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Do Moral Questions Have Right and Wrong Answers?

March 24, 2010

I just watched this very interesting TED talk by Sam Harris, thanks to Andrew Sullivan. He thinks that the idea of a separation between science and values is a dangerous illusion. Values are a certain kind of fact, and “there are right and wrong answers to the question of how humans flourish.”

Harris uses some very clever analogies to explain what he’s on about. For example, the definition of health has never been static. It is always changing, and determining what it means to be healthy is very complicated. But just because there are multiple nuanced answers to a question does not make it unanswerable. The fact that health has many cultural, value-based components, does not invalidate attempts by scientists to understand health.

And according to Harris, so it is with morality and human values. We need to work toward a universal conception of human values by looking at the world around us and understanding how human society flourishes.

There are some very appealing lines of arguments in this talk. My main question, however, is this: Does the fact that a moral question has right and wrong answers mean that capital-S Science can necessarily provide them? Or that Science necessarily should provide them? There are many reasons to be wary of involving highly reductionist science in a decision making process (see examples from toxic chemical regulation and climate science). And when Harris posits that a deeper understanding of the human brain will help us resolve cultural differences spanning centuries he is falling into exactly this trap.

This is where Harris’s argument breaks down for me. In the question and answer period he is pressed by the very incisive moderator to describe how science can help us to resolve difficult issues around the treatment of Muslim women in some parts of the world. It was a pretty flimsy answer, in my opinion, but check it out and decide for yourself.

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