Can morality be scientific?

Sam Harris
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There has been some back-and-forth in the comments of my blog, and I wanted to let the discussion out for a bit more air.

Jason has been arguing that he thinks that Sam Harris fails to make the case for a scientific morality.

I think my criticism is more damaging to Harris' argument than you acknowledge. He defines "the wrong values" as "values which lead toward, rather than away from, the worst possible misery for everyone." He says this is necessary, or else "ought" has no meaning at all. That is the foundation he wants to establish for his scientific morality. It's not enough to just have something everybody agrees is bad: Harris needs to establish a method for analysing all moral conflicts. We could all agree that torturing and killing small children in front of their parents is bad. That does not establish a scientific basis for making moral judgments. -- Comment on Going from Is to Ought

It's a common criticism of Sam's talks and his most recent book, The Moral Landscape.

I think Sam's next move (and mine because I'm sympathetic to his cause), would be to ask by way of analogy whether nutrition, or health, is something that lends itself to the scientific method?

Can science tell us that eating vegetables and exercising is healthier than a sedentary lifestyle with a diet of Twinkies? Is that a scientific question? Can it be addressed with the scientific method? I think the answer to all of those questions is "yes".

Now, to argue by analogy with morality:

Can science tell us that educating children in compassion is more moral than torturing them? Is that a scientific question? Can it be addressed with the scientific method? I also think the answer to each question is "yes".

All that's required for the scientific method to be able to answer the health question is that we can recognize that dying at a young age of obesity-related heart disease is at the "unhealthy" end of the health spectrum.

Ditto for morality. If we can recognize that the worst possible suffering for all conscious creatures is at the "immoral" end of the moral spectrum.

If you think that that recognition is an unscientific move, then can you come up with a scientific endeavor under your definition?

Just to tip my hand about where I'm headed with this argument:

If you want to argue that there is an element of arbitrariness to say that the science of morality is about avoiding "the worst possible suffering for all conscious creatures". I'd argue that it is just as arbitrary to say that the goal of the science of physics is about accurately describing and predicting the states of matter and energy of the universe.

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