In his 2011 book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (see here), Sam Harris put forth the assertion that “science can determine human values.” It even says that right in the tagline of the title. He has also explained his thesis in his well-watched Ted Talk (see here) and defended it in various forums.
If Harris had elaborated on how science can inform human values, his might have been an interesting and even provocative enough thesis. But to claim that science can determine human values is a huge overreach that Harris completely fails to justify. And in failing so completely I fear he has done more harm than good.
According to Harris, happiness for the greatest number is the greatest good. Since we can measure happiness, we can use scientific methods to predict the best ways to maximize it. Those then become our ethical and moral goals. Simple right?
But competing desires for happiness cannot usually be fully weighed and resolved analytically. And to the extent they are, they are weighted against very fuzzy and subjective criteria where there are often only bad alternatives. And what about merit? Is everyone’s happiness equally important? Yet according to Harris, all these problems are just technical challenges to be solved by acquiring better happiness data and developing improved optimization algorithms.
More importantly, the very starting premise of happiness maximization is itself an ethical presumption produced not by science but by humans – namely Sam Harris. There are many competing values and there is no agreement that maximizing happiness should be our highest ethical principle. As just one example, it is my sincere opinion that ensuring the long-term habitability of our planet is more important than immediate human happiness.
But I am pretty sure Harris would respond to this by simply claiming that ensuring the habitability of our planet makes us happy and is consistent with his theory. One need only include future generations in the overall happiness calculus. What Harris consistently attempts to do is to subsume every competing and often exclusive value under an ever-widening definition of happiness. This quickly degrades into absurdity with no help from me.
And this is just one example of how quickly Harris’ thesis breaks down or becomes irrelevant. That Mr. Harris failed utterly to make his case is not just my conclusion, but the apparent consensus of the academic ethical philosophy community. A number of academic papers and commentaries have stated this in no uncertain terms. Whitley Kaufman from the University of Massachusetts published a 2010 review paper in Neuroethics (see here) that strongly challenged essentially every one of Harris’ key arguments. Below is a synopsis of some of the main criticisms I consolidated from various academic sources. I include them for completeness but feel free to skim to get the gist.
- In general his arguments are full of fallacious logic including but not limited to: internal contradictions, false assumptions, straw-men, appeals to emotion (including the Islamophobia which he cannot seem to suppress), promissory arguments, and circular reasoning.
- He circumvents many flaws in his reasoning by simply redefining terms. He avoids others by claiming that science and philosophy are really just the same thing. Both of these machinations are quite similar to the techniques that Ken Ham uses to avoid glaring flaws in his creationism case (see here).
- Many of his arguments are theoretical and predicated upon some imagined future-state capabilities of science.
- He presents extreme positions that pose no real ethical dilemma at all as proofs of his thesis, and then contends that science can similarly answer all the infinitely more nuanced and complex questions in-between.
- He begins his logical progression with a moral judgment as a given, then follows with scientific evidence to support it. Thus he avoids science having to actually answer the very fundamental questions or morality he purports that science can address.
- His own views are essentially indistinguishable from John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism which says that our moral imperative should be the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, just like Mills, Harris fails to recognize that that itself is a non-scientific moral judgment. Even if one grants him that as a moral imperative, he still fails completely, again as did Mill, to explain how science would allow one to choose between a large number of conflicting happinesses, or moreover how to factor in other intangibles like justice.
- He fails completely in his effort to address the “is/ought” divide and show how science can answer the “ought” questions. He seems not to even fully understand the dilemma. In fact, he explicitly claims that it is a virtue that he is not familiar with cornerstone principles of ethical philosophy – principles that he claims are incorrect or substantially different from his own. He rather puts forth worn arguments that have been definitively refuted for centuries.
- In his desperation to find a science of ethics, he has adopted a simplistic utilitarian starting point that makes a science of ethics possible. And in completely circular logic, he concludes that therefore utilitarianism must be true and sufficient to provide a moral basis for all ethical questions.
Let’s be clear. Harris’ main goal is to take god out of the ethics and morality equation. That’s a good thing, so why bash him for trying?
It is a good goal, but to accomplish it we don’t need to replace the god of Biblical fantasy with a god of science fantasy. I fear that Harris’ overreach (so like the hubris of Icarus) only proves the religious case better than his own. His arguments are so flawed and impractical that they may cause many people to reconsider their trust in science more skeptically than their trust in religion. His arguments may sound so implausible as to cause many to conclude that the clarity of religion is in fact essential to point science in the right direction – which is exactly the same claim the Vatican has long maintained.
And the unfortunate thing is that this is a completely unnecessary overreach. We are already directed by our better natures as guided by evolution and informed by sound objective science. Trying to establish a science of morality is not visionary and before its time. In this attempt at least it is deeply flawed and probably counterproductive.