I listened to some audios also read some blogs about position of sam harris that science can guide moral behavior. I get the idea roughly.

However, I would appreciate if someone can give a specific example that Sam Harris provides of a supposedly scientifically-proven moral statement. In others words specific examples of what Sam Harris means.

I ask this because I want to better understand the position of Sam Harris and didn't get time to read his book.


3 Answers 3


It is useful to review the answers to a prior question about Sam Harris: Is Sam Harris's view of morality innovating? What philosophers innovated specifics on morality? Harris is not a well informed philosopher, and does not provide anything near to a coherent argument in support of his claims. I make the same point in a review of his book, the moral landscape: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R3SB3ZQ7Y8SX1Y/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=143917122X Harris is GROSSLY uninformed about philosophic thinking about morality, and the difficulty of getting from "is" to "ought". He substitutes question-begging rhetoric and undescribed assumptions for reasoned argument, and is unaware that anyone can or does reject his assumptions (which primarily consist of utilitarianism, scientism, and material reductionism, without recognizing that neither values nor consciousness even exist in a thoroughgoing material reduction).

There ARE ways to get to empirically supported ethics -- but they must operate out of pragmatic worldview, not the logical positivism of Harris, as empiricism is based on INFERENTIAL JUDGEMENT, not closed form logic. And pragmatic reasoning can never provide the certainty that Harris claims.

For some examples, Darwinian ethics and Deep Ecology offer ways to do ethics empirically. Darwinian ethics have historically celebrated dominance and Alpha-male behavior, based on their survival advantage, which most other ethicists consider UN ethical. See the author's POV in https://www.amazon.com/Sperm-Wars-Infidelity-Conflict-Bedroom/dp/1560258489 for an example of rationalizing alpha dominance and rape and infidelity, based on the presumption that their role as successful reproduction strategies in human evolution justifies these practices (conflating "is" with "ought").

An alternative Darwinian approach is to note that humans are more Eusocial than most species. And eusocial species are dramatically more successful than most species. But Eusociality requires that members of the species generally put the good of the community ahead of their own welfare. If this is an essential human trait that has lead to our success in the world, then morality is reasonably an evolved inclination that is essential to human survival and success. This is a darwinian/empirical approach that at least approximates moral thinking, AND tries to get to "ought" from "is" with consequentialist justifications.

Deep ecology applies utilitarianism to ALL of life, arguing that we are the reasoning part of Life, and must act to guide Gaia, for when natural processes fail Her welfare. This is not empirical, but is explicitly consequentialist, which is closely related.

Within each of these views, there can be empirically based detailed rationales, but the validity of any such argument, requires that one accept the larger worldview they are framed in.

  • I think what I fail to see is how putting hand on a stove (like from answer below) related to morality based on Harris?
    – user49730
    Dec 30, 2020 at 15:56
  • @user49730 I tried to answer below. One can get to a mostly adequate "moral" behavior using Harris's approach. There are limit cases, where it breaks down, and those are why many other people do morality based on utility of psychological welfare, or on rights, or on all life rather than individuals, or on Virtues, etc -- there are many competing ethical models to Harris's approach. This rationale is also empirical (scientific). It assumes that our moral compasses reveal something true about the universe, and the failings of his approach in limit cases means we need a better model.
    – Dcleve
    Dec 30, 2020 at 18:53

Sam Harris uses the example of placing your hand on a hot stove is something objectively bad. Nobody thinks that its okay to place your hand on a hot stove.

I would agree with some philosophers that in theory, their is nothing intrinsically bad about placing your hand on a stove, but in practice I do not want to put my hand on a hot stove. Sam uses this as a sort of foundational landmark on a morality map. Sam does not give an absolute reason as to why putting your hand on a stove is bad, but it is difficult to find anyone who would think putting your hand on a hot stove would be good to do.

you can almost think of his morality argument as analogous to using triangulation with a map and a compass. (quick explanation of triangulation: http://www.compassdude.com/compass-triangulation.php ) ...Triangulation is not a sure fire means of finding location, but the more empirical evidence that you have, the more accurate your map can be. This is the basic idea Sam presents.

As a follow up, does anybody knows where this morality idea originates? Cheers

  • why is putting hand on a stove related to morality though?
    – user49730
    Dec 30, 2020 at 15:55
  • @user49730 -- Harris is working of the assumption that morality is nothing more than pragmatic optimization of a simplified view of physical harms and benefits, and that one can sum these welfares per Utilitarian calculus. This works for some morality. WHY one should care about morality rather than just pragmatic selfishness, he can't answer. Also, while Utility Calculus on simple material harms works well for some aspects of moral behavior, it does not work for others, and like most moral ideologues, Harris just selectively thinks about his confirmations (confirmation bias).
    – Dcleve
    Dec 30, 2020 at 18:45
  • @Dcleve Can you name one example where Harris approach fails?
    – user49752
    Dec 31, 2020 at 8:33
  • @user 49752 -- There are many cases where Harris's physical health based utilitarianism gives what appear to be immoral guidance. The patient who goes in for minor surgery, but ends up being used as an involuntary organ donor for 5 others in the hospital is the classic one used by rights ethicists. The failure to recognize that what matters is how we FEEL, not how physically healthy we are, and also that growth rater than harm avoidance is critical to human thriving, is used by psychological utilitarians -- a specific example is that one has to risk harm to learn to do things (continuing)
    – Dcleve
    Dec 31, 2020 at 13:36
  • and burning a hand on a stove, or injuring oneself in minor ways while learning to use power tools are actually a useful learning experience. Virtue ethicists note that even psychologic utility des not get at what we should be morally pursuing, it is not just phycological satisfaction or harm avoidance that is our proper life goal, but the development of CHARACTER. Anti-utilitariand note that utility calculus is impossible to EVER perform, and U declares a moral necessity to optimize EVERYTHING, and this combo of bad ideas creates a major psychological and behavioral harm in their holder.
    – Dcleve
    Dec 31, 2020 at 13:43

Sam's rubric is that morality covers "the well being of sentient creatures". Health is a subset of "well-being" thus any scientific findings relating to humans' health is a scientific derived fact relating to morality.

Scientific evidence that animals are sentient, means that they warrant moral concerns for their well being, under Harris's view.

  • Read my review of Harris's book. Yes, his assumptions lead to full "animal rights" utilitarianism, but Harris des not recognize this himself. He is not a clear thinker, and basically is using his "reasoning": as rationalizations to arrive at a POV that he believes intuitively, and that POV is not an animal rights POV.
    – Dcleve
    Dec 31, 2020 at 15:31

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