Science can answer moral questions | Sam Harris | Summary and Q&A

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March 22, 2010
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TED
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Science can answer moral questions | Sam Harris

TL;DR

Science can inform our understanding of morality and human values by focusing on facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.

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Questions & Answers

Q: Is there a fundamental difference between facts and values when it comes to understanding human morality?

According to the speaker, there is no inherent separation between facts and values when it comes to morality. Values are a certain kind of fact related to the well-being of conscious beings.

Q: How does cultural variation in human flourishing fit into the speaker's argument?

The speaker suggests that cultural variation in human flourishing can be understood through the study of the human brain and the sciences of the mind. Different cultures may have different ways of maximizing well-being, but there may be objective truths and answers about how to achieve flourishing.

Q: Can science provide definitive answers to all moral questions?

The speaker acknowledges that while science may not have answers to every moral question, there are right and wrong answers to questions that affect human well-being. Even if we cannot find these answers, they still exist.

Q: How does the speaker address the role of religion in determining moral values?

The speaker argues that even religious values ultimately relate to conscious experience and well-being. He suggests that the endurance of religion in discussions of morality has diverted attention from more pressing moral issues.

Summary

In this talk, Sam Harris argues that the separation between science and human values is an illusion. He states that values are a certain kind of fact about the well-being of conscious creatures and that even religious morality is ultimately concerned with conscious experience. He believes that human well-being can be understood through science and that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality. Harris discusses the importance of admitting these answers and how it can transform the way we talk about morality and human cooperation.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the general belief about the relationship between science and morality?

It is generally understood that science has no opinion on questions of morality and that science can only help us achieve what we already value.

Q: Why does Harris argue that the separation between science and human values is an illusion?

Harris believes that values are facts about the well-being of conscious beings, and this is something that can be objectively studied and understood through science. He argues that even religious morality is ultimately concerned with conscious experience and its changes.

Q: What factual claim does Harris make about why we don't have ethical obligations toward rocks?

Harris claims that we don't have ethical obligations toward rocks because we don't think rocks can suffer. He argues that our concern for the well-being of conscious beings is a factual claim that can be right or wrong.

Q: Can religious values be reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its changes?

Yes, Harris argues that even if someone gets their values from religion, their concern is still about consciousness and its changes. He states that religious claims about consciousness persisting after death are themselves factual claims.

Q: How does Harris suggest we talk about values and morality?

Harris believes that values can be reduced to facts about conscious experience and that morality can be understood and studied through science. He argues that we need to admit that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing and that this will change the way we talk about morality.

Q: What does Harris claim is the necessary focus when talking about human well-being?

Harris states that when talking about human well-being, we are necessarily talking about the human brain because our experience of the world and ourselves is realized in the brain. He suggests that a maturing science of the mind can help understand and study cultural variations in human flourishing.

Q: How does Harris visualize the relationship between values and well-being?

Harris visualizes a moral landscape with peaks and valleys that correspond to differences in the well-being of conscious creatures. He believes that there may be states of human well-being that are rarely accessed and await discovery, and that there may be other states that we can't access but other minds possibly could.

Q: Does Harris think that science can answer every conceivable moral question?

No, Harris does not think that science can answer every moral question. He argues that although science may not map every aspect of the moral landscape, questions that affect human well-being do have answers, even if we can't find them.

Q: What examples does Harris give to illustrate the need for a universal conception of human values?

Harris gives the example of corporal punishment in some American states and argues that there are clearly right and wrong answers to questions about the well-being of children. He also discusses the issue of women's bodies in different cultures and highlights the importance of not tolerating beliefs and practices that lead to needless human suffering.

Q: What change does Harris suggest admitting the existence of right and wrong answers to moral questions would bring?

Harris suggests that admitting the existence of right and wrong answers to moral questions will change the way we talk about morality and human cooperation. He believes that it will lead to a convergence on answers to the most important questions in human life and will help address major global issues.

Takeaways

Harris argues that the separation between science and human values is an illusion and that values can be understood as facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. He suggests that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing and that admitting this will transform the way we talk about morality and human cooperation. He emphasizes the need for a universal conception of human values to address major global issues and to prevent needless human suffering.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Science can provide insight into questions of morality and human values by focusing on facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.

  • Values are a certain kind of fact, related to the potential happiness and suffering of conscious beings.

  • Understanding human well-being requires knowledge of the human brain and can be approached through the study of neuroscience and psychology.

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