Science

Science can answer moral questions: Sam Harris on TED.com

Posted by: Matthew Trost

Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. But Sam Harris argues that science can — and should — be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life. (Recorded at TED2010, February 2010 in Long Beach, CA. Duration: 23:07)

Watch Sam Harris’ talk on TED.com, where you can download this TEDTalk, rate it, comment on it and find other talks and performances from our archive of 600+ TEDTalks.

Comments (43)

  • kevin anchi commented on Jun 25 2010

    Science is always good and it has no evil in it as its pure truth and nothing else and for a person being truth full can also be called a person of religion as he has no evil, actually for science evil does not exists as it itself is pure like water and transforms in what ever way it is directed for example nuclear energy is used for making power now a days as it was used to vaporise 150k people in just seconds, so my point is that the person who posses the technology must be a moral person and not just religious fanatic………
    http://www.bigliftedtrucks.net

  • Rick Allain commented on Apr 20 2010

    Continued from my last comment, going back to the video. Thanks for sticking with me through all these comments! ;-)

    - He seems to blame religion for people focusing on the morality of things like homoexuality instead of genocide. That’s just retarded. People don’t focus on the morality of genocide because there is a 99.999% concensus that it’s wrong. There is no discussion to be had in the public forum.

    - “I’m the Ted Bundy of String Theory.” Ok that was kinda funny. :P

    - “How have we convinced ourselves that [everyone] has a point of view worth considering.” A very good point that I can agree with. Again, part of my reasoning against complete subjectivism. Good point with the Taliban. ^^

    - He says ‘there are answers’ but does not begin to suggest how we might go about finding them. To be honest I knew this before I was 5 years old, so although he said a lot of things that were true (hence the standing ovation) he didn’t really take us closer to any kind of practical solution.

  • Rick Allain commented on Apr 20 2010

    Continued from my last comment.

    This can explain lots of things:

    - Why people change religion
    - Why former atheists/agnostics adopt religion, and vice versa
    - Why people don’t always do what their relgion says they should (because although a lot of their conclusions match that belief system, not all of them do).

    And you see for these reasons it is daft to say that people that follow a religion do not have any accountablility. Or that they are deferring thier moral decisions to another person or entity. The vast majority of people make these moral decisions for themselves, and then align themselves with the belief system which most closely resembles thier own understanding of things.

  • Rick Allain commented on Apr 20 2010

    Continued from my last comment. This is an excerpt from a previous post.

    The leap that by having accountability to a higher being, we suddenly become unaccountable is illogical. With the absense of a divine arbiter we are unaccountable to anyone other than other people who happen to be in a position to try to bring us to justice. With a judge making us account for everything we have done we are held accountable.

    It would be like saying ‘Because person A did ‘X’ because it is the law, if they did crime ‘Y’ they would not be accountable.’ When in fact we know that they would be held accountable in a court of law.

    I decide upon my moral values for myself, as do we all.
    I don’t think many, if any, people, begin as a ‘blank moral slate’ and then decide “I like the sound of religion X, so I am going to adopt all of the moral vlaues from that religion.
    No, that is not how people work.

  • Rick Allain commented on Apr 20 2010

    Continued from my last comment:

    - Again, whilst I agree with his underlying dislike of the Burka, I think he’s really being far too biased in his tone. He’s being sarcastic (obviously, as he goes on to use extreme examples like ‘who are we to say throwing battery acid on women is wrong’ ::) ). But the original point is right. Who are we to say it’s wrong that they cover up like that? Our society forces women to cover up. It’s quite illegal and socially unacceptable in many parts of the western world for a woman to walk down the street completely nude. It’s just to a different degree.

    - Lol @ the comment about lads mags

    - He makes the mistake that I spoke about in my last post, by claiming that religious people get their answers from their religion rather than via proper consideration. This is either very deliberate and dishonest undermining of relious morality or an honest mistake. *I will post the revelent part of that post next as you can not read the whole conversation here*

  • Rick Allain commented on Apr 20 2010

    Continued from my last comment:

    - I have a problem with how he used the example of corporal punishment in schools. He is biased, that much is clear. On this particular issue I happen to agree with him, but for wholly different reaons. Perhaps he would have a different perspective if he saw the schools here in the UK where the lack of any physical retribution means that pupils run riot in many schools.

    - By it’s nature this kind of morality can only deal with things that have an observeable outcome. This goes back to the first problem I mentioned in some ways.

    - I like the point on multiple ‘peaks’ on the moral landscape, it’s something I already knew/agreed with. The ‘food’ example is a good way to illustrate my problem (many people’s, I would image) with complete subjectivism. The Chess analogy is good. It’s a more eloquent version of the argument I use when people talk about white lies and the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness (Lie)’.

  • Rick Allain commented on Apr 20 2010

    An interesting video. I was linked to this by a friend on a forum I frequent, and I posed my thoughts as I watched the clip there. I’ll share them here.

    - First thought. A potential problem with this model of morality as described so far is that it only deals with actions that have an outward effect on other conscious beings. So an action would appear to be morally neutral as long as it doesn’t effect a conscious being.

    - Second problem. This is a very utilitarian model. It relies on the outcome of an action to determine it’s morality. This makes two mistakes, the first potential rather than actual. Firstly, it assume that immorality is a verb. It’s not something you think, or feel. It’s something you do. Secondly to act reliably on this kind of moral framework requires perfect foresight, which is generally not possible.

    - He says ‘we know there are right and wrong answers to how we move about in this space’. Do we though? How? Is he referring to gut instinct?

    Won’t all fit…

  • Madhusudhan Akundi commented on Apr 9 2010

    Vladimir, there is no external thing called ‘spiritual essense’ .. all our essense is concentrated in our brain…. and sa harris is right

  • Maryann Spikes commented on Apr 8 2010

    Sam Harris says that science can determine what is right. In a sense, that is true. Scientific thinking can arrive at the Golden Rule (google my name and Moral Truth Litmus). Science can study the “moral center” in the brain, can try to figure out which genes work together to build a being who experiences empathy, can tell you which chemicals make a person more likely to feel prosocial feelings and carry out prosocial behavior. But in order to call the Golden Rule, or any other standard, “objective moral truth,” (without committing the fallacy of reification) science must be able to point to the real, fulfilled ought which that alleged true standard describes. Science must show us the being who is and does what we should all be and do—that for which we all hunger. Sam Harris denies such a being exists, committing the fallacy of reification in claiming objective moral truth.

    • Tony Saunders commented on Apr 15 2010

      “…the being who is and does what we should all be and do…” Oh, you mean the one nobody ever sees or knows what he does except via their own internal predilection? Nice job creating a system of arbitrary morality. Divine command morality has been leading civilizations to kill each other for thousands of years. Keep your murderous imaginary friends to yourself please.

  • ida shine commented on Mar 29 2010

    sam harris speech is very interesting and its more informative .Its valueable speech of science facts.According to him there is a universal standard values for human.The point which inspired me was though science is a not a tool its method .Without science nothing can do.everyone should the science knowledge.He compares healthy and happiest women and week and sady.if we think evil thinks happen it wil happenso we blaming others.it change by changing our mind

  • aishwarya channekar commented on Mar 29 2010

    It was a nice and wonderful speech by sam harris about the science facts and human values.There is a universal moral standards for human beings that can be found by reason.science can help in this endeavor but cannot be the sole or ultimate voice as mr harris said.

    He says that science is an illusion and science cannot give foundation but science are facts which relates to human values. Facts and values seem to belong to the different fields as said by Mr. Harris questions of good and evil right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. Sam Harris argues that science can talk about moral issues and human values and also about the real life.
    Harris graphic represents landscape of moralities. Science is an essential tool about the happenings of our world and who we are and it is also the method that works without failure.

    It was really an interesting talk that I enjoyed hearing.science is the “SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST “

  • shine pink commented on Mar 29 2010

    I feel it as a great talk given by Mr.Sam Harris .Here he speaks about the ideas of certain beliefs or behaviours leading to better well being than others.He too adds that separation between science and human values is an illusion.But this is not acceptable in every case.The protection of women from harmful effects of men could not be possible everywhere.The killing of the daughter by his own father for the reason of rape does not happen at an instinct.Everyone would examine the cause before doing.He too compares the opinion of different people and proves practically that everyone provides different responses to every situation.Here he compares Ed Witten ,Dalai Lama ,Ted Bundy which makes the talk more interesting.He truely means that, its the opinion which controls the people thogh right or wrong.In true words voluntary mean “the wish and way ,which makes them live in their own way,without causing constraints to social environment”.So, everyone should live a free and safety life.

  • Dennis Buonafede commented on Mar 27 2010

    Mr. Harris’ general premise is correct. There is a universal moral standard for human beings that can be discovered by reason. Science can help in this endeavour but cannot be the sole or ultimate voice, as Mr. Harris said.
    The issue is that he is not saying anything new, but rather something that was abandoned 500 years ago with the advent of Nominalism within philosophical schools, namely, the rejection of universals in both the metaphysical sense and in the subsequent moral sense.
    The classical philosophers, esp. Aristotle, spoke of virtue, goodness, justice, etc. from the perspective of universals. The early Christian philosophers such as Augustine and later Aquinas married revealed faith with classical reason (to the best of their abilities). The universal understanding of right and wrong from a rational perspective was understood as being rooted in the Natural Law (not to be confused with the Law of Nature)

    Unknowingly, what Mr. Harris is arguing for is a return to Natural Law.

  • Maryann Spikes commented on Mar 26 2010

    Dawkins on Sam Harris’ website: “I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me.”

    Does Richard Dawkins now believe there is objective moral truth?

    Does he now believe in a ‘real’ good?

    Maryann Spikes
    San Francisco Apologetics Examiner

  • Maier Heinz commented on Mar 26 2010

    I like the idea of measuring the state of well-being and compare different (moral) environments on a scientific level. It may not be the answer to wrong or right, but it is a step towards a basis for exchanging reasonable arguments.
    However, I think he focus too much on being well. Nobody should suffer, but you have to ask yourself: What should mankind aim for? Maybe it is necessary to endure balefulness to reach those aims.

  • TOMY JAK commented on Mar 25 2010

    it’s very nice.in this presentation must be wanted in a science technology.so all of them take a lot of time in a scientific researches.JACK

  • Jace Saunders commented on Mar 22 2010

    Ferrets are very playful, and one of their most common misbehaviors is nipping. Gentle nipping is nothing serious, but when the ferret begins biting too hard, it’s time to remind it to calm down. You can do this by firmly saying “no” and then pulling away your hand. Some ferrets will get the idea faster than others. If the behavior keeps up, then after saying “no” again, just walk away from the ferret. If these two warnings fail, it’s time to put your ferret back in its cage. Ferrets love to have fun, so seeing that it is missing a good time will more than likely be adequate punishment. The key here is consistency. Make sure that every time the ferret bites too hard you don’t overlook it. Make the consequences stick. Over time, most ferrets listen and respond to the word “no” and then stop all action.
    http://happyferrets.com/

  • Jace Saunders commented on Mar 22 2010

    Ferrets are very playful, and one of their most common misbehaviors is nipping. Gentle nipping is nothing serious, but when the ferret begins biting too hard, it’s time to remind it to calm down. You can do this by firmly saying “no” and then pulling away your hand. Some ferrets will get the idea faster than others. If the behavior keeps up, then after saying “no” again, just walk away from the ferret. If these two warnings fail, it’s time to put your ferret back in its cage. Ferrets love to have fun, so seeing that it is missing a good time will more than likely be adequate punishment. The key here is consistency. Make sure that every time the ferret bites too hard you don’t overlook it. Make the consequences stick. Over time, most ferrets listen and respond to the word “no” and then stop all action.
    http://happyferrets.com/

  • Katherine Jonas commented on Mar 22 2010

    The idea of certain behaviors or beliefs leading to better well-being than others may be sound, but it seems that if you accept it, it is impossible to also accept a diversity of equally good states of well-being. Harris’ graphic represents the landscape of moralities. If we continually move towards the peaks, mustn’t we converge on the tallest?

    • Maier Heinz commented on Mar 26 2010

      You could also tolerate everthing, that is beyond a certain threshold, instead of continually move higher. This way, we may get rid of the apparently “bad” ones.

  • Vladimir Cubrt commented on Mar 22 2010

    Sam Harris is a SCIENTIFIC ZEALOT. He is just as closed-minded and righteous in his OPINIONS (not “facts”) as the demagogues and pontiffs to which he refers. I believe he is WRONG (to quote Sam, himself) about many things in this particular talk:

    1) Just as you wouldn’t ask a Taliban about string theory – a ridiculous argument – you would not ask a scientist to choreograph a ballet, or write a screenplay for you. Both of these things require an understanding of TRUTH that is beyond the purview of science.
    2) Science is constantly revising its own version of universal truths. Even the scientific canon created by Einstein is now considered flawed.
    3) That the personality is located ONLY in the brain. One’s body, kinetic energy and “spiritual” essence are all part of who we are and none of these things are located exclusively in the brain.

    Science is an (essential) tool in learning about our world and who we are. But it is only one of the tools that we have.

    • Philipp Schaub commented on Mar 24 2010

      1) That was exactly Harris’ point – you would INDEED NOT ask a taliban on string theory, and *for the same reason* you should not ask a priest for guidance on morals. Because both are ignorant on the topic of choice.
      2) Science does not claim to have any universal truths, and that, again, is exactly the point. A truth can only be true in context, and sciences flexibility in the face of changing situations is exactly what makes it superiour to unchanging dogmatic systems.
      3) You’re proposing an concept of body-mind-duality that ha been dead for the last decade. Who we are IS exclusively in the brain. All discoveries ever made in neuroscience converge towards that, and it won’t be long until it is proven beyond doubt.

      No, science is not a tool. It’s a method. And it’s been long proven to be the only one that works without failure.

      • John Perez commented on Mar 25 2010

        Disagree in fact the opening chapters of the book of Genesis deal with the whole topic of choice…and consequence. You seem to imply that we should go to science for guidance on morality….this reminds me of some of the rhetoric used in western europe in the early 1930s which led to moral atrocities justified of course by the development of scientific theories on “survival of the fittest”.

        • rebecca holtz-reed commented on Apr 2 2010

          The Bible glorifies brutality in the name of god. Where is the morality in that?

      • Bryan Bissell commented on Mar 28 2012

        Harris makes many good points, but his major failure is in understanding that Christianity has been the #1 bulwark of human freedom and advancing human rights far more than anything else in history. You can see quite a few examples of this at this link, including atheist professors who admit that this is true.
        http://www.truth-is-life.org/GoodLifeEvidence.html

        Pastors, priests and thoughtful Christians have advanced morality more than any other group on the planet, PERIOD. This is an indisputable and undebatable fact of history.

        There are some religious people, including priests at times who have done terribly wrong things. NO questions about that. But, the same is true of teachers (who commit about double the sexual abuse of children as priests do) and scientists who have done a lot of work that knowingly caused human death and misery. If you’re going to condemn one field, you have to condemn all fields.

        Most importantly, you don’t blame science for scientists who disobey the scientific method. You don’t blame the field of medicine for doctors who violate the Hippocratic oath. You don’t blame education for teachers who violate the standards of their field. And in exactly the same way, it is insane stupidity and completely unfair and irrational to blame the Bible for people (including priests) who are explicitly violating its principles. Consistent standards are a MUST. If you don’t use consistent standards, all knowledge fails and rationality is impossible.

        People need to grow up and think more rationally.
        Bryan
        P.S. Rebecca, the Bible does not glorify brutality in the name of God. PERIOD. God at times was forced to intervene to stop enormous cruelty. But, if he hadn’t, far more lives would have been destroyed and far more misery caused than with his merciful intervention.

    • Greg Stone commented on Mar 30 2010

      Excellent beginning premise: You would not ask a Taliban about string theory.

      And thus you would not ask Sam Harris about science, religion, morals, or anything that transcends the mundane.

    • rebecca holtz-reed commented on Apr 2 2010

      Sam Harris is not a demagogue or a zealot. He is a scientist who is capable of considering new theories and discarding theories that are proven wrong.

    • Tony Saunders commented on Apr 15 2010

      ?!

      1) Ballet requires an understanding of truth? Truth is beyond the purview of science? Wth are you talking about?
      2) You are right, that is why science is superior to religious predilection, it is always working to fix the flaws in the theory, instead of canonizing them. This is true of moral dilemma just like it is true of the Earth being not-flat.
      3) Your personality is a verb. It is an action that is carried out by your brain. There is no evidence or counter-evidence to suggest anything different, thus any other belief is unfounded, no matter how lovely you may find it.