Sam Harris on science and morality
By RUSSELL BLACKFORD - METAMAGICIAN AND THE HELLFIRE CLUB
Added: Wed, 24 Mar 2010 00:00:00 UTC
Can science have moral authority?
Sam Harris argues in this TED talk that science can be an authority on moral issues. It's a superb performance, and I think he's got it approximately right.
It seems clear to me that any source of information about the world is also potentially a source of information - taken together with our values - about how we should act, what moral systems we should want to have in place, what dispositions of character we'd like to develop in ourselves and our children, and what laws and government policies we should vote for. I'd think it's obvious that science can give us information that's relevant to all these things. If these are the sorts of things that are covered by "moral issues" - and it seems clear enough, at least to me, that they are - then science can give us some guidance on moral issues. To at least some extent, then, it can have moral authority.
The reason is simply that, to some extent, science can give us information about what individual conduct, moral systems, laws, and so on are likely to lead to such plausible goals for all these things as individual and collective human flourishing, social survival, and reduction of suffering. Any source of information about what will lead to goals such as these has some moral authority.
Religion, science, and morality
Religion could have moral authority if it were actually a reliable source of information about the world. If religion could give us accurate information that acting in such and such way will lead to such and such consequences, then it could, at least to some extent, have moral authority. If the prophets and other authors of holy books were genuinely receiving information from a god or other supernaturally knowledgeable being, a being with an epistemic advantage over us, then we would be very wise to pay attention.
The difficulty is this: in the real world the holy books seem no more reliable about moral issues than they are about such matters such as the age of the Earth. Sophisticated religious adherents tend to interpret the holy books more in keeping with what they know from elsewhere about what conduces to human flourishing (or social survival, reduction of suffering, and so on). Far from being authoritative, the holy books end up needing to be interpreted in the light of secular wisdom about what actually conduces to, say, widespread human flourishing.
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I enjoyed reading Mike LaBossiere’s post entitled “Church & State: Immaculate Contraception”, but I can’t resist the impulse to add a post of my own – perhaps because I lack free will in the matter, but mainly because I devote an entire chapter of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State to this sort of issue (so it is kind of on my mind), and certainly because it has become even more topical than usual.