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Science Cannot Determine Ethics and Morals - A Rebuttal of Sam Harris

As a non-believer, atheist or whatever you want to call it, I never really thought of the hard questions. Even though I haven't read much on the topic of atheism, I still am one. Sam Harris is by far the most interesting in my mind. I'm not saying he's necessarily the one that I agree with the most, but I found that he has challenged my assumptions more than others.

I find there are much better new atheists out there that I enjoy listening to such as Christopher Hitchens, but I guess I eventually realized that even though Hitchens (and others) were giving me what I like to hear, I was never really being challenged. It was like I was engaging in a circle jerk of my own ideas.

When it comes to Harris, he has opened me up to a much more candid discussion not necessarily on whether there is a God or not, but the more important questions such as philosophy of ethics and morals. I have to admit that I enjoy the idea that science could result in these answers. It's pushed my thought process in a different direction. And well, I can't conclude the same.

What is Harris' Position?

I tried to find a quote that could explain the position without me having to fumble through it. The best way to do this is through questions.

Imagine that you have a world where everyone and everything suffered in the worst possible way. If this world had less suffering, would that be better? Yes is the answer to that question. Therefore, improvement of your happiness, pleasure, well-being, etc is the key to ethics and morals.

In science we can determine a lot of things. Do we know how to make ourselves healthier that result in us feeling better? Yes. Can we take your broken leg and take the pain away? Yes. Can science tell you that eating bacon every day will lead to heart disease or smoking will cause you lung cancer, so you shouldn't do it? Yes.

This is the basis of his argument.

Is-Ought Problem

This is where I can't get passed things. Science is the 'is'. It tells us the is in the world. It is something that tells us that this substance is poison. It tells us that exercise is healthy. The problem with this is just because something is, it doesn't mean we ought to do it. This is known as the is-ought problem, first coined by Scottish philosopher David Hume.

I find the argument that Harris is presenting is quite simple, but there is still a philosophical point made in the 'ought' part. Essentially that seeking less suffering is something you ought to do. He has made a moral judgement and you have to agree with that to accept his point.

The real question that everyone needs to ask: should less suffering be my motive when acting on something. When phrased that way it doesn't seem quite as powerful of a position than the original position articulated.

Utilitarian Form of Ethics

If you're unfamiliar with utilitarianism, it's actually quite simple.  It's essentially to act to increase happiness and reduce suffering. But what happens when you take this form of ethics beyond the individual and apply it to society. How should society morally act as a whole? It's to increase happiness and decrease suffering for the least amount of people.

This almost seems like a pure form of democracy without that limitation on it that protects individual rights. Not a form of ethics I like.

The Word Game: Well Being

Having the chance to go through many discussions on this topic, I've found that the word used to describe the ought was well being. I've found this to be something that forms a very good argument. We should act to improve our well being. When faced with the choice of smoking or exercising, you'll choose to exercise. If your choice is to go to a party or study for your final exam tomorrow, you'll choose to study.

What is well being? The problem is really the definition of the word. When you really look at it, it's quite a vague concept. What type of well being should you pursue?

If you can have a delicious meal of bacon, that brings you joy from taste, or a healthy breakfast that you don't enjoy, which one is your well being? Is the instant gratification better than the long term health of that healthy meal?

If the opportunity arises that you could be unfaithful and have a sexual relationship outside your marriage, is the derived pleasure part of your well being? Or is turning it down and trying to rebuild a troubled marriage part of your well being?

These examples might be a little easier for you to answer as they're more engaging in our moral compass. But the question still remains, what is well being?

It's not that easy to answer, but can make an argument seem more powerful without any substance.

Science Helps, But Not Morally or Ethically

Science is something powerful and good for our life. I'm not disputing that nor do I want us to stop. We need to keep going. But at the end of the day the moral and ethical work needs to be done by us.

Why? Values.

It's what we value that inevitably drives our actions. Science tells us exercise is healthy. We need to value health to determine we ought to act on it.

I feel like when Sam Harris looks at science and morals from the point of view of health he is cherry picking a particular niche of ethics that we most likely agree with. Most of us value being healthy. Most of us value being happy. These are things we want and we'll receive health care that fixes broken bones. We'll eat better when we learn a food is bad.

These are moral questions, but it misses out on more fundamental questions.

Is it moral for the Red Cross to teach the Taliban first aid and supplying them with medical supplies?

If you're stranded on a mountain with two other people, with only enough food for one person, who eats?

These questions science won't be able to answer with a moral certainty. And isn't that really why we learn ethics.

In situation 'A', should you put your boss in their place or just keep your mouth shut to not rock the boat? In situation 'B', your friend opens up someone else's piece of mail and reads it aloud to a group of friends, do you speak up and voice your disgust or go along?  In situation 'C', you're married with children, yet you're no longer in love with your wife, what do you do now?

This is ethics. It's the values that guide you and allow you to make choices to act on. Science unfortunately can't answer them. This is your work to do.


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