In Defense of Sam Harris’s “Science of Morality”

Amir E. Salehi

In this article, I am pursuing several objectives. First, I will address some of the problems with Sam Harris’s thesis concerning a science of morality that was introduced in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press, 2010). Specifically, I intend to demonstrate that Harris applies a not-so-carefully-developed language that leads him to misidentify his own a priori assumptions. In this context, Harris’s lack of a well-defined method seems to be the main cause for this problem. All in all, Harris’s proposal is vulnerable to convenient misunderstandings by his opponents and subject to their criticism.

Second, I intend to show that, in spite of the problems associated with Harris’s proposal, with some minor modifications, his vision of a science of morality has the potential to contribute to the field of applied ethics. In this regard, I will comment at the end of this article on some changes that would enhance Harris’s proposal and its overall objective concerning the applicability of scientific knowledge in ethics.

Harris’s Thesis in The Moral Landscape

Harris’s thesis is based on three crucial premises. The first is that value judgments are factual claims. On page 49 of his book he writes: “To say that there are truths about morality and human values is simply to say that there are facts about well-being that await our discovery regardless of our evolutionary history. While such facts necessarily relate to the experience of conscious beings, they cannot be the mere invention of any person or culture.”

Because Harris equates factual claims with “objective claims” identical to the type of claims made in science, and because he further considers value judgments to be objective claims (see the first premise), he argues that the value judgments fall under the domain of scientific investigation.

Harris equates factual claims with “objective claims” and therefore identifies them with the type of claim made by science. He further states on page 62: “If there are facts to be known about the well-being of such creatures—and there are—then there must be right and wrong answers to moral questions. Students of philosophy will notice that this commits me to some form of moral realism (viz. moral claims can really be true or false) and some form of consequentialism….”

In this context, Harris proposes that we take advantage of existing scientific knowledge to evaluate the truth and falsity of value judgments as factual claims, including those that are used for moral judgments (the second premise). It is critical to emphasize that Harris legitimizes the use of science under the condition that value judgments can be classified as factual claims; hence, objectivity claims of scientific methodology are applicable for examining moral problems, as he states on page 37: “I think that our concern for well-being is even less in need of justification than our concern for health is—as health is merely one of its many facets. And once we begin thinking seriously about human well-being, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values, even while our conception of ‘well-being’ evolves.”

The third premise of Harris’s proposal is that the state of consciousness must always be involved and evaluated when moral judgments are made. Accordingly, on page 63 Harris criticizes religions for not including human consciousness in their moral judgments: “Because most religions conceive of morality as a matter of being obedient to the word of God (generally for the sake of receiving a supernatural reward), their precepts often have nothing to do with maximizing well-being in this world.” Once Harris establishes descriptively that any moral judgment is linked to a state of consciousness and only in the context of a conscious experience, saying it “makes sense” to talk about rightness and wrongness of human choices (because they directly or indirectly influence an actual or a potential conscious experience), he develops his normative claim that we ought to consider human well-being and flourishing for all moral judgments. That takes us to the fourth premise of his proposal, namely, valuing human well-being and flourishing as “good” and human suffering as “bad,” as demonstrated on page 39:

I am arguing that in the moral sphere, it is safe to begin with the premise that it is good to avoid behaving in such a way as to produce the worst possible misery for everyone. I am not claiming that the most of us personally care about the experience of all conscious beings; I am saying that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is a universe worse than a universe in which they experience well-being. This is all we need to speak about “moral truth” in the context of science. Once we admit that the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing—whatever these states amount to for each particular being in the end—are different and dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.

Harris’s Proposal

Based on the premises stated above, Harris develops his proposal by stating that once human well-being and flourishing are accepted as guiding values for moral thinking, it can be determined “objectively” or scientifically what actions compromise human well-being and therefore are not moral. In this context, Harris claims that sciences provide evidence as well as explanations concerning why certain actions are not moral. Examples include honor killings in Pakistan and Jordan, the lashing of a fourteen-year-old girl to death for adultery in Bangladesh on March 28, 2011, and the prearranged marriage of a thirteen-year-old girl to a sixty-five-year-old man, a practice that occurs in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

The above cases provide examples of how Harris’s proposal challenges some cultural rituals due to the harm that they cause to human well-being. Accordingly, there are existing explanations in science, such as in medicine and psychology, under which it can be established and demonstrated why and how some cultural rituals “injure physical or psychological conditions” of humans and therefore should be changed or even eliminated entirely.

To understand Harris’s account correctly, it is important to state that human well-being and flourishing are not just prudential values for Harris as they are for medical research but also moral values. In fact, because of this collapse (the moral value onto the prudential value of human well-being), Harris can use objectivity claims of science for his moral proposal.

Problems Associated with Harris’s Proposal

Although Harris is aware of the a priori assumption of his proposal, namely, equating the prudential value of human well-being with its moral value, he fails to explain on what grounds he is entitled to equate these two values. Because this equivalency is a central component of his moral framework, I will explain why Harris is still entitled to such equivalency, while pointing out some of the problems associated with his proposal.

As stated in the introduction, it is the primary objective of this article to demonstrate how Harris’s not-so-carefully-developed language as part of his not-clearly-defined method in The Moral Landscape leads him to misidentify the a priori assumptions of his own thesis. This lack of clarity concerning the applied method is also the reason Harris himself fails to explain on w
hat grounds his proposal is entitled to equate the prudential value of human well-being with the corresponding moral value. In the ensuing paragraphs, I intend to demonstrate how this lack of clarity regarding method and language leads Harris to undermine the persuasive power of his thesis and arguments.

First, Harris misidentifies the metaphysical assumption of his proposal by falsely positioning himself as a realist when he aims to takes full advantage of the objectivity claims of science. On page 62 he states: “I believe that we will increasingly understand good and evil, right and wrong, in scientific terms, because moral concerns translate into facts about how our thoughts and behaviors affect the well-being of conscious creatures like ourselves. If there are facts to be known about the well-being of such creatures—and there are—then there must be right and wrong answers to moral questions. Students of philosophy will notice that this commits me to some form of moral realism.”

Harris overlooks that “objectivity” can be defined in two ways: in the realist sense and in the irrealist sense. While objectivity in the realist sense is defined as a nonnormative, non-epistemic relationship between propositions (statement, sentence) and some state of affairs or fact, objectivity in the irrealist sense is defined as the notion of truth that is defined in irreducibly normative (epistemic) terms such as good belief, warranted assertability, and rational belief—or in irreducibly normative (moral or aesthetic) terms such as human emancipation, flourishing, and well-being.

In the first case (a realist framework), Harris’s metaphysical claim of objectivity would have to preserve the view that values such as human well-being and flourishing are intrinsically good, meaning that they are good in and of themselves and therefore independent from human experience or activities or even existence. In the second case (an irrealist framework), Harris’s metaphysical claim of objectivity would have to mean that the value of human flourishing is good only insofar as it is instrumental for human interests and wishes and therefore entirely dependent on human existence and choices.

Although Harris’s claim of moral objectivity (moral facts) is developed irrealistically, he falsely associates any objectivity claim exclusively with realism. As to why Harris wants to position himself as an objectivist in a realist sense, this can be only speculated, perhaps because realists have historically enjoyed more legitimacy with their “objective claims.”

The fact is, Harris is no objectivist realist. His account of objectivity is developed irrealistically because he defines moral truth in terms of human well-being and flourishing, as demonstrated in his book: “I will argue, however, that questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood….” (p.1); and “Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures—and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain” (p. 6).

Further, Harris misidentifies the method that he uses for establishing his claims. The correct epistemological positioning for him would be pragmatist naturalism, but in no place in The Moral Landscape does Harris mention a naturalistic approach. Naturalism is defined as an attempt to integrate epistemology into science or science into epistemology. Such integration points at a standard characteristic of any naturalized account, namely, that it remains flexible in its empirical approach.

Further, naturalism is concerned with how humans arrive at knowledge, including how the reliability of such knowledge can be explained. In this context, naturalism often seeks a reliability account of the empirical knowledge a posteriori and not a priori. Additionally, in search of an a posteriori account of how humans arrive at knowledge, naturalists not only aim at defining but also solving epistemological problems in terms of scientific problems. In addition, they aim at adopting scientific methods and knowledge for dealing with epistemological issues.

As James Maffie puts it (“Recent Work on Naturalized Epistemology,” American Philosophical Quarterly 27, No. 4, October 1990): “Naturalists reject the autonomy of epistemology, seeking to create continuity between epistemology and natural sciences. They seek epistemological, contextual, and methodological continuity between the two. Naturalized epistemology employs the cognitive methods of science, adopts the substantive claims of science, and enjoys the a posteriori evidential status of science.” Therefore, Harris is a naturalist because he invites the sciences to join moral discourse by taking full advantage of scientific knowledge and methodology to address moral issues. One could also add that Harris is a pragmatist because he applies the pragmatic truth concept as well as instrumental and descriptive definitions for the key terms of his proposal. Were Harris aware of the pragmatist side of his proposal, he would have been able to explain on what grounds his proposal is entitled to equate the prudential value of human well-being with its moral goodness. Certainly as a pragmatist, Harris is entitled to equate the instrumental or prudential value of “good” with moral goodness.

Harris’s Pragmatist Explanation

Harris’s explanation is based on the premise that the greatest possible suffering for the largest number of humans would have to be considered bad. On page 39 of his book he writes: “Even if each conscious being has a unique nadir on the moral landscape, we can still conceive of a state of the universe in which everyone suffers as much as he or she (or it) possibly can. If you think we cannot say this would be ‘bad,’ then I don’t know what you could mean by the word ‘bad’ (and I don’t think you know what you mean by it either).”

In the above context, a metaphysician might raise the objection that bad in this case means “undesirable” and therefore Harris is not entitled to equate “bad” with “morally bad,” but we have to remember that Harris’s philosophical position, though he fails to recognize it, is pragmatic naturalism. All things considered, as a pragmatist, and based on a similar demonstration, Harris could explain how a prudential value of good can be equated with a moral value of good.

Further, as a Neopragmatist like Richard Rorty, Harris offers a descriptive instead of a prescriptive definition of human well-being. In general, since pragmatists have no metaphysical commitments, they don’t presuppose an essence of x that ought to be defined so and so, which is precisely Harris’s approach in regard to his key terms. Based on the pragmatist doctrine that one does not need to define x as long as one knows how to use it, Harris offers a descriptive definition of “human well-being” and “human flourishing” by stating that sciences such as medicine and psychology know how to use these terms. In other words, Harris argues that although there is no “clear definition” of human well-being or “health” in a metaphysical or normative sense, this does not prevent psychologists, medical scientists, neuroscientists, and other cognitive scientists from making their judgments on a daily basis in their professions concerning what is or is not “healthy” (what contributes or does not contribute to human well-being).

All things considered, although Harris’s chains of arguments are well-developed irrealistically, Harris himself is under the impression that he has established an objective account of morality in a realist sense. In this regard he resembles Columbus, who believed he had arrived at India when he actually had discovered a new territory.

The Potential of Harris’s Thesis

In spite of several methodological problems associated with Harris’s account, I defend the view that Harris’s proposal makes several important points and that it (with some modifications) deserves serious attention and consideration. First of all, I sympathize with Harris’s frustration insofar as theoretical ethics has failed repeatedly to establish any solid foundation for morality, so that consequently relativism has been declared by the majority of contemporary intellectuals as the best-possible theoretical view in ethics. Harris writes on page 46: “The categorical distinction between facts and values has opened a sinkhole beneath secular liberalism—leading to moral relativism and masochistic depths of political correctness. Think of the champions of ‘tolerance’ who reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing security correctness or the Danish cartoonists for their ‘controversy,’ and you will understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values.”

In defense of Harris, for how many additional centuries would we have to witness the incompetence of traditional normative ethics before we begin to switch from a metaphysical type of philosophy (an externalist-realist approach) to a naturalistic (internalistic-irrealistic) approach similar to what Harris proposes? It is in this transition that Harris seeks help from psychology and from the cognitive and social sciences for his so-called science of morality. It is neither the intention nor the claim of Harris to say that science can prescribe moral judgments concerning which human choices are virtuous, but rather to ask what social norms, rituals, and activities are standing in the way of human flourishing and therefore should be considered immoral. In this regard, I fully agree with Harris that the sciences can objectively (irrealistically) establish what we should not do due to the fact that certain cultural rituals compromise or even directly harm human well-being.

All things considered, my argument concerning the potential contribution of Harris’s proposal to the field of applied ethics is similar to Harris’s own argument: it would be naïve and pointless to ignore scientific knowledge that we already have, because there are already empirical studies in medicine, psychology, and other human sciences that can provide clear evidence regarding the absurdity of some cultural rituals, as the above examples with adultery, prearranged marriage, and female circumcision have demonstrated. In addition, Harris’s proposal might be unavoidable in a sense after all.

To clarify this claim, consider the best possible scenario for traditional normative ethics, which is that it succeeds in establishing moral claims once and for all. Such an accomplishment, as impressive as it would be, might either not come with explanations at all or might lack them. In other words, based on the distinction between an argument and an explanation, namely, that arguments establish claims and explanations provide descriptions in regard to how, it is conceivable that moral justifications of theoretical ethics will not be supplemented with explanations. This would mean that theoretical ethics, even in the best possible scenario (final and permanent justified account of moral claims) might have to depend on naturalistic explanations as far as how.

Final Remarks

I have demonstrated that Harris’s proposal in The Moral Landscape is accompanied by some problems and methodological shortcomings. By reclassifying Harris’s metaphysical assumptions, I have demonstrated how the methodological problems of his account can be corrected. Finally, I have defended Harris’s overall claim concerning the use of scientific knowledge and its potential contribution to the field of applied ethics.

It is noteworthy that Harris does not realize that his proposal is more geared toward the claim that science can determine objectively or scientifically what is not moral (he states in The Moral Landscape that there are many ways not to be on a “peak,” where human well-being and flourishing is maximized, while admitting that there are varieties of peaks on the moral landscape representing different ways of thriving). In other words, it is much easier for science to determine what cultural rituals undermine human well-being than to predict or prescribe what cultural rituals as well as human individual tendencies would promote human flourishing.

What is also missing from Harris’s account is a clear definition and understanding of science. It would certainly enhance Harris’s proposal if he could state clearly what he means by science in general, as well as his understanding of the use of science in ethics—namely, that he does not mean a particular scientific discipline that should be concerned with morality but rather a conjunction of interdisciplinary scientific approaches addressing moral issues and sometimes identifying them (in the case of harmful cultural rituals as described above).

From a metaphysical standpoint, Harris’s proposal needs some polishing so that it becomes crystal clear. For example, his proposal defends contextualism (because he develops his moral view in the context of human conscious experience, including human suffering and well-being), and his proposal defends anti-essentialism (because he does not aim at defining what values are but rather how they are used in relation to human experience). Accordingly, Harris should spell out in detail his irrealistic approach, including his understanding of values and facts and the relationship between them. In The Moral Landscape, Harris talks about values and facts as if they are abstract entities or universals (metaphysical language dominated by externalist realist/objectivist realist position), and this is precisely where he demonstrates his carelessness with the use of language. Instead, he should have used value judgments and factual claims (non-metaphysical terms consistent with his internalist irrealist account.

Overall, the lack of discipline in regard to the use of method and language makes it easy for Harris’s opponents to misunderstand his proposal and use it against him.


Amir E. Salehi

Amir E. Salehi is associate professor of philosophy at The Community College of Baltimore County, Dundalk Campus, Maryland.

In this article, I am pursuing several objectives. First, I will address some of the problems with Sam Harris’s thesis concerning a science of morality that was introduced in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press, 2010). Specifically, I intend to demonstrate that Harris applies a not-so-carefully-developed language that …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.