Harris & Dawkins on Science and Morality

“If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves they should value evidence.

If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument would you invoke to prove they should value logic?”

                                                                     Sam Harris


Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins discuss science and morality.
At The Sheldonian Theatre, University of Oxford.

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2 thoughts on “Harris & Dawkins on Science and Morality

  1. I appreciate why you have posted this, since it gives a secular and/or scientific approach to ethics. Sadly, as a secular philosopher myself, I cannot accept the approach or “system” put forward by Sam Harris here. He advocates an approach known as utilitarianism or consequentialism. One simple objection is that his concept of “wellbeing” itself is not morally neutral, and there could be legitimate (moral) disagreement about whether certain things are examples of wellbeing or suffering. He thinks these judgments are simple, not open to debate, but I think otherwise. Another objection is that while concern for an actions consequencs are often morally relevant, they are not always relevant. We value justice, fairness, individual rights, oaths/promises, etc. even though they do not always produce the greatest good (wellbeing) for the greatest number of people.
    But there is a more interesting irony about his approach as an alternative to a morality based on religon. Jeremy Bentham, the first modern utilitarian, wrote a book entitled “The Science of Morals”. He thought, like Harris, that there were determinate right/wrong answers to all moral questions, even though, like Harris, getting all the facts we need might be difficult. In other words, in principle, we can determine/know whether something is right or wrong by calculation and reasoning.
    To me this is no different from some religious thinkers who believe that they can determine/deduce whether something is right or wrong based on their sacred texts. Harris will say that he is different because he is using evidence based science rather than some ancient texts, but I say he is the same because he thinks – as some religious writers do – that moral questions have definite in principle answers which he thinks of as “truths”.
    By contrast, I believe that many moral and political questions do not have in principle “correct” answers. They are sometimes called ultimate questions because we need to work them out, we need to decide which alternative is best and there is no ultimate moral system, moral principle, sacred text or whatever that can help us decide. This is a position that has existed in the history of philosohy and religion, but it is not popular with either religious writers or secular philosophers, each of which thinks they have found THE SYSTEM which will allow us to find THE CORRECT ANSWER to all moral and political questions. These people like Harris are very clever and argue well, but in the end I don’t think they do know what they claim to know.
    Also I have one final comment about the talk given by Harris. It is not interesting that for him the embodyment of pure evil is the Taliban. He uses an example of an Afghan man man (a Taliban supporter?) who allegedly threw acid in his daughter’s face. Does Sharia law permit this? Does the Taliban encourage this behaviour? I would have thought that a good example he could have used for pure evil was the behaviour of his own government in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Viet-nam, Korea, etc. How many millions of people in these coutries have had their wellbing hindered? (I assume your well-being is hindered if you are killed.) Could you really trust a moral system proposed by someone who is so morally blind that he objects to acid in the face but not to decades of killing and occupation??


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