Can science answer moral questions? cont’d.

Sam Harris addresses the critics of his TED talk:

Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism. This is, I think, the only charitable thing to be said about it. Needless to say, it was not my purpose at TED to defend the idiosyncrasies of the West as any more enlightened, in principle, than those of any other culture. Rather, I was arguing that the most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, just as most other facts do. And if there are facts which are truly a matter of cultural construction—if, for instance, learning a specific language or tattooing your face fundamentally alters the possibilities of human experience—well, then these facts also arise from (neurophysiological) processes that transcend culture.

I must say, the vehemence and condescension with which the is/ought objection has been thrown in my face astounds me. And it confirms my sense that this bit of bad philosophy has done tremendous harm to the thinking of smart (and not so smart) people. The categorical distinction between facts and values helped open a sinkhole beneath liberalism long ago—leading to moral relativism and to masochistic depths of political correctness. Think of the champions of “tolerance” who reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing security concerns, or the Danish cartoonists for their “controversy,” and you will understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values. Among conservatives in the West, the same skepticism about the power of reason leads, more often than not, directly to the feet of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Universe. Indeed, the most common defense one now hears for religious faith is not that there is compelling evidence for God’s existence, but that a belief in Him is the only basis for a universal conception of human values. And it is decidedly unhelpful that the moral relativism of liberals so often seems to prove the conservative case.

His full response is here. Lots of food for thought.


I’ve been following the comments on his post, and it seems to me that the commenter Fionn makes an intelligent case against Harris’s claims (from my perspective as a layman unfamiliar with the nuances of moral philosophy). But it seems that Fionn’s entire argument rests on the claim that the notion of “ought” is entirely normative, and can in no way be described as having empirical causes: it’s sui generis. I wonder if the jury is still out on that, and if the research being done by biologists such as Marc Hauser might provide testable data about the evolutionary basis of morality. After all, if our concern for the well-being of others is also increasingly observed in the animal world, is it not reasonable to hypothesize that such ethical feelings have natural origins, and thus fall within the domain of science? Or do all the social animals also formulate sui generis normative principles to guide their behavior?

I look forward to whether and how Harris addresses this criticism, perhaps when his new book comes out.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s