Sam Harris has stimulated controversy in the world of morality studies and ethics analysis with his argument that morality should be considered a branch of science. In claiming thus, he argues that scientific study can not only provide a basis for determining moral values, but also lead us to determine what constitutes human and animal well-being, the goal behind morality. Criticism has been thrown at him from all sides, disregarding his rather revolutionary argument as an unbelievable, substance-less, or useless interpretation. The question of determining how to measure human or animal well-being has been pressing–how could empirical evidence be created regarding a topic so ambiguous to begin with? How could this topic be “objectively measured” (Carroll)? Addressing each of these questions, Harris provides a solid perspective in support of his argument. Through my interpretation of Sam Harris’s argument that morality can be considered a developing science its goal being well-being, I have come to agree, with slight hesitancy, with his case that we can know exactly what constitutes human flourishing.
Harris makes it very clear that he uses utilitarianism and consequentialism to determine whether moral values are correct or incorrect. To do so, in every case or analogy, he appeals to his audience’s sense of what benefits the greatest number of people. Specifically in an example involving chess, Harris explains that the strategy behind sacrificing one’s queen is analogous to lying when the truth would hurt more than help. Sacrificing the queen, or lying, may be against societal norms, but depending upon the situation it can benefit the player, or greater good (“Science Can”). To go further, Harris believes that there is no such thing as a deontologist, a person believing in sticking to principle no matter what the situation (absolutely never lying no matter who it hurts) saying, “when you scratch the surface on any deontologist, you find a consequentialist just waiting to get out,” (“The Moral”) He explains that we each find exceptions to principles and act on them when the final result is of greater benefit than not acting on them. Instinctually human beings will make the decision that benefits the greatest number of people in each situation when they take into consideration the consequences of their actions always looking for the outcome of high well-being.
Continuing his discussion, Harris explains that science can be used to define what well-being is, leading us to a standardized set of moral values. Again using an analogy, Harris compares the study of well-being to the study of health. He explains that the definition of health has altered over the course of many years, coming to mean something much different in today’s standards than those of 1000 years ago. Despite the change, we can all still recognize what is good health versus bad health. Similarly, well-being’s definition has and will alter, but as a society we can still determine what is good and bad (“Science”). Here Harris makes concessions in his argument, losing some of my support for his claim. He relies heavily on the ambiguity of the definition he has created for well-being. Making a strong stance that obvious and blatant wrongs in society can be agreed upon as negative, he still leaves a never-ending gray area of “relatively good” undefined. It is difficult to contest his point. To say that anything within the “gray area” is wrong would cause him to respond saying, “no, science would not give you a perfect answer in all cases,” (“Science”). In this way, he protects himself from making too irrational a claim. In Harris’s defense, this is where further scientific study would step in and prove useful. The more we are able to define how our decisions affect the greater good, the easier it will be to define that infinite “gray area.” Research on the societal affects of our choices would illuminate the consequences of every action we make, eventually presenting the pros and cons and leading humans to a correct decision.
In addition to scientific study, it is my opinion that the continual influx of information into our lives provides us exposure to moral decisions of every kind. Having the ability to witness the consequences of decisions continually through social media, news, etc., we are able to individually put together our own sets of moral values by trial and error. We see that Susie May went to a party without her roommate and heard her roommate was upset. Maybe tomorrow night we will make an effort to include our roommate to prevent a similar outcome. Possibly more substantial: we see the working conditions of Chinese factories and perhaps change our purchasing habits to support our local industry, combatting an act we find immoral. In this way, scientific analysis and social information provide a basis for all decisions–the more educated an individual is about the consequences of his choices, the more likely he will be to choose the option with the best possible outcome for the greatest number.
Harris then presents the idea of reaching moral expertise. Separate from religion, in which moral “experts” follow what they have been told rather than values they have constructed themselves, Harris believes that it is possible to be a moral expert as a result of scientific analysis (“Science”). Contestants of this perception argue that the ambiguity of “well-being” and morality, along with the resulting plethora of definitions associated with each term, prevent anyone from being a respected expert. Because these terms vary from culture to culture, there is doubt as to whether a unified view of morality is even feasible. Since the tendency is to tolerate cross-cultural morality, it is impossible to encompass all moral views into one “correct” moral agenda (Carroll). In response, Harris then questions society’s tendency to accept all moral perspectives. Obviously, there are some people who we can immediately write off as being immoral–serial killers, sociopaths, rapists, etc. Never do we use these categories of people as strong examples of moral character, so why do we allow those “less than ideally moral” individuals skew our opinions of true morality (“The Moral”)? Here I strongly agree with him.
By respecting all so-termed “moral” outlooks of all societies, we overlook many a human rights violation, poor policy decision, and war. There is a difference between long-standing tradition and moral stance (“Science”). Simply because, for thousands of years, cultures have forced women to wear burkas or have performed genital mutilation, there is no reason said acts should fall under the category of “moral”–they are simply tradition. These traditions are passionately agreed upon as immoral and unjust acts in outside cultures, diminishing human well-being. Many of these traditions are rooted in religious beliefs, ancient and primitive, performed solely because of their cultural precedent. Originally, these actions had what was considered moral reason, but the morality has long since been lost.
Some would argue that ignoring these cultures’ perspectives is equivalent to forcing progressive moral views onto traditional societies. Consider the difference between condemning a religious practice and preventing human rights violations. To say that the act of giving the eucharist at mass is ridiculous and immoral has no basis because there is no evidence that the result is any decrease in human well-being. In contrast, to condemn stoning a heretic as being an immoral act is patently immoral. By allowing previously tolerated immoral acts to continue, we have consciously permitted religious practices to interfere with well-being.
This idea leads to another point of inference from Harris’s talk. As I listened to his discussion of religious morality, I became curious about the idea of religious ignorance. The perceived “blind trust” many religious have in their higher power has led to absolutism. As Harris explains, religious zeal has stimulated passionate debate on topics like gay marriage and abortion rather than more consequential issues like poverty or national debt (“Science”). As a result, overall well-being has been stifled. It seems that what were once highly prioritized value systems in a day when knowledge of science and morality were nonexistent, are now of limited consequence. Primitive religious beliefs have lost their weight simply because of an increase in knowledge-sharing over history. Opinions on morality, on religion itself, and technological advancement have almost eliminated the need for religious justification in regard to many issues. The only barrier is allowing new knowledge to enter our collective societal mindset. In all, blind religious following, as Harris discusses, has interfered with our moral advancement.
In conclusion, Sam Harris’s argument that morality can be evaluated as a science has validity. Scientific analysis of outcomes of choices can lead people to choosing the right option in any given situation, benefitting the greatest number. Harris’s consequentialist views are made obvious in his description of what motivates society’s decision-making. In addition to this, his discussion of religious teaching and blind following of religion-based moral systems brings to light many absolutist ethical views that prevent progress in debate regarding significantly consequential issues. This viewpoint has the most support by today’s standards. As the world globalizes, everyone is able to see the interactions of others across the world and in turn can form opinions on the morality of others’ actions, possibly shifting their own to develop a new moral compass. As a result, a more standardized set of moral values is spreading amongst society and has the potential to develop and be studied as a science. By recognizing this possibility, immense amounts of well-being and human flourishing will result.
Carroll, Sean. “The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate.” Discovery Magazine. 24 Mar. 2010. Web. 8 Sept. 2011. <https://cms.psu.edu/section/default.asp?id=201112FAUP%5F
Harris, Sam. “Science Can Answer Moral Questions.” TED: Feb 2010. 8 Sept. 2011. Lecture.
Harris, Sam. “Toward a Science of Moraliity.” HUFF Post: Religion. 7 May 2010. Web. 8 Sept. 2011. <https://cms.psu.edu/section/default.asp?id=201112FAUP%5F%5F%5FRCAS%5F