Science and Morality

The Problem

Can science define and answer our moral questions?

Since the publication of Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape - How Science Can Determine Human Values, there have been heated discussions regarding this question. Harris supports the position that not only will our moral questions someday be answered by science, but our moral goals and questions will be determined by science. This position has also received support from Michael Shermer.

Medicine is intertwined with ethics and morality. Doctors (skeptical or not) make moral decisions every working day. Our decisions should be informed by the best scientific information available. Science guides our moral decision making. Science can provide us with working knowledge of human physiology and psychology. Science leads us to better drugs, therapies and other tools to achieve our goals. Science can lead us to “best practices” and (hopefully) increase the likelihood of optimal outcomes.

Science can tell us how to achieve our goals, but can it define what our goals should be? This is the crux of the problem.

Harris vs. Pigliucci

To a large extent, much of Harris’s position is not very controversial. The debated controversy stems from the implied notion that science can not only help us answer our moral questions, but that science can actually determine the moral values and the questions themselves. Does Dr. Harris actually maintain this? Yes.

Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures. If there are more and less effective ways for us to seek happiness and to avoid misery in this world—and there clearly are—then there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality”, states Harris in an interview. He argues that science will provide us with the right and wrong answers to these questions and the questions themselves. The subtitle of his book (‘How Science Can Determine Human Values”) implies that moral values can be discovered by science.

On page 28, he states, “...I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want--and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible."

Dr. Harris supports his position by referring to situations that most of us would agree are clearly immoral. He cites many cultural practices that involve heinous acts of violence against innocent individuals due to cultural and religious norms. Most of us would not argue that we should not torture and kill our children for dishonoring the family. However, did we arrive at this conclusion scientifically?

Harris also discusses the advances in neuroscience and neuroimaging. He cites work done with fMRI scans that demonstrate what areas in the brain are involved in loss aversion, moral dilemmas (such as the often cited “trolley problem”), psychopathy, belief and the misconceptions of free will.

Perhaps, as we learn more about the brain, we can determine what paths lead to optimal happiness by observing fMRI scans to determine what stimuli consistently are associated with the brain patterns of happiness. It would appear that neuroscience is indeed discovering the mechanisms of the brain involved in our senses of happiness and well-being, as well as negative emotions such as disgust and fear. Perhaps we can learn to choose paths that optimize the brain states of happiness and well-being through scientific inquiry. These prospects are intriguing, but are they relevant to the question of whether science can determine our moral values for us?

Harris’s position was met with heated debate, particularly from scientist and philosopher, Massimo Pigliucci.

“For Harris, values are facts, and as such they are amenable to scientific inquiry. I think he is spectacularly wrong.

Dr. Pigliucci also argued on-line and in public forums with Michael Shermer on this matter.

Dr. Pigliucci looks at the problem from the standpoint of Hume’s Is-Ought Distinction (more on that later). Morality begins with first determining what ought to be. Then science can inform us on what is the best path to this morality. He also disputes the use of science to determine the goals and values of morality in the first place.

Harris tells us that genital mutilation of young girls is wrong. I agree, but certainly we have no need of fMRI scans to tell us why: the fact that certain regions of the brain are involved in pain and suffering, and that we might be able to measure exactly the degree of those emotions doesn’t add anything at all to the conclusion that genital mutilation is wrong...

Pigliucci, being both a scientist and a philosopher, maintains definitional distinctions between science and philosophy. His book, Nonsense on Stilts, deals with the philosophy of science and distinctions between the two fields. On page 303, he states, “What all scientific inquiry has in common, however, are the fundamental aspects of being an investigation of nature, based on the construction of empirically verifiable theories and hypotheses. These three elements, naturalism, theory, and empiricism, are what make science different from any other human activity.” Implied in naturalism and empiricism is the understanding that scientific inquiry deals with discoverable truths that exist independent of our thoughts about them.

Sam Harris suggests a more liberal definition of science. “Some people maintain this view by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms, as though it were synonymous with mathematical modeling or immediate access to experimental data. However this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn.” (page 29, The Moral Landscape)

Including science with the rest of rational thought may mean including logic and philosophy itself under the heading of science. If this is true, then moral values and questions may be the product of science as they (one would hope) flow from rational thought.

This brings us to the concept of moral truths. Are they discoverable? Do they exist independent of our thoughts about them? Does this matter? To a philosopher of science, it would appear that it does.

After reviewing both sides of the argument, it seems that both gentlemen actually agree on key points, namely the value of the scientific method as the best method to determine our facts, theories and laws. The difference is in the basics of science and philosophy. To what can we attribute our attitudes and values? Science or Philosophy?

Did Morality Evolve?

The foundational theory of biology is that of evolution by natural selection. Other mechanisms influence the evolution of species, such as genetic drift and sexual selection. Although our understanding of evolution is itself evolving, a simplistic model is that species change due to selective pressures by adapting to the pressures. Those in the species that do not possess the traits that are adaptive reproduce at a lesser rate than those with adaptive traits. Such traits increase in frequency. Among complex organisms, the redistribution in traits leads to wide enough variation that two related groups of individuals can no longer mate.  Thus, we distinguish two distinct species.

Did our morals themselves evolve as traits like our skeletal and immune systems did? This question is relevant to our discussion, because evolutionary traits are subject to scientific inquiry. They are potentially discoverable independent of our ideas about them. They are testable and falsifiable.

Evolutionary psychologist Steve Stewart-Williams addressed this in his essay Did Morality Evolve?  Some aspects of our moral instincts have obvious evolutionary foundations. The quotes below come from his essay.

On the one hand, there's little doubt that evolutionary theory can shed light on the origins of some of the behaviours that fall within the rubric of morality, including altruism, empathy, and our characteristic attitudes about certain kinds of sexual behaviour.

He gives some compelling reasons to accept the precept that some aspects of our moral values evolved. One is that species that are genetically related to us on the evolutionary bush exhibit what most would call moral behavior.

“They cooperate; they help one another; they share resources; they love their offspring. Given that we accept an evolutionary explanation for this behaviour in other species, it seems tenuous to argue that the same behaviour in human beings is entirely a product of a completely different cause: learning or culture.”

“...we now have a pretty impressive arsenal of theories explaining how such behaviour evolved. Kin selection theory explains why many animals - humans included - are more altruistic toward kin than non-kin: Kin are more likely than chance to share any genes contributing to this nepotistic tendency. Reciprocal altruism theory explains how altruism can evolve even among non-relatives: Helping others can benefit the helper, as long as there's a sufficient probability that the help will be reciprocated and as long as people avoid helping those who don't return the favour. Another promising theory is that altruism is a costly display of fitness, which makes the altruist more attractive as a mate or ally. Overall, the evolutionary explanation of altruism represents one of the real success stories of the evolutionary approach to psychology.

“Evolutionary theory also sheds light on sexual morality, in particular our attitudes toward incest.

Consistent with this reasoning, the avoidance of incest is widespread in the animal kingdom and, once again, we're no exception to this general rule.”

Stewart-Williams points out that although some of our apparent moral values line up with evolutionary theory, many do not. In fact, much of what we value as virtuous seems to be in conflict with what evolutionary theory would predict.

Some evolved tendencies are considered moral; this includes the desire to care for one's children and to form monogamous pair bonds. But others are generally considered immoral; think, for example, of aggression, xenophobia, and our proneness to be unfaithful sexually. Why do we consider some evolved motivations good and others not?”

Our moral values seem to diverge from pure natural selection when cultures develop among conscious beings. The notions of right and wrong develop among members of these cultures as ideas. These ideas vary and change over time within cultures.

“...human moral codes vary a great deal between different cultures and subcultures (although not as much as people sometimes think). Furthermore, moral beliefs sometimes change rapidly over time, both within individuals and within societies”

“Often, though, doing the right thing involves an effort of will and goes against our dominant impulse.”

“...we must go beyond biological evolution and consider the contribution of cultural evolution in the making of our moral systems.”

“The first step is to draw a clear distinction between our morally-relevant evolved dispositions and our shared moral code. The latter does not have a direct evolutionary origin. It is a cultural product, and is the outcome of many different factors.”

This brings us back again to the idea that morality is not a direct product of evolution. Instead, and to some extent, it is a human-made system of favouring those evolved tendencies that facilitate group cohesion, while disfavouring those that are socially divisive. Morality is a way of controlling our evolved natures, rather than a mere reflection of those natures.” (emphasis added)

Some would argue that various cultural values evolve through selective pressures and necessity just as do genetic traits. This may be so. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme to describe cultural ideas and traits that evolve analogous to genes. The question relevant to our discussion is whether or not variations in cultural memes are amenable to scientific inquiry.

The field of Evolutionary Psychology is developing to explore this very question. While there are few that question the scientific validity of the ideas of reciprocal altruism and kin selection, it gets fuzzy when discussing the evolution of cultural values.

Observations of cultural memes are often assigned very reasonable-sounding explanations, but some would argue that our explanations are compliant and that evolutionary psychology does not really explain much prospectively. If the same ‘system’ can explain two conflicting observations equally well, is it really a scientific system/ model or just post-hoc rationalization? One criteria proposed to differentiate scientific ideas from other ideas is that of falsification. Can we form a consistent system to predict cultural values that survives falsification? Or are we simply making reasonable sounding explanations for our observations about certain cultural traits as we go?

It is not surprising that a vocal critic of evolutionary psychology as a science is Massimo Pigliucci.  He points out that evolutionary psychology (at the cultural level) is not really a science, just as Freudian Psychoanalysis is not really a science. They are systems that provide explanations for all observations, but really only after the observations are made. Systems that can be bent to explain everything actually explain very little. At the very least, they are not falsifiable, and therefore not scientific.

“...the problem is not that the basic ideas aren’t sound: sex surely is a fundamental drive of human urges and emotions, and therefore must play an explanatory role in a variety of human behaviors, just like psychoanalysts would have it. Likewise, evolutionary psychologists are certainly correct that natural selection must have played a role in shaping human behaviors and cognitive abilities, as general evolutionary theory would predict. The trouble starts when we get to detailed scenarios aiming at accounting for individual instances."

Pigliucci describes how confident psychoanalysts can be of their explanations (“It is plain that...”, “It will not surprise...”, etc.) even though they would be hard pressed to propose an empirical test of what they take to be so self-evident.”

For instance, when we observe a society that values the idea that women are inferior to men (even to the point of feeling morally secure in physically harming them), we are tempted to assign explanations that describe how it got that way. While those explanations may turn out to be true, we may not be able to falsify them. In other words, the variations in cultural values may not be truly the subject of scientific inquiry.

At this point, we can say that basic human drives are amenable to scientific inquiry. Although vastly interesting to study, the variations in cultural moral values are not really subject to scientific explanation in the strict sense of the word.

Sam Harris uses examples of cultures that value the mistreatment of its members (such as female circumcision, the killing of rape victims and extreme violations of human rights in his book, The Moral Landscape, to point out how science can discover which moral systems and cultural memes are more conducive to the well-being of conscious beings.

This may be so, but can science tell us that we should value the selection of one moral system over another? Is this science or philosophy? That is the sticking point of the controversy.

Hume’s Problem of Induction and Hume’s Guillotine

We have already met the Problem of Induction and Hume’s Guillotine.

To recap, the Problem of Induction demonstrates that we can’t justify inductive reasoning with inductive reasoning. This is circular logic and begs the question.

Hume’s Guillotine draws a distinct line between “is” and “ought”. This is sometimes called the “Is-Ought Distinction” or the Naturalistic Fallacy. The statement that something “is” a certain way does not explain why it “ought” to be that way. Science is our best tool for determining what something “is”. Can it determine what something “ought” to be?

For instance, let’s say we are working in an emergency room. A sick child is brought in with abdominal pain and fever. We find that she is tender in the right lower quadrant.  We know from information acquired through medical science that she may have appendicitis. We also know from medical science that if untreated, this can lead to death. A CT scan is done (also thanks to technology due to science). The CT shows appendicitis. The “is” of the situation is that she has appendicitis.

We decide that we ought to start antibiotics and send her for surgery. This is a decision that has more to do with morality. We “ought” to do this because we want her to live and be happy. Science has provided us with the knowledge that antibiotics and surgery are the best way to achieve our goals. Science has informed our moral decision making.

Science gave us all of the information about what was going on with our patient and what would likely happen as a result of our decisions.

But did science tell us what we should want for our patient in terms of outcome? Should we want her to live and be happy? Most sane people would argue “Yes! Of course we should!” But, is that a scientific position or a philosophic one?

What Should We Do?

The answer to this question depends on what one wishes to achieve. It depends on our goals. It is easy to assume that others share our goals and objectives, but this assumption is not warranted.

Most cultures and individuals will likely agree on several big issues. Pain is bad. Happiness is good. These statements could be considered “trivially true”, or true by definition. They are accepted as givens without need for scientific research or philosophical debate. The problem comes when less trivial concepts enter the mix.

Let’s consider democracy for instance. In the modern “free world”, most would agree that democracy is good. But what about the nitty-gritty of democracy? Should we strive for the most happiness for the most people? Always? At the expense of certain principles?

Many would characterize democracy as “majority rule”. The group as a whole votes on an issue and the most votes win. But what about individual rights? What if the majority wishes a course of action that would be harmful to the minority? What if the majority decides to enslave the minority? One could argue that such an example is a ridiculous extreme, but only when considered through the lens of our culture’s current concepts of good and bad.

For that matter, why is democracy good? Of course, we accept it as good. But how does a society adopt it? Do they discuss it? Do they vote on it? If so, that would indicate that the society already values voting, and therefore already values democracy a priori. Sometimes it is forced upon a society, which ironically goes against the principles of democracy.

Just as we cannot (in principle) use inductive reasoning to justify inductive reasoning, or the use of science to justify science, we cannot use democracy to justify democracy. We have to accept these principles a priori.

How about health care decisions? Should we value length of life over quality of life? What about the expense of using valuable resources to achieve quantity or quality? The ultimate answers depend on our goals and values.

Sam Harris likens valuing health with valuing well-being. Remember, he equates morality with the promotion of well-being of conscious beings and ultimately not in need of justification. “Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science. Medicine can resolve specific questions about human health...”

Philosophers have pondered these types of questions. Systems of ethics have developed that reflect the values of those that use them. Utilitarianism calls for actions that maximize happiness for the majority of people. Deontology calls for adhering to certain principles (“moral imperatives”) rather than striving for majority happiness. One could argue that, in the extreme, adhering to certain principles may actually lead to the greatest happiness, or that Utilitarianism itself is a moral imperative, but it is often unclear when faced with real-life situations.

Should we strive to maintain certain principles at the expense of some happiness? Virtue Ethics maintains that we should, as individuals, strive to be virtuous. However, many often disagree on the nature of virtues.

The manuscript Ethical Theory (An Overview) describes these and other proposed ethical schools of thought. It is worth a read. Here the author argues that the different systems may have enough commonality (from a point of view) that an ultimate system may result from a synthesis of Utilitarianism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics and a few others.

Sam Harris seems to acknowledge these ethical systems, but also seems to determine that they are trivial.

On his blog, he states, “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.  

Many, like Harris, argue that science can and will provide us with the answers to navigate our moral decision-making. Remember, Sam Harris has suggested that we think of science as something that encompasses all of rational thought, not just empirical inquiry.

Science can help us to get what we want. But can it ultimately tell us what we want?

Moral Realism - Is Morality Independent of Us?

Science is used to discover facts and theories about the natural world. For skeptical doctors, science discovers usable knowledge about the body and disease. We depend on this knowledge to approximate Truths in the world. Our knowledge may change and improve, but the Truths remain.

As we have seen, we assume that there is an objective reality “out there” that has the potential for discovery. Such a world exists independent of our ideas about it. Even the reality of our brain physiology exists to be discovered by us and is independent of our ideas about it. Reality exists whether we understand it or not, and whether we believe in it or not.  Hopefully, we can develop and refine our ideas to best approximate this reality.

Most would agree with this position when considering laws of physics or the existence of stars, galaxies and microbes. They are discoverable and independent of our ideas about them. They would exist even if we never thought about them or did not believe in them.

It gets fuzzy when we consider concepts such as mathematics. Did we discover math or invent it? We can observe things and forces, but can we observe math independent of “things”?  Nobody really knows because this is dependent on how we think about math. It is kind-of independent of our ideas about it (2+2 always equals 4), but as we have seen, this is only true in the trivial sense.

Things that are trivially true are true by definition. They cannot be falsified and are not subject to argument. They are as they are defined (“it is what it is”). “2+2” is just another way of saying “4”.  Nobody has to prove that “0 = 0”. If we add, subtract, multiply or divide each side by the same operations, we can essentially come up with any equation. We haven’t really learned anything new. But, what is “4”. Can we define it? Can we observe it independently of our ideas about it?

Many have debated about whether math is best categorized as a science or a philosophy (a sub-category of logic).

Whatever-the-case, math appears to be an a priori principle (see Kant, “synthetic a priori”). It is independent of just about anything. Every equation can be derived from “0 = 0”. Math is both everything and nothing, invented and discovered. It all depends on how you think of it. Or does it?

What other ideas “out there” are trivially true?

How about the concepts of “good” and “bad”.  Let’s look at how a dictionary defines “good”.


1.   Being positive or desirable in nature; not bad or poor

2. a.   Having the qualities that are desirable or distinguishing in a particular thing

   b.   Serving the desired purpose or end; suitable

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Notice that each definition is dependent on words like “desirable” which may be considered synonymous with “good”. It also is defined as “not bad”.

Assuming that we desire happiness, then desirable things may be thought of as things that promote happiness. In other words, “good” is what promotes happiness. However, this is an assumption that we choose to make. Defining “good” in this way is a choice. We didn’t discover it. We defined it.

“Bad” has similar problems. The definitions are circular and trivial.

What about the definition of “Morality”?


1.   The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.

2.   A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct.

3.   Virtuous conduct.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved

So, the first definition of “morality” concerns doing what is “good”. But how can we discover what is good without defining it first?  In other words, is it possible to scientifically discover what is moral?

According to the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “(m)oral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common (and more or less defining) ground of moral realism.”

Philosopher G.E. Moore pondered these issues. He noted that if morality is grounded in nature, then moral terms could be defined correctly using terms that refer to natural properties. He suggests that a moral realist may define “good” as something that is pleasant, or something that promotes the species. He then points out some of the definitional problems that we discussed above. For instance, if “good” equals “pleasant”, then we are just choosing a trivial definition for the word. In other words, “good” and “pleasant” are one-and-the-same.

Moore uses the analogy. The word “triangle” can be grounded by the naturalistic properties of a polygon with three sides. To not understand the idea of a three-sided polygon is to not understand what it is to be a triangle. But Moore then questions whether this analogy really applies to moral terms like “good”. He proposed his so-called “open-ended question”. Whenever we are faced with a question of a moral nature like “good”, we always have to ask why is it good? Why is pleasure “good”? Again, many moral realists may shrug this off as obvious. But to non-realists, it is fundamental.

The Stanford Encyclopedia states, “(w)hat this shows, Moore argued, was that moral terms did not refer to natural properties and so a proper account of moral claims would have to recognize that they purport to report non-natural facts.” ???

We should keep in mind that Sam Harris defined morality as relating to the well-being of conscious creatures.

With this in mind, we can imagine a dialogue between Pigliucci and Harris.

Harris: We should do what is good.

           Good is what promotes happiness.

           Therefore, we should do what promotes happiness.

Pigliucci: Why should we do what is good?

Harris: Because it promotes happiness.

Pigliucci: Why should we value happiness?

Harris: Because we just do. That is a fact.

Pigliucci: No, I didn’t ask what we value. I asked why should we value happiness?

Harris: Because it is good!

Pigliucci: Isn’t that circular reasoning?

Harris: This is silly.

Moral Relativism?

Many would be quick to point out that if morality is not an actual thing that exists independent of our thoughts, then that would mean that morality is purely arbitrary (see Euthyphro). Basically, anything would go. Morality would be completely relative to the values of the culture or individuals that hold them.

Although this objection commits the logical fallacy of Argument from Final Consequences, it may also be a false dichotomy. Morality does not necessarily have to be all relativistic or universal.

Harris's book points out several examples of violations of human dignity that are the result of cultural tradition, such as the stoning of rape victims and genital mutilation of female "circumcision". These practices are accepted within cultures that exist in the modern world, yet we as rational beings cannot fathom them as being moral.

A.C. Grayling points out in his book, The God Argument, that morality may exist on a bit of a continuum. Ultimately, morality is concerned with the well-being of conscious beings, but there are many different customs that may lead to the same level of well-being. 

Take etiquette for instance. In some cultures, it is considered polite for guests to burp after eating dinner as a sign to the host that the dinner was enjoyed. In other cultures, burping at the dinner table is considered extremely offensive. One could say that in the first culture, it is moral to burp after an enjoyable meal, but in others it is immoral. In other words, morality -- as it relates to etiquette and innocuous cultural traditions -- is relative. Of course these variations in morality may be lumped under a less relative heading of "be respectful of others' cultures, if doing so does not lead to harm". 

Other moral questions concern issues that are universal to conscious beings. People (and animals) generally feel pain and do not wish to be harmed. In general, they certainly do not wish to be maimed or killed. Moral questions and decisions that are concerned with these universal issues are not relative. Moral agents with a rational outlook can never view acts such as the torture or killing of innocent beings as moral.

What’s the Meaning of Life?

This question gets asked a lot as kind of a surrogate for being philosophical. For that matter, what does it mean to mean something? Can we define “meaning” without referring to the word meaning (or a synonym like “purpose”)? It would seem that to answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” would be to beg the question regarding the meaning of the word meaning.

Meaning and purpose seem only relevant with respect to one’s own thoughts about them. For something to have meaning, we have to give it meaning. Otherwise, it seems incoherent. We choose our meaning for ourselves to define our moral values. Once we do that, then we can use science to inform us in ways to achieve it.

Dr. Harris stated that he often encounters opposition to his position with statements like “Morals don’t exist because they are not scientific”. Some would consider this to be a straw-man.

It would be hard to find a rational person who denies that morals exist from the standpoint of looking inward. Morals obviously do exist. We inherit moral values through evolution and culture and we choose others. Even our inherited moral instincts are assigned moral value by individuals and collectively by cultures.

Morals exist, but not independent of our ideas about them. Similarly, our lives have meaning, but it is up to individuals to find their personal meaning.

French philosopher, Albert Camus, in his Myth of Sisyphus, proposed a litmus test for one's personal meaning of life. He proposed that one ask oneself, "Why not commit suicide?". One's answer to this question contains one's personal "meaning of life".

Paleontologist Steven Jay Gould distinguished between the 'why' and the 'how' of our existence:

"We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way."

Most rational people value "well-being" and the “good life”. These concepts relate to “meaning” and “purpose”. “Well-being” and the “good life” are defined by those that aspire to them. We can accept that morality relates to well-being and the good life, but they cannot be discovered independant of our ideas about them.

Science Cannot Tell Us to Use Science

Hume’s problem of induction is a stickler if we accept that circular reasoning is not logically valid. This is the key to understanding this problem. Science is not logically justified. We accept it. We choose it. This is rational, but not science.

As explained on the Philosophy and Science page, the belief that we should use science is best described as a "basic belief". We may view it as the "unmoved mover" of this debate. The supposition is that the "proof" for using science and induction is that this belief is the necessary condition for the intelligibility of all other objective inquiry. In other words, one can appeal to the alleged necessity of the belief.  This is the so-called Kantian "transcendental argument".

Some apparently feel that this is so trivial that it does not enter into the problem. To reject scientific reasoning is to forfeit any argument for alternative thinking (see You Can’t Have it Both Ways). To them, the problem of induction is a non-issue.

Sam Harris acknowledges this, but later in the book implies that it is a non-issue. “It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic?

Then...”It is essential to see that the demand for radical justification leveled by the moral skeptic could not be met by any branch of science. Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. Does this make science itself unscientific? If so, we appear to have pulled ourselves down by our bootstraps.” (page 37, The Moral Landscape)

By this he likely means that the problem of induction is trivial and to be concerned with it is unproductive. To others, it simply is not science. It simply is philosophy. In fact, the problem of induction is part of the foundation of the division between science and philosophy. The problem of induction, as trivial as it may seem, represents a choice that, in-and-of-itself, is not scientific. Once we recognize inductive reasoning and science for what it is, choosing to use it is a philosophical decision.

It seems so intuitive and logical that we should use inductive reasoning (scientific reasoning) and that it may be taken as a priori, or discoverable and independant of our ideas about it. Those that hold this position may indeed feel that science can determine both moral questions and moral answers to those questions.   

Should We Use Science in Moral Questions?

Both sides of this debate agree that science should be used to inform our moral decisions.

Let’s build an argument for the use of science in moral decision making and see where it takes us.

Arguments start with premises. Hopefully we can agree on these premises. If we do, then we should be able to come to an agreement regarding the conclusions.

Argument 1:

1) We desire certain outcomes.

2) Moral decision-making is involved in choosing actions that may lead to desired outcomes.

3) If we desire certain outcomes, then we need to take certain actions.

4) If we are to take certain actions, then we need to make decisions to guide our actions.

5) Information is necessary to project outcomes from certain actions.

6) If we make decisions, then we need to use information.

Conclusion 1: Therefore, if we wish to make decisions that lead to actions in order to achieve certain outcomes (moral decision-making), then we need to use information.

Argument 2:

1) We value true information over false information.*

2) We do not have access to absolute Truth.

3) If we value true information over false information, then we should value our best estimate of the truth over other information.

4) Science is our best source of factual and theoretical information. Science provides us with our best estimate/ model of truth.

*We value true information over false information because we have been thinking scientifically in the first place (this begs the question).

Conclusion 2: Therefore, if we value truth, then we need to use science as our best source of information.

Conclusion 3: Therefore, if we wish to make decisions that lead to actions in order to achieve desired outcomes (moral decision-making), then we should use science as our source of information to guide our moral decision making.

Our moral decisions (informed by science) will guide us (hopefully) to our desired outcomes.

Therefore, we should use science to inform our decisions to guide us toward our philosophically determined goals. However, our desired outcomes are based on our philosophical positions (for instance, do we want democracy?).


The statement that science can determine our moral decisions can be a statement of fact just as the statement that religious doctrines can determine our moral decisions is also a statement of fact -- if certain presumptions are True.

Sam Harris states, Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures”. This seems reasonable, but is it a priori True? Is it true by definition (is he simply defining morality?) or is it a discoverable fact that exists as it is -  regardless of our thoughts about it?

This presumes that we begin from a starting point that implies that our goals are a priori, or that they exist independently of our thoughts about them. It implies that the concept of ‘good’ can be defined without circular reasoning. It implies that science can be justified by science without circular reasoning (just as it would imply that the use of religious doctrine is justified by religious doctrine without circular reasoning).

Cultural mores may have evolved through an evolution-like process, but we have shown that explanations for these values do not really fall under the realm of science in the strict sense. Like Freudian psychoanalysis and string theory, evolutionary psychology seems to be flexible enough to explain all observations - even conflicting ones - and therefore is not really scientific. We have yet to devise a system for testing these explanations. Although science may not truly be able to explain it, it may be able to differentiate which moral systems are more in line with our moral values. But it may never be able to help us articulate what our moral values should be.

The statement that science should be used to determine our moral decisions is philosophical. The word “should” makes it philosophical by definition.  We could try to scientifically show that scientific information leads to better outcomes by collecting data and measuring outcomes that result from different decisions. In fact, we do this all the time in medicine. However, this would be justifying science with science.

We accept science a priori. If we consider such an acceptance as a philosophical one, then science cannot determine moral decision-making without taking a philosophic position to begin with.

It may be that Harris considers the problem of induction so trivial as to not be worth worrying about. He does seem to feel that “good” and “bad” are obvious and observable. On page 19 of The Moral Landscape , he states, “Anyone who doesn’t see that the Good Life is preferable to the Bad Life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion about human well-being. Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens? I don’t think so.”

Perhaps most of us would agree that there is a difference between extremes of “good” and “bad” living, but we still haven’t answered the question of whether “good” is discoverable outside of our thoughts about it.

Harris suggests that science is more than empiric investigation of the natural world. He suggests that we think of science as all of rational thought, which would include logic, mathematics and (one would conclude) the rest of philosophy. If this is so, then one could hardly argue that moral values and questions are not scientific, since they would flow from rational thought. Science may indeed justify itself.

The problem here rests in the definition of science. We have seen that, at its core, an idea is scientific if it is potentially falsifiable. Ironically, by Dr. Harris considering science to include all of rational thought, one cannot argue against it rationally. We therefore have to accept that morality flows from science (rational thought). To do otherwise would be irrational. Ironically, this renders his position unfalsifiable. It renders his position unscientific. This may be considered to be special pleading. We then get into a logical blind-loop of something being both science and not-science at the same time.

However charitable it may be to assume this position, we still have to decide on our ultimate goals and objectives.

To say that science will determine our goals for us is to assume that our goals can be discovered independently of us. If our moral goals and moral questions do not come from us, then science could be used to find them and answer them.

The whole debate hinges around this point. Harris supporters have to maintain that moral questions and goals are discoverable, like planets and laws of physics, or synthetic a priori like mathematics. Others, like Massimo Pigliucci, point out that moral goals and questions come from us. They are not discoverable outside of our ideas about them.

Hume’s Problem of Induction prevents us from using science to justify science. Even if this is perceived as being so trivial that it can be ignored, then Hume’s “Is-Ought” distinction prevents us from saying that we should use science to determine our moral values, questions and answers.

Beyond that, it seems that the two sides are actually in agreement. We should use science to inform our moral decision-making and to help answer our moral questions.  Pigliucci states, “Let me first begin by making clear that there is much about which Harris and I agree. We are both moral realists, i.e. we believe that moral questions do have non-arbitrary answers, though our realism is...of a very different nature.”

At the core of this debate are the definitions of science and philosophy. Most will agree that science deals with measurable quantities, functions and objects in the world that we find ourselves in.  Philosophy is informed by science but deals with concepts in logical space, which includes but is not limited to the physical world. Logical space encompasses all possible worlds. Scientific answers come from observation and experimentation. Philosophical answers come from thought experiments, logic and argumentation.

Each discipline demands that their prospective functions and concepts be coherent with each other. Theory must fit observations. Conclusions must follow from logical arguments. To hold ideas that are incoherent with observation and logic is to practice pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy.

If there is one unifying, a prior concept that underlies both science and philosophy, it is coherence. We reject the idea of a world with contradictory facts and “anything goes” logic.

No scientist ignores logic and no philosopher denies science (well, at least no “true” scientist or philosopher -- this is not a No True Scotsman Fallacy, these qualities are fundamental to scientists and philosophers).

As it is generally accepted, science provides tentative facts and theories that can potentially be confirmed or falsified through observation or experimentation. Philosophy provides guidance in constructing logical arguments to reveal what we should do or how we should live. Both realms are separated by the “Is-Ought Distinction” but both may be considered together to make up the set of all of rational thought. One might call this set “knowledge”.

We should remember the criteria for knowledge proposed by Hume::

"...let us ask,

Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No.

Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No.

Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

(from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

The first line concerns philosophy. The second science.

Harris and Pigliucci are great thinkers. Harris prefers to simply refer to the set of all rational thought as “science”.  Pigliucci maintains the more limited definition of the word “science”, but refers to the set of all rational thought as “scientia” (in his book Answers for Aristotle).

No matter what one uses as the preferred term, moral questions and answers have to come from rationality (this concept is a basic belief -- it is not falsifiable). We have no real choice but to look to rationality for our questions and answers. To do otherwise would, by definition, be irrational.

Moral values and questions are defined through reason. Some moral concepts are relative to culture. Others are universal. Morality is concerned with the flourishing of conscious beings, as both Harris and Pigliucci have argued through their writings (as have other thinkers throughout history whose ongoing conversations have led us to our current understanding). Science is the best source of factual knowledge to inform our moral decisions.

So the debate comes down to definitions. Both sides are arguing from the same position. Both sides lead to the single conclusion. Rational thought is the a priori realm from which all else must follow.  

John Byrne, MD


Harris, Sam. The moral landscape: How science can determine human values. Simon and Schuster, 2011.

"Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, Pigliucci." 2011. 


Shermer, M. "Skepticblog » What Should We Be Worried About?." 2013. 


Massimo Pigliucci. "Rationally Speaking: Michael Shermer on morality." 2013. 


"Did Morality Evolve? | Psychology Today." 2010. 


"Ethical Theory (An Overview)"


Sayre-McCord, Geoff, "Moral Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),


"The God Argument: ... -" 2012. 


Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy ..." 2013. 



The following are talks relevant to this discussion. Enjoy.

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YouTube Video

YouTube Video

YouTube Video