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Moral confusion in the name of 'science'

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Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at the 2010 TED conference for exactly 18 minutes. The short format of these talks is a brilliant innovation and surely the reason for their potent half-life on the Internet. However, 18 minutes is not a lot of time in which to present a detailed argument. My intent was to begin a conversation about how we can understand morality in universal, scientific terms. Many people who loved my talk, misunderstood what I was saying, and loved it for the wrong reasons; and many of my critics were right to think that I had said something extremely controversial. I was not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind’s dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind. As the response to my TED talk indicates, it is taboo for a scientist to think such things, much less say them public.

Most educated, secular people (and this includes most scientists, academics, and journalists) seem to believe that there is no such thing as moral truth—only moral preference, moral opinion, and emotional reactions that we mistake for genuine knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. While I make the case for a universal conception of morality in much greater depth in my forthcoming book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values , I’d like to address the most common criticisms I’ve received thus far in response to my remarks at TED.

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TAGGED: MORALITY, SCIENCE, SPEECHES


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