The moral formula: How facts inform our ethics

Can science help us tell right from wrong? Sam Harris certainly thinks so. Julian Baggini sits down with one of the 'four horsemen of atheism' to learn how facts can inform our ethics

Sam Harris may not be a household name in Britain, but in America he is right up there with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as one of the new atheism's "four horsemen".

He burst on to the public science scene in 2004 with his anti-religious polemic, The End of Faith, which he wrote while still a graduate student in neuroscience. It went on to sell half a million copies, and he has been a major public figure ever since.

Having used science to attempt deicide, Harris now threatens to do the same for moral philosophy. In his new book, The Moral Landscape, Harris sets out to convince us that science can not only help us to understand human values, but determine them.

Richard Dawkins has said of the book that "moral philosophers will find their world turned upside down". However, when the book was released in America last year, they argued it was Harris, a Stanford philosophy graduate, who had got things the wrong way up. I got the opportunity to put some of their criticisms to Harris when I met him in California.

Julian Baggini: Why do we need science to tell us what is right and wrong?

Sam Harris: I'm using the term "science" very broadly, in terms of our best efforts to make valid truth claims based on evidence and clear reasoning. So history, for my purposes, is a science in the sense that we can make true or false claims about historical fact.

What I'm arguing is that morality, questions of good and evil, right and wrong, because they relate to questions of human and animal well-being, also entail truth claims about our world, human nature or the prospects of human happiness that fall within the purview of science. Otherwise, we're just left to argue over preferences: things are wrong because we don't like it or a majority of people don't like it.

Your case rests on the claim that morality must relate to the well-being of conscious creatures. What is your argument for that?

I call it the "worst possible misery for everyone" argument. A universe in which every conscious creature suffers as much as it possibly can, for as long as it can, is bad, and anything else is better than that, by definition. Given that conscious experience arises based on the laws of nature in some way, movement out of that space is constrained by the laws of nature. There are going to be ways to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone and there are going to be ways to think you're avoiding it and fail.

The moment you grant me that, then it seems I have everything I need to say that there is a continuum of experience in which we have the worst possible misery for everyone on the one hand and then all of these other degrees of well-being on the other. I call this the moral landscape, with various peaks and values.

How do you get from that to the claim that science can actually determine human values?

All of this is a domain of discovery. If we understand the dynamics of mental life in real detail – to speak particularly of our case, if we understand the human brain in real detail – then we will know how various experiences and ways of living with one another – thoughts, intentions and behaviours – affect human life.

How much should we value freedom of speech? How much should we value compassion? How should we raise children to think about the suffering of other human beings? All of this can only be understood in the context of science in the end.

Then science will be answering questions about, for example, whether we should we be privileging obedience to parental authority over free expression and if so, exactly how much and when and what are the consequences of getting the balance wrong. All of these are neurological questions in the end.

But it's puzzling how science could tell us, for example, how to prioritise between rights of free speech and privacy?

There are probably some trade-offs where there isn't an important difference. So privileging free speech to some degree and privileging privacy to another degree leads you to different circumstances, but perhaps they are not importantly different. If you and I and everyone affected by those changes could live out both lives, and have our brains scanned all the while, and have every marker of our inner lives analysed, we would come out saying they were a little different, but we don't know which we like better. That is an intelligible prospect and that is why the moral landscape has many peaks and valleys that are different but equivalent in terms of well-being.

Isn't well-being too ill-defined to be scientifically tractable? Take the classic thought experiment of whether a person who lives a normal life with ups and downs is better or worse off than someone who takes a happiness pill. There doesn't seem to be a factual answer as to what's better, discoverable by examining fMRI scans, for instance.

I think we can have a rational discussion about how much we want our states of consciousness, our emotional lives, to track the reality of our lives. We definitely want it to track it for the most part because otherwise, if we're just taking this perfect narcotic each day, it's not a sustainable situation. You're just lying on the couch in bliss, but your relationships have dissolved, you've lost your job, and your children have starved to death. It's materially unsustainable if nothing else. But your love for the people in your life, which you value and which is major component of well-being – your connections to others, your ability to function in the world – all of this is predicated on your states of consciousness tracking the actual reality of your life in the world.

Surely there are going to be cases where you don't get that clear fact that tells you it's a failure. So for example, we could have a world where machines could do most of our work and a significant proportion of the population could, sustainably, if they chose to do so, take the happiness pill and go on to live delusional, happy lives. I don't know what fact about the world would tell us that was wrong.

You can concoct odd situations in which, if you're really conserving everything we could plausibly mean by well-being and maximising it, then I would have to say that was good by my definition, But the worry is that some really important things are left out by that account. But I am arguing that if they really are important, they must translate into some sort of well-being. So, for instance, these stoned people don't know anything about science, they're ignoramuses. They are forsaking all of the joys of learning about the universe. If that has a cash value in curiosity and in the fulfilment that comes from being able to teach your children things, we're still talking the talk of human well-being.

Can you think of any situation where there are significant disagreements about what well-being is where science – a discovery or new fact – would tell us who was right? Because if you're going to claim that science determines human values, it means that the arguments we currently think of as philosophical disputes about ethics will be able to be settled scientifically in the future.

I think that's clearly the case. One way to see that is by analogy with health. When I talk about morality I'm really talking about psychological health, and the health of societies. Can science tell us about psychological health? If the sciences of mind are, in fact, sciences, and they are, in fact, of mind, then one would hope so, at some point.

Take a truly fraught, value-laden question such as "How should parents raise children?" Clearly, if we understand anything about child development, healthy emotional lives, healthy cognition and what it means to equip children to become high-functioning adults , enjoying all the fruits of civil society peacefully and collaboratively, we are talking about how you should raise children, and there are scientific truths there waiting to be discovered.

Do we know it all in detail? No, but we certainly know enough to know that many people are raising their children badly. Beating children – subjecting them to pain, violence and humiliation – is just not a good way to discipline them. I think this is now well established in psychology.

On your view, is moral philosophy going to go the way of alchemy and be superseded by science?

Yes and no. I view philosophy as essentially the womb of the sciences. Whenever a question is not experimentally tractable, not quantifiable, then it's squarely in the domain of philosophy. The frontier between philosophy and science is never clear. But the moment you start actually talking about data and neurophysiology it would seem you're playing more the language game of neuroscience than philosophy.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SharePoint Engineer - Bishop's Stortford

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organ...

Planning Manager (Training, Learning and Development) - London

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glob...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a Teaching Assistant...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering