Based on the TED talk by Sam Harris
Sanmit Narvekar
CS 301
 Science does not have an official opinion on morality.
 How can science help determine what values are moral?
 Science is based on facts.
 Values are facts about the well being of conscious creatures.
 Well being is open to interpretation, so what is objective?
 Consider the example of physical health
 Perception of what constitutes good health has changed
over the years.
 However, the difference between healthy and dead is clear.
 Our well being is a product of our brain.
 Culture changes our brain, and people are able to flourish in
many different cultures.
Science and Human Values
 Moral landscape
 There can be more than one answer
 Consider now the example of nutrition.
 There are many healthy choices for food.
 However, there is a distinction between food and poison.
 The fact that there are many right answers doesn’t mean
there are no truths to be known about nutrition or morality.
 Science as discovery
 There are truths to be known about morality, and whether or
not we know them has nothing to do with their existence.
 Morality relates to this domain of truths, or facts.
How/Who can decide what is moral?
 Another thought experiment
 Consider a continuous space with one end as extremely immoral,
and the other as completely just.
 We know there are right and wrong answers as to how to move in
this space. We know some of these answers.
 For the others, there is a conflict due to difference of opinion.
 In science, only the authorities opinions count
 When talking about morality, we value differences in opinion. Why
do we think every one and every culture has a view worth
 When speaking in the realm of facts, certain opinions must be
excluded. For example, a journalist’s opinion on physics is hardly
worth considering.
 He concludes by saying we must converge on these answers, and
to do that, we must admit they have answers.
Critic Response
 A truth by definition should not have exceptions
 Lying is a typical example. “If its wrong to lie, then it is
always wrong to lie, and if you can find an exception, then
there is no such thing as moral truth.”
 Harris says truths as facts can have exceptions too.
 What is a truth?
 Critics say scientific consensus implies scientific truths.
Scientific controversy thus means more work needs to be
done. However, in morality, they say controversy means there
are no truths while consensus means people have certain
 This is a double standard. Truths must transcend culture,
and are not based on consensus.
Final Comments…
 Harris says that only “genuine moral experts would have a
deep understanding of the causes and condition of human
and animal well being.”
 His primary argument is that there are truths, and that every
situation has right and wrong answers.
 However, he doesn’t talk about who are these moral experts.
He says that the answer to “Who decides what is a successful
life” is “us,” but what makes our opinion count? Is it our
brain? Does anyone that isn’t psychotic, or have a mental
disorder, etc. count? But even these people have different,
often conflicting opinions. We can’t therefore all be right.
 What it comes down to is there are many right answers.
This is what makes ethics so controversial, and it is up to us
to discover the right answers.