Sam Harris is wrong about science and morality (2022)

By Brian Earp (Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.)


I just finished a booklet by “New Atheist” Sam Harris — on lying — and I plan to write about it in the coming days. But I want to dig up an older Harris book, The Moral Landscape, so that I may express my hitherto un-expressed puzzlement about Harris’ (aging) “bold new” claim — presented in this book — that science can “determine human values” or “tell us what’s objectively true about morality” or “give us answers about right and wrong,” and the like.

In his new book (the one about lying) Harris says, in effect, you should never, ever, do it — yet his pretense inThe Moral Landscapeto be revolutionizing moral philosophy seems to me the very height of dishonesty. What he actually does in his book is plain old secular moral reasoning — as non-religious philosophers have been doing for a very long time — but he claims that he’s using science to decide right from wrong. That Harris could be naive enough to think he’s really bridged the famous “is/ought” chasm seems unlikely (Harris is a very smart writer and researcher, and I tend to like a lot of what he publishes), and so I submit that he’s exaggerating* to sell books. Shame on him (or his publisher).

*A previous version of this post had the word “lying” here, but I was told that my rhetorical flourish might be interpreted as libel. I hope “exaggerating” is sufficiently safe. Now onward to my argument:

I’ll start by saying what the “is/ought” divide is, in case you haven’t heard of this before. It’s an old idea, tracing at least to David Hume, and its gist is that there is no way to reason from facts about the way the world is, to statements about the way the world should be. You can’t derive values from data. I’ll use one example to illustrate and then move on.

(Video) Science can answer moral questions | Sam Harris

Example. It’s a fact that rape occurs in nature — among chimpanzees, for instance; and there are some evolutionary arguments to explain its existence in humans and non-humans alike. But this fact tells us exactly nothing about whether it’s OK to rape people. This is because “natural” doesn’t entail “right” (just as “unnatural” doesn’t necessarily mean wrong) — indeed, the correct answer is that it’s not OK, and this is a judgement we make at the interface of moral philosophy and common sense: it’s not an output of science.

You get the idea. The domain of science is to describe nature, and then to explain its descriptions in terms of deeper patterns or laws. Science cannot tell us how to live. It cannot tell us right and wrong. If a system of thought claims to be doing those things, it cannot be science. If a scientist tells you she has some statements about how you ought tobehave, they cannot be scientific statements, and the lab-coat is no longer speaking as a scientist. Questions about “How should we live?” — for better or worse — fall outside the purview of “objective” science. We have to sort them out, messily, by ourselves.

Now: if there werea way to get from “is” to “ought” it would take a work of philosophical genius to lay it out, and Harris’ book is not a work of philosophical genius. I can summarize his argument in a few lines:

1. Morality is “all about” improving the well-being of conscious creatures.

2. Facts about the well-being of conscious creatures are accessible to science.

3. Therefore science can tell us what’s objectively “moral” — that is, it can tell us whether something increases, or decreases, the well-being of conscious creatures.

(Video) Sam Harris is Wrong About Morality (It Can't Be Objective)

Here’s the problem. Premise (1) is a philosophical premise. It’s not a fact of science, it’s not a fact of nature (and it’s not derivable from science or nature either): it’s a value judgment. You might think this is a good premise; you might not – and even if you think it’s basically on track, there’s a lot of philosophical work to be done to spell it out. (Exhibit A – how do you define well-being in the first place, “scientifically” or otherwise?)

What this boils down to, then, is thatgivena certain philosophical value, premise, or starting-point, science can feed us relevant facts in our sorting-out of how to live. Ok, but so what? That’s just what science has always been able to do. This is just secular moral philosophy, minding the facts.

But let’s grant Harris his first move. Let us give him his philosophical premise. Maybe he means that science is getting sophisticated enough to help us solve certain precise moral puzzles that exist within the overarching philosophical framework we’ve agreed to (i.e., some version of utilitarianism). Maybe neuroscientists will one day tell us astonishing things about how pain is processed in the brain, and this will allow us to deduce the correct moral outcome in some particular case (again, premises granted).

Maybe. But if this is what Harris wants to say, the examples he comes up with are weak. Such as? How about the Taliban. Harris says that according to science, the Taliban’s treatment of woman (enforced burqa-wearing, etc.) is objectively morally wrong. Why? Because enforced burqa-wearing (etc.) is not conducive to the well-being of conscious creatures, namely the conscious creatures forced to wear burqas.

I hope you’ll agree that we didn’t need scienceto tell us that treating women in this way is bad (or at least seriously problematic in a number of different ways): common sense, or, better, secular moral philosophy, will do just fine. And if someone disagrees, say, the Taliban, intoning “but science says you’re mistaken” will do little to change their minds.What Harris is doing is trying to hijack the prestige and “objectivity” of the scientific enterprise to label the behavior of certain groups as categorically WRONG.

In philosophy, of course, there’s a big debate about whether certain moral systems are better than others, or whether, indeed, there are “objective” moral facts at all. This has been going on for a few hundred years. By assertingthat all we need to know about morality is that utilitarianism is correct, and that, further, there are strict facts about what sorts of things maximize utils, Harris adds nothing to the debate. He just sidesteps it.

(Video) CFI-NYC | Sam Harris: The Moral Landscape

By the way, Sam Harris came to Oxford several months ago to give a talk about The Moral Landscapecalled, “Who says science has nothing to say about morality?” This particular talk was hosted by Richard Dawkins. To kick off the Q&A, Dawkins pressed Harris on just what he was saying that was new. Here’s a bit of that conversation:

Dawkins: You’re facing the classic problems that moral philosophers have been facing for a long time… You appear to be bringing to those problems a new thought, which is that science, as opposed to just philosophic thinking — reason — could help. Now, moral philosophy is the application of scientific logical reasoning to moral problems. But you are actually bringing your neurobiological expertise to bear, which is a new way of doing it. Can you tell me about that, because I’m not quite clear about how doing neurophysiology adds insight into these moral problems.

Harris: Well, I actually think that the frontier between science and philosophy actually doesn’t exist… Philosophy is the womb of the sciences. The moment something becomes experimentally tractable, then the sciences bud off from philosophy. And every science has philosophy built into it. So there is no partition in my mind.

So by “science” Harris evidently means, “philosophy” … or at least something that’s not different from philosophy in a principled way.Let me check my brochure for a second and confirm what the title of his talk was — the radical-sounding title that sold so many tickets — yes, here it is, it’s, “Who says science has nothing to say about morality?” If we do a quick update based on Harris’ personal definition of science, we get … “Who says philosophy has nothing to say about morality?”

The answer is: no one ever said that. Moral philosophy plus facts is not “science” telling us objective moral truths.

I’ll close on a personal note. I was in the audience at Harris’ Oxford talk, and during the Q&A I nudged him on two points. First, how exactly did his argument get us over the is/ought divide; and second, what can “science” tell us about morality that we didn’t know from common sense (or plain old secular moral reasoning). Our exchange can be seen in the video below, and I’ll make just one comment before you watch it. Notice the first four words of Harris’ reply to my question: “The moment you grant …” My point has been thatwhat Harris wants you to grant is a philosophical, not a scientific, premise; hence, his “moral landscape” is not scientifically determined as he claims.

(Video) Where Does Morality Come From? | With Sam Harris

Here’s the link (please forgive my animated gesticulation).

Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.


Simon Rippon has a critique here; Massimo Pigliucci has one here;Russell Blackford has a pretty good one here; and the best one I’ve seen is by Whitley Kaufman in Neuroethics here.


I made a few stylistic edits to this post today, January 21, 2015, because I felt that the earlier version was much too snarky. This version is still snarky, but less so. For more of my thoughts about snarkiness in ethical argument please see, “Things I’ve learned (so far) about how to do practical ethics,” published elsewhere on this blog.

(Video) My Problem With Sam Harris' Morality | Featuring Rationality Rules

  • Sam Harris is wrong about science and morality (2)


Does Harris convince you that science can explain morality? ›

Harris' conclusion was, in a word, yes: In principle, science can provide the foundations for a universal set of moral truths.

What does Sam Harris say about morality? ›

Harris suggests that, much like physical health, well-being eludes concise definition. Although the use of well-being is not precisely operationalized, he does define morality as “the principles of behavior that allow people to flourish” (p.

Can science answer questions about morality? ›

Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. But Sam Harris argues that science can -- and should -- be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.

What is the relationship between science and morality? ›

Across four studies, both naturalistic measures of science exposure and experimental primes of science led to increased adherence to moral norms and more morally normative behaviors across domains.

Can morality be explained by science? ›

Critics include physicist Sean M. Carroll, who argues that morality cannot be part of science. He and other critics cite the widely held "fact-value distinction", that the scientific method cannot answer "moral" questions, although it can describe the norms of different cultures.

Can we use science to determine morality? ›

Science can tell us how and why we value what we do, but it cannot tell us what we should value. This goes back to a belief put forth by philosopher David Hume, who stated that you can't get an ought from an is—statements and facts about the world as it is don't give ground for saying what we ought to do about it.

What does Sam Harris believe? ›

Harris rejects the dichotomy between spirituality and rationality, favoring a middle path that preserves spirituality and science but does not involve religion. He writes that spirituality should be understood in light of scientific disciplines like neuroscience and psychology.

Is Sam Harris a moral realist? ›

Harris provides a compelling argument for selective intolerance toward harsh moral traditions. He argues via a kind of moral realism, linked to a form of utilitarian ethic, but these, I submit, are not doing the real work. Even sceptics about a strictly objective morality can reach a similar conclusion.

What is the difference between morality and science? ›

Science: The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. Morals: A person's standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.

Can science tell us what is right and wrong? ›

The domain of science is to describe nature, and then to explain its descriptions in terms of deeper patterns or laws. Science cannot tell us how to live. It cannot tell us right and wrong. If a system of thought claims to be doing those things, it cannot be science.

Why is morality important in science? ›

Ethical Rules in Science

Ethics is an important consideration in science. Scientific investigations must be guided by what is right and what is wrong. That's where ethical rules come in. They help ensure that science is done safely and that scientific knowledge is reliable.

Who separates science from morality? ›

People find it very difficult indeed to separate the factual from the emotional. This is why philosopher David Hume, perhaps the most perceptive figure of the 18th century Enlightenment, famously separated “ought”, the dictates of morality, from “is”, the facts of science.

Can science and human values go together? ›

Science as a human activity relates to different human values, and therefore it is capable of ethic valuation, both for its consequences, as for its process and its action. For this reason, ethics cannot be separated from the scientific analysis, as the inherited conception pretended.

How do we determine what is morally right and wrong? ›

There are many ways in which we can achieve moral understanding: by perception, by first-personal experience, and even by moral testimony. In particular, agents can achieve moral understanding of why, for example, sexual harassment is morally wrong even when they lack the ability to articulate their understanding.

Is morality taught or learned? ›

Morals and ethics must be taught as they are not ingrained through genetic predisposition. Humans are not born naturally moral. We are taught how to act morally and ethically. They differ from manners and etiquette, however these act as a precursor to the moral being.

Is ethics a science Yes or no? ›

Ethics, in its widest sense, is the name given to any systematic attempt to answer these ques- tions. Such answers do not constitute an art but a more or less complete science. , it is not a science at all. Science is knowledge, not will.

Is morality just a human thing? ›

Human beings, unlike other animals, are able to reflect on and make judgments about our own and others' actions, and as a result, we are able to make considered moral choices. We are not born with this ability.

How can we use moral science in our daily life? ›

Moral science introduces the concepts of self- analysis whereby one puts in mind these purposes versus the society they live in, their feelings and the views of people that play a substantial role in their lives have. In doing so, one can determine what they want in life, and the right way to achieve them.

What does Sam Harris believe about God? ›

Harris isn't against all religion. He endorses Jainism, a religion-philosophy from India that finds God in the unchanging traits of the human soul.

What values of SAM are shown here? ›

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris (2010) proposes that science can be used to identify values, which he defines as “facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the ...

Does Sam Harris think we have free will? ›

Harris acknowledges that, although free will does not exist, we can create a framework for our choices which makes certain outcomes more likely than others.

What is realism about morality? ›

Moral realism is the view that there are facts of the matter about which actions are right and which wrong, and about which things are good and which bad.

What is an example of moral realism? ›

One example of moral realism would be claiming that murder is wrong regardless of what anyone thinks about the issue. Or in other words, the wrongness of the act is not affected by the will of a single person or even an entire culture; it is simply wrong.

Why is moral realism true? ›

(1) Moral sentences are sometimes true. (2) A sentence is true only if the truth-making relation holds between it and the thing that makes it true. (3) Thus, true moral sentences are true only because there holds the truth-making relation between them and the things that make them true.

What is waking app? ›

Waking Up isn't just another meditation app—it's a new operating system for your mind. We help you discover the true purpose of meditation, and give you pressure-tested wisdom for living a more examined, fulfilling life. Here, you won't find any New Age fluff or religious dogma—just powerful training and insights.

How many people listen to the Sam Harris podcast? ›

Harris's podcast boasts 1 million downloads per episode with an audience built out of organic growth from an existing fan base (with a few “sponsored” Facebook posts to fans who already follow him).

How much does waking up app cost? ›

Waking Up Price: Free for five introductory meditations and theory lectures, then from $14.99/month. Uniquely, anyone who can't afford it can get a free year of premium access, as Harris believes meditation should be open to all.

Is the science or study of moral values or principles? ›

Ethics is the philosophical science which studies morality in general and morals as one of the most important aspects of the life-activity of man, as a specific phenomenon of history, and as a form of social conscious- ness.

What is moral science with example? ›

Moral science teaches more values about life, which helps students to respect any person any object, any animal. Moral values are quoted such as HONESTI IS THE BEST POLICY, CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME, LOVE ALL SERVE ALL in many schools on the walls or notice boards to make the child understand these values...

What is morality and example? ›

Moral standards are values that a society uses to determine reasonable, correct, or acceptable. Some standards are universally accepted; for example, most societies believe killing is wrong, but some make an exception for killing in a war fought to protect the country or killing in self-defense.

Can science really explain everything? ›

Though science has great explanatory power and insights, Randall cautioned that it has limits, too. Science doesn't ask every possible question, it doesn't look for purpose, and it doesn't tell us what's right or wrong. Instead, science tells us what things are and how they came to be.

Who said the good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it? ›

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter: "The good thing about Science is that it's true, whether or not you believe in it." / Twitter.

What really is right and wrong? ›

Generally speaking, doing the right thing is an act that follows justice, law and morality while doing the wrong thing refers to an act that does not follow morality or justice. The right action is one which is legitimate, appropriate, and suitable while the wrong action is one which is not legitimate or appropriate.

Is morality important in our life? ›

Moral values pave the path for all their decisions in life, as without these values, children do not have any guidance and their life may seem directionless. In order to be accepted and respected by society, parents and caregivers should make sure of imbibing these strong moral values in children as a lifestyle itself.

How does morality affect us? ›

If you lack a set of morals, you may be led by your desires and make decisions impulsively, unconcerned about the consequences or benefits of them. Moral principles allow people to judge their own behaviors so that they can make changes as needed in order to feel that they're doing the right thing.

What is morality and reason? ›

Moral reasoning applies critical analysis to specific events to determine what is right or wrong, and what people ought to do in a particular situation. Both philosophers and psychologists study moral reasoning.

What is the root of morality? ›

Social roots of morality

Churchland summarizes her views by saying that moral norms are shaped by four interlocking brain processes: caring, recognition of others' psychological states, learning social practices, and problem-solving in a social context. Hence the origins of morality are both neural and social.

What does moral science teach us? ›

Moral science teaches ethics and values. It influences critical thinking and helps a student to differentiate the right from wrong. When a person chooses to be right it exhibits his moral value, and if his morality reflects the willingness to do so, then it is called ethics.

Who created the theory of morality? ›

The wrongness of using human beings as mere instruments for other purposes is one of the important moral requirements that follows from the moral theory of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804).

Can science solve all human problems? ›

Science can not solve all of our problems. While scientific understanding can help battle things like disease, hunger, and poverty when applied properly, it does not do so completely and automatically.

Why is it important to know the relationship between science and ethics? ›

Ethics is an important consideration in science. Scientific investigations must be guided by what is right and what is wrong. That's where ethical rules come in. They help ensure that science is done safely and that scientific knowledge is reliable.

Why is ethics not an exact science? ›

Ethics is not an exact science. It is not based on a set of scientific formulas which consistently yield the same results or predict, with certainty, the right approach in every moral quandary.

What is the example of something that is morally right but ethically wrong? ›

What is morally right but ethically wrong? Persecution on religious grounds is one of the most common examples of something that is morally right (or at least morally excusable) but ethically wrong.

Is it always true that what is morally wrong will also be legally wrong? ›

Hence, ethics and law are not always the same. Action can be legally wrong but ethically correct.

Is morality shows a universal right or wrong? ›

No, there is no such thing as a universal morality, and it is somewhat surprising that people are still asking this question in the 21st century. Then again, that doesn't mean that anything goes, a la moral relativism.

What does CS Lewis say about morality? ›

Morality is like a fleet of ships

First, the ships must stay out of each other's way, and they must not collide. Second, the individual ships must be seaworthy, everything working in proper order. Third, the fleet of ships must be on its proper course.

How is morality presented in A Streetcar Named Desire? ›

Various moral and ethical lessons arise in this play such as: Lying ultimately gets you nowhere, Abuse is never good, Treat people how you want to be treated, Stay true to yourself and Don't judge a book by its cover. A very important moral lesson that I gained from A Streetcar Named Desire is to always tell the truth.

What does Nietzsche say about science? ›

Nietzsche had no desire for science but for knowledge ; though not knowledge of the contemplative kind, but a knowledge active and authoritative. His ideas do not constitute so much a system of philosophy as a vague and obscure vision of the world, more suitable to a demoniac than to a philosopher seeking truth.

What are the 3 principles of morality? ›

Basic Ethical Principles

Three basic principles, among those generally accepted in our cultural tradition, are particularly relevant to the ethics of research involving human subjects: the principles of respect of persons, beneficence and justice.

What are the three parts of morality according to Lewis? ›

Thus, morality is concerned with three things: 1) harmony between individuals; 2) the inner harmony of the individual; 3) the general purpose of life (salvation).

What is CS Lewis most famous quote? ›

1. "There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” 2.

What is the moral moral of the story? ›

The moral of a story is the lesson that story teaches about how to behave in the world. Moral comes from the Latin word mores, for habits. The moral of a story is supposed to teach you how to be a better person. If moral is used as an adjective, it means good, or ethical.

What is the main problem in A Streetcar Named Desire? ›

The conflict is social conflict. Blanche DuBois comes from aristocracy family, and Stanley Kowalski comes from lower class. The factors of the conflict are the background and character. The background differences are heritage, wealth, and education.

Is streetcar a morality play? ›

When A Streetcar Named Desire was first staged (see Part Five: Historical context), many critics thought it too full of immoral behaviour. However, the very title of the play implies an element of morality play: those who board the 'streetcar' of desire are helpless once they have made their choice to ride in it.

What does the Dalai Lama say about science? ›

I have great respect for science, ” he says. “But scientists, on their own, cannot prove nirvana. Science shows us that there are practices that can make a difference between a happy life and a miserable life. A real understanding of the true nature of the mind can only be gained through meditation.”

What did Kant say about science? ›

Kant emphasizes that science always comprises a foundation based upon experience, yet judgments themselves, which purport to have some universal nature, exist in an a priori form. Laws of science cannot be deduced from experience; on the contrary, experience is deduced from them.

What did Aristotle said about science? ›

According to Aristotle, a science is possible if and only if there are knowable objects. There cannot be a science of dragons, for example, because dragons do not exist and hence a 'science' of dragons would lack knowable objects and thus would not be a 'science'.


1. Sam Harris — The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
2. Sam Harris - Can Science Tell Us Right From Wrong?
(Crimson Legacy)
3. The Problem with Sam Harris' "Morality"
(Carefree Wandering)
4. Science can answer moral questions - Sam Harris
5. A Critique of Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape"
(Jonas Čeika - CCK Philosophy)
6. Why Sam Harris is Wrong - A Critique of Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape" (in 2020)
(Carefree Wandering)

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