The Moral Landscape

By Sean Carroll | January 18, 2011 7:34 am

Last year we talked a bit about Sam Harris’s attempts to ground morality on science:

See especially the third one there, where I try to be relatively careful about what I am saying. (Wouldn’t impress a philosopher by a long shot, but by scientist/blogger standards I was careful.) Upshot: concepts relevant to morality aren’t empirical ones, and can’t be tested by doing experiments. Morality depends on science (you can make moral mistakes if you don’t understand the real world), but it isn’t a subset of it. Science describes what happens, while morality passes judgments on what should and should not happen, which is simply different.

By now Harris’s book The Moral Landscape has appeared, so you can read for yourself his explanations in full. In a different world — one where I had access to a dozen or so clones of myself with fully updated mental states, willing to tackle all the projects my birth-body didn’t have time to fit in — I would read the book carefully and report back. This is not that world.

Happily, Russell Blackford has written a longish and very good review, in the Journal of Evolution and Technology. He also blogged about it, and Jerry Coyne blogged about Russell’s review. As far as I can tell, Russell and I basically agree on all the substantive points, and he’s more trained in philosophy than I am, so you’re actually doing a lot better than something one of my clones would have been able to provide. It’s an extremely generous review, always saying “I liked the book but…” where I would have said “Despite the flaws, there are some good aspects…” So you’ll find in the review plenty of lines like “Unfortunately, Harris sees it as necessary to defend a naïve metaethical position…”

Any lingering urge I may have had to jump into the debate again in a substantive way has been dissipated by Harris’s response to Blackford’s review, which appears in the form of a letter to Jerry Coyne reprinted on his blog. It seems that very little communication is taking place at this point. Coyne paraphrases Blackford as asking “How do we actually measure well being?; for that is what we must do to make moral judgments.” Seems reasonable enough to me, and echoes very closely my first point here. Harris’s response is:

This is simply not a problem for my thesis (recall my “answers in practice vs. answers in principle” argument). There is a difference between how we verify the truth of a proposition and what makes a proposition true. How many breaths did I take last Tuesday? I don’t know, and there is no way to find out. But there is a correct, numerical answer to this question (and you can bet the farm that it falls between 5 and 5 million).

This misses the point, to say the least. The problem of measuring well-being is not simply one of practice, it’s very much one of principle. I know what a breath is; I don’t know what a “unit of well-being is.” The point of these critiques is that there is no such thing as a unit of well-being that we can look inside the brain and measure. I’m pretty sure that’s a problem of principle. Of course, Russell and Jerry and I (and David Hume, and a large number of professional moral philosophers) may be wrong about this. The way to provide a counter-argument would be to say “Here is a precise and unambiguous definition of how to measure well-being, at least in principle.” That doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.

Latter Harris says this:

The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).

Taken at face value, this implies that truths about the best TV shows or most delicious flavors of ice cream also exist. My opinion that The Wire is the best TV show of all time is a natural phenomenon — it reflects the state of certain neurons in my brain. That doesn’t imply, in any meaningful sense, that the state of my brain provides evidence that The Wire “really is” the best TV show of all time. Nor, more programmatically and importantly, does it provide unambiguous guidance concerning which new programs should be green-lit by studio executives. The real problem — how do you balance the interests of different people against each other? — is completely ignored.

At heart I think the problem is that Sam and some other atheists are really concerned about the idea that, without objective moral truths based on science, the field of morality becomes either the exclusive domain of religion, or simply collapses into nihilism. Happily for reality, that’s an extremely false dichotomy. Morality isn’t out there to be measured like some empirical property of the physical world, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be moral or to speak about morality in a rational, thoughtful way. Pretending that morality is a subset of science is, in its own way, just as much an example of wishful thinking as pretending that morality is handed down by God. We have to face up to that temptation and accept the world as it is.

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  • Sam Gralla

    “Taken at face value, this implies that truths about the best TV shows or most delicious flavors of ice cream also exist. The real problem — how do you balance the interests of different people against each other? — is completely ignored.”

    My solution for balancing interests has always been to say that “the best TV show (or whatever) is the one that gives its enthusiasts the most pleasure”. So, you look at the people who like various TV shows, and try to figure out which people like their favorite TV show the most. I think this comes closest to what is actually meant by the word “best” as commonly used. For example, in this comparison Alinea would come out better than mcDonalds (despite many more people liking mcDonalds), but Alinea versus Frontera Grill would be much more interesting. This standard of “best” is pretty objective since in principle an alien race that didn’t have a taste for any of our TV shows or retaurants could simply survey the relevant enthusiasts and provide a ranking.

  • Joseph Smidt

    “I think the problem is that Sam and some other atheists are really concerned…”

    I whole heartedly agree that this must be the case. Why else would you work so hard to build up some complex thesis that obviously has so many flaws. (I mean, if I can see how morality isn’t a strict subset of science it must not be that hard to see.)

  • Paul Clapham

    “The real problem — how do you balance the interests of different people against each other? — is completely ignored.”

    I haven’t read Harris’s book so I’ll take your word for it that this is the case. And if you’re looking for something a little deeper on the subject of ethics and morality which completely ignores religion, I recommend Amartya Sen’s recent book “The Idea of Justice”. It’s philosophy, sure, and sometimes he goes off into that space where only philosophers dare enter, but usually he comes back out to address that real problem.

    Of course it’s not just any old problem, it’s one of those “wicked” problems ( so you can’t expect an easy solution.

  • Ray

    I’m not sure I agree with the way Harris argues, but I have a lot of sympathy with him on the following point: None of the problems with deciding the best movie or the most moral action are specific to value judgments. Maybe we can’t all agree what exactly well-being is, or that the most moral action is always what maximizes it. But then, neither can we always agree whether warmth refers to heat-index, temperature, rate of heat transfer, or a specific emotional response, nor can we agree exactly where to draw the border between brown and orange, or whether stop signs are the same shade of red on a sunny versus a cloudy day. Natural language is full of open ended and poorly defined terminology whether value laden or not.

    If “you can’t get an ought from an is” is supposed to mean that you can teach a sociopath physics, but you can’t make him ACT morally. I don’t think that’s controversial.

    If, however, “you can’t get an ought from an is” is supposed to be a constraint on rational discourse, then it seems to me that if I can’t make a conclusion about what ought to be the case from what is the case, then I also can’t make a conclusion about whether my dinner rolls are warm or even what color the sky is. This is where I’m with Harris.

    Anyway, singling out moral discourse from the rest of natural language as potentially problematic seems wrong to me for exactly the same reason that those stickers on biology books singling out evolution do.

  • Mike

    Harris came to Harvard a few months ago to lecture on his moral-landscape thesis, and drew an audience of two hundred or more. Coincidentally, he held the event in Memorial Church, precisely where Mitchell Heisman killed himself just weeks prior. (

    Heisman was a sensitive, intelligent young man whose life entered a downward spiral at the age of twelve, after the untimely death of his father. Heisman went on to write a cogent, 2000-page suicide note ( on his “experiment in nihilism.” His philosophy is probably most accurately summarized in his final section, “Happiness, Wonder, Laughter, Love” (pp. 1874-1879), wherein he dwells on the impossibility of logically proving that life is superior to death, or that existence is superior to nonexistence, or that human emotions and preferences have any purchase on what is fundamentally good and true; he acknowledges that Darwinian processes have caused human beings to desire life, but he can’t find any ultimate reason why that should provide a logical justification for life.

    He refers to people like Harris as quasi-religious “secularists” who instead of believing in God “believe that meaning is to be found in the material, biochemical processes that humans experience as emotions. They generally believe that it actually means something when these old biological mechanisms produce the familiar emotional routines.”

    Say what you will about Heisman’s dissertation; it’s long, often rambling, but there’s nothing insane or irrational about it. And, above all, it plays no games and is brutally honest, in a manner that Sam Harris is not and probably never will be. Heisman’s life and death, and his sprawling thesis, stand as a stark refutation of the simplistic and fundamentally simple-minded story Harris is selling.

    Harris’s lecture at Harvard was really a piece of work. He showed up in the standard all-black uniform that’s become de rigueur for the self-deifying TED set. He began with an undefended blanket rejection of Hume’s is-ought problem, and a snide insulting comment about those who worry about such trifling issues. He also explicitly dismissed out of hand anyone who questioned his central dogma that morality is mysterious. Then he proceeded to make a series of crude emotional appeals to the audience, showing photographs of dying children and the like. At one point he even made a populist appeal against the elitist pointy-headed intellectuals who wrestle with trying to understand what Harris’s notion of “the well-being of humanity” actually means.

    It was one of the most dishonest presentations I have ever seen; if he’d presented it in a philosophy class, he’d have received a failing grade. At the end, he tried to play a literal straw-man game, allowing audience members to form a small line and have a few seconds each to try to “refute” his thesis; it should have been easy for him, but, unfortunately for him, there was a freshman philosophy student was in the line.

    The student asked Harris one of the most elementary questions in moral philosophy: If human suffering is so obviously evil and human happiness so obviously good, then why not just plug everybody into a virtual-reality happiness machine? To this, unsurprisingly, Harris had no answer, and was left rambling that it was a “mystery.”

    The fact is that to start making logical arguments, you need to have some unprovable axioms, axioms that not everyone may agree on. Trying to derive morality ab initio without any axioms is like trying to derive arithmetic without the axioms of set theory. That doesn’t mean to say you need to take the Christian Bible as your set of axioms; the Bible is so vast and self-contradictory that you can use it to prove just about anything, as so many religious people do.

    So the goal is to find a small set of moral axioms that are simple, as non-self-contradictory as possible, are agreeable to most people, and, above all, to be honest about what you’re doing.

    I sometimes wonder why so many right-wing groups desire a person like Sarah Palin on their side, representing their case. I wonder the same thing about “our side” and Sam Harris.

  • SteveN

    Sean, you say “you can make moral mistakes if you don’t understand the real world”. But isn’t that precisely what Harris is arguing?

  • John Cantrell

    Most apologists for the points of view expressed or linked herein need to go back and reread their Wittgenstein. Words are seductive, and neologisms even more so (to the extent that they appear to efficiently convey the coiner’s original meaning), but most of the arguments I’ve encountered about the relationships between science and morality seem specious to me… they are too much about the dance of words and syntax and not enough about first principles.

    My opinion is, attempting to demonstrate the “emergence” of a morality from a physicalist interpretation of conscious experience is a form of wishful thinking very similar to that which engenders the proselytizing behaviors common to religists.

  • Darcy McGilvery

    I’m curious as to how Sam has build such a respected reputation in the scientific community with such a fundamentally flawed thesis. He’s a smart guy. You’d think eventually he’d realize his gaping errors and shut up about the whole thing.

  • sjn

    Mike, thanks for telling us what an arrogant jerk Harris is, but it’s not terribly relevant. And that was a nice piece about Heisman, but how many of us demand a “logical justification for life” to go on living? Also, I wonder what you might say about the need for a set of moral axioms if you were, say, the victim of torture.

    Sean says “there is no such thing as a unit of well-being that we can look inside the brain and measure” Right. But it’s much easier to define what well-being isn’t, e.g., torture, or a flavor of ice-cream that will make you sick (or kill you). I think what worries Harris more than allowing Religion to define morality is that if you can’t make moral choices based on reason (or science), then you really can do it at all. It’s all up for grabs (moral axioms? I don’t think so.)

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  • plutoniannights

    If we define morality as the answer to the question of how to best behave within the kind of social setting that we humans evolved, in order to better our chances of survival, then I suppose it becomes less vague. Because, then, we do not need to worry about such things as whether measuring well-being is possible in principle. And we do not need to worry about whether it should be taken as an axioms that mental states are equally important regardless of whose they are. Rather, these things will arise, at least as approximations, from the conditions under which we evolved, perhaps most importantly the significance of cooperation for our survival.

    Of course, it is possible that evolution would solve this problem in several different ways which would coexist in an equilibrium. From this point of view, it is rather remarkable that on the whole, and across cultures, people tend to agree on the most basic moral questions. This probably shows more about our joint evolutionary origins than about the universality of our morals, however. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that most of the things that form the topics of the moral debates of today would be of interest to an intelligent alien race with a completely different social structure. Perhaps, some universal concerns would, though.

  • TimG

    I think that the fundamental problem is not Hume’s “you can’t derive ought from is” but rather “you can’t derive much of anything without axioms.” If we all took it as axiomatic that moral behavior is whatever makes Sean Carroll happy, then you could easily determine morality empirically just by observing Sean’s reactions. With morality, though, it’s very hard to get people to agree on the axioms.

  • TimG

    I see Mike above had a similar comment regarding axioms. I’m not sure I follow sjn’s response. What does being the victim of torture have to do with anything? Certainly most people (sadly not all) agree torture is wrong. It would be nice if we had an agreed upon set of moral axioms from which we could derive right and wrong, but in the absence of such, we still shouldn’t go around doing things we already believe are immoral.

  • Gavin

    Measuring well-being is actually fairly easy: ask people how they are doing. Ask them to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, and you have units of well-being.

    It isn’t obvious that this will work. People might lie or be mistaken, but research shows that asking people actually works pretty well. See, for example, the first chapter of “Happiness, Lessons from a New Science” by Richard Layard.

    Given that it is pretty easy to distinguish well-being from misery in most situations, gaining some measurement of well-being is obviously possible in principle. If we study this we will get better at it, as some social scientists are doing.

    We don’t need to all drop what we are doing and take up this cause. However, it is not productive for people who aren’t experts to be declaring the whole project impossible in principle when the experts are actually making reasonable progress.

  • TimG

    Gavin, I think that’s a fair point about measuring well-being. But it strikes me that the bigger problem is not “How do we measure well-being?” but “How can we deduce morality from well-being?” If you were to murder me and transplant my organs against my will into people who need them, you might have caused a net increase in global well-being (as measured by self-assessment of happiness.) My family would be sad, and I’d be dead, but the recipients and their families would be happy (especially if you concealed the shady origins of their new organs). But I doubt many of us would call your actions moral.

    I realize this is a basic Philosophy 101 kind of argument against utilitarianism (which tells you about how much I know about philosophy), but if there’s some universally accepted answer to it, I don’t know it. The question of how you go from your empirical “well-being” function to actual rules of morality doesn’t seem to be something we can answer through empiricism alone.

  • Mike

    I hate torture. If I were attempting (perhaps in vain) to draw up my minimalist set of basic moral axioms, I would surely include that deliberately inflicting physical or mental torture on an unwilling captive is a non-negotiable evil. (Though getting Dick Cheney to agree with me would be no easy task.)

    But I’d be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that it was still an unprovable axiom. (How would you, practically speaking, convince Cheney, after all?) Sure, you might say that it follows from regarding all needless pain and suffering as evil, but what constitutes “needless,” and how do you prove that’s evil, either?

    At some point you just have to admit that there’s a familiar example of infinite regress here, and to stop it you’re going to need to take some basic principles as your starting points; all logical arguments must begin with some nontrivial propositions, only then proceeding with sound reasoning to a set of conclusions.

    When I say that Harris is dishonest, I mean that he secretly does this, too, even though he denies it. He says outright that he “defines” as good that which reduces the pain and suffering of conscious beings and improves their physical health. Well, that’s nice, and I agree with the sentiment, but it’s still an unprovable axiom! It is not a tautology. It follows from nothing else, not to mention that it depends on some other rather tricky notions like what a “conscious being” is, and what “suffering” is.

    The same would go for “defining” units of well-being according to self-reporting. Putting aside the question that different people are going to derive their sense of personal well-being from different sorts of environments (what makes a miser happy? a masochist? a transcendental monk? a gun-nut? a religious fanatic?) and assuming that the majority of people have overlapping requirements, you still have to say you’re going to define “the good” to be that self-reporting scale of well-being. But why? The honest answer is just to admit that it’s your starting axiom, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that. It’s certainly a simpler and less-self-contradictory axiom than most religious holy books.

    When I compared Sam Harris’s representation of “our side” to Sarah Palin’s representation of the American right-wing, what I meant was that I couldn’t understand why any side would want a dishonest emissary who would be easy picking for critics. Harris is easy picking, and what’s more, he’s too full of himself and impressed by his own “genius” to understand just how big a fool he’s making of himself and of his cause.

    As for me, I don’t require perfect rationality or a logical complete answer to everything I do; that’s the sort of thinking that drove so many of the great logicians to madness. Maybe that’s what drove Heisman to suicide. (And how can any of us prove they were wrong?) But at least I’m trying to be honest and humble about my lack of logical rigor.

  • Brian

    Gastronomic realism:

  • spyder

    there is no such thing as a unit of well-being that we can look inside the brain and measure.

    Well, i would suggest that the latest in cognitive research does look inside the brain and measure well being, pleasure, spirituality, and a host of other previously unmeasured bits and pieces. The work on PTSD, while struggling to make headway against the thousands of new cases each year, is producing very interesting results along the lines of well being, happiness, and pleasure. When more mapping is completed in the next two years, we may very well have units of measurable well being articulated in the brain with electrodes and chemicals. What this means for the moral landscape debate, non lo so.

  • psmith

    Missing from this discussion is the concept of a moral imperative.
    Jerry Coyne says this
    “According to Blackford, Harris fails to give a convincing reason why people should be moral.”
    Like it or not, society has evolved a moral consciousness and precepts that, to the ordinary person, are surprisingly clear and well understood. It has also arrived at a consensus (outside the ranks of indulgent atheists) that there is a an imperative to behave in a moral way. It is also apparent that there is a war between our immediate needs, as interpreted by our primitive brain, and our higher needs, based (some think) on empathy and love, which we call morality and that this war explains our frequent lapses from morality.
    It seems, to me at least, that the really interesting debate is about the nature, origins and force of the moral imperative and the way society is constructing mechanisms to reinforce the moral imperative. To simply ascribe it to ‘well-being’ ignores the force of the moral imperative.
    To try and derive morals from axioms or ‘is’, when they seemingly evolved with our species, is just as pointless as trying to derive the evolution of dinosaurs from axioms.

    I know that this is a descriptive view of morality as opposed to the absolutist views of both Harris and religion in general. But this is not moral relativism either but rather a belief in the value of the process by which society is evolving moral precepts and mechanisms, even if the process proceeds slowly and in fits and starts.

  • Ijon Tichy

    No, no, you are absolutely correct that “The Wire” is the best TV show ever.

  • Mike

    psmith misses my point. I’m not saying that the appropriate approach is to postulate totally arbitrary moral axioms purely out of thin air and then try to derive an ethical framework from them. Surely nature can inspire us in choosing our axioms, just as it does for mathematics or physics, even if those axioms are unprovable.

    But, at the end of the day, before you can start deriving an ethical framework, you must state which axioms you’re choosing, wherever you get your inspiration from. Maybe you look for inspiration from evolutionary biology and psychology. But at some point you must declare “x is good, y is bad,” and that’s where you’re taking on axioms.

    As for the dinosaurs, you certainly need axioms there, too. You must take on basic epistemological axioms about how you evaluate the validity of data and observations, and logical axioms about how you connect everything together into a coherent story. You also need the data, of course, which is what paleontologists are for. It’s much the same as for ethics: You need some moral axioms, but you also need ethicists, historians, and so forth to gather data to extend those axioms to reach conclusions.

  • Brian W.

    I agree there are moral questions for which it seems science cannot help, as there is no objectively right or wrong answer. However, we do sometimes need to make decisions on such questions, and I’m confused as to how we can do this. It’s clear we’re doing some kind of reasoning, but it seems to be based on fuzzy concepts we don’t try too hard to make precise. This is unsettling to me, and apparently to Sam Harris as well, and I admire him trying to address the problem, although I’m not sure how much meaningful progress he’s made.

  • sjn

    TimG (#13), my statement about torture and moral axioms was an attempt at irony, e.g., as the Taliban is slowly extracting your fingernails with pliers, you’re thinking “damn, where’s that moral axiom when you need it.”

  • Kaleberg

    Associating morality and well being is a liberal approach and relatively modern. Liberals tend to think of morality in terms of minimizing harm and being fair to each party, but this is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment, a philosophical and political movement developed in 18th century Western Europe. Sorry, you’ll be hard pressed to find this type of morality applied in practice anywhere else, ever. For most of mankind’s history, morality has been associated with respect for authority. purity, sanctity and loyalty to one’s group. In fact, these are the primary moral axes in the world today. for those who find it hard to understand the likes of Dick Cheney.

    For many, it is a surprisingly alien world view. The moral code of science fiction’s Klingons is based on courage and loyalty, but they care little about well being, particularly of others. They make a good foil for the liberal values espoused by the white hats of Star Trek, but it also addresses our real world clash of moral outlooks. Naturally, on a science blog, most of the readers and commenters are likely to have liberal Enlightenment values. After all, the Scientific Revolution, also a unique European event, grew from the same Protestant philosophical base as the Enlightenment.

    In the sense that liberal morality and scientific reasoning draw from organized thinking about the world, empirical analysis, theory testing and theory tossing, science does inform morality, but not everyone’s.


    Science had a good article on this a while back: The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology
    Jonathan Haidt, et al. Science 316, 998 (2007); DOI: 10.1126/science.1137651

  • rbd

    “there is no such thing as a unit of well-being that we can look inside the brain and measure”

    I think this is asking a little bit too much from Sam. There is also no unit of mental health, but that doesn’t stop us from recognizing and treating depression or other mental problems.

  • Ray


    I like me some Haidt as much as the next man. That said, I think you’ve somewhat overstated his conclusions regarding liberal morality.

    First of all. Utilitarianism is at least as old as Epicurus. Even Hammurabi’s code talks about bringing well-being to the oppressed. I see no reason to think liberalism is any less natural and antique than conservatism. Indeed I’ve seen it suggested that Liberalism is older, stemming from the values of hunter-gatherers as opposed to conservatism, which started with agriculture.

    Second of all, Haidt’s work shows that even conservatives rate utility and fairness at least as heavily as the other factors in making moral judgments. We are not as different as you make it out to be.

    That said, Haidt’s work is definitely important, and it’s a good starting point for figuring out what we mean by moral terms in practice. So, I applaud you for bringing it up.

  • Ray

    Oh. For a cite on the hunter-gatherer vs farmer thing, here are a couple of relevant posts from another hive-overminder.

  • DamnYankees


    You said “But I’d be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that it was still an unprovable axiom”.

    You seem to think this is actually a meaningful statement, meant to undermine Harris. But I think Harris makes an important point that you are ignoring – namely, your quote is true about EVERYTHING. The most basic foundations of physics and math and biology and, well, everything, are ultimately unprovable axiom.

    Why should anyone care about logical consistency? Why should anyone care about the principle of identity?

    The fact that we can’t justify A = A on any deeper level doesn’t somehow disprove the objectivity of math. So why does it disprove the objectivity of morality?

    You’re taking a burden of proof on morality that you don’t take anywhere else. If someone says “for me, being healthy means vomiting blood all the time”, we don’t take that person seriously as an arbiter of what we mean by “health” and then try to come up with a new theory of medicine. Rather, we nod politely and back away slowly. I’m not sure how that’s any different than morality. Anyone who claims that being “moral” involves increasing the amount of unhappiness experienced can be written off as a nut.

  • Stephen

    A rhetorician and blogger I am fond of, Dale Carrico often writes about his delineation of five separate domains of rationality or belief, of which ethics and instrumentality/science are two. The schema are set up here, in a piece titled “Techchnoethical Pluralism. In a nutshell the five are:

    Instrumental: concerning objective facts about the world
    Ethical: concerning how people should act in society, closest to what’s meant by “moral” in this post
    Moral: concerning group identification and intention
    aesthetic: concerning individual and idiosyncratic values
    political: concerning the reconciliation of diverse beliefs and ends

    The key point is, and this is something you touched on Sean, is that each of the five depends on the others for proper functioning, but none of them actually derive from the rest, and attempts to make them do so usually end in badness. The link goes into much more detail, and I’d recommend reading it to anyone interested. I find the framework pretty useful in thinking about the world.

  • Tim


    Harris is postulating that through scientific research we have the possibility of finding pathways and/or traits in the human mind that might function as a yardstick to measure how we as self aware being determine the basis of our moral value judgments. He does NOT say that there is a morality with a capitol “M” like a Platonic truth that science will discover. What he does say is that through scientific method and the study of human consciousness we have the possibility to render that data statistically into a plot of the “landscape” of all the various states of being that maximize those values that enrich human existence beyond the genetic heritage a self aware hunter gatherer species. And maybe we can start evolving a higher state of co0nciousness and become more than just the best hunter gather resulting from evolutionary pressures and find a basis for moral behavior that maximizes human potential and happiness in an uncaring universe. It’s our self aware nature that makes us able to rise above “nature, tooth and claw” .; Humans can value compassion and happiness, so why can’t we use our intelligence and scientific method to find measures to maximize those values and stop this circular Aristotelian philosophical mumbo-jumbo that I heard so many antagonists spout at the “Great Debate” Sam Harris was a part of at ASU a few months ago (and is repeated ad nauseam here)

    Just because most of human history shows that authoritarianism and priority of one’s own group may have, in your opinion, been held as a high point on some subjective moral landscape doesn’t mean that the “enlightenment” values you criticize as a “Western European” invention is based on false reasoning. I’ll take Thomas Paine’s, “”The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion” over the selfish nationalistic rationalization’s of Cheney and his ilk any time. Social Darwinism is not necessarily a reality but merely a justification or excuse for the self interest of the powerful.

    Liberalism isn’t new, but it may be the ultimate result of a the evolution of a truly enlightened consciousness in a self aware being that has examined his own existence.

  • Mike


    You write “You seem to think this is actually a meaningful statement, meant to undermine Harris. But I think Harris makes an important point that you are ignoring – namely, your quote is true about EVERYTHING. The most basic foundations of physics and math and biology and, well, everything, are ultimately unprovable axiom.

    Why should anyone care about logical consistency? Why should anyone care about the principle of identity?

    The fact that we can’t justify A = A on any deeper level doesn’t somehow disprove the objectivity of math. So why does it disprove the objectivity of morality?

    You’re taking a burden of proof on morality that you don’t take anywhere else.”

    Have you actually read my comments here? Go back and read what I said about the necessity of axioms in physics and mathematics, as well as in making sense of the evolution of dinosaurs. I’m not asserting that morality is special in depending fundamentally on a set of starting axioms; just the opposite, in fact: I’ve explained that morality is just as dependent on its own personal set of axioms. That’s my whole point.

    The claim made by Harris is that morality doesn’t need its own axioms, that it can somehow be “derived” from science, whether you believe that science itself needs axioms or not. My point is that morality is axiomatically independent of science; each discipline needs is own starting axioms. You need axioms to define “is,” and you need additional axioms to define “ought.” The axioms for morality can be inspired by science, but they cannot be derived from it.

    And given how much messier ethics is than science, it’s difficult to imagine that we’re all going to agree on a specific set of moral axioms. We don’t even all agree on the axioms for science! Consider the debate over whether the multiverse and anthropic reasoning are scientific, just for starters! Even pure, Platonic, rigorous mathematics has witnessed disputes over axioms, from the axiom of choice to the continuum hypothesis, even putting aside Godel’s proof that no axiomatic system for mathematics containing arithmetic could ever be complete.

    It’s humbling—and a bit scary—to realize that so many things about the universe we take for granted as being tautological depend fundamentally on unprovable axioms. People who come to this realization react in different ways; my own reaction is to eschew the kind of epistemological and moral hubris that Harris oozes when he speaks.

    The best we can do is find the simplest, most parsimonious, most generalizable, most agreed-upon, most mutually-consistent axioms possible as our starting point. And even then, it’s never going to be a complete or perfect set, and we’re unlikely all to agree. This doesn’t mean there are no truths out there, or that we can’t improve our understanding of the world with effort, but just that we should approach the pursuit of truth with a dose of humility and fallibility and perspective about just how limited we human beings really are and how much we can ever really know.

    Nobody ever promised that existence would be a rose-garden.

    I didn’t even mention other disturbing things about his lecture, like the staggering number of people in the audience who treated him like an evangelical pastor and fawned all over him like congregants. It smelled cultish, and that’s not a direction I like very much.

  • Marshall

    I’m sympathetic to both sides of the debate here: On the one hand, it seems unlikely that the universe has any real objective morality, not in the same sense as there exists an electron mass-to-charge ratio or the Chandrasekhar limit or the tensile strength of aluminum. On the other hand, we are compelled daily to make choices in our life as if ultimately something *matters*.

    Maybe we should all just admit that it’s just unemotional atoms all the way down, the universe doesn’t give a damn about humanity in any meaningful sense, and so be it. But I for one would find that an utterly unsatisfying way to live. Why study the cosmos at all in that case? Why plan for the future, why laugh and love? I suspect that there is no purely rational answer to Mitchell Heisman’s existential dilemma. Why is existence better than non-existence? Why is well-being preferable to a lack thereof? As other commenters here have said, we need some axioms, and those have to come from someplace.

    I for one am happy to admit that in my own case, the answer is probably in the hardware. As a result of gigayears of evolution, my brain is wired to think existence is preferable to the alternative, to find socialization with others pleasurable, to find my kid amazingly cute and worthy of protection and nurturing. And in that sense I think Harris is on exactly the right track: science *can* tell us something about how we ought to derive moral axioms from the biology and neurophysiology of homo sapiens. If by “morality” we mean ‘objective truths about the value of states of the universe’, then I think we’re in trouble, but if we take morality instead to mean “truths about the optimal actions of humans, as perceived by humans”, then I think we’re talking about a far more tractable (though still very hard!) problem.

    Just because science is incapable of purely rational answers to all possible moral questions, does not mean that it is incapable of answering a great many such questions of very practical and relevant application to humanity. To say otherwise, to neglect the fact that science really can do much better than just abandoning the field entirely to religion and philosophers, feels akin to refusing the gifts of modern medicine because we don’t yet have a universal cure. Choosing how to live right is a hard, hard problem and I’ll take all the help I can get.

  • Mogens Michaelsen

    SteveN wrote:

    “Sean, you say “you can make moral mistakes if you don’t understand the real world”. But isn’t that precisely what Harris is arguing?”

    Actually I think this is the central point, because this is not what Harris is arguing.

    It is true, that you can make moral mistakes if you don’t understand the real world – that is why religious people are wrong, if they reject science.

    But it is also true, that understanding the world doesn’t guarantee, that you cannot make moral mistakes. And this is what Harris is saying, I think.

    Understanding the world (science) is not enough to judge what is moral. Science is about what is, but that doesn’t contradict the fact, that human life is also about what ought to be – and that there is a social necessity in reaching some level of common agreement about moral. We can have different opinions about a moral question, but you cannot have a society where moral is generally a private matter.

    To say that moral can be based exclusively on science is just as wrong as saying it can be based exclusively on ancient religious dogma!

  • Herman

    Sean: “you can make moral mistakes if you don’t understand the real world”.
    A lot of truth here when applied to the current debate on global warming.

    Reference: “Collapse” by Jarred Diamond.

  • Mark P

    I think plutoniannights is on the right track. “Morality” is a strawman, because morality does not actually exist. The argument ought to be about something else, maybe something like the way adaptive behavior translates into concepts we call morality. For example, there have been studies of the evolutionary basis for altruism, and altruism is often considered an aspect of moral behavior. Once we recognize that “morality” is simply giving a name to natural behaviors, we can start studying those behaviors without the baggage of religious expectations.

  • Mike

    plutoniannights writes “If we define morality as the answer to the question of how to best behave within the kind of social setting that we humans evolved, in order to better our chances of survival, then I suppose it becomes less vague.”

    Marshall writes “If by “morality” we mean ‘objective truths about the value of states of the universe’, then I think we’re in trouble, but if we take morality instead to mean “truths about the optimal actions of humans, as perceived by humans”, then I think we’re talking about a far more tractable (though still very hard!) problem.”

    Mark P writes “Once we recognize that “morality” is simply giving a name to natural behaviors, we can start studying those behaviors without the baggage of religious expectations.”

    These are all reasonable statements, but notice that they all illustrate my basic idea: At some point, you have to define your moral axioms; you have to say what you define morality to be. There’s just no avoiding it, and all I ask is that people acknowledge what they’re doing and not try to sweep this crucial and unavoidable step under the rug, as Harris dishonestly does, and that they recognize that these axioms may never achieve universal agreement or achieve the status of empirical facts.

    Once you’ve stated your axioms of course, or at the very least acknowledge their existence and ultimately subjective nature, then I think it’s fair game to use science to build a case for the best practical approach to achieving your moral vision.

  • Mean and Anomalous

    A scientific outlook may influence your moral views, but certainly morality is not a subset of Science.

  • Ben Finney

    Harris has already addressed your concern about the lack of a precise measurement of “well-being” in the book. The analogy with human health holds.

    Would you find the following, a re-statement of your argument as an argument against the possibility of being able to measure human health in principle, at all convincing?

    “The problem of measuring health is not simply one of practice, it’s very much one of principle. I know what a sand grain is; I don’t know what a “unit of health is.” The point of these critiques is that there is no such thing as a unit of health that we can look inside the body and measure. I’m pretty sure that’s a problem of principle. Of course, Russell and Jerry and I may be wrong about this. The way to provide a counter-argument would be to say “Here is a precise and unambiguous definition of how to measure health, at least in principle.” That doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.”

    Everyone seems to be mis-reading Harris as saying that “well-being is a scalar value with a simple measurement”. He’s very much not; he’s saying “well-being must in principle map to states of conscious brains”.

  • Simon

    You say “I know what a breath is; I don’t know what a ‘unit of well-being is.'” as though this negates Harris’ entire argument.

    Descartes may well have said “I know what light is; I don’t know what a unit of light is.” He was on the right track though, and hundreds of years later we all know that the unit of light is a photon.

    Is it so hard to accept that while Harris cannot at this very moment provide us with the full criteria for measuring well-being, that it is in principle possible to develop these criteria? I don’t think he’s ever claimed that he’s doing anything other than laying some groundwork for further investigation.

    You seem to think Harris is missing the point. He is not. You are.

  • Count Iblis

    Surely a particular state of well being has to be identified with an algorithm that is executed by the brain? We simply need to take serious the idea that there exists such a thing like a perspective from the point of view of an algorithm.

    See also this old blogposting by me.

  • James

    How does Harris’ morality dictate how we should treat animals? If it’s based on optimising total human well-being, how do non-human creatures fit in? Do we include their well-being and if so, is it on an equal footing to our own?

  • Joel Rice

    If we can not solve it logically then the next best thing is to admit that the school of hard knocks is a fact of life, and go by how things work out and what stands the test of time. Should we endlessly go back and forth about Good Kings and Bad Kings, or just get rid of Monarchy ? That is the real world. There are too many variables to be “scientific” about it. Why should I care about maximizing the happiness of Monarchists ?

  • Warrick Ball

    While I don’t want to enter the debate, I just thought I’d point out that the book has also been reviewed in this week’s Nature.

  • exactly

    I’d just like to second what Simon (comment 39) said.

  • MartyM

    I’m no philosopher, but seems to me that a unit of “well-being” can not rest on whether someone is happy or sad. Is it immoral to be sad, depressed, etc? I don’t think so. The argument I’ve heard from non-philosophers refuting Biblically produced morality is that morality is the action or behavior that results in the least harm, and preventing harm as well, to fellow creatures. If that is the case, then how would having a favorite TV show or ice cream flavor have any moral standing at all? What harm could it cause someone else?

  • viggen

    In my opinion, in order to justify morality from an atheist background, the first requirement is to understand the human species and to base observations on how the whole species operates and survives rather than trying to separate morality into something independent of humans and abstract.

    When you look at it correctly, I don’t think it’s that hard to understand and really shouldn’t be so difficult for most people to wrap their minds around.

    Morality stems from the simple realization that almost no single human possesses all the skills necessary to survive. Each and every human relies upon other humans in order to live and, in our age, no one human possesses every skill necessary to support the current quality of life. As such, every human depends upon other humans in order to have access to the skills necessary to live. Morality is simply a logical manner of behavior where barter of skill can become possible– obviously, one probably shouldn’t sleep with the plumber’s wife if one wants the plumber to be willing fix one’s bathroom sink. Don’t eat the banker’s children if you want your money out of your checking account… otherwise, the banker would probably either hate you, or be too repulsed by you to ever be willing to do you any favors.

    I think it’s incredibly straight forward and rapidly dying in a world where every service can be obtained without looking someone in the face you don’t personally know.

  • David Brown

    A jolly good theory might be completely wrong. — Francis Crick
    Does our morality come from God? I have recently posted a physical interpretation of M-theory, in my attempt to prove that God is dead in terms of cosmological physics. (Quantitative results for the Pioneer anomaly and Milgrom’s Law empirically confirm M-theory.) However, I believe that God is alive in terms of placebo power. Some people in Japan worship “god trees” — giant cedars that supposedly have souls. By means of self-hypnosis, brainwashing, and perhaps scientifically-induced hallucinations, people might derive great benefits from placebo power.

  • Arun

    “Why should I be moral?” is not an intelligible question in some cultures. So either those cultures embody some deep mistakes or else “why should I be moral?” is not a question of universal significance.

  • CaliFury

    If the moral axioms are correct, then statements logically derived from them are also correct. This is the kind of morality it seems you’re discussing. Unfortunately we don’t know if the axioms are correct. Additionally, for any collection of axioms, there are always true statements (statements consistent with the axioms) that cannot be proven from those axioms. Consequently, the only moral stance is: I can’t really know what is right. I must make the best choice I can, consistent with my beliefs and logic, and go forward fearfully.

    “[T]here are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”

    Alfred North Whitehead

  • Arun

    Marshall wrote: “Maybe we should all just admit that it’s just unemotional atoms all the way down, the universe doesn’t give a damn about humanity in any meaningful sense, and so be it.”

    If I take, say, a red cloth, and keep subdividing it, at some point the quality “red” vanishes from all the tiny pieces I have created. Yet “red” does correspond to an objective quality in the universe (at least in the universe where you speak of unemotional atoms), namely reflectivity or absorption of various wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum.

    Humans have emotions, atoms do not; humans are composed of atoms, and I suppose therefrom comes the “unemotional atoms all the way down”. But it doesn’t follow. This agglomeration of atoms writing this post knows emotion though none of the individual atoms does. It is an amazing universe that allows this, and that alone makes it worth study (to this agglomeration of atoms).

    I suspect trying to find universal values is a hangover from God. E.g., one poses the question as though it is intelligible: “what is the meaning of life?” To whom? “What is the meaning of life to me?” is intelligible, and I may answer it. If you claim “what is the meaning of life?” with no entity attached is intelligible, I say that you are presupposing a universal mind who has the universal answer for everyone. That is you are asking “what is the meaning of (human) life to God?”

  • Arun

    The new Descartes: “I am, therefore I ought to (continue to) exist”.

  • Arun

    “Why should I be moral?” has implicit in it the assumption that the “I” — the sense of self — stands independent of the moral choices the person makes.

    The riposte is – “If I’m not moral, do I remain me?” “I” am a process constantly under modifications which depend on the choices that I make. Making immoral choices degrades my self, and eventually leaves me as not-I, just as the connection of the cadaver and the living being.

  • Patrick Dennis, MD

    The physicist and mathematician Jacob Bronowski, known for his BBC produced series, “The Ascent of Man,” suggested years earlier in “Science and Human Values” that science itself, as an idealized enterprise, could provide a moral framework offering more or less concrete definitions of values such as honesty and integrity. Without them the (idealized) structure would collapse.

  • Jason

    1. There’s no single definition of well being
    I think there is, Charles Darwin and Alexander Wallace got it right. Well being is that which results in successful offspring
    2. It’s not self-evident that maximising well-being, however defined, is the proper goal of morality.
    I think it is self evident. When one compares the moral codes of different species, each seems finely tuned toward maximising their chance of successful offspring. From eating your sexual partner to life long monogamous relationships, they’re all the “goal” of the morality of that species.
    3. There’s no simple way to aggregate well-being over different individuals.
    Well the simple way is to see if the populations increase or decrease. If the moral code works, then the group will succeed, if it doesn’t then the group will fail. It works fastest and most clearly in small genetically somewhat isolated groups (“genetic islands”) just like any other natural selection.
    If you want to check the moral “rightness” of a behaviour think of it in a small band/group of humans in a forest/grassland situation. That’s where we evolved our moral compass. For instance we find it immoral/repugnant to defecate in the place we eat. Other animals don’t care, grazing animals just defecate where they happen to be standing and the rest of the herd doesn’t mind. It doesn’t take long to figure out why there is a difference in what we find to be acceptable behaviour. For a grazer, that behaviour doesn’t reduce the reproductive success of the group/herd, but for humans it would.

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  • Karl Raeder
  • psmith

    @Jason, 54. Ah yes, your definition of morality resonates with me. I remember well the profound sense of well-being I experienced while conducting an intensely pleasurable affair with my friend’s wife (fathering two children in the process, the home team advantage was of no consequence!). It is a relief to know that my continued deception of my wife is a necessity to maintain my moral behaviour (and that my residual feelings of guilt can be written off as childhood exposure to primitive religious teachings).

  • melior

    I look forward to reading Sam Harris’ book; I’m now intensely curious how many of the army of strawmen slain in this thread he pre-empted therein.

    For now, at least, it seems clear to me that it would be tilting at windmills to reject Harris’ proposal in its entirety for failing to achieve a standard of purity upon which even Mathematics stumbles (praise Goedel).

  • windy

    “I think there is, Charles Darwin and Alexander Wallace got it right. Well being is that which results in successful offspring”

    Then how would you define well-being for a childless person? What about the existence of such things as sexual conflict and parent-offspring conflict, which would seem to suggest that defining well-being as successful reproduction is not likely to produce harmonic agreement even between members of the same population?

  • Andrew Zimmerman Jones

    I think your television analogy misses one substantial point, which is at the heart of Harris’ book (which I am currently in the middle of listening to in audiobook format). Your subjective determination of THE WIRE is irrelevant, but the fact is that a study could be conducted of a large range of people and their brains could be scanned while they watch a diverse range of television shows, including the THE WIRE. The brain maps could indicate their levels of pleasure versus their levels of displeasure in some quantitative way. The total amount of net pleasure gained from watching THE WIRE could be compared to the total amount of net pleasure gained from watching other television shows. If the total amount of net pleasure is greater for THE WIRE than for any other television show (a study which would, obviously, have logistical problems), then you could objectively say that THE WIRE is the best show ever … or, at least, better than all shows included in the study.

    This assumes, of course, that the net pleasure gained from watching a show is an adequate measure of its quality, which is I think true even of horror movies. Still, you could throw in other factors, such as intellectual stimulation, if you were so inclined to include them as measures of quality. The fact is, though, that there are studies which could either support your claim or refute it scientifically.

    Harris makes it very clear in his book (and in most of the related commentary I’ve seen related to the book) that this isn’t a process to discover moral absolutes, but rather an effective way of guiding decisions based upon specific moral stances. There can be multiple different outcomes all of which occupy the space of high morality, by yielding objectively positive outcomes to individual well-being.

    And you might find multiple “top” choices, just as a study to measure the most massive stars might location several that fall in the same upper range of mass, instead of coming out with one definitive solution … but this does not mean that you cannot state, with a great deal of confidence, that those large stars are clearly more massive than the other stars.

    Back to your television analogy: Given a specific set of television shows, you could determine a course of study to quantify the “betterness” of the shows in an objective way based on the physiological effects of watching the shows. The word “better” loses all meaning if it cannot in principle be quantified in some way in the physical reactions of those watching the show. Such a study would almost certainly find that those who spend their time watching THE WIRE or NOVA are, on the whole, having a far better experience than those who are watching THE GONG SHOW non-stop. They would not find the one absolute best show, but given a range of shows, you could absolutely, objectively, determine which shows are better than other shows … and people who disagree with the findings are just as mistaken as those who disbelieve evolution.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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