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Sam Harris has argued on many occasions - the earliest of which I'm aware of being in his book, The End of Faith, as well as later on in The Moral Landscape - that it is (at least theoretically) possible for us to scientifically determine what is good and what is evil. He argues that the only assumption we need to make for science to be able to make this determination is that it's bad for there to be a universe which results in the worst possible outcome for all sentient beings. Upon that foundation, he argues, we can theoretically build an entire scientific discipline of determining what should be done to maximize good (ie. that which is the opposite of the bad defined above) in the universe.

Is this logic flawed in any way? Clearly, this science would be extremely difficult to realize in practice (having to take every ramification in the universe of every action into account?!) - but is it theoretically sound?

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    Empirical science has nothing to do in moral issues, that's the field of the Philosophy, wich is purely theoretical. There no way to determine if an act is "bad" or "good" by an experiment. What's the worst scenario? It's depends on the philosophical position on what's the good, i.e. quite different between utilitarism, existencialism and estoicism. Jun 14 '11 at 0:40
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    To define a Bad universe, worst possible outcome must be determined first. What scientific factors can deduce how worse a situation is for a given sentient being ? would the same factors be applicable on next sentient being ?
    – user2411
    Nov 5 '12 at 18:30
  • Even philosophy can't determine "badness"/"goodness". It can only give many possible choices and ideas.
    – zaarcis
    Mar 5 '13 at 23:56
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    Is-Ought problem notwithstanding, we can in practice simply agree on a foundational principle and build rational moral systems ("scientifically determine good and evil") from there. I think the foundational principle is as he states, or more generally, that existence is better than non-existence. We can't really justify this, and that's fine, because as long as we agree we can determine which lifestyle choices amongst us (religious vs non-religious in this case) are more or less likely to uphold this principle. Not all beliefs require logical ("scientific", as Harris terms it) justification.
    – stoicfury
    Mar 7 '13 at 6:05
  • btw, is it really philosophy of science (as tagged)? i think it's exactly opposite
    – Bulat
    Jun 24 '13 at 17:21

12 Answers 12

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There is no way to take a non-moral "is" and from that extract a moral "ought". (ref) This separation is usually called "Hume's Law". This has been not only a pretty self-evident, but also generally accepted law within philosophy, but nevertheless it regularly pops up wanna-be philosophers trying to break it and failing.

As science can only concern itself with what is, it can not talk about what ought it is impossible to scientifically determine any moral issue, including god and bad and evil.

More.

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    I'll look forward to somebody objectively proving the aesthetic value of objects. Until then I retain the right to claim that academic philosophers who say beauty is objective despite having studied the issue and hence been told why this would be impossible and makes absolutely no sense, are idiots. Sorry if this offends you. Jun 24 '11 at 2:07
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    -1 for using Hume's law in this context. The claim that moral realism is impossible not because of the contents of a particular argument but "because Hume said so" is just ancestor worship.
    – philosodad
    Jul 10 '12 at 19:23
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    @philosodad: The argument is not "because Hume said so". The argument is Hume's law. Whom the law has been named for is completely irrelevant. I even make a short and IMO succinct summary of the argumentation. In fact, I only mention Hume because I say that the law is usually called "Hume's law". How you can get that to be an appeal to authority is beyond logical comprehension. Jul 10 '12 at 19:58
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    -1. Regardless of Hume's Law, the fact that "is != ought" doesn't imply anything about out ability to discern what "ought", under some set of guiding premises. Science doesn't tell us what is, but rather proposes models which describe uniformities in what is. The proposed programme is to identify "how we ought to act" with "what will achieve the best outcome": not to identify what is actually the case about X with what ought to be the case about X, but rather what would actually promote well being with what we should try to achieve (without a common proposition X being modified). Oct 31 '12 at 1:43
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    @NieldeBeaudrap: The problem there is that you assume that promoting well being is good. Which you can't scientifically prove. QED. Also, rephrasing "what is" as "what uniformities there are" doesn't change anything. That's just a rewording. Science still can not determine what ought or what we should try to achieve. Oct 31 '12 at 5:59
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If  you take it as a given that "it's bad for there to be a universe which results in the worst possible outcome for all sentient beings" and presumably similarly that what is "good" is what results in the best possible outcome for all sentient beings, and if  you assume that you live in a universe obeying classical laws of physics (or you're willing to settle for quantum probabilities), and if  you have a computer with approximately the same amount of RAM as there are particles in the universe, then you would still  have the problem of dealing with a multi-valued objective function.

In calculating the "worst possible outcome for all sentient beings", do you weigh all sentient beings equally? Do you employ a hard cut-off in determining sentience? (E.g., how would a chimpanzee fit into all of this?)

So, no, it is not scientifically possible to determine good and evil, although given certain (philosophically inspired) assumptions  about what makes an action good and evil, it would be fair to say that science might allow us better guesses as to what actions are "good" and "evil".

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    It's worth pointing out that the reason that Harris uses the phrase "Moral Landscape" is because he is postulating the existence of a landscape in the sense of a solution space: I.E., we can't know, even in theory, if we are at THE universal maximum, but we can make observations about the local conditions and work from there.
    – philosodad
    Mar 5 '13 at 23:35
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Harris is either

  1. engaging in a bit of circular reasoning when he uses what is effectively a synonym for good ("well-being") to define good, or
  2. he is essentially grounding morality in what amounts to hedonism (which Dawkins more or less admits when he says that Harris bases his entire proposal on the removal of suffering).

(1) doesn't solve anything because it slips common notions of the good in through the back door. (2) opens up a Pandora's box of problems and consequences, some of which undermine Harris's other positions (e.g. biology doesn't prevent organisms, including humans, to evolve which experience pleasure/pain differently; if all activity, including science, becomes motivated only by pleasure, then why should the truth necessarily matter?; the questionable formulation of the common good and its raison d'être; and so on).

I wouldn't spend too much time on Harris's work. He's poorly versed in philosophy, and consequently philosophers don't take him very seriously (if I recall correctly, even Dennett once expressed serious reservations about Harris's competence in this area).

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  • I don't think that you can make the statement that Dawkins admits something about Harris' argument. The argument does not belong to Dawkins, and he is not in a position to make admissions about it. Also, defining a term with a phrase or synonym is not circular reasoning.
    – philosodad
    Mar 5 '13 at 23:38
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Not surprisingly, most people here asserted that moral propositions are not under the scope of science. Perhaps it is one of the arguments to support the philosophical independence .

Generally, I agree with what most of the people here said, but I need to expound it further. Empirical inquiry does not solely refer to natural sciences if we are talking about moral philosophy. When we say Empirical or scientific inquiry, we simply refer to a meta-ethical justification stating that physical feelings can correspond to a certain moral value. Thus, hedonism and utilitarianism are forms of empirical justifications, because it equates goodness with pleasures. In a first glimpse, we cannot see any absurdity in that. After all if we are all satisfied, everything is good.

But ethical non-naturalism challenges this ethical justification. Ethical non-naturalism argues that combining pleasures and satisfactions cannot constitute to anything aside from being pleasurable. As such, the term "good" is not a physical property, rather it is an irreducible component of a particular action. Thus, an action should satisfy a certain objective standard to deductively justify the intrinsic goodness of an action. This means that the term good is not empirical and is not synonymous to pleasures, because we will still ask what made pleasures good or right?I am not saying that hedonism is wrong. I am just saying sciences can use hedonism to make morality entirely empirical. But it failed because goodness is not an empirical property.

There are also other attempts to make morality scientific, one of which is through psychology. It argues that external influences shape our moral convictions. According to these people, mind sciences give a better view about morality. However, these sciences only discuss the "motivation to act", and not cannot justify an action. Suppose that a person killed a rabbit, mind scientists would assert that a person did that because there are some uncontrollable impulses that forced that person. But this does not account for any moral value. Is it immoral or moral? Therefore, mind sciences only compliments moral philosophy after it has justified the value of an action. it is sound to say that John became immoral, because his peers are likewise, because we have defined immorality. But it is absurd to say that John is influenced by his peers to kill, thus killing is immoral.

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Science can tell you an awful lot about contingent oughts ("in order to achieve X you ought to do Y"), and it's not completely clear that non-contingent oughts even exist. (We like to think they do since it saves arguing about whether X is worth achieving, which ends up with the realization that we don't have a satisfyingly solid grounding for knowledge, etc..)

Unfortunately, Sam Harris doesn't really delve into the issue adequately; rather than making a spirited defense of the value of contingent oughts like e.g. Daniel Dennett does, he just expresses his feeling that of course science can tell you what you ought to do. (And not in a very impressive way, either--he starts with really clear cases where everyone agrees what to do and notes that adding a scientific perspective doesn't change anything, and then as far as I can tell dismisses the rest as details.)

Instead, it would have been nice if he had brought to bear the full force of contingency, including extinction if you screw up too badly. Harris' personal views seem to be very typically American--highly individualistic and happiness-based, in particular--which may explain in part why he didn't go in that direction. Happiness is great and all, and it's nice not to worry about people telling you what to do. But when one starts from "we're intelligent social primates in an indifferent and largely deadly universe", it's hard to get to a point where you don't start thinking it could potentially be a good idea to curtail individual freedoms to maintain environmental sanity, and that we should probably demand a much higher degree of attention to nurturing our offspring to enable them to make informed decisions about this complicated technological society we've built.

(Someone needs to write a book titled "Your Feelings are Trying to Make You Evolutionarily Fit in a Social Context".)

Anyway, I view the is/ought divide as probably much ado about nothing; I think when we end up fully exploring the force of contingent oughts, we may have enough. (In a way similar to coherentist views of knowledge--you can't perfectly ground things, but when everything you care about ties together, that's good enough.)

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As far as Good and bad are seen as relativistic terms, science can help to know whether the outcome of a cause will be good or bad, however the final judgement has to be done on by the intellects of man. A good is good because it helps to advance towards a predetermined goal. The means to achieve that goal has to be vetted on moral grounds, and I feel science doesn't have such faculties to vet the path taken and there is exactly where the difference emerge For example, lets say population growth of a country is increasing at a very high level, and it is required to reduce it. Science can't see why it should be wrong to end life of some to achieve this, as long as it is an option to serve the purpose, though morally it is wrong.

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  • So, if there are two contradicting goals, any action leading towards goal A will equally be against the goal B. What is the action in this case, a good or evil?
    – bytebuster
    Nov 11 '12 at 5:51
  • If you make a system that works on a set standard, it can check whether the action is inclined towards A or B and tell accordingly whether it is good or evil. Just that, but it can't tell why it is good or why it is bad except that because it has been told so. There science fails and only intellects like human possess can help with that, that weighs the task on a moral ground and involves emotions with it.
    – sarath
    Nov 15 '12 at 16:06
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Science is wholly unable to tell us what should be. It can only tell us what is. If you imagine someone seeing a Lion tackling a Gazelle. Now we can in accordance with the scientific method perceive that the lion has killed the Gazelle. We can posit reasons as to why he does so. Maybe he is hungry. Maybe he is driven to survive and propagate.

Now can we use the scientific method to determine if the Lions SHOULD eat the Gazelle? No we cannot. Can we use the scientific method to determine if the Lion is being fair to the Gazelle? No we cannot. Science simply cannot answer these questions.

Now that does not make them not worthy of consideration. Neither does that mean we should a hold a view of agnosticism towards these questions. It simply means the scientific method cannot answer such a question.

It is to me a young budding scientist alarming to see such a claim. Atheism has no right to be spokes people for science as a whole. Neither does it have the right equate scientific enterprise with atheism.

You should remember that Sam Harris is only speaking for Sam Harris. His views are not the views of the scientific community as a whole. Their are many scientist on both sides of the religious divide which would disagree with him.

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  • "Science is wholly unable to tell us what should be." The position that Harris is taking is that this is simply not true. It isn't that he's unaware that this argument has been made, he disagrees with that premise. Also, in his definitions as put forward by the OP, morals don't apply to Lion behavior.
    – philosodad
    Mar 5 '13 at 23:41
  • Maybe my examples where a bit simplistic but I think my point is still valid.
    – Neil Meyer
    Mar 12 '13 at 10:27
  • You miss my point. The fact that morals don't apply to Lion behavior is secondary, the main point is that Harris simply does not agree with your premise. He is aware of your premise and has an argument for why your premise is wrong. You have not presented a valid argument or example which supports your premise, so from my perspective there is no reason to believe your point to be valid.
    – philosodad
    Mar 13 '13 at 1:14
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Yes, but that would require inclusion of concepts from Informations Theory, AI, Physics and coming up with some notion of Weighted Emotional Entropy and myriad of other conceptual structures that is by far beyound human comprehension, but when our superior robot overlords take over they will muse over how their human pets do a crude form of Philosophy and squable over definitions of good and evil instead of doing a simple (to them)compuation.The notion of Computational Philosophy Theory is maybe far beyound the reach of humans that can keep at most 7 things in their head but to a machine roaming over giga-tera flops of computational power will be just plain obvious.

Humans can be very well represenred as complex neural networks, and what ever that humans can perceive can also be modeled. Turing test will be turned around, those who pass it will be considered machines and those who don't will be the cute human pets.

To say that human morals can not be broken down to pure calculation is only short sighted arrogance on humans part.

PS: Instead of scientifically, good and evil can be computaionally calculated.

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    I had a physics professor who used to say the simplest model of the universe that captures all of its behavior is the universe. That might be a slight oversimplification, but I think it's basically correct. Furthermore, there are sometimes good reasons why our complex neural networks make snap judgments instead of weighing all possibilities—sometimes if you take the computational time required to calculate an optimal solution, you've passed the time when that solution would apply. Jun 14 '11 at 1:47
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    @Ben, That is because the neural netwroks have been trained for some specific tasks, that is how we have survived as species this long. Yes it is a given that for human to try to calculate the optimal solution it might not feasible, but it doesn't mean that for higher beings it is also true.
    – jimjim
    Jun 14 '11 at 2:37
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    there are calculations that just can't be performed in even an infinite time on a Turing machine with infinite memory. I mean sure, if you want to posit entities that exist outside of logic, then anything is possible, but for entities operating within the realm of logic, there are real problems that can't be solved exactly, but for which guesses sometimes suffice (such as the Halting Problem). Jun 14 '11 at 10:48
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    The Shadow of Consciousness: goodreads.com/book/show/25191522-the-shadow-of-consciousness provides an informative discussion of the failures of computationalism when it was applied to consciousness over the last several decades. Your optimism about computability of the universe is -- demonstrably misplaced. When one realizes that physics itself is underdetermined (QM is underdetermined, as are chaos phenomena), the failure of computationalism relative to consciousness is just one instance of its general insufficiency.
    – Dcleve
    Sep 8 at 16:48
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Yes, it is possible to scientifically determine what is good and what is evil if you allow definitions of good and evil.

Let us take an example: Is it evil to torture and maim babies for entertainment?

If you believe that this question is simply a matter of opinion, you have a purely local definition of good and evil that amounts to good being stuff you approve of and evil being stuff you don't.

If you do not believe that this question is a matter of opinion, than you must be taking the position that there is something about that action that puts it into the class of things that are "evil", as opposed to things that are good. Harris takes the position that "good" and "evil" relate to suffering and happiness, and that since the suffering and happiness of conscious beings are observable facts, we can use science to promote the latter and reduce the former. This is true, we can in fact use science to reduce suffering and increase happiness.

Harris defines this as "moral", which is where other people disagree with him. So what is interesting to me is that in terms of goals and facts, many people agree with Sam Harris, but they reject that you can define evil, and therefore reject the argument itself.

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  • Your and Harris's approach both use opinions, the pretense that the answer to "Is it evil to torture and maim babies for entertainment?" isn't an opinion is -- silly. There are further opinions that you and Harris rely upon, to presume that there is a global rather than local answer to "what is good". This undercuts Harris's entire rationale. Additionally, what one ends up with if one answers yes to both questions, AND assumes that good==utilitarian maximization of hedonism, then one can possibly calculate "good". But this is bookkeeping, NOT science!!!!
    – Dcleve
    Sep 8 at 17:17
  • @Dcleve I don't think you have understood what I said. At no time did I say that there is a global answer to the question "What is good" unless we agree on what we mean when we say "good". It's a question of definition. But the same is true of, say, gravity. If we don't agree on a definition of gravity, we can't make universal statements about it.
    – philosodad
    Sep 9 at 22:16
  • I understood your post, and am noting flaws in it. There are many. Science does not start with definitions, but with a field of study, then observations, hypotheses, and testing. Postulating definitions is not science. The theory of gravity was not arrived at by postulating definitions, but by attempting to fit models to observations. And appealing to intuitions about whether morality is objective or not - is an appeal to opinions. So decrying "merely a matter of opinion", is self contradictory. I spelled these points out in more detail in my answer to the question.
    – Dcleve
    Sep 10 at 5:05
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easy. good and bad are social scores, like nice and pain are biological ones. so everything that's advantegeous for this concrete society, considered good by its ethics. of course, societies are different (like species), so for example in Communism goal to become reach considered as bad, while in Capitalism it's good

but many, if not most things are good for any society. these are like biological instincts, i.e. things required for every animal to keep alive and get lot of children. in the same way, any society need that you will be ready to kill its enemies, work, create family, produce children, keep its religion/ideology, don't violate this particular society laws (written and non-written) and so on, so on

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  • Please check out how to write good answers if you want to avoid spending a lot of time with answers that get downvoted.
    – iphigenie
    Jun 24 '13 at 12:55
  • i still don't see why it should be a bad answer, except that i don't follow existing phylosophies. it's easy to check that ethics is strictly defined by society needs like the pleasure and pain are defined by biological needs. probably everyone will be happy if i can make reference to famous old Philosoph, but i can't. although my view may be considered as developement of Marx philosophy who have said "social being determines consciousness".... Nevertheless, if someone need to SCIETIFICALLY determine what's good and bad - i propose the solid MATERIALISTIC theory. like no other?
    – Bulat
    Jun 24 '13 at 16:59
  • Then I will simply say that you are wrong.
    – iphigenie
    Jun 24 '13 at 17:07
  • thak you for the good answer. ok, i will add that it's impossible to answer a complex question is a short manner. obviously, people perform things that are bad for their own societies - just in the same way that auto sometimes don't ride. but ethics was created by society to force men to disregard their biological needs when they contradict to society needs. i suggest you to start studying from the common cases rather than search for contradictory ones, which you can find to any real-world theory. just for example - what cases of murder are moral?
    – Bulat
    Jun 24 '13 at 17:18
  • btw, are you agree at least that good/bad are SOCIAL MOTIVATION engines, like pleasure/pain are BIOLOGICAL ones? are you know a en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleasure_principle_(psychology) ?
    – Bulat
    Jun 24 '13 at 17:24
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Yes it is but only if you use purely logical definitions of the words "good" and "evil" and exclude emotions and opinions from determining what is good and evil.

What really is good and evil (short answer)

  • Good = pure selflessness
  • Evil (ungood, not necessarily wicked) = pure selfishness or more accurately, pure lack of selflessness

What really is good and evil (long answer with logical explanation)

  • Good = consciousness
  • Evil (ungood, not necessarily wicked) = material

If you define "evil" as being wicked, then this is not possible, as what constitutes being wicked is purely a matter of opinion. If we define "evil" as being the opposite of good, then we have something logical we can work with. The opposite of good is "goodless" or "ungood", not wicked. Therefore the word "evil" is ambiguous. Evil can't mean both "wicked" and the opposite of good, otherwise the opposite of light would not be dark. To avoid this ambiguity and so that we have something logical we can work with, I'll refer to "evil" as "goodless". Neither "goodless" or "ungood" are in the dictionary, however, it's more important to use words with the right meaning, than the wrong words just because they are in the dictionary.

If you exclude consciousness, the laws of physics describe "goodless". The second law of thermodynamics, "In a closed system, the entropy always stays the same or increases". A closed system is simply a system without consciousness, and entropy is chaos. One way of looking at it, is without good, things either stay the same or become more chaotic. All the laws of physics that describe the material world describe "goodless". Therefore, all material on it's own is goodless, and the laws of physics already describe its behaviour.

The laws of physics do not describe "good" though. Considering ungood = material, good must mean the opposite of material and be described by laws of physics that are the opposite of what describe "ungood". That's because the laws of physics do not describe consciousness. Some people live in a messy environment because they lack the conscious effort to keep it tidy but how many people live in a messy environment because they put a conscious effort in to intentionally create a mess? That was just a simply example but the same is true with much more complicated mess that we are not always aware of. Consciousness always seeks to lower chaosness. A computer without consciousness, is purely ungood, and that includes our brains too. The laws of consciousness are the exact opposite of the laws of physics describing material. Material is finite, consciousness is infinite. The entropy increases on its own without consciousness, the entropy decreases with consciousness. It's similar to electricity taking the path of least resistance. It's as if electricity is consciously aware of it's circuits and to avoid increasing entropy, it takes the path of least resistance. On it's own consciousness does not have free will. How can it, considering it's impossible for it to break the laws of consciousness and seek to intentionally create overall chaoticness? When consciousness increases entropy, it's because its being manipulated by something that is not conscious. A persons consciousness may control their brain but their consciousness will only act on what information it has. Therefore, a persons brain, can manipulate the persons consciousness, and considering it only cares about balancing emotions, why wouldn't it? Selflessness, only comes from consciousness, and selfishness is simply a lack of consciousness. We have freewill because we have a purely selfish brain that's manipulates our purely selfless consciousness and vice versa. People can do wicked things when they have a weak soul and a corrupt brain, but their soul is still pure good, and their brain pure ungood. They can't exist without each other.

This doesn't mean we should all become pacifists by avoiding chaos in order to be good. For example, long term it may be far less chaotic fighting for your rights, despite the immediate chaos. When is war ever the right thing? Simply when its the most peaceful option long term which is very rare. Self defence, protect the oppressed etc may justify it but never personal gain or money.

How it relates to morality and the justice system

As for morality, as described in the article, I think people just need to think about the differences between justice and revenge. Killing or locking up a murderer is an act of revenge, if you do it because you think they deserve it. However, of course they should at least be locked up but for logical reasons, not emotional ones. There are two reasons. One, they can't kill innocent people behind bars, and two, to reduce the likely hood of other people committing murders. How we should treat those that do wrong can't be described by science because the extent you should go to depends largely on variables, such as how effective is the punishment and how much it deters others from doing the same. You also have to consider the well being of those that are punished and decide what is better for everyone as a whole. For something very serious like child rape, their well being becomes insignificant. It's logical to make them suffer for their entire life if it reduces the chance of others doing the same but for minor crimes like shoplifting, its not so clear. Surely it's better a shop goes out of business from losing money due to shoplifting, than to eliminate it eliminate theft by making thieves afraid to be tortured. When the fear of making mistakes is worse than the consequences to everyone of making those mistakes, you're doing more harm than good.

How does it relate to religion?

It doesn't if you take things literally. You have to think in metaphors. Why would God create the devil? Consciousness can't exists without a physical universe otherwise there would be nothing to be conscious of. Good creates evil so that good can exist. Since consciousness seeks to reduce entropy, it has to exist to be able to reduce entropy. It doesn't need to exist at the time of the big bang though. The zero point energy field interacts with everything past, present and future through quantum fluctuations. All it would take for quantum fluctuations to create our universe so precisely, is the ability to make nothingness fluctuate and a brain to make the calculations with. Outside of space time, cause doesn't come before effect. Before and after become irrelevant and you are just left with infinite possibilities. It might sound paradoxical an all knowing consciousness using it's brain so that it can create a brain to figure out if and how it should create a universe to evolve into a brain, but it's not because no laws of physics are broken. It just needs two things to be possible. For nothingness to be able to fluctuate, (quantum fluctuations) and to use the information from quantum fluctuations. The former is a necessity for evolution to occur. Evolution requires fluctuations. The latter only needs to be possible to be possible. If it's possible to be possible, then the universe can exist to make it possible to exist and decide that it should exist, provided it will do what it takes to make it possible and no laws of physics are broken, it's a possibility. It gives everything a purpose because for the universe to function as a brain, it requires to stars to be alive, which requires living planets, such as Earth. Earth is only alive because it has life on it. Our purpose could be to spread life to other planets.

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The very short answer is: No. The longer answer is to explain Harris's five mistakes:

  1. Harris starts with the mistaken view of "scientism" that all knowledge is scientific knowledge. But we have multiple fields of study, including fine arts, humanities, and areas of practical skills (engineering, technical, medical, organizational, etc) that are not "science". He therefore invalidly assumes that if we can arrive at any shared knowledge of a moral question, that makes morality a "scientific" question.
  2. Harris is further confused about what and how science, is, and operates. Science is an EXPLORATION process, not a bookkeeping one. Science investigations go through a set of stages: Exploration of a subject; speculation on its key features; informed exploration to better understand those features; postulating hypotheses; testing, then revising those hypotheses based on test results; development, then testing of formal theories; formalization of definitions and methodologies to solve most problems in the field. Harris's method does not fit into any of these stages of scientific inquiry, nor does he understand or include the crucial aspect of testing and falsification. What Harris is doing is NOT science.
  3. Harris's key assumption set -- both the priority of consciousness/sentience, and the presumption of goodness, along with his concern over moral action in the first place, are incompatible with his deterministic reductive materialism. If consciousness is no more than the operation of specific mechanical structures, then it ISN'T important, and does not justify any morality. And moral goodness -- is an abstract object, which is not material, and has no relevance in a a reductive material worldview. And if we are all determined, none of this discussion matters anyway. Harris's entire subject and starting assumptions are irrelevant in his overall worldview.
  4. Harris pretends he is doing non-subjective morality, but he is explicitly using subjective opinion to try to motivate his readers to accept the reality of morality. He is explicitly appealing to our moral sense, but then pretends one can then do morality without either justifying the validity of such an appeal, or making any further appeals.
  5. Harris's approach to morality is to assume both hendonism for an individual == good, and that good is and should be optimized through utilitarian calculus. This has several problems: 5a) Most moral thinkers believe that hedonism fails to capture the essence of morality. Care for OTHERS, empathy, is a far more central concept than the maximization of pleasures or minimization of pains. And WELFARE matters a lot more than pleasure or pain. And the object of moral calculation is not obviously an individual. From a Darwinian perspective, it should be the species. OR, from a deep ecology perspective, it should be the entire biome -- Gaia. From a social perspective, it should be the community. At any rate, there are lot of alternatives to hedonistic utilitarianism that most moral thinkers consider to better capture morality. 5b) Utilitarian calculus -- simply does not work. Even form a hedonistic framework, one CANNOT calculate the sum of pleasure and pain, or any choice. Even if one excludes all other living things, and treats all humans as equal experiencers. Add in the problem of scale of importance of a consciousness, and how to account for future lives, and the level of impossibility goes up by several degrees. And then if one tries to switch to welfare -- that isn't measurable. And adding in the other levels of objects to optimize for: society, species, ecosystem, biome, galaxy -- the absurdity of Harris's project should be readily apparent.

So -- the long answer is NO, as well.

BUT -- there is a way in which Harris has hit upon a partially valid point. One CAN get from "is to ought", IF our intuitions about "ought" are valid, because those intuitions are an "is". But to do this, one:

  • FIRST has to establish an ontology in which consciousness and selves matter, and in which there are relevant moral choices to be made. Acceptance that abstract objects seem to be real, and that the "hard problem of consciousness" suggests that consciousness does not reduce, hence reductive materialism isn't valid, is all that is needed. One can operate with a pragmatic openness to both the reality of consciousness and abstract objects, without commitment to a single ontology.
  • SECOND one has to establish that intuitions of morality give valid information about morality. There are two methods I have seen to do so. Eusocial darwinian theory holds that eusocial species need to enforce common welfare, and evolution could reasonably used our moral intuitions to do so -- making moral intuitions valid at least up to the level of species. Or, if one accepts that abstract objects exist, then a moral sense implies that it was evolved to detect a real object -- abstract morality.
  • THIRD, one then has to deal with the obvious contradictions in moral sense person/person and society/society. The eusocial answer is that eusociality does not rely upon the details of a moral intuition, just its existence, hence lots of contradictory moral views are equally eusocially good. The abstraction detection view would hold that our moral sense is weak, hence often in error, and one must integrate moral intuitions across large numbers of people and societies for them to be valid. The combination of these two views would predict that societies could and would maintain objectively flawed moral systems to maintain social cohesion, and its members would tend to ignore their intuitive objections to the immorality (dogma trumps conscience).

Complete these three steps, and one can then begin a study of objective morality based on "is". This would not be a science yet, as the subject is far too immature, but could at some point emerge from philosophy as a new science.

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