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Harris’ morality project

March 29th, 2010 · 3 Comments

Can You Derive Ethics from Science?

For those of you who don’t know, TED is a convention of (usually) world-class thinkers who each give a 15-minute talk about a subject. Many of the people in TED are thought leaders. Some of them, however, get in merely because they have written a popular or controversial book. In one of this year’s TED talks, Sam Harris demonstrated that he has no grasp on the basic concepts of either philosophy or ethics.

Harris’ goal was to demonstrate that there is an objective right and wrong, and that it can, at least potentially, be determined scientifically.

Harris’ basic argument went like this:

The goal of ethics is to make conscious people have more enjoyable lives
Neuroscience can tell us factually what sorts of things make people happy or unhappy, whole or broken, etc.
Therefore, ethics is a scientific discipline, with objective rights on wrongs determined by science
To begin with, Harris somehow thinks that he is unique in saying that ethical reasoning can include scientific reasoning. In fact, all ethical reasoning uses scientific data in one way or another. It is rather amusing that Harris points out quite emphatically that if he were to go to a physics convention on string theory, he would be rightfully thrown out, yet he misses the fact that the same thing would happen if he went to a philosophy or ethics convention.

Tags: ethics

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