong about. And if we have misconstrued the relationship between biological complexity and the possibilities of experience well then we could be wrong about the inner lives of insects. And there's no notion, no version of human morality and human values that I've ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.
Even if you get your values from religion, even if you think that good and evil ultimately relate to conditions after death -- either to an eternity of happiness with God or an eternity of suffering in hell -- you are still concerned about consciousness and its changes. And to say that such changes can persist after death is itself a factual claim, which, of course, may or may not be true. Now, to speak about the conditions of well-being in this life, for human beings, we know that there is a continuum of such facts.
We know that it's possible to live in a failed state, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong -- where mothers cannot feed their children, where strangers cannot find the basis for peaceful collaboration, where people are murdered indiscriminately. And we know that it's possible to move along this continuum towards something quite a bit more idyllic, to a place where a conference like this is even conceivable. And we know -- we know -- that there are right and wrong answers to how to move in this space.
Would adding cholera to the water be a good idea? Probably not. Would it be a good idea for everyone to believe in the evil eye, so that when bad things happened to them they immediately blame their neighbors? Probably not. There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish, whether or not we understand these truths. And morality relates to these truths. So, in talking about values we are talking about facts.
Now, of course our situation in the world can be understood at many levels -- from the level of the genome on up to the level of economic systems and political arrangements. But if we're going to talk about human well-being we are, of necessity, talking about the human brain. Because we know that our experience of the world and of ourselves within it is realized in the brain -- whatever happens after death.
Even if the suicide bomber does get 72 virgins in the afterlife, in this life, his personality -- his rather unfortunate personality -- is the product of his brain. So the contributions of culture -- if culture changes us, as indeed it does, it changes us by changing our brains. And so therefore whatever cultural variation there is in how human beings flourish can, at least in principle, be understood in the context of a maturing science of the mind -- neuroscience, psychology, etc. So, what I'm arguing is that value's reduced to facts -- to facts about the conscious experience of conscious beings.
And we can therefore visualize a space of possible changes in the experience of these beings. And I think of this as kind of a moral landscape, with peaks and valleys that correspond to differences in the well-being of conscious creatures, both personal and collective. And one thing to notice is that perhaps there are states of human well-being that we rarely access, that few people access. And these await our discovery. Perhaps some of these states can be appropriately called mystical or spiritual. Perhaps there are other states that we can't access because of how our minds are structured but other minds possibly could access them. Now, let me be clear about what I'm not saying.
I'm not saying that science is guaranteed to map this space, or that we will have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question. I don't think, for instance, that you will one day consult a supercomputer to learn whether you should have a second child, or whether we should bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, or whether you can deduct the full cost of TED as a business expense. (Laughter) But if questions affect human well-being then they do have answers, whether or not we can find them. And just admitting this -- just admitting that there are right and wrong answers to the question of how humans flourish -- will change the way we talk about morality, and will change our expectations of human cooperation in the future. For instance, there are 21 states in our country where corporal punishment in the classroom is legal, where it is legal for a teacher to beat a child with a wooden board, hard, and raising large bruises and blisters and even breaking the skin.
And hundreds of thousands of children, incidentally, are subjected to this every year. The locations of these enlightened districts, I think, will fail to surprise you. We're not talking about Connecticut. And the rationale for this behavior is explicitly religious.
The creator of the universe himself has told us not to spare the rod, lest we spoil the child -- this is in Proverbs 13 and 20, and I believe, 23. But we can ask the obvious question: 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? (Laughter) Is there any doubt that this question has an answer, and that it matters? Now, many of you might worry that the notion of well-being is truly undefined, and seemingly perpetually open to be re-construed.
And so, how therefore can there be an objective notion of well-being? Well, consider by analogy, the concept of physical health. The concept of physical health is undefined. As we just heard from Michael Specter, it has changed over the years. When this statue was carved the average life expectancy was probably 30. It's now around 80 in the developed world. There may come a time when we meddle with our genomes in such a way that not being able to run a marathon at age 200 will be considered a profound disability. People will send you donations when you're in that condition. (Laughter) Notice that the fact that the concept of health is open, genuinely open for revision, does not make it vacuous.
The distinction between a healthy person and a dead one is about as clear and consequential as any we make in science. Another thing to notice is there may be many peaks on the moral landscape: There may be equivalent ways to thrive; there may be equivalent ways to organize a human society so as to maximize human flourishing. Now, why wouldn't this undermine an objective morality?
Well think of how we talk about food: I would never be tempted to argue to you that there must be one right food to eat. There is clearly a range of materials that constitute healthy food. But there's nevertheless a clear distinction between food and poison. The fact that there are many right answers to the question, "What is food?" does not tempt us to say that there are no truths to be known about human nutrition. Many people worry that a universal morality would require moral precepts that admit of no exceptions. So, for instance, if it's really wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie, and if you can find an exception, well then there's no such thing as moral truth.
Why would we think this? Consider, by analogy, the game of chess. Now, if you're going to play good chess, a principle like, "Don't lose your Queen," is very good to follow. But it clearly admits some exceptions. There are moments when losing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do. There are moments when it is the only good thing you can do. And yet, chess is a domain of perfect objectivity. The fact that there are exceptions here does not change that at all.