Old ground perhaps, but in his Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris draws a comparison between the way science is deemed foundational to our health goals, and the ways in which science might similarly be deemed foundational to notions of wellbeing:

It seems to me that there are three, distinct challenges put forward thus far:

There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem) Hence, if someone does not care about well-being, or cares only about his own and not about the well-being of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem) Even if we did agree to grant “well-being” primacy in any discussion of morality, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure well-being scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of morality. (The Measurement Problem)

I believe all of these challenges are the product of philosophical confusion. The simplest way to see this is by analogy to medicine and the mysterious quantity we call “health.” Let’s swap “morality” for “medicine” and “well-being” for “health” and see how things look:

There is no scientific basis to say that we should value health, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem) Hence, if someone does not care about health, or cares only about his own and not about the health of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem) Even if we did agree to grant “health” primacy in any discussion of medicine, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure health scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of medicine. (The Measurement Problem)

What are the flaws in this analogy? Is one of them that a person can point to a broken bone and say with certainty that "the bone is broken", but one cannot in a similar fashion point to a moral claim and state with certainty, "your claim is broken"?

Related reading:

Sean Carroll's rebuttal of Harris's approach, You Can't Derive 'Ought' from 'Is'

S.E. Post: Is Sam Harris's view of morality innovating? What philosophers innovated specifics on morality?

  • Abortion is a good example of how the wheels fall off Harris' metaphor. Unborn vs mother. Potential for life vs currently being a ball of cells. Personal vs society. Harris' framework has I'd say nothing to offer, for settling these kind of contentions. We need moral principles, cultural context, & many other things he dismisses unreflectively.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 23, 2021 at 13:39
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    How might the example of abortion employed as a criticism of Harris's analogy? It's not Harris's other claims I'm investigating. I'm interested for the moment purely in the soundness of the analogy he outlines in the excerpt I provided. Aug 23, 2021 at 13:53
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    One obvious problem is that health is just one value among many whereas "well-being" is supposed to encompass all of them (assuming utilitarianism). So one does not need to "not care" about health to create the value problem, they just need to care about other things as well, the dilemma we see play out continuously during COVID. We can grant health primacy in medicine and get a means-end science for it, but that is exactly because all the moral balancing with other values is bracketed out of the equation. "Science of well-being" would have to be exactly about this bracketed out balancing.
    – Conifold
    Aug 23, 2021 at 17:54
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    The morality/health analogy goes back to Bloomfield's book Moral Reality. Joyce's review argues that in the sense in which it holds it cannot do the job Bloomfield and Harris ask of it for the "science of values", and in the relevant normative sense it fails. Moral imperatives are desire independent, but lacking desire to care (enough) about one's health more or less erases the imperative to do it. Medicine enters only after what the "science of values" is supposed to do is already done.
    – Conifold
    Aug 23, 2021 at 20:28
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    I don't really see any problem with his analogy (it's just an analogy after all). "health" is somewhat ambiguous and subjective, it's just that most people have mostly overlapping values and preferences... same with morality. So you could study either one even if, at the end of the day science can't tell you which is 'universally true' (because of course the concept of objective value is meaningless). It seems the purpose is to show that we can study how morality operates manifest in our reality, even if establishing 'a priori' truths is impossible
    – John K
    Aug 23, 2021 at 20:28

6 Answers 6


"Science of morality" is not comparable to "science of medicine." The "science of morality" would seek to answer why we should value well-being. A directly comparable "science of medicine" would seek to answer why we should value health, and indeed there is no science of medicine capable of telling us why we should value health.

The science of medicine we do have is only an instrument - it tells us how to achieve positive health outcomes, assuming we want them.

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    Harris seems to acknowledge the absence of a 'why we should value wellbeing' in the excerpt, and is arguing that we pursue our notion of health despite the absence of a reason to value it. He then uses the analogy to argue that we could also pursue a notion of morality in the absence of a reason to value it (other than for its own sake). In effect, he's equating our assumption of the value of health with an assumption of the value of wellbeing. Is this not a fair analogy? Aug 23, 2021 at 9:52
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    A "Science of Morality" might try to answer what states of affairs people consider moral, and perhaps estimate conditional and joint distributions over variables that are relevant to human-professed values.
    – user46309
    Aug 23, 2021 at 19:40
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    A "Science of Medicine" might consider empirical data on how medicine itself operates.
    – user46309
    Aug 23, 2021 at 19:42
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    I don't see how a science of morality could tell us why we should value well-being any more than a science of medicine could. Of course it could come up with arguments which ultimately would be appeals to other values we may hold, but medicine could do the same.
    – John K
    Aug 23, 2021 at 20:31
  • @JohnK Is telling us which things we should value and why not a big part of morality? (e.g. should we value freedom to shoot guns or freedom to not be shot?) Aug 24, 2021 at 14:14

In both cases there are two separate questions: the meta- question: What definitions and goals should we use? - and the conditional question: Given a particular definition and goal, how does it all fit together and how can we achieve it?

In both cases, science bypasses the first as being outside its scope, but can attempt to answer the second.

The three objections are all to the meta-morality question. Out of all the moral systems, which one is 'right'? Science can't justify, argue for, or measure the 'goodness' of a moral claim independent of the assumption of a particular moral system defining how to measure it. (Personally I don't entirely agree, but let's accept it as so for the sake of discussing Harris.) But science can certainly list and classify moral systems and claims, identify relationships between them (logical, historical, cultural, etc.), model moral minds with psychology, predict consequences, and thereby suggest how a given moral goal might be practically achieved.

Likewise, medicine can't address the meta- question of what constitutes good health. That's why medicine demands informed consent of its patients to define what counts as a good outcome, an acceptable risk, etc. This part of medicine is not a science. Only when the patient (or a responsible guardian acting on their behalf) has defined what state of health they want or should have does the science of medicine then tells you what pills, surgery, therapy, etc. will best achieve that goal.

Harris first compares the meta- study of morality with the meta- study of medicine, and finds the three arguments equally applicable. But then equivocates definitions part way through the argument, suddenly interpreting the science of medicine in the how-to-achieve-it sense, and concludes that because medicine is a science despite the applicability of the three arguments, morality can be a science, too.

  • Brilliant answer! One might point out that this conflation of meta and in-context questions is happening on the part of the critics, and Harris is right to say that if those are the only problems, his idea is just fine. Noting of course that he could be misrepresenting or misunderstanding those critics.
    – Kazami
    Aug 24, 2021 at 18:45
  • I'm very interested in your response, but I can't identify the section in the Harris extract where he, "equivocates definitions part way through the argument". Can you point out where this is? Or are you referring to somewhere else in his actual text? Aug 11, 2022 at 14:00
  • If science can identify different views then it can very definitely compare them and see which works better. If idiot evolution can see winners and losers, I think we can do that too, only with a lot less death. I don't buy this idea that moral or any other stances can't be evaluated: just look at the results.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 10, 2022 at 2:22

I have to add some considerations to my old answer, which was a bit too crude, I guess.

The health-morality analogy is pretty flawed anyway.

For most physical conditions, especially serious ones, like cancer and heart disease, the desire for treatment is strongly externally supplied.

And there is very strong consensus: people of all genders, age, religion, political conviction, ethnic background, personality etc. usually want their cancer be treated ASAP.

The patients create the demand. They want to be treated. And medicine tries to satisfy the demand.

But outside of this very straightforward situation (which perhaps describes 80% of medicine), it suddenly gets highly controversial:

  • mental health / psychiatry
  • disability
  • harmful physical conditions that are actively maintained by a certain lifestyle (e. g. obesity)
  • drug abuse
  • behavioral addictions (e. g. gambling, heck even "gaming disorder")
  • reproductive health
  • gender identity, sexual orientation (e. g. asexuality vs. sexual dysfunction)

In those cases the desires are not strongly externally supplied and consensus is lacking.

And, surprise, it's where the endless, highly polarized debates start.

E. g.

  • harm reduction vs. abstinence
  • the social model of disability
  • the social model of mental health (Michel Foucault)
  • sterilization
  • addiction as a disease or moral failure
  • people who are functional and see nothing wrong in their personality "disorder", etc.

Of course you can double down and believe that if the WHO or AMA declares something a disease, it must be so. They're the professionals, after all.

I find this totally unconvincing.

Those other 20% of medicine and 100% of public health (where policies are enacted on the population without consent and on the basis of weak evidence) are just too controversial.

The debates around it seem way too philosophical, not objective, and easily devolve in irrefutable dogmatism:

The suggestion that obesity is not a disease but rather a consequence of a chosen lifestyle exemplified by overeating and/or inactivity is equivalent to suggesting that lung cancer is not a disease because it was brought about by individual choice to smoke cigarettes. (AMA)

... yes, that's the "quality" of the discourse. It seems to elude the AMA that lung cancer cannot be cured by quitting smoking. Obesity OTOH goes away by consuming fewer daily calories than you burn.

And similarly Harris' science of morality has few strong externally supplied desires / values.

Instead it would be 98% about "discovering" the "right" values.

So it is 98% old-fashioned utilitarianism and perhaps 2% applied social science.

Is utilitarianism correct? Even if it is (a big if), what is gained by Harris' rebranding?

We're still stuck with all its deep philosophical problems and conundrums. Like consistent quantification of well-being (less homicides vs. the happiness of gun ownership).

Original Answer

If Harris would’ve just proposed a “collective well-being science”*, his argument would make some sense. There are all kinds of sciences that are based on very contested, normative concepts (e. g. criminology).

But he aims to replace ethics, a whole branch of philosophy. As if all the hard questions there had already been solved. He does this by simply presupposing that ethics is about maximizing well-being, i. e. that consequentialism / utilitarianism is correct. Which is a galaxy-sized petitio principii.

* IMHO such a “well-being science” could be of some use for public administration. Especially at a local level where the difficult moral issues have already been decided and little wiggle room is left. The remaining options are then best analyzed with well-being maximization as the standard. But I guess that already exists, it’s probably some flavor of “policy analysis”.

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    Unfortunately, some consequentialists are unable to see past the end of their own nose. This sort of consequentialism-is-right-because-it-makes-people-happy question begging is extremely common in the "new atheist" and (to some extent) the broader rationalist/skeptic movements. I think in part this is because it's very easy to fool yourself into seeing it as axiomatic, or obvious, and in part because those movements tend to view pure philosophy with suspicion and distrust.
    – Kevin
    Aug 24, 2021 at 8:54
  • @Kevin It would be great if pure philosophy would bring about more change, but it's had thousands of years to do that. We need change today.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 10, 2022 at 2:13

1. Scope

Medicine mostly operates on the scope of the single human body, and then often at the scope of a single problem at a time, without great loss of meaning; whereas the proposed science of morality operates on a collective level. At best we're comparing an apple with a ton of apples. For an example of how this is relevant, note how in health it is possible to restrict your attention to reducing pain, reducing reducing blood sugar, ..etc; depending on the issue faced. When no specific target is available we can fall back on longevity. This is not as available to a discussion of collective well-being because not only is every aspect of one's existence on the table all the time, but also those of everyone else's are. There are of course some potential work-arounds, but the differences are signficant.

A similar point can be raised in regards to the Persuasion Problem, as differing values (or even differing definitions) of health between different individuals do not obstruct the study of one or the other; whereas most of morality would deal with a given person's conduct towards others.


2. Misrepresentation

The premise here is that a science of morality would be the scientific or experimental practice of determining what manner of conduct leads to an increase in the total sum of human 'well-being', and thus deemed moral.

The analogy (and indeed the entire argument) is misrepresenting the issue by mistakenly assuming that critics have accepted this premise, are happy with this objective, and are just discussing whether it would be technically possible within the scientific method. This is only correct for the Measurement problem, which I've discussed above, but the problems of Value and Persuasion are brought up as attempts to explain that this definition of morality and this proposal are themselves based on philosphical standpoints, not science, so the concept of "science" is not itself a viable defence for handwaving centuries of philosophical discussions. If these problems are actually brought up as technical arguments, then Harris is correct in finding them lacking.

So, if you do agree to ignore the countless problems with this idea of morality or its study, and are sure this is what you want to do, then the proposed science of well-being is perhaps viable, and the analogy is technically problematic but not fundamentally flawed.

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    I feel obligated to point out that studying the effect of various modes of conduct on collective well-being of a group is well within the scope of modern psychology, and there are many studies and papers doing this. It's just that no one is trying to use the results to label things moral or amoral. To do so, investigation would have to be widened to absurd levels
    – Kazami
    Aug 25, 2021 at 3:33
  • "I think it's time for some unsafe velocities."
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 10, 2022 at 2:10

Define health.

As you said, this is old ground, and Harris neglects much of what Plato neglected thousands of years ago.

There are many issues at play here, but my biggest one is that the definition of health is such an incredibly wooly, shaky concept as to be practically useless when trying to define absolutes, especially when talking morality.

For a start...

Health is non-comparable.

We all have an idea of the ideal human form, somewhere inside of us; stereotypically, a muscle-bound he-man for males, and a voluptuous Eve-like figure for females.

But this idea is extremely shaky. Ever seen Olympic sprinters? Know why they're so lean? Because every pound of muscle is another pound of flesh to propel across the finish line. More weight, more work.

What about heavyweight boxers? Most could kill Usain Bolt with one punch. Provided they could catch him!

Nobody would deny that Mohammed Ali or Usain Bolt were in peak physical condition at the heights of their careers, but they can't both be of the Ideal Form, because they are diverging.

What's more desirable? Speed, or strength? These two properties would both be desirable in an Idea Human, but they are (somewhat) mutually exclusive: strength gained is speed lost, so one cannot ever be Ideal in both.

Health is subjective.

To give an example: a vasectomy. By the old ideas of the Platonic "ideal form" that this argument often uses, to have a vasectomy is undesirable, because it damages the ideal form (i.e. a human capable of reproduction).

Saying all that doesn't negate the fact that millions of people every year elect to have a vasectomy; these people appear to desire this operation despite the fact that, by some definitions, it is injurious to health. Nevertheless, it is typically well-received by those who undergo it.

Indeed, it has been argued that readier access to vasectomies and other forms of theoretically injurious birth control would be a moral good, in preventing unwanted pregnancies.

This example illustrates that:

  1. The definition of "positive health outcome" appears to be quite flexible, and not at all as concrete as Plato would have us think.
  2. An event that is injurious to health can be desirable, and even argued as moral.


Arguments for health as morality have been played out to death; they have been used variously as everything between a get-up-and-go call in self-help books, to justification for genocide.

The core refutations for this angle are:

  1. Is != Ought: The classic razor against most moral prescriptivism.
  2. Health is not useful to us as a comparative property (We can't compare two individuals, nor can we compare to the Ideal Form).
  3. Health is not useful to us as an objective property. (The Ideal Form is incoherent because health is subjective.)
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    Harris doesn't seem to contradict your claims. In the excerpt, he is explicitly acknowledging the problems of measurement, value and persuasion as they relate to health, and states that despite this, we have a 'science of medicine'. He then asks why the same problems - those of measurement, value and persuasion - should prohibit a science of morality. Aug 23, 2021 at 12:32
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    ACH, my mistake entirely, I got the whole damned thing backwards! In the case, my answer is the exact opposite of what you're looking for, my apologies! Aug 23, 2021 at 12:40
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    I'm not invested in any particular answer. It's just that the analogy makes sense to me and if there are flaws in it, I would like to know what they are so I don't continue to labour under misapprehension. The material you provided didn't obviously contradict Harris's analogy, and it's the consistency of the analogy I'm interested in. Again, he is stating that the problems cited by some to prohibit a science of morality seem to be the same as those which should - but don't - prohibit a science of medicine. Aug 23, 2021 at 13:00
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    I think you're right; I've basically reassessed his answer wholesale. I do have leanings towards his answer (that much should be obvious) but I'd consider it fairly robust. Arguments that argue for particular moral behaviour are often very difficult to defend, and the inverse is usually true. I'm not personally a fan of moral prescriptivism in general so my biases are on my sleeve here. Aug 23, 2021 at 13:02
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    I don't think that the "health is subjective" argument flows. Just because a lot of people choose to do something that could be considered unhealthy by Plato does not relate to whether of not "health" is objective or subjective.
    – Dave
    Aug 23, 2021 at 16:55

I'm sorry, I take issue from the first sentence (and onward):

"There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)"

Oh, really? "scientific basis" is a catch-all straw man. Has Sam considered all the aspects of the (not defined by him) term "well-being"? Clearly not, as I, an atheist, definitely value my own well-being, whatever that is (I take the basic interpretation of the English phrase).

On top of this ribald assertion, he packs "(The Persuasion Problem)" and "(The Measurement Problem)" It all falls to the sand the argument is built on. It's obfuscation and it is bullshit.

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    The first sentence you quote (and the first paragraph) is Harris's synopsis of existing challenges to his thesis. If you want the full context, the link I provided will be useful. Aug 24, 2021 at 3:19
  • Wellbeing is getting pretty clearly defined nowadays. Look in to the research of Jeffrey A Martin.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 10, 2022 at 2:16
  • You are correct, @Futilitarian; i was sloppy. @scott-rowe, the idea that "well-being" is "clearly defined nowadays" is risible. Let me restate. Why not just say, "I do not believe there is a god," And leave it at that? Anyone who would argue with that is not really worth arguing with. I figured that out when I was 11 (which would have been 1977, fwiw).
    – axlotl
    Sep 11, 2022 at 7:01

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